16 Canadian authors recommend books for Family Literacy Day

16 authors, including Barbara Reid and Madeleine Thien, suggest books you can read with your family.
(Groundwood Books)

Family Literacy Day is celebrated annually on January 27. The initiative encourages families to spend 15 minutes a day reading and learning together. We asked some of Canada's best writers to recommend great reads that the whole family can enjoy.

1. Barbara Reid picks The Liszts by Kyo Maclear

Family Literacy Day Honorary Chair Barbara Reid is the author of over 20 acclaimed children's books, including The Party, which won the Governor General's Literary Award for children's illustration. Her recommendation is The Liszts by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Júlia Sardà.

"My current picture book crush is The Liszts, words by Kyo Maclear, art by Júlia Sardà. As a compulsive list maker I can easily relate to the Liszts. Each member of the family is so absorbed by their list making that they have time for little else. But what lists! The items are as quirky as the characters, all perfectly captured by Júlia Sardà's gorgeous artwork. Edward Gorey and the Addams family would feel at home in the Liszts' eccentric, cluttered mansion. Each reading of the book is a treasure hunt, and I'm tempted to list all the details and visual jokes. Instead I will take inspiration from the surprise visitor who introduces young Edward Liszt to the possibilities of off-list adventures and open my door to the unexpected — once I add this to my favourite book list..."

2. Kyo Maclear picks Dolphin SOS by Slavia Miki & Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts by Esta Spalding

Kyo Maclear, author of The Liszts, Virginia Wolf and Birds Art Life, has two suggestions: Dolphin SOS by Slavia Miki & Roy Miki, illustrated by Julie Flett, and Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts by Esta Spalding, illustrated by Sydney Smith.

"Growing up I read a lot of books about gutsy orphans. I even felt myself to be one, which is strange because I had parents who loved me and whom I loved. In hindsight, I think my reading tastes were shaped by a larger 'orphan zeitgeist.' My friends and I were raised on apocalyptic scenarios (doomsday clocks, environmental alarms). We looked out at a world ruled by irresponsible, ineffectual adults. We thought it best to take charge, at least narratively speaking. The two books I've chosen carry that gutsy orphan spirit and show that kinship among kids is where it's at. Based on true events, Dolphin SOS is a beautifully illustrated story of kids who take action when three dolphins are trapped in an ice-covered cove off the coast of Newfoundland. The government has failed to offer assistance, so it's up to the local children to take matters into their owns hands. Look Out for the Fitzgerald-Trouts is a funny and clever tale of motley siblings surviving and thriving on an unnamed tropical island — no thanks to their terrible and neglectful parents. So: two fave books about plucky and enterprising children who are more than a little fed up with the grownups in charge."

3. Madeleine Thien picks A Family Is a Family Is a Family by Sara O'Leary

Madeleine Thien, winner of the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor General's Literary Award for fiction for Do Not Say We Have Nothing, recommends reading A Family Is a Family Is a Family by Sara O'Leary, illustrated by Qin Leng.

"It gives me joy to sing the praises of Sara O'Leary's picture book A Family Is a Family Is a Family, illustrated by Qin Leng. When a group of children are asked to describe their families, our narrator is full of trepidation, afraid that that her situation will set her apart. But as she listens, her classmates describe kindredness and kinship in a multitude of constellations. 'Because I live with my grandmother,' one child says, 'people sometimes think she is my mother. She's not. She's my everything.' The pages show us how love fits us together across generations and experiences. The narrator recalls her foster mother being asked, in a park, to identify her real children. 'Oh I don't have any imaginary children,' Mom said. 'All my children are real.' This is a spirited, open and wise book, one to be read again and again with loved ones."

4. Sara O'Leary picks Sing a Song of Mother Goose by Barbara Reid

Sara O'Leary's books include A Family Is a Family Is a Family and This Is Sadie, which is bound for a New York City stage. She suggests Barbara Reid's Sing a Song of Mother Goose.

"Sing a Song of Mother Goose is available in a number of editions (and in both French and English), but I really love the board book because it makes such a great baby gift. It's bright and beautiful and features Reid's signature plasticine vignettes. Sharing this book is a nice nod to the Parent-Child Mother Goose Program, which I first learned about while reading Joan Bodger, and I can't think of Family Literacy Day without thinking about her."

5. JonArno Lawson picks A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy

JonArno Lawson won the Governor General's Literary Award in 2015 for his wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers, illustrated by Sydney Smith. His suggested read is A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy.

"I would recommend Sara Cassidy's novella A Boy Named Queen to anyone. Cassidy's story about an unlikely friendship developing between two fifth-graders is beautifully written. There are lines as punchy and evocative as anything you might hope to find in a poem '...the only sounds are of their cutlery across the plates. A knife sawing a pork chop, a fork chasing a pea.' Or, 'When they've grated a damp, shaggy tower of potato, they cross the large backyard to a shed.' The book isn't only about the stresses (and joys) of childhood friendship - Cassidy does a remarkable job of describing subtle misunderstandings (as well as real closeness) between children and adults as well. Anyone from a Scottish immigrant background will find some of the domestic details instantly familiar and entertaining. The entire book is thoroughly enjoyable and deserves a wide audience."

6. Melanie Florence picks Beware That Girl by Teresa Toten

Melanie Florence, winner of the 2016 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award for Missing Nimâmâ with illustrator François Thisdale, recommends reading Teresa Toten's young adult thriller Beware That Girl.

"As a fan of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, I picked up Beware That Girl by Teresa Toten, hoping for a tense thriller that would draw me in. I wasn't disappointed. I stayed up late into the night devouring Teresa's story about the unlikely friendship between two girls — a new girl on scholarship to a fancy private school and a seemingly perfect rich girl who left school for a year for reasons that aren't quite clear. I was never entirely sure who was in control or who was manipulating who to get the upper hand. Add in a charming teacher who seems to have ulterior motives in his attention to his students, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, never quite knowing where the story was taking me but turning page after page to find out. Teresa Toten's ability to jump between first and third person, and really keep you guessing to figure out how the story will play out, will have you up way past your bedtime. But it will be more than worth it."

7. Kenneth Oppel picks Night Cars by Teddy Jam

Kenneth Oppel is the author of Airborn, which won the Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature in 2004. His more recent books include The Nest and Every Hidden Thing. He is also the judge of CBC Books' Shakespeare Selfie writing challenge for students (find out more!). He suggests reading Night Cars by Teddy Jam, illustrated by Eric Beddows.

"Written by Teddy Jam (aka Matt Cohen) and illustrated by Eric Beddows in 1988, Night Cars is a fabulously soothing lullaby, a lyrical love poem to urban living and a portrait of egalitarian (and possibly single) parenting. Reading this story to my own kids was a nightly highlight. I'd already fallen in love with the illustrations of Eric Beddows with Tim Wynne-Jones' exquisitely magical Zoom books; in Night Cars his detailed and colourful pictures of a midnight streetscape (based on a block of Toronto's Queen Street West) are cozy and comforting and a joy to lose yourself in. This is Canada's Goodnight Moon and by rights it should have sold just as many copies, and more!"

8. Marie-Louise Gay picks Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear

Marie-Louise Gay is the author and illustrator of over 60 books for children. She has won two Governor General's Literary Awards for children's illustration for Rainy Day Magic and Yuck, a Love Story. One of her most recent titles is Any Questions?. The children's book she's currently loving is Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.

"This book was inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. It is a luscious, emotional and highly original picture book about two young sisters, the moody, grumpy Virginia and the very enthusiastic Vanessa, who with her paintings and imagination creates a vibrant, colourful, fantastical world to lure her little sister out of her wolfish mood. Funny and tender,with extraordinary fluid and whimsical illustrations, it will surely captivate a small child's imagination."

9. Susan Juby picks A Family Is a Family Is a Family by Sara O'Leary and illustrated by Qin Leng

Don't miss Susan Juby's upcoming book The Fashion Committee. In 2016, Juby won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour for Republic of Dirt and the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award for The Truth Commission. She suggests A Family Is a Family Is a Family by Sara O'Leary and illustrated by Qin Leng.

"A book everyone, with or without kids, should have on the shelf is A Family Is a Family Is a Family, written by Sara O'Leary and illustrated by Qin Leng. In this delight-filled and life-affirming story, a teacher asks the kids in her class to talk about what makes their families special. One kid is sure her family is just too odd, but soon finds out that families come in all sorts of configurations. Whether a kid lives in a single parent home, a mixed-race home, has a step-parent or same sex parents or is being raised by grandparents, what matters is the love that keeps families together. The art is winsome and combined with O'Leary's fine, unsentimental writing creates a generous, much-needed affirmation of the beauty of human connection and diversity."

10. Richard Van Camp, and his mom Rosa, pick When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett

Richard Van Camp's prolific writing career spans genres, including literary fiction (The Lesser Blessed), YA (Whistle), short story collections (Night Moves) and picture books (Little You). He and his mom, Rosa, recommend reading When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett.

"Heartbreakingly gorgeous and a work of forever, When We Were Alone is a painful read for me because this is so much my mother's story and my uncles'. Mom was five years old when she entered Breynat Hall, a residential school in Fort Smith, not knowing English and only able to speak Dogrib. I'm 45 now and only learned this year that my mother had a number: 12, while at Breynat Hall. She attended Grandin College at 13 years of age and later graduated. David A. Robertson, Julie Flett and the entire team at Highway Press deserve a Governor General's Literary Award for this incredible literature. I've always said that residential schools are the sorrow deep in Canada's bones. This book should be mandatory reading for everyone because it will help with the healing and better understanding of a historical contribution to generating broken Indigenous families throughout Canada.

"Let's never do this again anywhere.

"I am in awe of this book and its beauty and courage. Its spirit is a good one."

11. Willow Dawson picks The Branch by Mireille Messier, illustrated by Pierre Pratt

Willow Dawson was a finalist for the 2016 TD Children's Literature Award for her picture book, The Wolf-Birds. She suggests reading The Branch by Mireille Messier, illustrated by Pierre Pratt.

"The Branch by Mireille Messier, about a girl whose favourite branch snaps off during an ice storm, captures the sadness of childhood loss and transforms it into a thing of beauty. Pierre Pratt's illustrations of Mr. Frank and the girl working away with too-big tools and stinky varnish felt so familiar that I was immediately transported back to the cocoon of my own father's workshop, sitting in silence with him, making little objects out of wood and clay and scrap metal. He is an inventor and a fixer and his ability to creatively problem solve, to turn refuse into open pools of opportunity, set me on a trajectory of wonder and discovery. 'It wasn't just a branch ... it was my castle, my spy base, my ship...' says the girl. The things that drive a child's imagination don't always make sense to the adults around them, but it is still our responsibility to protect that sense of magic and awe. Reading this book to my son feels like I'm sharing a slice of my childhood and reinforces that I am that protector for him."

12. Jael Richardson picks Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox by Danielle Daniel

FOLD director Jael Richardson recently adapted her memoir The Stone Thrower into a children's book, which was named one of CBC Books' best books of 2016. She suggests reading Danielle Daniel's Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox.

"When it comes to family time, Danielle Daniel's book Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox is essential reading. The illustrations are unique and beautiful, and the story is simple but fiercely relevant. The book introduces readers to animal totems, reflecting the important relationship and common characteristics that exist between individual people and animals. It teaches kids (and adults) to articulate thoughts about themselves and their unique, individual characteristics. Something special happens when kids own who they are in the world, and this book makes it so easy to get that conversation started (there's even a great activity and guide to help). Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox celebrates difference and diversity by launching powerfully emotive conversations. It's an absolute must-have for every classroom and home."

13. Ruth Ohi picks by Hat On, Hat Off by Theo Heras, illustrated by Renné Benoit and Zoe's Year by Barbara Reid

Author and illustrator Ruth Ohi's children's books include Fox and Squirrel and Scribble. Her recommended reading is Hat On, Hat Off by Theo Heras, illustrated by Renné Benoit, and Zoe's Year by Barbara Reid.

"It's impossible to choose just one favourite when I have so many, but Theo Heras and Renné Benoit's Hat On, Hat Off is one of my most recent board book faves. When it's time to go out, it can take a while, especially during cold weather season. Renné Benoit's beautifully rich line and colour animate Theo's active toddler who keeps losing his hat in the process of getting ready — good thing Big Sister is there to help! And no board book collection would be complete without Barbara Reid's Zoe's Year, which follows an inquisitive child through all sorts of weather. Each illustration is a treasure house of story detail for little ones to point out and talk about. If you want more Barb goodness, go for Baby's First Treasury, which has Zoe as well as all her other board books in one compendium."

14. Dan Bar-el picks My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath

Dan Bar-el's latest book, Dog Night at the Story Zoo, illustrated by Vicki Nerino, is coming this summer. Until then, check out his whimsical book Audrey (cow), illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, or his suggested Family Literacy Day read, My One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath.

"Right from the start, with a most beautifully written opening paragraph, Polly Horvath pulls you into her coming-of-age story titled My One Hundred Adventures. Jane is no longer a child and her hunger for experience cannot be contained. The adult world she dips her toe into isn't completely trustworthy, and though comical characters these grown-ups may be, Jane must learn to navigate the complicated currents of their inner lives. The sum of all these adventures forms the path that leads her to what's in her heart. Life is big; we intuit its bigness even if we can't see it. But Polly Horvath can. Young readers need only look in the direction she's pointing."

15. Jo Ellen Bogart picks: Big Red Lollipop 

Jo Ellen Bogart's The White Cat and the Monk, illustrated by Sydney Smith, was named a best book of 2016 by CBC Books and the New York Times. She has two new books coming in 2017: Count Your Chickens, illustrated by Lori Joy Smith, and Big and Small, Room for All, illustrated by Gillian Newland. She suggests reading Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

"Sometimes a true story from a writer's childhood might seem like a good idea, but not really work. In the case of Rukhsana Khan's Big Red Lollipop, it works perfectly. The 2011 book, by Ontario author Khan, with wonderful art by American illustrator Sophie Blackall, is a gem of a story told by the eldest of three sisters whose family is new to North America. When their mother insists that the eldest take her younger sister Sana, who is the author, to a birthday party, the eldest pleads not to have to, but mum does not relent. The result is not good when Sana is very annoying at the party and it is made even worse when she steals her big sister's lollipop from the goody bag and eats most of it. The reader feels the big sister's anger and frustration, and it seems like justice when later Sana is invited to a party and told she must take her little sister. What happens then is a great opportunity for a discussion about fairness in a family, sibling relations and how it might feel to adjust to a different culture. The story is highly entertaining as it deals with exasperating experiences that will be familiar to many."

16. Isabelle Arsenault picks The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Isabelle Arsenault has won the Governor General's Literary Award three times, including for her illustration work on Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear. Her new book, Colette's Lost Pet, is due out in May. She says The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, with illustrations by Jon Klassen, is an excellent book.

"I didn't know what to expect from The Nest by Kenneth Oppel. I bought it without knowing the author personally and before hearing any reviews about it. But I knew that I had to have it for Jon Klassen's illustrations, because I'm such a fan of his work. I was curious to see Jon's take on the story. I was not disappointed. Wonderful illustrations, inventive perspectives, neat rendering — beautiful. And the story itself! Thrilling and captivating. An increasingly tension-filled story about a boy, his family and a wasp nest. I was hooked from beginning to end and strongly recommend this brilliant page turner to young adults that enjoy something unusual."


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