Books

The best Canadian books of 2020

2020 wasn't great in a lot of ways, but it was a great year for reading. Here are CBC Books's favourite books of the year.

2020 wasn't great in a lot of ways, but it was a great year for reading. Here are CBC Books's favourite books of the year.

Canadian fiction

Souvankham Thammavongsa is a 2020 finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. (Scotiabank Giller Prize, McClelland & Stewart)

Our top pick: How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa 

How to Pronounce Knife is a collection of idiosyncratic and diverse stories. Capturing the daily lives of immigrants, Souvankham Thammavongsa captures their hopes, disappointments, trauma and acts of defiance. From a young man painting nails in a salon, to a housewife learning English from soap-operas, How to Pronounce Knife navigates tragedy and humour. 

How to Pronounce Knife won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize

Thammavongsa is a writer and poet. Her stories have won an O. Henry Award and appeared in Harper'sGrantaThe Paris Review and NOON. She has published four books of poetry, including 2019's Cluster

Toronto writer and poet Souvankham Thammavongsa joined Tom Power live on the air this morning to reflect on winning the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife. The jury wrote this about their decision: "How to Pronounce Knife is a stunning collection of stories that portray the immigrant experience in achingly beautiful prose. … These stories are vessels of hope, of hurt, of rejection, of loss and of finding one's footing in a new and strange land." 12:24

Canadian nonfiction

The Skin We're In is a nonfiction book by Desmond Cole. (Doubleday Canada, Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Our top pick: The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole

In The Skin We're In, journalist and activist Desmond Cole looks at what it's like to live in Canada as a Black person. In The Skin We're In looks at one year, 2017, and chronicles Coles's personal journalism, activism and experiences alongside stories that made the headlines across the country, including refugees crossing the Canada-U.S. border in the middle of winter and the death of Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi at the hands of the Ottawa police.

 The Skin We're In won the 2020 Toronto Book Award.

Cole is a journalist, radio host and activist based in Toronto. His writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Toronto Life, Now Magazine and the Walrus. The Skin We're In is his first book.

Poet Bertrand Bickersteth talks about his new collection The Response of Weeds, which is inspired by his experiences as a Black man in Alberta. 13:08

Canadian poetry

Bertrand Bickersteth is a Sierra Leone, Alberta-based writer. (NeWest Press)

Our top pick: The Response of Weeds by Bertrand Bickersteth

"Storied soil" is the phrase Bickersteth uses to describe his home province of Alberta in his debut poetry collection The Response of Weeds. The collection brings to life the experience of early Black settlers in Western Canada. The Response of Weeds tells of stories rooted in the prairie landscape, including his own experience growing up as a Black Albertan. He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing the book.

Bertrand Bickersteth is a poet, author and educator who was born in Sierra Leone, raised in Alberta, and has lived in the U.K. and the U.S. 

Scott discusses creating the comic Wendy as a way to tell his own story about being an art student trying to make his way in the fussy Canadian art scene. 9:34

Canadian comics

Wendy, Master of Art is a comic by Walter Scott. (Drawn & Quarterly, CBC)

Our top pick: Wendy, Master of Art by Walter Scott

In Wendy, Master of ArtWendy is a serious art student at the University of Hell in a small Ontario town. As she works toward her Master Fine Arts, Wendy confronts her ever-ballooning insecurities, fears and doubts with therapy, excessive drinking and partying.

Walter Scott is a Kahnawá:ke-born artist who lives in Toronto. He's published two other Wendy books, including Wendy's Revenge, and has appeared in The New Yorker and the Best American Comics anthology.

Sheena Kamal talks about the third instalment of her Nora Watts mystery series No Going Back and debut YA novel Fight Like a Girl. 11:41

Canadian middle-grade and YA

Fight Like a Girl is a YA novel by Sheena Kamal. (Malcolm Tweedy, Penguin Teen)

Our top pick: Fight Like a Girl by Sheena Kamal

In thriller writer Sheena Kamal's first YA novel Fight Like a Girl, Trisha grew up with an abusive father who would come and go as he pleased. In an effort to break the chain of violence in her family, Trisha chooses to channel her violent impulses into Muay Thai kickboxing.

Fight Like a Girl is for ages 14 and up.

Kamal is a Vancouver-based writer of crime novels including The Lost Ones which won the 2018 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, and It All Falls DownShe Fights Like a Girl is her first YA novel.

Canadian picture books

The Barnabus Project is a picture book by the Fan Brothers. (Tundra Books, Michelle Quance)

Our top pick: The Barnabus Project by the Fan Brothers

The Barnabus Project features a secret underground lab, genetically engineered creatures and a story about freedom. Barnabus and his friends live in this lab but they are deemed imperfect and might never see the outside world. But Barnabus yearns to be free and decides that it's time for he and his imperfect friends to make the perfect escape.

The Barnabus Project is for ages 5-9.

Eric Fan and Terry Fan are brothers and frequent collaborators on children's books. Their books include The Night Gardener and Ocean Meets SkyThey also illustrated The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield.

Devin Fan is an artist, poet and youth worker. The Barnabus Project is his first children's book and marks the first time all three brothers have written and illustrated a picture book together.

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