What happened to Canadian Wonder Tales?

Today was supposed to be the day we published the first book in Invisible’s new Throwback Books series. We’re publishing this post instead.

One of the first things I decided to do after coming on board as Invisible’s publisher was to launch a new imprint. Throwback Books would reissue Canadian oddities now in the public domain.

I am generally very good at finding things on the Internet, so I settled in to search out a book to launch the imprint. The search was short; I stumbled across Canadian Wonder Tales on Project Gutenburg Canada, breezed through the whole thing in one sitting, and thought I’d found the perfect fit. Billed as ‘Canada’s answer to the Brothers Grimm,’ Canadian Wonder Tales author Cyrus Macmillan claimed to have collected stories from Indigenous and European people during cross-Canada travels. Sure, he’d adapted the stories to suit his audience (and admits as much in his introduction), but the skeleton of each story was supposedly unchanged.

That should have been my first warning. But I was excited about my new gig and it was easy to view everything through rose-coloured glasses. I knew the dated language was problematic (given the prevalent use of ‘Indian’ in the book). But I thought that if I found the right person to write a new foreword, one that might highlight Canada’s colonial past and discuss Macmillan’s work as an artefact of a time when only one group got to tell the stories (even when those stories didn’t belong to them), there could be a new reading and an opportunity to unpack some interesting old content. I hoped for an introduction that would revisit how Macmillan, a representative of the dominant settler culture, encountered, consumed, and reflected back the stories he encountered. I wanted a foreword that would call into question the context for the work, turn it on its head a bit. How might Macmillan’s project, and his ideas about national identity, etc., reflect those of some modern readers?

No one wanted to write that foreword. In fact, no one wanted to write a foreword at all.

Storytelling scholars I spoke with suggested that Canadian Wonder Tales was without merit, primarily due to the arm’s length quality of the narratives and lack of documentation surrounding the original tales. Indigenous writers and academics found the content to be extremely problematic in terms of the language used, the depictions of a romanticized Canada, and the colonization of native stories to fit European traditions. The critical consensus was that Wonder Tales is a book of limited value because of its skewed view of Indigenous stories, and nothing more than a “campfire curio.”

After all that, I decided to try to put something down in words myself, and found I’d written an introduction that pretty much consisted of reasons it shouldn’t be republished. I realized I wanted this book to be something it was not: I wanted it to be a meeting of Indigenous and European stories, but I wasn’t going to be satisfied by a book that failed present works in the storytellers’ own voices and on their own terms… no matter how much contextualizing got done. Wonder Tales is a children’s gift book. It’s not a scholarly compendium, not something that can be made challenging; it’s a collection of romanticized stories that served the audience of its time, who were hungry for myths and legends of the “new world” that belonged to an exotic, “dying race.”

Since I came on board at Invisible, we’ve put a lot of thought into our mandate and the kind of work we want to put out into the world. We’ve been looking to do more and to do better. Our submission guidelines spell out the fact that we are committed to publishing diverse voices and experiences. We strongly encourage LGBTQ2SIA+, Indigenous and writers of colour to submit their work, and we want to acknowledge historical and systemic barriers and the limits of our existing catalogue and staff.

Invisible’s board of directors has determined that we want to be allies to diverse writers and to support the publication of diverse stories. Ultimately, we decided that we could not be allies and also publish Canadian Wonder Tales. And so I decided to pull the plug on the book.

I’m grateful to everyone who offered an honest opinion on our original decision to publish this book; your feedback helped us to do the right thing in the end. I’ve come away from this with a new sense of perspective and renewed commitment to publishing works by underrepresented writers, to being an ally not only through words but also through action.

It is vital that we work to preserve legends, myths, and stories for future generations in ways that are faithful to the original storytellers and their cultures. I encourage you to seek out books from Indigenous authors and publishers and to read both historical and contemporary Indigenous writing. There are a number of small publishers doing astounding work: Theytus Books, Kegedonce Press, and Pemmican Publications are just a few. If you were thinking of purchasing a copy of Canadian Wonder Tales then I suggest you buy their books instead.

As for the Throwback Books series: it’s a work in progress and we hope to properly launch it soon with a more suitable title. We’re still committed to finding curious Canadian books to reissue that fit our publishing mandate and that we can be proud to bring back into print. Watch this space for updates, and in the meantime, look for us lingering between the shelves at a used bookstore near you.

Leigh Nash
Publisher

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