The best Canadian books of 2021

This year was a super year for reading! Here are CBC Books's favourite books of 2021.

Here are CBC Books's favourite books of the year!

Canadian fiction

What Strange Paradise is a novel by Omar El Akkad. (Kateshia Pendergrass, McClelland & Stewart)

Our top pick: What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

What Strange Paradise is a novel that tells the story of a global refugee crisis through the eyes of a child. Nine-year-old Amir is the only survivor from a ship full of refugees coming to a small island nation. He ends up with a teenage girl named Vanna, who lives on the island. Even though they don't share a common language or culture, Vanna becomes determined to keep Amir safe. What Strange Paradise tells both their stories and how they each reached this moment, while asking the questions, "How did we get here?" and "What are we going to do about it?"

What Strange Paradise won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Omar El Akkad is a Canadian journalist and author who currently lives in Portland. He is also the author of the novel American War, which was defended on Canada Reads 2018 by actor Tahmoh Penikett.

At this moment, more than 80 million people worldwide have fled home, 40 per cent of whom are children under the age of 18. And as novelist Omar El Akkad sees it, that number will grow as climate change worsens. He grapples with how people treat one another – and the window it offers into the human condition – in his latest novel, What Strange Paradise. This past week, El Akkad was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize for the book. He speaks with Piya Chattopadhyay about why he told the story through the eyes of a child, the privilege of hopeful futures and the danger of temporary outrage.

Canadian nonfiction

Acclaimed Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan will deliver the 2021 Massey Lectures. (Tamara Poppitt, Alysia Shewchuk/House of Anansi Press)

Our top pick: Out of the Sun by Esi Edugyan

In Out of the Sun, the 2021 Massey Lectures, Esi Edugyan delivers an analysis on the relationship between race and art. She poses questions such as what happens when we begin to consider stories at the margins and grant them centrality? How does doing that complicate our understanding of who we are? Through the lens of visual art, literature, film and the author's lived experience, Out of the Sun examines the depiction of Black histories in art, offering new perspectives to challenge the accepted narrative.

Edugyan is a writer living in Victoria. Her other books include Half-Blood BluesDreaming of Elsewhere, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Washington Black. She won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues, and again in 2018 for Washington Black.

Cherie Dimaline talks to Shelagh Rogers about her latest novel, Hunting by Stars.

Canadian poetry

The Junta of Happenstance is a poetry collection by Tolu Oloruntoba. (Franctal Studio, Palimpsest Press)

Our top pick: The Junta of Happenstance by Tolu Oloruntoba

The Junta of Happenstance is the first poetry collection from Nigerian Canadian writer Tolu Oloruntoba. The Junta of Happenstance is an exploration of disease, both medical and emotional. It explores family dynamics, social injustice, the immigrant experience, economic anxiety and the nature of suffering.

The Junta of Happenstance won the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.

Oloruntoba is a writer from Nigeria who now lives in Surrey, B.C. He practiced medicine for six years, and has harboured a love for writing poetry since he was 16. His first chapbook, Manubrium, was shortlisted for the 2020 bpNichol Chapbook Award. He's also the founder of the literary magazine Klorofyl. 

Canadian comics

Fictional Father is a comic by Joe Ollman. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Our top pick: Fictional Father by Joe Ollmann

Fictional Father is the story of a washed-up middle-aged painter named Caleb. Now that he's sober, he must face his untapped potential, his past and his father — who made millions writing a family-oriented cartoon while neglecting his own son. Caleb is determined to face his demons and be a better man than his father. Fictional Father explores family, regret and what it means to make art.

Fictional Father was on the shortlist for the 2021 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Joe Ollmann is a comics artist from Hamilton, Ont. His other comics include The Abominable Mr. Seabrook, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People and Mid-Life.

Canadian middle-grade and YA

Hunting by Stars by Cherie Dimaline. Book cover shows an illustrated starry night. Portrait of the author.
Hunting by Stars is a follow-up to Cherie Dimaline's YA novel The Marrow Thieves. (, Penguin Teen)

Our top pick: Hunting by Stars by Cherie Dimaline

Hunting by Stars takes place in the world of The Marrow Thieves, a post-apocalyptic North America where only Indigenous people have the ability to dream. Residential schools are re-established to imprison Indigenous people, and search for the secrets to dreaming in their bones. Hunting by Stars picks up on 17-year-old French, who wakes up in a pitch-black room. In The Marrow ThievesFrench lost his family to the residential schools and found a new family to travel with, while dodging the "Recruiters."

Hunting by Stars is for ages 12 and up.

Cherie Dimaline is a Métis author and editor whose award-winning fiction has been published and anthologized internationally. Her first book, Red Rooms, was published in 2007, and her novel The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy was released in 2013. In 2014, she was named the Emerging Artist of the Year at the Ontario Premier's Award for Excellence in the Arts, and became the first Aboriginal Writer in Residence for the Toronto Public Library. Her book A Gentle Habit was published in August 2016.

In 2017, The Marrow Thieves won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text and the Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature. It is currently being adapted for television.

The Marrow Thieves was defended by Jully Black on Canada Reads 2018.

Manitoba author's picture book about motherhood, Indigenous tradition makes New York Times bestsellers list

2 years ago
Duration 3:13
Tasha Spillett-Sumner's picture book, I Sang You Down From the Stars, debuted at No. 3 on a New York Times list of bestselling children's picture books.

Canadian picture books

I Sang You Down from the Stars is a picture book by Tasha Spillett-Sumner (pictured) and illustrated by Michaela Goade. (Leonard Sumner, Submitted by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, Owlkids)

Our top pick: I Sang You Down from the Stars by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, illustrated by Michaela Goade

I Sang You Down from the Stars is a story of birth and creation for younger readers. With poetic language and watercolours, the picture book uses Indigenous creation stories and traditional teachings to celebrate nature and the bond behind mother and child.

I Sang You Down from the Stars is for ages 2 to 5.

Tasha Spillett-Sumner is an educator, poet and scholar of Nehiyaw and Trinidadian descent.  She is also the author of graphic novel Surviving the Citywhich won the $2,000 Indigenous Voices Award for works in an alternative format in 2019.

Michaela Goade is an American-born illustrator from the Tlingit and Haida tribes. Goade won the 2021 Caldecott Medal for her illustrations in the book We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom.

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