In the last couple months I’ve read novels about a mother and son being held captive for years, a photographer with PTSD working at a porn studio, a family drama, and two books of very dark and somber poetry; so I figured it was time to lighten it up a bit with a novel for children. There is a great tradition in Canada of great writers contributing wonderful books to the world of children’s lit; Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Adele Wiseman, and Margaret Laurence have all contributed greatly to the genre. Jason’s Quest, published in 1970, is Margaret Laurence’s first children’s book and her only children’s novel – her other three titles for kids are picture style books. Margaret Laurence has long been my favorite writer and was without a doubt the catalyst for my love of Canadian writing. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a long time – at least 5 years. Like my other favorite CanLit icon Mordecai Richler, I’ve be very leery to finish all of Laurence’s books; once I’ve finished them all, that’s it, no more are going to appear. Now that this title is on the “read” shelf, I’m down to only 4 Margaret Laurence books left to read for the first time.
Jason’s Quest tells the story of Jason, a mole from Molanium who is worried about his town-folk being infected with an “invisible sickness.” He decides to go on a quest to London to find a cure. On the way to London, he teams up with Oliver, a motor-mouthed owl who is on the hunt for some wisdom, and a pair of stray cats – Calico and Topaz – who want to perform noble deeds to give cats around the world a better name. Along their journey they run into memorable villains, interesting new friends, and have wild adventures that are fun for readers of any age.
The 193-page Wizard of Oz-inspired story is kid-friendly but not watered down. There are some violent scenes, including a villain being killed, there are some scenes of Jason’s posse doing questionable things to achieve their goals, and there are a number of shady characters. Like a lot of great novels for kids, Jason’s Quest is jam-packed with allegory. Laurence takes on urban decay, crime, religion, and generational change in very subtle ways. The book is also highlighted by wonderful black-and-white illustrations by Leslie Morrill. Each chapter is highlighted by a picture that really captures the mood and themes of the book, so there are enough illustrations to be an important element of the story but not so many that the text is overwhelmed.
I read very little children’s lit, but when I do, I look for a few things: I want the story to be as cohesive and the plot to be as consistent as would be expected in any high-caliber adult novel; the text must be kid friendly but not talk down to the reader; and I want the story to be filled with allegory so as to make the book relevant and more than just a cute story. Jason’s Quest met all of those expectations and then some. Laurence brought her signature strong character development, great dialogue, and solid vignette-style story telling that was so prevalent in her Manawaka Cycle to this book for young readers. This is essential reading for any Margaret Laurence fan and a great choice for someone looking for a warm yet action filled story for their young reader.