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Inclusive Learning, Diverse Books: Introducing Top Grade 2021

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Welcome to the Association for Canadian Publishers’ Top Grade: CanLit for the Classroom, a blog and preview video series that features new releases from Canadian book publishers ideal for use in K-12 classrooms and school library collections. Throughout the year, we will dive into new titles, highlighting relevant curriculum links and themes.

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Written by secondary school teacher Spencer Miller

I never grew out of the books I read as a child, spending my time at university reading, researching and writing about all the books I loved growing up. During my studies of Children’s and Young Adult literature, I had the chance to learn from experts, educators, authors, and young readers across the country about what makes books for kids so special. After graduating last spring, I moved to Montréal to complete my first full year as a secondary teacher. Through all the ups and downs of Covid, one thing remained constant for me and my students: our love of stories. Stories carried us through this difficult year and on to meaningful learning.

I am always reading with my students in mind. Each time I open a new book, I consider how the story could be potentially life changing for a young person. Throughout this year, I will be sharing new titles from Canadian writers that I think will impact young readers in any classroom. I wanted to kick things off by asking: Why is it so important that we read Canadian literature with students of all ages?

I love watching my students get excited about a new book. We know that students are most engaged in reading and discussing literature when the books they read are relevant to them. They take natural interest in books set in places they recognize, with characters that look like them and that explore issues they already have questions about. Teaching Canadian stories engages students in the conversations that matter most to them.

One of the absolute best feelings I have as a teacher is when my students feel seen in the literature we study. Seeing your identity reflected in a book is a powerful and validating moment for young readers. While reading Pemmican Wars, my students loved searching through the art for little details. They noticed the music on Echo’s iPod, the books she borrowed from the library, and the logos on her T-shirts. When one of my students pointed out a rainbow Pride flag hanging in Echo’s bedroom, a few classmates began cheering. After class, this group of students rushed over in excitement to share how much they loved Echo; it was their first time studying a book with LGBTQ+ representation.

Growing up in Canada is a distinctive experience. Our Canadian and Indigenous students deserve to see their own unique identities reflected in the curriculum. As rewarding as it can be to hear a student comment “I’ve never seen a character like me before!” it also reminds me there is more work to be done.
Consider that many of the books that have been taught in Canadian classrooms do not give accurate representation to Black, Indigenous, and other historically underrepresented groups. Incorporating a rich variety of texts from diverse authors is a key component in decolonizing our classrooms and striving for inclusive learning environments.

Books like Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story by David Alexander Robertson and Treaty Words: For As Long As the Rivers Flow by Aimée Craft help initiate important conversations relevant to our current Canadian context. During these conversations, students easily make connections to content from their other courses and current events. These discussions help students develop a more accurate understanding of Canada’s past and present, a necessary step towards healing and reconciliation

Indigenous Peoples, settlers, immigrants, everyone who lives across the territory currently known as Canada has a story to tell. Canadian literature has its own identity. It has its own history, themes, and patterns. The stories are inspired by the land they are told on and reflect the diversity of all the people who call this place home. One of the best reasons to be reading Canadian literature with students is that it is great literature!

This year, Canadian and Indigenous authors have continued innovating and imagining new possibilities for the way we tell stories in books for readers of all ages. In picture books, Nicola I. Campbell teaches us what it means to Stand Like A Cedar, reminding readers that past and present are connected in the environment and our families. Writing a love letter to her new baby, Tasha Spillett-Sumner draws from Indigenous creation stories and traditional teachings in I Sang You Down from the Stars. In her debut book, 48 Grasshopper Estates, Sara de Waal explores the materiality of community and relationships when a little girl who can “make almost anything” out of the materials around her apartment complex is challenged to make friends with her neighbours.

For middle-grade readers, Michael Hutchinson tells a classic amateur sleuth story while weaving important context about the impacts of colonialism in The Case of the Burgled Bundle, another Mighty Muskrats Mystery. Against the backdrop of Camp Shalom, a Jewish sleep-away camp, Joanne Levy paints a portrait of adolescence that embraces difference in The Sun Will Come Out.

Canadian young adult authors have been expanding the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy for teen readers. Adan-Jerreat Poole continues twisting a queer-inclusive fantasy tale in The Boi of Feather and Steel, the second book in the Metamorphosis series. In Road Allowance Era, Katherena Vermette concludes her graphic novels series about Echo, a young girl in the foster care system who reconnects with her Métis heritage while slipping back and forth through time.

We are lucky to have such incredibly talented writers and illustrators telling stories for young people. These authors are aware of the issues students are facing and have dedicated themselves to telling stories that reflect young readers’ identities and guiding them through the challenges of growing up today. We need to make space for these voices in our classrooms. A powerful side effect to introducing your students to awesome Canadian authors is that they will be inspired and find the confidence that they can be writers too.

There are more high-quality Canadian books for kids being published than ever before. I invite you to follow along with this series as I share all the details about upcoming Canadian titles. Check back for a new post each month along with three releases of preview videos throughout the year. My aim is to make it easy for you to find the next great book for your classroom or library collection!

We would like to thank our partner 49th Teachers and our funder Ontario Creates for their support of the Top Grade project.

Spencer

Spencer Miller graduated from the University of Calgary with degrees in English and Education. He participated in various projects examining the potential of children’s literature in the classroom as an undergraduate researcher. He is currently a secondary school teacher in Montréal/Tiohtià:ke. You can follow more of Spencer’s passion for books on Instagram @YACanadaBooks.

July 28, 2021
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