16 books to get to know Canadian literature
By Dara Poizner
Posted on May 24, 2021
There is no one way to define “Canadian literature”: Canadian books are as diverse as Canada’s population and landscape. Reading is a great way to learn about the many aspects of Canadian life, culture, and history.
This is a sample of 16 important books—children’s literature, novels, and non-fiction—by Canadian authors. They reflect different communities, regions, social issues, and time periods, and some of the stories also take place partly outside of Canada. These books and their authors have won several awards, and many of them are best-sellers. The list includes books for kids, teens, and adults. If you are new to the world of Canadian literature, consider this an introduction!
Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908)
Written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874—1942), Anne of Green Gables is considered a classic book for older children and loved by readers of all ages. It is the first in a series of novels about the title character, set in Montgomery’s home province of Prince Edward Island. Anne Shirley is an imaginative 11-year-old orphan who is accidentally adopted by a pair of middle-aged siblings who had wanted to adopt a boy to work on their farm at Green Gables. The novel is about Anne’s life in the fictional town of Avonlea, P.E.I. The story is so strongly tied to P.E.I that the tourism industry even calls the province the “Home of Anne of Green Gables,” and Anne is an icon of Canadian culture.
Anne of Green Gables has been translated into at least 36 languages and is one of the best-selling books in the world. There have been many adaptations to film, theatre, television, and radio. The most well-known is the 1985 made-for-TV movie, aired by CBC as a two-part series. Recently, the TV show “Anne with an E” (a CBC-Netflix co-production) released three seasons from 2017—2019. It received positive reviews from critics and audiences and won many Canadian Screen Awards.
Robert Munsch, Love You Forever (1986)
Robert Munsch (b. 1945) is an iconic storyteller and author of children’s books. Love You Forever is his most popular book and a worldwide bestseller. It is about the love a mother has for her son and explores the ways in which that love is returned and continues through generations. The illustrations are by Sheila McGraw.
Munsch is originally from the United States but moved to Ontario to teach at a nursery school. There, he discovered his talent for telling stories to children and decided to turn his stories into books. The Paper Bag Princess (1980) is another beloved book of his that challenges gender stereotypes and is considered a feminist children’s classic. Munsch became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1999.
Chris Hadfield, The Darkest Dark (2016)
The Darkest Dark is a picture book for young readers by retired astronaut Chris Hadfield (b. 1959) based on his own childhood. It tells the story of how a boy named Chris, who loves space but is afraid of the dark, learns to be brave. It is illustrated by brothers Eric and Terry Fan. An animated video with music and narration by Hadfield was released to accompany the book. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Hadfield made another video—Chris Reads his Children’s Book ‘The Darkest Dark’—for his own YouTube channel.
Hadfield is from Ontario and was the first Canadian to walk in space. He was a Colonel in the Canadian Air Force before becoming an astronaut and has served as a commander of the International Space Station. He retired from the Canadian Space Agency in 2013 and has pursued other careers since then, including writing and teaching.
Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a satirical novel by Mordecai Richler (1931—2001), one of the writers who defined early Canadian literature. Duddy Kravitz is a young man from a poor Jewish immigrant family in Montreal who is obsessed with “becoming somebody.” The book is a comedic exploration of love, money, and power.
Richler’s work often focuses on the old Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal, the community in which he grew up. In addition to writing novels, he was an essayist, journalist, and screenwriter. Inspired by the fantasy stories he told his youngest son Jacob, Richler also wrote the Jacob Two-Two children’s book series, starting with Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1975). “Jacob Two-Two,” a popular animated kid’s show based on the books, was released from 2003—2006. Richler became a member of the Order of Canada in 1999.
Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness (2004)
A Complicated Kindness is a coming-of-age novel by Miriam Toews (b. 1964). 16-year-old Nomi Nickel lives with her father in a small town in Manitoba whose population is Mennonite. Nomi is curious about the wider world, and the novel is about her conflicts with her strict community.
Toews was born to a Mennonite family in Steinbach, Man. She writes about Mennonite communities, often discussing women’s and girls’ lives and mental illness.
Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster (2017)
Son of a Trickster is a novel by Eden Robinson (b. 1968). Jared is an Indigenous teenager in northern British Columbia dealing with a complicated family situation and social pressures. Despite his own challenges, including problems with drugs and alcohol, Jared tries to protect his loved ones—all while discovering parts of his identity and his relationship to the Trickster Wee’git.
Robinson is a Haisla/Heiltsuk First Nations writer whose work focuses on the lives of Indigenous people in B.C. Son of a Trickster is the first novel in her Trickster trilogy: the second (Trickster Drift) was released in 2018, and the third (Return of the Trickster) is coming out later in 2021. “Trickster,” a CBC television series based on the books, began in 2020.
Alice Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968)
Alice Munro (b. 1931) is considered the “master” of modern short stories, and Dance of the Happy Shades was her first published collection of 15 stories. Like most of Munro’s work throughout her career, these stories take place in rural southwestern Ontario, where she is from. She uses the seemingly simple setting of a small Canadian town to show her characters’ complex lives and emotions.
In 2013, Munro became the first Canadian to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. She is credited with transforming the short story genre. Her stories often explore personal relationships, women’s and girls’ experiences, moral problems, and the tension between memory and reality.
Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (1970)
Robertson Davies (1913—1995) is considered one of Canada’s most influential writers, and Fifth Business is his most famous novel. It is narrated by a history teacher named Dunstable Ramsay. As he describes the strange effects he has had on the people around him throughout his life, the book explores how myth and spirituality are just another part of reality. Fifth Business is the first book in The Deptford Trilogy, a series of related novels that take place in the fictional town of Deptford, Ont. (based on Davies’ hometown, Thamesville).
Davies was also the founding master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. He won many literary awards throughout his career and was named a Companion of the Order of Canada.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) is an Ottawa-born author most famous for her fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale is about a near-future dystopian society called Gilead. In this military dictatorship, human rights have been taken away, women and their bodies are politically controlled, and people are divided into a strict class system under the constant threat of extreme violence. The book is narrated by a woman known as Offred, one of the “handmaids” who are forced to bear children for men in the ruling class. She describes her experiences in Gilead and her memories from before, as she tries to survive and resist. A sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019.
Much of Atwood’s writing addresses gender roles and women’s experiences, religion, and the environment. The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into stage performances and a movie (1990). Atwood is a consulting producer for the Emmy-winning TV drama series of the same name, which began in 2017 and updates the story for the present day. The first season is based on the events of the novel and the following seasons continue the story.
Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (1987)
In the Skin of a Lion is a novel by Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943), one of Canada’s most prominent living writers. Including elements of both romance and mystery, it tells a story of the lives of immigrant workers in Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s, who helped build the city but were not officially recognized for their contributions.
Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka and lived in England before moving to Canada when he was 18. He attended universities in Quebec and Ontario and began his writing career as a poet. Ondaatje is an Officer of the Order of Canada. His 1992 novel The English Patient (a partial sequel to In the Skin of a Lion) was also adapted into an extremely successful film in 1996.
Wayne Johnston, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998)
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a novel by Wayne Johnston (b. 1958). The book is a fictional version of the story of Joey Smallwood, the real-life politician who brought the Dominion of Newfoundland into the Canadian Confederation in 1949 and was the province’s first premier.
Johnston was born and raised in Newfoundland. His work often focuses on historical life in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes (2007)
The Book of Negroes is a historical epic by author Lawrence Hill (b. 1957). It tells of the slave trade and the lives of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia through the story of Aminata Diallo, who recounts the events of her life. At age 11, Aminata is kidnapped from her village in West Africa to be enslaved in America. She describes her fight to survive in a violent world and her journey towards freedom. The novel is named after a 1783 document from the American Revolutionary War, kept by the British military to record the names of 3000 Black Loyalists who had served the British and were allowed to leave Manhattan to resettle in Canada.
Hill lives in Ontario and writes both fiction and non-fiction. The son of a Black father and white mother who were both activists, his work often explores the relationship between race and identity. The Book of Negroes was adapted into a six-part miniseries by the CBC in 2015 and won several Canadian Screen Awards.
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a historical fiction novel by Madeleine Thien (b. 1974). It begins in Vancouver in 1990, where ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite Ai-ming, a young woman who fled China after the Tiananmen massacre, to stay in their home. Marie and Ai-Ming’s connected family histories are revealed as they become friends. The story follows two generations of families in China through major periods in history: Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-20th century, and the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square.
Thien was born the year her parents, who are Chinese and Malaysian, immigrated to Vancouver. She now lives in Montreal. She is also a short story writer.
Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian (2012)
The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (b. 1943) examines aspects of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in North America. It describes some major historical events and the ways that popular culture has influenced how people view Native life and identity. It is also a personal account from King about his own identity and his experiences with activism. The book discusses a very complex topic in a clear and often funny way.
King is of Cherokee and Greek descent and lives in Ontario. As well as his non-fiction, he is also a best-selling fiction writer.
Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers (2017)
Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga tells the stories of the lives and deaths of seven First Nations youth in the northern city of Thunder Bay, Ont. between the years 2000 and 2011: Jethro Anderson, Jordan Wabasse, Kyle Morrisseau, Curran Strang, Robyn Harper, Paul Panacheese, and Reggie Bushie. The book explores the circumstances surrounding their deaths and the issue of systemic violence against Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Talaga is an Ojibwe author, investigative journalist, and speaker based in Toronto. She reports on Indigenous issues in Canada and promotes Indigenous inclusion through her work.
Desmond Cole, The Skin We’re In (2020)
The Skin We’re In is a non-fiction book by journalist Desmond Cole (b. 1982). Cole’s article “The Skin I’m In” was published as the May 2015 cover story of Toronto Life magazine. In his article, he describes how he was frequently carded (stopped and asked to provide personal information) and interrogated, exposing the racist practices of the Toronto police force. The Skin I’m In follows up on similar issues: It is a month-by-month recap of events in 2017 describing the presence of racism in Canadian society and the fight for justice.
Cole is a journalist, activist, and radio host in Toronto. Since his well-received 2015 article, Cole has continued to draw attention to the racism and systemic inequality faced by Black Canadians.
Many lovers of great Canadian literature enjoy Canada Reads, an annual “battle of the books” that airs on CBC Radio. In a series of debates, five notable Canadians each defend a Canadian book, and the winner is named as the book that “all of Canada should read.”
Several of the books listed in this article are past Canada Reads winners or contenders, and some of the authors have been nominated for their other books as well.
- Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion won the first edition of Canada Reads in 2002.
- The Handmaid’s Tale was a contender in 2002.
- The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was a contender in 2003.
- A Complicated Kindness was the winner in 2006.
- The Book of Negroes was the winner in 2009.
- The Inconvenient Indian was a contender in 2015.
- Son of a Trickster was a contender in 2020.
Canadian literature is always evolving to reflect changing cultural and social issues and include new voices. The result is a rich world of books with something for everyone to enjoy.
** Note about this article: Lawrence Hill was a professor of the author from September—December 2017 at the University of Guelph.