6 must-read children’s books written by Canadian authors

By: Vivian Nguyen

Published on July 21, 2022

Photo: Pixabay (Pexels) 

Studies prove that reading to children during the formative years of birth to age five improves brain development. The brain develops most rapidly during these first five years of life. According to a study from the University of Waterloo, there are cognitive benefits—thinking, reasoning, and remembering—to reading aloud for individuals of all age groups.

Picture books are excellent tools for introducing children to reading. While preschoolers and toddlers may not be able to sound out the words written in a book, they can see and learn from the pictures. When you read each passage aloud, they start to associate the words with the illustrations. Therefore, children can form their own understandings about the stories. 

Photo: Nappy (Pexels) 

This is a curated list of six children’s books written by Canadian authors. These books contain colourful illustrations that exhibit the talents of Canadian illustrators, as well. The picture books on this list celebrate Canada’s multiculturalism and highlights underrepresented voices. 

Bonnie Farmer, Oscar Lives Next Door: A story inspired by Oscar Peterson’s life (2015) 

Oscar E. Peterson (1925–2007) was—and remains—one of Canada’s most honoured musicians. He was considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. However, he was not always a pianist. Bonnie Farmer’s Oscar Lives Next Door is a fictional imagining of the musician’s childhood, revealing his first love: the trumpet. The book imagines a next-door neighbour for young Oscar named, Millie, who admires his talents. Set in Oscar Peterson’s childhood neighbourhood in St-Henri, now called Little Burgundy, the book illustrates what it was like living in the 1930s as members of Montreal’s Black working-class population. 

Farmer is an elementary school teacher and playwright living in Montréal. Both Farmer and the book’s illustrator, Marie Lafrance are former residents of Little Burgundy. While writing Oscar Lives Next Door, Farmer wanted to tell the story of a vibrant community that was pushed out due to gentrification. Gentrification is an urban process that favours the rich middle-class and displaces an area’s original, poorer residents. The book won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Literary Award for Children’s Literature. 

Joy Kogawa, Naomi’s Road (1986) 

Naomi’s Road follows the story of a young Japanese Canadian girl who has been separated from her family during the Second World War. The book recalls events based on the author, Joy Kogawa’s own experiences, highlighting a child’s perspective on prejudice, fear, and internment camps. Based on the novel, the Tapestry Opera held a production under the same title name in 2016. Kogawa’s other children’s novel, Naomi’s Tree (2008) is a folk tale, illustrated by Ruth Ohi. Like Naomi’s Road, the book features the author’s childhood memories during the Second World War. It is written in prose and contains heavy symbolism.  

Kogawa is a poet, novelist, and activist of Japanese descent. During World War II, she moved to Slocan, BC with her family and now resides in Vancouver. Kogawa is a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. She is also part of Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun. Both of her picture books are simplified continuations of Kogawa’s earlier works which also feature the Naomi Nakane character. One of such works include her award-winning novel, Obasan (1981). 

Richard Van Camp, Little You (2013) 

Little You by Richard Van Camp (b. 1971) celebrates the potential of every child. The story’s narration directs its message to babies and toddlers and can be read or sung. It received the R. Ross Award for Children’s Literature in 2015. The book is illustrated by Julie Flett, a Cree-Métis author, illustrator, and artist who has received various awards for her own books. She is mentioned twice on this list. 

Van Camp is a proud member of the Dogrib (Tłı̨chǫ) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT. In addition to writing three children’s books, Van Camp also writes short stories, novels, and comics. His most notable novel is, The Lesser Blessed (1996), which has been adapted into a movie in 2012.  

David A. Robertson, When We Were Alone (2016) 

Written by David A. Robertson (b. 1977), When We Were Alone gives a voice to members of Indigenous communities. The book educates young readers about Canada’s history of and ongoing prejudice and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. In the book, a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden. While she is helping her grandmother, the girl notices things about her grandmother that raise curiosity. Why does her grandmother speak another language? Why does she have long braided hair? As she asks her grandmother these questions, she learns about a residential school. She is told that the residential school was where everything was taken away. 

Robertson is a member of Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg. On top of being an Indigenous author and novelist, he is a public speaker. Robertson won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award and the McNally Robinson Best Book for Young People Award for When We Were Alone. The book is illustrated by Julie Flett. 

Jody Nyasha Warner, Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged! (2010) 

Jody Nyasha Warner’s Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged! tells the much-deserved story of Viola Demond. Viola I. Desmond (1914–1965) was a businesswoman and civil rights activist. In 2018, the Canadian government named her a National Historic Person. Warner’s book illustrates the events of 1946 Nova Scotia, when Viola Desmond was told by an usher in a movie theatre to move from her seat. She knew that she was told to move because of the colour of her skin. Soon, the police arrived and took Viola to jail. She was then charged and fined, but that did not stop her from fighting against racism. The book highlights one of the most prominent figures in Canadian history who was responsible for leading the charge to end racial segregation in the country.  

Warner is a writer, human rights advisor, and former librarian who currently lives in Toronto. The author was inspired to write this book because African Canadian history is often neglected in Canadian literature. Viola gave strength to her community at the time and continues to inspire Black communities in Canada today.  

Jen Sookfong Lee, Finding Home: The Journey of Immigrants and Refugees (2021) 

Finding Home by Jen Sookfong Lee explores the origins and current issues facing immigrants and refugees in picture book form. The book illustrates these issues in a way that is understandable for young readers. Its themes of home and family, especially resonate with those who have migrated to a new place themselves. In addition to describing the reasons why people search for new meanings of “home,” the book invites young readers to be empathetic toward others. Finding Home is also a finalist for the Yellow Cedar Award of 2022. 

Poet, food writer, and novelist, Lee, is a third-generation Chinese Canadian writer from Vancouver. She incorporated some autobiographical details in Finding Home. Lee is also a broadcaster, hosting the “Can’t Lit” podcast with Dina Del Bucchia. The podcast is a monthly audio series about Canadian literature. 

More from The Newcomer: 

7 Canadian children’s books series

16 books to get to know Canadian Literature 

5 Youth activism books 

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