Canadian Children’s Books That Made It to The Big Screen

By Kirsti Granholm

Hollywood has dominated the film industry for decades and is internationally recognized as the film industries hub. The major success of American movies could be a contributing factor as to why Canadian writers and directors have received less time in the spotlight.

Do not let that fool you, though, many amazing works have been produced by Canadians. As more resources and funding are put towards Canadian creators, the more Canadian representation we will see within the international market. Regardless, every year we are seeing more Canadian work make it to the big screens.

To bring some more attention to the talented all-Canadian illustrators, authors, artists and filmmakers, here is a list of Canadian books that have been adapted into movies or television in the past.

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, (Hodder and Stoughton, 1961)

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey is a classic children’s tale written by Sheila Burnford in 1961. Two dogs, Bodger and Luath, and a cat, Tao, travel across northwestern Ontario to be reunited with their owners, Elizabeth, Peter and Jim. The trio trek 480 kilometres through the dense Ontario forests, down the wavering and winding rivers, and over the rocky terrain that’s spread across the province. The book was loved by many, so much that it was adapted into a Walt Disney film! Except the setting took place in California — leading the trio to San Francisco to find their family.

The original corresponding film was released in 1963, then a remake was done in 1993. Due to the success in the 90s, Homebound II: Lost in San Francisco was created and released in 1996. The series was a success for both Sheila Burnford and the films’ director, Duwayne Dunham.

Adventure Time Vol. 4: Bitter Sweets by Kate Leth, illustrated by Zachary Sterline and Chrystin Garland (Boom! Studios, 2014)

The Adventure Time (2010-2018) series has become a popular children’s television show within the last decade. Kate Leth, a Canadian writer and illustrator, created the Adventure Time: Bitter Sweets comic book, alongside Zachary Sterline and Chrystin Garland. In this edition, Princess Bubblegum is tasked with travelling to the outer kingdoms to charge up the crystals that keep the kingdoms alive and well. As Princess Bubblegum and Peppermint Butler head out on their quest, the pair face a few unexpected challenges that teach them both new, valuable lessons. Leth’s Adventure Time edition was a hit and was later featured in the beloved television show.

Jacob Two-Two by Mordecai Richler (produced by Nelvana Digital Network, 2003)

Jacob Two-Two is a Canadian television show based off of Mordecai Richler’s children’s book series. One of Richler’s most recognized tales is Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang published in 1975 by Knopf. The book was later made into a movie in 1999, directed by George Bloomfield. (IMDb)

Along with the feature film, Jacob Two-Two earned a television show. In the show, Jacob lives in Montreal, QC.  Jacob, his friends, and sometimes his family are taken on a variety of pleasant and chilling adventures. From uncovering mysteries, to getting back at bullies, Jacob is just your average, quirky boy in modern-day Montreal. The television show was a success and ran from 2003-2006.

Want to learn more? Here is an early interview by CBC with Richler and his son, Jacob, who inspired Jacob Two-Two.

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires (Kids Can Press, 2014)

The Most Magnificent Thing is a picture book created by award-winning Canadian author and illustrator Ashley Spires in 2014. The story is based off of an inspired young girl and her tiny dog. The unnamed girl is determined to make something magnificent, so she heads off to begin creating. Her wave of inspiration is interrupted when she realizes her project is going to pose plenty of challenges that she wasn’t quite prepared for. Thankfully, she has her trusty pup to motivate her to overcome the difficulties she faces along the way.

Currently, The Most Magnificent Thing is in the process of being repurposed by Nelvana Digital Network into a feature film. We are certainly looking forward to the release of the movie; check out the trailer here.

Fire Song written and produced by Adam Garnet Jones (Annick Press, 2018)

Fire Song is a Canadian film released in 2015, written and produced by Canadian creator Adam Garnet Jones. This emotional story follows a young Indigenous man named Shane. Shane recently lost his sister to suicide and he is haunted with sadness over her death. Along with losing his sister, Shane is struggling with coming out as a gay man. He has a loving boyfriend that he has kept a secret for a long time, but they both fear the judgement they will face from their community on the small reserve. The overwhelming pressure forces Shane out of the reserve, as he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, acceptance and a little heart-break.

Three years after the film’s release, it was adapted into a book, published by Annick Press in 2018.

Alice, I Think by Susan Juby (HarperCollins Canada, 2003)

Alice, I Think is a humorous novel, later turned into a television series, by Canadian author Susan Juby. The protagonist, Alice, is seemingly your typical 15-year-old girl. Alice and her family live off the Yellowhead Highway, in a small town called Smithers, BC. Her family dynamics are dysfunctional; her parents are a distant memory of 60s’ hippies and her brother is attempting to become the exact opposite of them. Along with her restless at-home situation, Alice was bullied in school from a young age and was eventually removed to be home-schooled. After years away from school, at the age of 15, Alice begins to feel pressure to explore more of the world. Follow along the bizarre journey of a young girl just trying to “figure it out”.

The Complete Adventures of the Mole Sisters by Roslyn Schwartz (Annick Press, 2000-2019)

The Complete Adventures of the Mole Sisters by Roslyn Schwartz was originally a collection of board books about two mole sisters exploring the world around them. In 2003, the series became a television show on Treehouse TV, giving life to the two adorable sisters. They are cute, sometimes clumsy, and very curious about nature. The mole sisters are always going on new adventures that teach them and their audience a valuable lesson, in a gentle way. Since the series release in 2000, the mole sisters have become a classic staple in Canadian media.

Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr, illustrated by Kerry Millard (Random House, 2000)

Nim’s Island is the story of a girl named Nim who is living on a remote tropical island with her father, Jack Rusoe. Jack is a scientist, researching the marine life in the surrounding area, while Nim explores the island’s treasures. One day, a terrifying storm surrounds the island while Jack is out on the water researching. Nim waits for signs of Jack for a while but he does not return and she begins to worry. Alone and scared, Nim decides to try emailing one of her favourite authors, Alexandra, about her situation on the island. The email reaches Alexandra, and convinces her to embark on a journey to meet Nim and perhaps help her save her father.

This gripping book was released in 2000 and was later adapted into a movie in 2008. The film included a few Hollywood talents, including Gerald Butler and Jodie Foster. The success of the first movie lead to a sequel being made titled Return to Nim’s Island in 2013.

Li Jun and the Iron Road by Anne Tait and Paulette Bourgeois (Dundurn, 2015)

It is the late 19th century in southern China, the conditions are horrid and citizens are desperate for opportunity. Li Jun and the Iron Road follows a young girl named Li Jun, who has been working to provide for her dying mother. Li Jun’s father had left to Canada for a mining job and her ill mother urges her to go search for him. Li Jun decides she will sail to British Columbia to find her father, and disguises herself as a little boy to avoid any troubles. Once she reaches the Canadian shores, Li Jun begins working on the railroad alongside the grown men, in hopes of running into her dad. She soon finds herself smitten for the railroad tycoon’s son and a complicated decision unravels itself to Li Jun.

This story was originally a televised mini-series titled Iron Road, produced by Anne Tait in 2009. By 2015, Tait wrote and published the novel, Li Jun and the Iron Road, based off of the same story.

Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (HarperCollins Publishers, 2015)

It’s the World War I era, and a bear named Winnie has be-friended a young boy named Christopher Robin at the London Zoo. He wasn’t born there, though, Winnie had been rescued by a veterinarian named Harry Colebourn in Ontario, Canada. He was an orphaned bear purchased for $20 by Colebourn and brought across the sea to the UK. Winnie spent some time with the army, but Colebourn decided it would be best for him to go to the zoo. Winnie’s departure from Colebourn lead to meeting Christopher Robin and inspiring the heart-warming story of Winnie the Pooh.

The success of Lindsay Mattick’s book Finding Winnie lead to a short animated film being made about the story, released a year later in 2016.  (IMDb)

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (Groundwood Books, 2000)

The Breadwinner takes place in Afghanistan in 2001, and the Taliban has complete power over the country and residents are fearful of the future. This story follows a young girl named Parvana, whose father has recently been captured. She loves her father dearly and is determined to care for her family in his absence, and rescue him, too. Parvana decides to disguise herself as a boy to search near and far, across the war-torn cities. Despite her family’s worry of losing their daughter, she sets off on a dangerous journey to find him. This story takes the audience on an emotional journey, displaying the heartbreak Afghanistan faced during the Taliban regime. The Breadwinner novel was written by Deborah Ellis, and the film was executive produced by humanitarian and actress Angelina Jolie in 2017. (IMDb)

 

These are just a few examples of fabulous Canadian books that came to life through film. Many of these narratives paved the way for current and future Canadian works. So please, support Canadian authors, illustrators, directors, producers and publishers to continue the great work happening in Canadian media.

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