Canada Reads

Meet the Canada Reads 2021 contenders

2021 marks the 20th edition of Canada Reads. This year's theme is One Book to Transport Us. The debates will take place March 8-11.

2021 marks the 20th edition of Canada Reads. The debates will take place March 8-11

The Canada Reads 2021 debates will take place March 8-11. (CBC)

What is the one book all of Canada should read? It's time for Canada Reads 2021.

The year 2020 was a year like no other. As we start 2021 and look forward to the 20th edition of Canada Reads, we are reminded that books can be a safe place to go when times are tough. Whether you're reading to escape your daily cares, to explore new perspectives or simply to lift your spirits, these stories of perseverance, discovery and resilience will transport you across Canada, around the world and to worlds beyond.  

Over four days, the five champions will bring their diverse perspectives to this year's theme: One Book to Transport Us.

The champions and their chosen books are:

The debates will take place March 8-11, 2021.

They will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC ListenCBC TVCBC Gem and on CBC Books

Hassan is an actor, comedian and host of CBC Radio's Laugh Out Loud and a frequent guest host of As it Happens and q. He can also be seen in his recurring TV roles on Designated SurvivorOdd Squad and Cardinal

Hassan has hosted Canada Reads since 2017.

"In 20 years of debating which books matter most to Canadians, there has never been a more poignant time in Canada Reads history to be reminded of the transportive quality of a great book to take us on a journey and explore new perspectives," Hassan said. "This season, I'm looking forward to hosting conversations around stories that reflect perseverance, resilience and hope, each in their own unique way."

The five panellists were on CBC Radio's q to reveal the books the books they will be championing in the debates:

Moking was excited by the level of competition. "Everybody's highly confident coming from different fields and aspects, but all very versed in the majesty of storytelling. So I expect a war," he told q guest host Talia Schlanger.

Sun-Hyung Lee said he was nervous, but excited to celebrate reading.

"The one thing that I'm most excited about is really promoting reading. I think reading, bringing the joy of reading books to the public, is a wonderful thing," he said. And all these books have won just by being here."

The panel also discussed the importance of Canada Reads, and books, during the pandemic and this time of uncertainty.

"I think it's more important now than ever for us to lean on art," Jacobs said. "It's through reading that you're actually able to be transported and it requires all of your focus to be transported into another world."

"This is just absolutely perfect timing," Edeh added. "We're talking about literature. We're talking about art. We're talking about escape. And we need that. We need to keep our minds active."

Helman was looking forward to learning and growing from reading each of the books. "The ability to grow through literature and to learn things about yourself in the world that you wouldn't normally be able to is so invaluable," he said. "That's why, for me, at this time, reading has been so useful and so important."

If you'd like the Canada Reads books in an accessible format, you can find them here.

CBC Books has launched a Facebook group for those who want to read the Canada Reads 2021 books together. You can join the conversation here.

Canada Reads premiered in 2002. The first winning book was In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, which was championed by musician Steven Page.

Other past Canada Reads winners include Lawrence Hill's The Illegal, championed by Olympian Clara Hughes, Kim Thúy's Ru, championed by TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey and Lisa Moore's February, championed by comedian Trent McClellan. 

Last year's winner was actor Amanda Brugel, championing the memoir We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib. You can rewatch the 2020 debates here.

You can see a complete list of past winners and contenders here.

You can learn more about the Canada Reads 2021 contenders below.

Rosey Edeh champions The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Rosey Edeh is championing The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk. (Submitted by Rosey Edeh)

In the fantasy novel The Midnight Bargain, Beatrice is making her debut at "bargaining season" — an annual event where wealthy young men and women gather from all over the world to make advantageous marriages. But she harbours secret plans that will upend society. Rather than get married, Beatrice plans to bind a greater spirit and become a full magician. Performing the secret ritual goes against the rules of her world, which prohibits women from practicing magic while they can still bear children. With the help of the wealthy Lavan siblings, fiery Ysbeta and her handsome brother Ianthe, Beatrice searches for a way to change old patriarchal traditions. 

The Midnight Bargain is a fantastic journey filled with magic, love and self-determination. It's abiding, beautifully paced social commentary- Rosey Edeh

"The Midnight Bargain is a fantastic journey filled with magic, love and self-determination. It's abiding, beautifully paced social commentary," Edeh said in the Canada Reads reveal on q.

The richly undulating odyssey in a world filled with oppressive customs, designed to shackle women's powers and confine them to a lackluster life during childbearing years, will take hold of the imagination and compel the reader to side with the outlier and measure their own mental fortitude to that of the protagonist."

Rosey Edeh is a three-time Canadian Olympian, representing Canada at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games. She has since spent two decades in broadcasting, working at ET Canada, CNN, MSNBC and Global News. She is currently the co-anchor on CTV Morning Live Ottawa and is a member of Athletics Canada's board of directors.

C.L. Polk is a fantasy writer from Calgary. Their other books include Witchmark and Stormsong. Witchmark, their debut novel, won the 2019 World Fantasy Award for best novel. It was also nominated for a Nebula Award, Locus Award, Aurora Award and a Lambda Literary Award.

Scott Helman champions Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

Scott Helman is championing Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee. (Submitted by Scott Helman)

Two Trees Make a Forest is a nonfiction book that explores how geographical forces are interlaced with our family stories. A chance discovery of letters written by her immigrant grandfather leads Jessica J. Lee to her ancestral homeland, Taiwan. There, she traces his story while growing closer to the land he knew. Throughout her adventures, Lee uncovers surprising parallels between nature and human stories that shaped her family and their beloved island. In the memoir, she also turns a critical eye onto colonialist explorers who mapped the land and named plants, and both relied on and often erased the labour and knowledge of local communities.

Two Trees Make a Forest won the 2020 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

This book is told through an environmental lens and dissects the painful crossroads that an individual must face within the place of a diaspora and a family.- Scott Helman

"This book's importance is twofold. For one, understanding one's place in the world is a universal struggle but within a multicultural landscape of Canada, it is even more so. More importantly, this book is told through an environmental lens and dissects the painful crossroads that an individual must face within the place of a diaspora and a family. The merging of nature and humanity has never been of higher importance in this moment in history," Helman said on the Canada Reads reveal on q.

Scott Helman is a singer-songwriter who has been nominated for a Juno Award four times. He also won Spotify Canada's Emerge program. His debut single, Bungalow, is certified platinum. His other hit singles include Everything Sucks, Ripple Effect, PDA and, most recently, Evergreen. His latest album, NonSuch Park, remembers his grandfather's life.

Jessica J. Lee is a British Canadian Taiwanese author and environmental historian. She won the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Author Award in 2019. Her first book, Turning, was longlisted for the Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors. Lee has a PhD in environmental history and aesthetics, and currently lives in London.

Devery Jacobs champions Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Devery Jacobs is championing Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. (Submitted by Devery Jacobs)

Jonny Appleseed is a novel about a two-spirit Indigiqueer young man who leaves the reserve and becomes a cybersex worker in the big city to make ends meet. But he must reckon with his past when he returns home to attend his stepfather's funeral. 

Jonny Appleseed won the Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction and was shortlisted for the the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. It was also longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

This novel needs to be read. It's a love letter to Indigiqueer, two-spirit people and the women of our communities.- Devery Jacobs

"This novel needs to be read. It's a love letter to Indigiqueer, two-spirit people and the women of our communities. It finds the cracks of light in darkness, which is exactly what we need in 2021, to find those cracks of light," Jacobs said on the Canada Reads reveal on q.

Devery Jacobs is a Mohawk actor and filmmaker from Kahnawà:ke Mohawk territory. She can be seen in the film Rhymes for Young Ghouls and the television shows The Order on Netflix, Cardinal on CTV and American Gods on Amazon Prime Video/STARZ. Her next major role will be in Taika Waititi's new FX series Reservation Dogs. Her feature film as a co-writer, This Place, is set to be released in 2021.

Joshua Whitehead is a two-spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw member of Peguis First Nation, currently pursuing his PhD. He is also the author of the poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer and is the editor of the anthology Love After the EndJonny Appleseed is his first novel.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee champions Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is championing Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots on Canada Reads 2021. (Submitted by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee)

Hench is a novel about Anna, a woman who pays the bills by doing administrative work for villains. But when an incident involving the world's most popular superhero leaves her injured and gets her fired, Anna realizes what happened to her isn't unique — and she might have the means to take down the so-called hero who hurt her. How? With every office worker's secret weapon: data.

Hench is a novel that reminded me of why I started reading for fun in the first place.- Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

"Hench is a novel that reminded me of why I started reading for fun in the first place. It's fantastic storytelling, with relatable and complex characters, razor sharp wit and smart dialog, and with themes that run deep and resonate long after the book is done," Sun-Hyung Lee said on the Canada Reads reveal on q.

"The way Walschots spins her tale, weaving in the reality of office politics, personal struggles and dealing with the injustices of life with the world of superheroes is utterly believable and infinitely readable."

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is an award-winning actor, writer and comedian. He can be seen in CBC's Kim's Convenience and Disney's The Mandalorian. He won the Canadian Screen Award for best actor in a continuing leading comedic role for his performance as Appa on Kim's Convenience. His other credits include Shoot the Messenger, End of Days Inc, Robocop and Train 48. He also hosted the CBC program Canada's Smartest Person Jr.

Natalie Zina Walschots is a writer and journalist from Toronto. She is also the author of the poetry collections DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains and Thumbscrews. Hench is her first novel.

Roger Mooking champions Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi

Roger Mooking is championing Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi. (Submitted by Roger Mooking)

Butter Honey Pig Bread is a novel about twin sisters, Kehinde and Taiye, and their mother, Kambirinachi. Kambirinachi believes she was a spirit who was supposed to die as a small child. By staying alive, she is cursing her family — a fear that appears to come true when Kehinde experiences something that tears the family apart, and divides the twins for years. But when the three women connect years later, they must confront their past and find forgiveness.

Butter Honey Pig Bread was on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist.

She will solidify our place in the pantheon of great Canadian writers off this book alone.- Roger Mooking

"Butter Honey Pig Bread is Francesca Ekwuyasi's majestic debut novel. She will solidify our place in the pantheon of great Canadian writers off this book alone. It treads verses, continents, time, the bonds of family. It explores Nigerian culture, folklore. It takes place in Halifax, Montreal, London and various parts of Nigeria. There is repetitive familial traumas...and it challenges the notion of kin," Mooking said on the Canada Reads reveal on q. "Everybody has challenges in their life and this one really frames it in a very interesting way.

Roger Mooking is a chef, restaurateur, television host, author and award-winning recording artist. He has hosted Man Fire Food on the Food Network Canada and Cooking Channel, Greatest of America on Travel Channel and Everyday Exotic on Cooking Channel and co-hosted Heat Seekers on Food Network alongside chef Aarón Sanchez.

Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer, filmmaker and visual artist. Her writing has appeared in the Malahat Review, Guts and Brittle Paper, and she was longlisted for the 2019 Journey PrizeButter Honey Pig Bread is her first book. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and currently lives in Halifax.

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