by Meaghan Thurston
We’ve been treated to a wonderful array of books for young readers this year. Here’s my hand-picked selection of ten 2023 favourites published in Canada.
Garden of Lost Socks by Esi Edugyan
Illustrated by Amelie Dubois
Over eight sleepless years of being a parent, I have amassed the most stupefyingly large collection of unmatched socks. Once in a while, I will spread the lonely hundreds across my living room floor in hopes of finding their mate. But it’s a hopeless endeavour. After an hour or so, I’ll walk away dejected, uttering the existential question, “Where do all the socks go!?” This is the question that drives Akosua, the self-proclaimed “Exquirologist” (finder of lost things), and Max, a budding neighbourhood journalist, in two-time Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan’s debut picture book, Garden of Lost Socks. They band together in search of the missing match to Max’s special pair gifted to him by his nana. This is a smart yet understated book that celebrates curiosity, community, and the simple joy of noticing. It’s easy to fall in love with Amelie Dubois’ wide-eyed characters. And when Max’s sock is found, we (finally!) learn the true purpose of a lost sock: to make the world a little warmer.
Like a Hurricane by Jonathan Bécotte
Translated by Jonathan Kaplansky
Orca Book Publishers
Like a Hurricane by Jonathan Bécotte uses concrete-poetry-like typographical effects to tell a first-person tale of coming out. This is a book about young love and lust, broken hearts and best friends, the oppressiveness of gender norms and the weight of keeping secrets. As the narrator conjures the courage to tell his parents he’s gay, he feels like a hurricane, building in strength: “I’m a rain shower. I drench my pillow with the emotions that I hold back all day. The ones I hide in the gym, in the too long corridors, in the classrooms where we’re placed in alphabetical order.” In the original French, Comme une Ouragon was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Literature in 2021. The English translation by Jonathan Kaplansky makes an important book accessible to a new young adult audience, using its experimental form and courageous message to inspire self-love and acceptance.
Mr. S: A First Day of School Book by Monica Arnaldo
In Mr. S: A First Day of School Book, written and illustrated by Monica Arnaldo, a group of kindergarteners find themselves alone in their classroom on their first day of school. They soon come to suspect that their teacher may in fact be the ham sandwich on the desk at the front of the room. Curious but unperturbed, these resourceful youngsters don’t waste any of their day in idleness and move swiftly through their lessons by reciting the alphabet (“C is for club sandwich”) and performing a rousing rendition of “Mary Had a Little
LambHam.” While the kids care for themselves under the watchful eye of the sandwich, something strange is happening outside the classroom window. What may or may not be their real teacher is having some car trouble, and neither the pizza delivery person, nor a brigade of firefighters and some stray racoons can make it better. Mr. S earned its spot on my list for its many merits – and to thank the teachers in Quebec’s public school system for their work and dedication. They deserve the chuckle this book delivers, and so much more. Though published in 2022, I also recommend Arnaldo’s Are You a Cheeseburger? It remains a favourite of the young readers in my home.
The Magic Cap by Mireille Messier
Illustrated by Charlotte Parent
Milky Way Picture Books
The Magic Cap by Mireille Messier (also published in French as Le Bonnet Magique) is a story rooted in the rich traditions of folklore and fairy tales. In this world, two children – Isaura and Arlo – live alone in the woods with their pet hedgehog, Crispin. When Crispin falls ill, the children devise a plan to lure a gnome to heal him, using their meagre rations as bait. As charming as the gnomes are sly, this story articulates the sadness and worry we feel when a loved one is sick and explores the hope and camaraderie of caring. Illustrator Charlotte Parent casts this innocent fantasy world in a gentle palette. For those who still truly believe in magic, this book will make a great gift.
Grand Chief Salamoo Cook is Coming to Town! by Tomson Highway
Illustrated by Delphine Renon
The Secret Mountain
Montreal-based publishing house The Secret Mountain has cornered the musical storybook market. Grand Chief Salamoo Cook is Coming to Town! is composed of a story and songs by renowned Canadian multidisciplinary artist Tomson Highway and illustrated energetically by Delphine Renon. In broad strokes, this is a book about crowd psychology. When Weeskits Jackson, the smallest rabbit among thousands, learns that the Grand Chief of all rabbits is coming to town to host a contest, he can’t wait to tell everyone about it. The prize is Waaskee-choose juice, known for its healing qualities. As Weeskits’ sister-in-law is unwell, he’s determined to win the juice and cure her. He throws himself into the game – which is quite literally a rabbit throwing contest – and things only get wackier from there. I recommend this book because I’ve not read anything like it before. As a non-Cree speaker, I gained some Woods Cree vocabulary through the text, with the audio version performed in Cree by Angel Baribeau, Moe Clark, Alexandre Désilets, and Coral Egan, and by Plains Cree actor Jimmy Blais serving as bonus fun.
Skating Wild on an Inland Sea by Jean E. Pendziwol
Illustrated by Todd Stewart
House of Anansi Press
My pick for the standout children’s book of the year is Skating Wild on an Inland Sea, a quiet tale about two children who venture out bravely alone for an open-air skate on the majestic Lake Superior – also called by its Ojibwe name, Gichigami. It’s rare to find a children’s book in verse as captivating as this. Author Jean E. Pendziwol weaves the scenes with a poet’s loom: “A pair of ravens croak at the / top of a pine, / and chick-a-dee-dee-dees / greet us from the branches of birch and alder. / A blue jay scolds— / thief thief thief! / We laugh and tell him / we’ve only come to steal / this moment— / turquoise ice, / the wind, / a memory.” The illustrations are as attractive as the writing style. Todd Stewart’s hand captures the stark beauty of a winter’s morning and the hushed majesty of rising light. To look at this book is to feel the sting of winter in your lungs and the wet kiss of condensation collecting in a scarf. Skating Wild on an Inland Sea is a perfect book for the season, as readers young and old settle into the quiet mood of winter and enjoy the thrill of skating.
Alone: The Journeys of Three Young Refugees by Paul Tom
Translated by Arielle Aaronson
Illustrated by Mélanie Baillairgé
House of Anansi Press
Alone: The Journeys of Three Young Refugees is the illustrated adaptation-in-prose of the Gémeaux Award-winning documentary film, Seuls, by director Paul Tom. In these pages we meet Alain, Patricia, and Afshin – three of the many hundreds of child refugees who arrive in Canada every year alone without their families. Blunt, heartbreaking, and hopeful, Tom’s text, translated by Arielle Aaronson, gives voice to young refugees like fifteen-year-old Alain, stranded in Nairobi with his brothers while waiting for a call from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after their mother’s death: “We don’t know when our suffering will end and the happy days will begin.” On a muted canvas peppered with stark reds and greens, illustrator Mélanie Baillairgé storyboards the bitterness of separation and the bittersweet relief of arrivals. In Alone, tender and real stories find shelter.
Who Owns the Clouds? by Mario Brassard
Translated by Yvette Ghione
Illustrated by Gérard DuBois
It is natural to want to shield young people from the horrors of war, but when they are directly or indirectly exposed to the conflicts in our world, they need tools such as books to understand and process what they have witnessed. For kids twelve years and older, I recommend Mario Brassard’s multi-award-winning graphic novel, Who Owns the Clouds? Memories of protagonist Mila’s childhood spent in a war zone appear through low-lying fog. She recalls that as her family prepared to flee the bombing around them, she was overcome by fatigue. In portending dreams, she walks in an endless line of refugees. When awake, she fears that life as she knows it will all but disappear. Who Owns the Clouds? is a trauma narrative and a complex coming-of-age story that bears witness to the lasting human cost of armed conflict and forced displacement. Brassard’s spare and unflinching prose is smartly translated by Yvette Ghione, and Gerard Dubois’ haunting illustrations in sepia tones carry this work to great heights. Who Owns the Clouds? gives voice to the unspeakable and, when the clouds part, a view to hope.
Nutshimit: In the Woods by Melissa Mollen Dupuis
Illustrated by Elise Gravel
When two inspiring creators come together and make something special, I put it on the best-of-the-year booklist. Nutshimit: In the Woods, by Innu author Melissa Mollen Dupuis and author-illustrator Elise Gravel, is a celebration of the Innu language, creation stories, and culture, and of the trees and animals on Turtle Island. An educational book infused with Gravel’s ripe sense of humour, kids will laugh while they learn about foraging and the many uses of cedar and birch bark. They will be introduced to the concept of conservation work and intrigued by Dupuis’ descriptions of the personalities of animals real and imagined. For example, the wolverine, also known as the great trickster, is famous for his sharp claws and bad temper: “For real, don’t go near one, it’s fierce. We respect its bubble.” If the word bubble sends a pandemic-flavoured chill down your spine, you’ll find solace in the Innu word, nutshimit, which means the sacred social and physical space where one can practice traditional activities and language. This book is a great opening for such explorations.
Where Did Momo’s Hair Go? by Stéphanie Boyer
Translated by Carine Laforest
Illustrated by Caroline Hamel
In Where Did Momo’s Hair Go? by Stéphanie Boyer, Momo the clown’s hair is playing a game of intermediate Peekaboo with a cast of canines, to the great amusement of the toddler crowd. In the few pages he appears, Momo gives off working-class-clown vibes. This guy is in a hurry to get to his next gig, and he’s late for the bus too. He’s hustling so fast that his hair takes a leap onto Ms. Strudel’s Poodle and then onto Mr. Bastien’s Dalmatian. In this busy world, it’s not enough to vaguely resemble your dog, your name better rhyme with it too. The jaunty illustrations by Caroline Hamel convey the happy chaos that reigns in Momo’s portside town. This book is just pure fun. There are no great plot twists, but one can be rest assured of a happy outcome for poor Momo – just as in the game of Peekaboo.
Meaghan Thurston is a Montreal-based arts and science writer, co-editor of the anthology With the World to Choose From: Seven Decades of the Beatty Lecture at McGill University, and mother to two budding readers.
Illustration by Alexandra Sweny.