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8 Books that Need to Be in Every Classroom in Canada

tagged: chelene knight, dear current occupant

School's out for summer, but that only means it's a perfect moment to reflect on the academic year ahead. And to that end, Chelene Knight—whose most recent book is Dear Current Occupant—recommends eight books that deserve a place in every Canadian classroom. Teachers (and students!), take note! 


After a lengthy conversation with my then 15-year-old about his frustration with not only the current high-school curriculum, but with the lack of teaching around identity, Canadian History, Black Canadian History, and political unrest as it pertains to the victims and not just hidden rage of the oppressors, I replied, “It’s all in the books they deny you.” 

This is my list of eight Canadian books that need to be in every single classroom. These books open the doors to a history that unfortunately was so easily erased and now—inaccessible. These books are conversations schools don’t seem to want to have with their students about race, violence, poverty, tough life decisions, political strife, and identity. 


Brother, by David Chariandy

I am a strong advocate for using novels—especially those written by people of colour—as textbooks. This book holds true to so many of our youth’s lived experiences. From poverty, and struggles within an unconventional family, to facing the often rough and violent waves of peer pressure outside of the home, belonging is a necessary thread woven throughout. 


Policing Black Lives, by Robyn Maynard

Policing Black Lives speaks to racism in a way of filling in the gaps and spaces where history was erased. Angela Davis describes the book as “meticulously-researched and a compelling analysis of state violence challenges prevailing narratives of Canadian multiculturalism and inclusion by examining how structures of racism and ideologies of gender are completely anchored in global histories of colonization and slavery.”


The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline

Having Cherie Demaline’s The Marrow Thieves in every classroom would be a game-changer on so many levels; it would allow students to learn about Indigenous history and its complexities via a novel written with sheer compassion and expertise. This book is a gift to everyone it’s placed in front of. 


How Poetry Saved My Life, by Amber Dawn

Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life is a book that I would have benefited from as a young girl who faced tough life decisions while navigating life in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Amber Dawn takes you into her world and shares open and honest stories of survival. Mixing poetry and prose, she proves that genre can be broken and stories can be told in the way you want them told. 


Execution Poems, by George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke’s work is stunning and raw. If any of his books (Execution Poems in particular) were required texts, they would not only teach youth what poetry can be, but they would infuse Black Canadian history, lived violence, and more into an already “wiped clean” narrative. The truth would be told in an accessible way. 


The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari’s, award-winning The Best Place on Earth comprises 11 spellbinding stories that often focus on Israel’s Mizrahi Jews, featuring mothers and children, soldiers and bohemians, lovers and best friends, all searching for their place in the world. To me, it's a necessary book about history and strength. 


Tomboy Survival Guide, by Ivan Coyote

Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide is a necessary book for every teen today. Tomboy Survival Guide “warmly recounts Ivan’s past as a diffident yet free-spirited tomboy, and maps their journey through treacherous gender landscapes and a maze of labels that don’t quite stick, to a place of self-acceptance and an authentic and personal strength.”


Thirsty, by Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand’s Thirsty is a book that I recommend to everyone. Her words taught me to embrace poetic language. Her words led me to own my stories and how to write through trauma and uncertainty. Thirsty is described as being “written in the margins, like a medieval manuscript with shades of light and darkness.” 


About Dear Current Occupant:  

From Vancouver-based writer Chelene Knight, Dear Current Occupant is a creative non-fiction memoir about home and belonging set in the 80s and 90s of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Using a variety of forms, Knight reflects on her childhood through a series of letters addressed to all of the current occupants now living in the twenty different houses she moved in and out of with her mother and brother. From blurry non-chronological memories of trying to fit in with her own family as the only mixed East Indian/Black child, to crystal clear recollections of parental drug use, Knight draws a vivid portrait of memory that still longs for a place and a home. 

Peering through windows and doors into intimate, remembered spaces now occupied by strangers, Knight writes to them in order to deconstruct her own past. From the rubble of memory she then builds a real place in order to bring herself back home.

July 19, 2018

Books mentioned in this post



by David Chariandy
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged: urban life, coming of age, literary

A Penguin Book Club Pick
Winner of the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, David Chariandy's Brother is his intensely beautiful, searingly powerful, and tightly constructed second novel, exploring questions of masculinity, family, race, and identity as they are played out in a Scarborough housing complex during t …


Policing Black Lives

State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present

by Robyn Maynard
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: discrimination & race relations, women's studies, criminology


Delving behind Canada’s veneer of multiculturalism and tolerance, Policing Black Lives traces the violent realities of anti-blackness from the slave ships to prisons, classrooms and beyond. Robyn Maynard provides readers with the first comprehensive account of nearly four hundred years of state-sanctioned surveillance, criminalization and punish …


Marrow Thieves

by Cherie Dimaline
edition: Paperback
  • age: 13 to 25
  • Grade: 8 to 17
tagged: aboriginal & indigenous, environment, dystopian

Shortlisted for 2018 CBC Canada Reads
Winner of 2017 Governor General's Literary Award (Young People's Literature - Text)
Winner of 2017 Kirkus Prize
Nominated for 2018 Forest of Reading - White Pine Awards
A Globe and Mail Best Book
Shortlisted for the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award
Shortlisted for the Indigenous Literature Award
L …


How Poetry Saved My Life

A Hustler's Memoir

by Amber Dawn
edition: Paperback
tagged: lesbian studies, prostitution & sex trade, lgbt

Vancouver Book Award winner; Lambda Literary Award finalist

A memoir about sex work and sexuality, and how writing became the author's lifeline.

Amber Dawn's acclaimed first novel Sub Rosa, a darkly intoxicating fantasy about a group of magical prostitutes who band together to fend off bad johns in a fantastical underworld, won a Lambda Literary Awar …


Execution Poems

by George Elliott Clarke
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged: canadian

After nine years and nine trade printings, Gaspereau Press is issuing a revised and redesigned second edition of its most popular title. Originally released in 2000 in a limited edition of 66 books handset and printed letterpress in a folio format, Execution Poems has gone on to sell over 6000 copies. It was the winner of the 2001 Governor General’ …


Tomboy Survival Guide

by Ivan Coyote
edition: Paperback
tagged: gender studies, lgbt

Shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction; Longlisted for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction; Stonewall Book Award Honor Book winner; Longlisted for Canada Reads


Ivan Coyote is a celebrated storyteller and the author of ten previous books, including Gender Failure (with Rae Spoon) and One in Every C …



by Dionne Brand
edition: Paperback

This is a poem about the city. About a man who has visions, hovering on the edge but hating it, restless and at war with the world but wanting the peace that passeth understanding. Everything he does is half-done, except his death. When he falls, his parched spirit crying "thirsty," his family falls apart. This is a poem about Toronto, the city tha …

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