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Notes from a Children's Librarian: The "I Am Canadian" Series

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.

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The “I am Canada” series is addictive. Aimed primarily at boys in Grade 7 and up, these books about war are dark, action-filled and sometimes gruesome. They could work for mature Grade 5 or 6 readers, or also as read-alouds with follow-up discussion close to Remembrance Day. These first-person narratives are so compelling that a reader doesn’t even notice that they’re actually learning history. At the back of each book, there’s a note on the historical accuracy, with photos of original documents and images of the real life characters the books are based on.

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Book Cover Sniper Fire

Sniper Fire: The Fight for Ortona (Paul Baldassara, Italy, 1943), by Jonathan Webb

The dramatic opening puts the reader right in the thick of war. Paul is an Italian from Alberta who enlists in the Canadian army and finds himself in Italy during a month-long battle to capture (and eventually win) the town of Ortona. The descriptions of vicious street fighting that cost more than 2,300 Canadian casualties elicits all the senses. Paul and his buddies take Ortona street by street, house by house, enduring sniper fire, booby-trapped doors, chairs, and toilets. The effect on the civilians becomes eviden …

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Books for Orange Shirt Day

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.

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Residential Schools are often talked about beginning with the study of Indigenous Peoples in the Grade 3 social studies curriculum, but awareness can begin even earlier. These texts, from preschool to teens, address some of the harsh issues—and are especially meaningful in connection with Orange Shirt Day on September 30.

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The Orange Shirt Story, by Phyllis Webstad, illustrated by Brock Nicol, is a true story. Six-year-old Phyllis was looking forward to going to the same school as her cousins. She even had a new orange shirt for the occasion, but the nuns promptly removed it, and then cut off her hair. The nuns showed no empathy—a poignant illustration shows Phyllis crying, alone, in her bed at night. One nice teacher was her only solace. Luckily, Phyllis only had to endure one year away at school and never went back. There’s a section at the back of the book explaining the meaning of Orange Shirt Day. (Grade 3+)

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Fatty Legs, by Christy Jordan …

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The Abortion Caravan: A Ragtag Army of the Willing

The Abortion Caravan, intent on bearding prime minister Pierre Trudeau in his den and removing abortion from the Criminal Code, set off for Vancouver on April 27, 1970. There were 17 women crammed into three vehicles—a great big Pontiac Parisienne convertible, a pickup truck and a Volkswagen van. On top of the van was a big black home made coffin.

Learn more in this excerpt from Karin Wells' celebrated new book The Abortion Caravan: When Women Shut Down Government in the Battle for the Right to Choose, out now.

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That coffin was featured in every newspaper story as they went across the country. It became the symbol of the Caravan and epitomized their primary argument: as long as clean, safe, medically supervised, legal abortions were unavailable—or after the 1969 reforms, barely available—women had to resort to backstreet abortionists. That meant unsanitary conditions and abortionists who hardly knew what they were doing and were not going to stick around to make sure that things turned out well. It meant risk and too many deaths.

Women who could not find or could not afford any sort of abortion provider were aborting themselves. They were flushing themselves out with Lysol or Drano, inserting knitting needles or wire coat hangers into their bodies, drinki …

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5 Singular Summer Reads

So, have you read the one about the missing woman with the unreliable narrator where it turns out that things aren't exactly as they seem? Sure you have—five times at least. And while these well-worn tropes can be pretty nice to get lost in, we'd like to suggest some books that will shake up your summer reading a bit. Here are five books that aren't like the others, all of them terrific. 

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At This Juncture, by Rona Altrows

About the book: Alarmed that Canada Post keeps losing money, Ariadne Jensen, a woman in her fifties, pitches the CEO with a scheme to save the corporation: she will get people to start writing and mailing letters again. As an inspiration to others, Ariadne writes bundles of letters for all to see; some are historical fiction, while others are drawn from her own correspondence. Each letter itself tells a story, while together they form a bigger story—about Ariadne, her determination to set wrongs right, her sly humour, and her loyalty to her best friend Leo, a gay man in his early twenties—that leaves the reader of At This Juncture informed, educated and, most importantly, entertained.

Why we're taking notice: This one is a MUST for epistolary fiction fans and anyone who appreciates the joy of reading and writing good old-fashioned letter …

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YUM! Janis Thiessen on Canadian Snack Food

Janis Thiessen's new book is a history of everybody's favourite part of Canada's food history: the snacks. Hawkins Cheezies, anybody? (Yes, please!). In this recommended reading list, Thiessen shares other Canadian food books that have informed her work. 

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Like so many others, I love to eat. And for the last few years, I’ve enjoyed reading, researching, and writing about the history of food. Whether it’s a cookbook from my ethno-religious community, or a photo collection of agricultural workers, there’s a wide range of material to explore. Here are some personal favourites, a few of which I used when writing my own food history book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History

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The Mennonite Treasury of Recipes, by the Canadian Mennonite Conference

The cookbook of my ancestors! It’s one of those classic, small-town ethnic community cookbooks that were so prevalent in mid-20th-century Canada. My copy, which was a gift from my parents many years ago, is marked up with our family’s preferred recipes for such Mennonite classics as rollkuchen and kommst …

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In the Lion's Den: Being Black in Canada

B. Denham Jolly arrived in Canada from Jamaica to attend university in the mid-1950s and worked as a high school teacher before going into the nursing and retirement-home business. Though he was ultimately successful in his business ventures, Jolly faced both overt and covert discrimination, which led him into social activism. The need for a stronger voice for the Black community fuelled Jolly’s 12-year battle to get a licence for a Black-owned radio station in Toronto. At its launch in 2001, Flow 93.5 became the model for urban music stations across the country, helping to launch the careers of artists like Drake.

In his new memoir, In the Black: My Life, Jolly chronicles not only his own journey; he tells the story of a generation of activists who worked to reshape the country into a more open and just society. While celebrating these successes, In the Black also measures the distance Canada still has to travel before we reach our stated ideals of equality.

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When you are Black in Canada, the arrival of the police on the scene is not always, or even often, reassuring.

Three years ago, on Parliament Street in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood, not far from where I live, I had a fender bender. I was exchanging insurance information with the other driver whe …

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The Vimy Trap

In The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift interrogate the mythology surrounding the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge, and how that myth has been manipulated to inform our understanding of Canada and its nationhood. In this excerpt, the authors offer competing and conflicting ways in which war is commemorated in Canada and around the world. 

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Vimy is a trap because, as it has come to be mythologized by militarists, historians, and nationalists, it tempts us to think that chivalric war somehow survived the coming of the epoch of mechanized warfare. There is a childishness to Vimyism. In its essence, it wants us to return to a day of glorious warfare—as signalled by the Citizenship Guide’s visual homage to the charges of the mounted cavalry, which were, in one soldier’s words, “exceedingly gallant, but futile” in an age of heavy artillery.[i] So many official and popular representations of war today avoid something that the returned soldiers of the Great War kept insisting upon: that under conditions of modernity, war had changed—changed quite completely.

Yet Vimyism persists. In November 2015, days after terrorists murdered civilians in Paris (while others had just, with far less attention paid, mur …

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My name is Phil Fontaine and I am a survivor

Book Cover A Knock at the Door

Phil Fontaine is a Survivor, TRC Honorary Witness, and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He writes the Foreword to new book A Knock at the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, reproduced below.

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My name is Phil Fontaine and I am a survivor.

Survivor is a word that years ago I used in hushed tones to describe my experience at Indian Residential School. But that was then. I have now come to say the word louder and more imbued with pride with every passing year of my life. This year, “survivor” has reached a crescendo.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, and its findings, represents a historic moment for all survivors; for all Indigenous people everywhere. It is, I think, a historic moment for Canada, the significance of which rests in not only what has been, but also what is to come.

I cannot speak for every survivor—each of us has our own story—but we do have common characteristics. As survivors, we number in the thousands. But if you count our brothers and sisters who are no longer with us, we number in the hundreds of thousands, possibly many more. All of us, the living and the dead, endured the effects of a policy that sought transformation—transform …

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Elspeth Cameron on Writing Lives and Aunt Winnie

Book Cover Aunt Winnie

Elspeth Cameron is an award-winning biographer and memoirist, and she blurs the two genres in her latest book Aunt Winnie. Winnie Cameron, Elspeth's aunt, was born in Seattle, raised briefly in Dawson City, and then moved to Toronto to live in Rosedale with her family in the 1910s. Over the course of her life, she saw the city change from one dominated by the English and Scotish immigrants, horse-drawn buggies, to a multicultural city where the car reigned supreme. But Winnie wasn't able to keep up with the times: she remained a perpetual debutante, and eventually became a bankrupt, unable to cope with the demands of her changing times.

Elspeth Cameron talked to us about her book, Toronto in the early 20th century, the difference between men's and women's archives, and about how a biography takes shape. 

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49th Shelf: Your Aunt Winnie skirted the edges of history in some fascinating ways—her early life in Dawson City during the Gold Rush and that dance with the Prince of Wales, for example. But you make clear that she was never of her history, always just outside of what was happening around her. What made her a compelling biographical subject anyway, beyond your close personal relationship with her?

Elspeth Cameron: I actually see her at the centre of some thin …

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History Across the Genres: List by Charlotte Gray

Five Great Political Biographies:

Book Cover John A

John A, The Man Who Made Us by Richard Gwyn

This is the first volume of a vivid, multi-dimensional portrait of a fascinating character and his times, by one of Canada’s finest political pundits. Gwyn combines contemporary insights, anecdotes, and impeccable research for this biography of our Founding Father, who created a country that is, in Gwyn’s view, a miracle of peacefulness, diversity, and determined un-Americanness. Volume 2 coming this fall.

The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie by Tim Cook

Book Cover The Madman and the Butcher

A powerful double biography of Sam Hughes, Canada’s war minister, and Arthur Currie, who commanded Canadian troops during World War One. I am not usually drawn to military history, but Cook uses the hatred between these two men as a brilliant framework within which to explore questions of Canada's role in the war, the need to place blame for the terrible blood loss, and our discomfort with heroes.

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"The scarlet tunic! What a story!”: Daniel Francis on how the Mounties became a national symbol

Mounti Bobble Head

Much of the mystique of the North has been associated with Canada’s red-coated Mounted Police. The Mounties are a northern police force and most of their heroic tales (for example, the St. Roch, the Lost Patrol, the Mad Trapper) are about northern adventures. They are as identifiably Canadian as John Bull is British or IKEA is Swedish.

canada-calls-you-rcmp

Canada is the only country in the world that has transformed its national police force into a tourist attraction. Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, standing guard in their gaudy scarlet outside public buildings, are photographed at least as often as Niagara Falls or the Bluenose II. The Mountie is a ubiquitous attendant at public events. So familiar is the image of stern-faced moral rectitude that the force was able to strike a deal with the Disney corporation in 1995 to market it. Mounties are the face of Canada for most people around the world. “How often have we… heard visitors ask ‘Where are the Mounties?’” noted a tourism promoter in 1937. They symbolize Canada, said another, “just like Un …

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Margaret MacMillan on Canadian Memoirs and Diaries

Book Cover Concubine's children

Denise Chong, The Concubine’s Children. A family history starting with Chong’s grandfather and his two wives, the official and the concubine. The first stayed in China with some of the children, the second made a life in Canada. The two families suffered very different fates. A vivid account which raises bigger issues about the immigrant experience and how there can be both losses and gains.

 

Book Cover And Now Here's Max

Max Ferguson, And Now... Here’s Max. Both very funny and interesting as you would expect from a man who in his time was a leading broadcaster and a comedian. Interesting too about the CBC sixty years ago.

 

book cover washington stories

Allan Gotlieb, The Washington Diaries. Allan Gotlieb was the senior civil servant in the Department of Foreign Affairs when Prime Minister Trudeau appointed him Canada’s ambassador to Washington. Gotlieb had a ringside seat in the Reagan ad …

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