Composite image of three books: The Name Jar; Spork and Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

Tech & Media

8 Books for Kids Growing Up in Modern Canada

Apr 10, 2017

I love taking my two kids to the library. As a young child, the library used to be one of the most delightful spaces to lose myself in. (It still is!) It took only a little bit of imagination while reading a book to be transported into a different world.

Like many children, my kids also gravitate towards book versions of popular movies and TV shows. Despite my best efforts to steer clear of any princess-related books for my daughter Mallika, who is about to turn seven, there will be inevitably a Frozen, one of Disney princesses, Barbie, or these days, Monster High, book in her pile. While my son, Dax, who turns four this summer, will also listen to the books his sister reads out aloud, but favours books to do with monster trucks, superheroes such as Iron Man and Batman, and occasionally the Paw Patrol gang.

Every now and again, you chance upon a book that teaches you about embracing differences, without making a message out of the story.

I try and add a couple of books to their towering pile that reflect the city we live in. Toronto is praised as being one of the most multicultural cities in the world. But it can still be a little tricky to find books that feature a multi-ethnic cast of characters. Our local library does display a range of cultural books during various heritage or history months. But some of those books can seem a little too earnest, indulging in a bit of cultural tourism. We still read them, to learn about customs and traditions from around the world. But every now and again, you chance upon a book that teaches you about embracing differences, without making a message out of the story. Here is a list of books that we have read over the years, and continue to read:

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox

The cover of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

Perusing a bookstore when I was heavily pregnant with Mallika, I happened upon this book. “Oh you’re going to love reading it to your baby,” the store clerk said, as she rang up the purchase. And she was right. It’s a delightful little book about loving your child’s fingers and toes. And best of all, it features a cute babies from around the world, who make the most adorable line of toddlers at the end of the book. This was a book that I read to both Mallika and Dax, delighting in its gentle rhyme every time. I hung on to it long after Mallika and Dax grew tired of it because it reminded me of them as babies.

Pretty much any Sandra Boynton book

The cover of Hippos Go Berserk

Given that you have to read a book again, and again, and again to a child, it helps if the books have a whimsical sense of humour. I adore Sandra Boynton’s books for that reason. I had no idea who she was, and found one of her books — Hippos Go Beserk — at my pharmacy store entirely by chance. Intrigued by the cover and title, I was soon snorting with laughter, drawing puzzled looks from other customers. From then on, whenever I could find a Boynton book at the library, I would borrow it. That her stories feature a range of animals, as in her book Moo Ba La La La, also helps to talk to kids about the different way people do things in a fun way.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

The cover of Olivia and the Fairy Princesses

I first found out about Olivia through a colleague. Her daughter loved Olivia books, and would often dress up in Olivia’s inimitable style, featuring a lot of red. I bought a couple of Olivia’s board books and loved reading them as much as the kids! I found this book in the Olivia series when I was looking for a birthday gift for a friend’s daughter, and immediately bought another copy for my kids. Besides the fact that Olivia thumbs her nose at the tradition of dressing up as a fairy princess for Halloween, I loved how the book questioned why fairy princesses often look a certain way. I still have this book, and love reading from it to other children who visit our home.

Minu and Her Hair by Gayathri Bashi

The cover of Minu and Her Hair

In my attempt to find Hindi language books for my children, I scoured the Toronto Public Library catalogue. There were several books of the religious bent. Some were just too serious. But then I found books by Tulika, a children’s book publisher based in India. One called Minu Aur Uske Baal/Minu and her Hair caught my eye, and so I put a hold on it. As I had suspected, the book was a delightful tale about a young girl Minu, whose mass of curls is a struggle to manage. The story mirrored my struggle with my own, and my daughter Mallika’s, hair. But in the end, Minu finds out how her hair make her unique. This was one of the books I took into Mallika’s class as part of an initiative by her teacher to have parents read books from their home languages, and was happy to see that many kids could relate to Minu.

Junior Kumbhakarna by Arundhati Venkatesh

The cover of Junior Kumbhakarna

This was another Tulika book that I discovered through Toronto Public Library. The story borrows from the Hindu epic Ramayana, which features a character called Kumbhakarna renowned for sleeping for six months at a time. This version is a fun spin on an old yarn, featuring a young boy named Kukku who keeps on asking his father to read him his favourite story of Kumbhakarna. Like his favourite character, Kukku also loves sleeping. Given that Dax is our own family’s Kumbhakarna — it’s a chore to wake him up for school every morning — this book resonated with our family. I also loved the little detail of a father reading a child in the book.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

The cover of The Name Jar

Although this book fits into the earnest category, I appreciated the story. Unhei is a new kid in school. She’s just immigrated from Korea to America, and is worried about how everyone will pronounce her name. Instead of introducing herself to her class, she asks for suggestions for an American name. But in the end, with the help of her classmates, Unhei chooses her own name, and helps her new friends learn how to pronounce it. It’s an experience that speaks to many people, and it definitely helped me to talk to my own children about their unusual names.

Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse

The cover of Mama do You Love Me

A friend, who is also a kindergarten teacher, had given me the wonderful gift of an armful of books for Mallika’s first birthday. This book was part of that generous gift. I loved that this Indigenous book brought the Inuit world to our home in a beautiful and universal story of a little girl asking her mother how much she loves her. Mallika loved looking at beautifully rendered pictures, as well we read through the lyrical lines again and again.

Spork by Kyo Maclear

The cover of Spork

Kyo Maclear is one of my favourite Canadian children’s books authors. This book tells the story about a spork, who feels out of sorts in a cutlery drawer full of spoons and forks. That’s until spork meets a messy thing that doesn’t seem to care which category Spork fits in. As Maclear says in her personal note on her website, the book draws from her own experience being a spork, and is a “celebration of hybridity, an ode to a non-binary world.” But the book didn’t feel like it was hitting me with a message, and was a great way for our family to talk about the many biracial and multiracial people who make up our friends and family circle.

Which books would you add to this list? Share suggestions below, please!

Article Author Aparita Bhandari
Aparita Bhandari

Aparita Bhandari is Toronto-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Today's Parents and Chatelaine, among other publications, as well as the CBC. As the mother of two rambunctious kids, she is also an expert on Disney princesses, Monster Trucks, silly faces and the entire works of Sandra Boynton and Ian Falconer. She's currently a student of the Marvel Universe. When she isn't hollering for her kids to choose between tidy-up and time-out, she can be found baking.

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