Canadian Books to Help Tackle Racism

How do you talk to young readers about the racism in the world and their own country?  We have compiled a reading list of books that are a good start to conversations about racism, discrimination and #BlackLivesMatter. For each book on this list, we have provided a link to purchase from A Different Book List, which is a Black-owned and focused Canadian independent bookstore located in Toronto.

Picture Books

It’s time to plait Jamilla’s hair but she’s hidden the comb. Jamilla doesn’t like her hair, she wants hair like other girls… long, easy to manage without plaits or pins. But Jamilla’s moms shows her how beautiful her hair is — electric, kinetic, bombastic and fantastic! Jamilla can have different styles every day of the week, from puffs and plaits to cornrows and braids!

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This is the inspirational story of Katherine Johnson, a mathematician hired by NASA during the space race who calculated the flight path for NASA’s first Apollo moon landing, and whose flight-path-trajectory calculations brought Apollo 13’s crew safely back home after an explosion threw them off course. Katherine was a groundbreaking African-American woman whose contributions were crucial to America’s space program.

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Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter by Nadia Hohn, illustrated Gustavo Mazali (HarperCollins Publishers, 2018) Ages 4-8

Harriet Tubman was a brave woman who was born enslaved in Maryland in the 1800s. After risking everything to escape from her slave master and be free, Harriet went on to lead many people to freedom on a journey known today as the Underground Railroad.

This book covers some of the amazing aspects of Tubman’s life: She led 13 escapes — all successful and at great personal risk — between 1850 and 1860. This book also covers some of the lesser-known amazing aspects of her life: during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman enlisted African American men to be soldiers. She served as a spy. and she led a battle under the command of a Union Army colonel!

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Lila and the Crow by Gabrielle Grimard (Annick Press, 2016) Ages 5-8

Lila is new to town and can’t wait to make friends. But at school, a boy mocks her dark hair, skin and eyes. He calls her Crow. Lila is ashamed of being different and every day she tries to disguise herself, until a magical encounter with a crow shows her that her beauty lies in the differences she tries to hide.

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Faizah has a new backpack and light-up shoes, ready for the first day of school! It’s the start of a brand-new year and, best of all, it’s her older sister Asiya’s first day of hijab. But not everyone sees hijab as beautiful, and in the face of hurtful, confusing words, Faizah will find new ways to be strong.

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The Stone Thrower by Joel Ealey Richardson, illustrated by Matt James (Groundwood Books, 2016) Ages 5-8

African-American football player Chuck Ealey grew up poor in a racially segregated community, but his mother assured him that education was the way out. In high school, his football coach believed he could be a great quarterback. Despite the racist taunts he faced while playing, Chuck maintained a remarkable level of dedication and determination. When discrimination continued to follow him, Chuck Ealey remained undefeated.

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Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner, illustrated by Richard Rudnicki (Groundwood Books, 2010) Ages 5-9

In Nova Scotia, in 1946, an usher in a movie theatre told Viola Desmond to move from her main floor seat up to the balcony. She refused to budge. Viola knew she was being asked to move because she was black. After all, she was the only black person downstairs. All the other black people were up in the balcony. In no time at all, the police arrived and took Viola to jail. The next day she was charged and fined, but she vowed to continue her struggle against such unfair rules. She refused to accept that being black meant she couldn’t sit where she wanted.

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When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard (Annick Press, 2013) Ages 6-9

Olemaun is eight and knows a lot of things. But she does not know how to read. Ignoring her father’s warnings, she travels far from her Arctic home to the outsiders’ school to learn.

The nuns at the school call her Margaret. They cut off her long hair and force her to do menial chores, but she remains undaunted. Her tenacity draws the attention of a black-cloaked nun who tries to break her spirit at every turn. But the young girl is more determined than ever to learn how to read.

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When We Were Alone by David Alexander Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett (HighWater Press, 2016) Ages 6-9

A young girl is curious about her grandmother’s long braided hair and beautifully coloured clothing. Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? Nókom (grandmother) explains about life in a residential school long ago, where everything was taken away. A story about a difficult time in history and, ultimately, of empowerment and strength.

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Junior Fiction

 

How can Irene and Charles work together on their fifth-grade poetry project when they don’t know each other? Irene Latham, who is white, and Charles Waters, who is black, use this fictional set-up to delve into different experiences of race in a relatable way. This remarkable collaboration invites readers to join the dialogue by putting their own words to their experiences.

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Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes (Annick Press, 2013) Ages 6-9

Eight-year-old Margaret Pokiak has set her sights on learning to read, even though it means leaving her village in the high Arctic. Faced with unceasing pressure, her father finally agrees to let her make the five-day journey to attend school, but he warns Margaret of the terrors of residential schools.

At school Margaret soon encounters the Raven, a black-cloaked nun with a hooked nose and bony fingers that resemble claws. She immediately dislikes the strong-willed young Margaret. Intending to humiliate her, the heartless Raven gives gray stockings to all the girls — all except Margaret, who gets red ones. In an instant Margaret is the laughingstock of the entire school.

In the face of such cruelty, Margaret refuses to be intimidated and bravely gets rid of the stockings. Although a sympathetic nun stands up for Margaret, in the end it is this brave young girl who gives the Raven a lesson in the power of human dignity.

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I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Depius and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland (Second Story Press, 2016) Ages 8-11

Based on the true account of Jenny Kay Dupuis’s grandmother, this picture book tells the story of eight-year-old Irene who is taken from her Nipissing First Nation home by an Indian Agent and sent to live in a faraway residential school. Stripped of her name, frightened and homesick, Irene endures, holding on to her mother’s words “Never forget who you are!” This title is also available in French as Je ne suis pas un numéro.

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The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis (Scholastic Canada, 2018) Ages 1-14

After his father dies, 12-year-old Charlie finds himself owing money to the most fearsome man in Possum Moan, South Carolina. He agrees to clear the debt by helping track down some stolen property. When he comes face-to-face with the ‘property’ and discovers their true identities, he is torn between his conscience and his survival instinct.

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (Random House Children’s Books, 1997) Ages 8-12

Enter the hilarious world of 10-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There’s Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, Kenny, and Byron, Kenny’s older brother, who at 13 is an “official juvenile delinquent.”

When Momma and Dad decide it’s time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. Heading south, they’re going to Birmingham, Alabama, and toward one of the darkest moments in America’s history.

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Young Adult

 

Away Running by David Wright and Luc Bouchard (Orca Book Publishers, 2016) Ages 12 and up

Neither Matt nor Free ever imagined they would be playing American football in Paris with a team from a poverty-stricken suburb called Villeneuve. Nothing in Matt’s privileged Montreal upbringing has prepared him for the racial tensions he encounters. And Free just wants to play football and forget Texas. But tensions boil over, and the boys’ Muslim teammates have a clash with police — with tragic consequences.

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Helen Betty Osborne, following her dream of becoming a teacher, left her home to attend residential school in Manitoba. On November 13, 1971, Betty was abducted and brutally murdered by four young men. Initially met with silence and indifference, her tragic murder resonates loudly today. Betty represents one of almost 1,200 Indigenous women in Canada who have been murdered or have gone missing.

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When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina (Tradewind Books, 2016) Ages 14 and up

It’s 1976, in South Africa. This is the story of four young people living in Johannesburg and its black township, Soweto, and their chance meeting that changes everything. Already a chain of events is in motion: a failed plot, a murdered teacher, a powerful police agent with a vendetta, and a secret network of students across the township. The students will rise. And there will be violence.

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Non-Fiction

 

In the late 1800s, Africville was founded on the northern edge of Halifax. The close-knit community was vibrant, with a strong sense of culture and tradition. But in the 1960s, the city demolished Africville, appropriating the land for industrial development. Through historical photographs, documents and first-person narratives, this book tells the story of Africville — and how the spirit of the community lives on.

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Through historical photographs, documents and first-person narratives from Chinese Canadians who experienced the Head Tax or who were the children of Head Tax payers, this informative book offers a full account of the injustices inflicted during this grim period in Canadian history. It documents how this official racism was confronted and finally acknowledged.

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Japanese Canadian Internment in the Second World War (Righting Canada’s Wrongs) by Masaka Fukawa and Pamela Hickman (James Lorimer, 2012) Ages 13 and up

With war came wartime hysteria. Japanese Canadian residents of BC were rounded up, their homes and property seized, and forced to move to internment camps with inadequate housing, water, and food. Men and older boys went to road camps while some families ended up on farms where they were essentially slave labour. Eventually, after years of pressure, the Canadian government admitted that the internment was wrong and apologized for it.

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Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous people has suffered as a result of both the residential school system and the lack of understanding of the historical and current impact of those schools. Guided by acclaimed Indigenous author Monique Gray Smith, readers will learn about the lives of survivors and learn from the allies who are putting the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into action.

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Do you know another books for young people that discuss racism? Join the conversation on social media, tagging @kidsbookcentre!