Kids, culture vultures, historical fiction buffs and kids. In the second of our two-part Books Gift Guide, we’ve asked some of our regular Star books section writers for their choices to make your gift giving easy, and I’ve added a few more of my own. Happy holidays.
Culture Vultures: For those who want art attacks
1000 Years of Joy and Sorrows: A Memoir, Ai Weiwei (Doubleday Canada) A favourite of Canadian art lovers when he’s shown in public spaces and in museums and galleries, read about his life and artistic practice, and how he refused to be silenced under a totalitarian regime.
Renegades: Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama (Crown) America has been mythologized in its popular culture, so it seems a natural to marry the views and thoughts of one of its most popular artists with its first Black president. A unique look, with plenty of pictures, at America today. And don’t forget the music.
A Like Vision, Ian A.C. Dejardin and Sarah Milroy (McMichael Canadian Collection/Goose Lane) A gorgeous book featuring the art of the Group of Seven, yes, but also an examination of how their painting fits into a longer history of this land that includes — and excludes — Indigenous peoples. Beautiful and thought-provoking.
Prize Winners: For those who like a jury’s stamp of approval
Tainna: The Unseen Ones, Norma Dunning (Douglas & McIntyre) Dunning won the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction for this slim volume, a collection of short stories centring Inuk characters facing prejudice and hostility, but experiencing also reconnection and community.
The Promise, Damon Galgut (Europa Editions) This year’s Booker Prize winner is Galgut’s moving family saga set in South Africa and spanning three decades. Prize judge Chigozie Obioma said of it: “The novel can best be summed up in the question: Does true justice exist in the world — and if so, what might that look like?”
The Finder, Will Ferguson (Simon & Schuster) Winning the Crime Writers of Canada Award for best novel, Ferguson takes us around the world on a search for lost objects that include the Romanovs’ Faberge eggs and Buddy Holly’s glasses, wrapped in a story in which an Interpol agent chases a shady figure called the Finder.
Permanent Astonishment, Tomson Highway (Doubleday Canada) Highway’s memoir, which won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, is about his experience as a Cree child, growing up in the sub-Arctic, going to residential school. He takes as his touchstone his brother’s final words: “Don’t mourn me, be joyful.”
Blasts from the past: For those who like their history well-written
Letters Across the Sea, Genevieve Graham (Simon & Schuster Canada)
Breathing life into little-known aspects of Canadian history, Graham writes with aplomb about aspiring journalist Molly Ryan and her forbidden first love, Max Dreyfus, during the struggles of post-Depression and Second World War Toronto when lifelong neighbours are pitted against each other as hate engulfs the world. Out of dark times emerge moments of grace.
The Hollywood Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal (Bantam)
Intrepid Special Operations Executive operative Maggie Hope reunites with her former flame, Royal Air Force pilot John Sterling, in 1943 L.A., where she uncovers a fascist cell of “homegrown American Nazis” and a brave group of resistance fighters. A page-turner with cameos from George Balanchine and Dorothy Parker.
Tuscan Daughter, Lisa Rochon (Harper Avenue)
Readers on your list will want to immerse themselves in early 16th-century Tuscany, the halcyon years in which Michelangelo is carving “David” out of a prized block of Carrara marble and da Vinci is painting his enigmatic “Mona Lisa.” A gorgeous, transporting debut rife with lush detail and life’s wisdom.
The Perfume Thief, Timothy Schaffert (Doubleday)
The protagonist, queer-identifying 72-year-old Clementine, an admitted con artist, provides solace through her scents to 1941 Paris. Her bespoke business relies on chemistry and psychology: clients must believe what she tells them. Vividly imagined, this celebration of love and life enthralls on every page.
The Magician, Colm Tóibín (McClelland & Stewart)
A sweeping biographical portrait of Nobel-winning German novelist Thomas Mann, nicknamed the Magician by his fascinating children. Tóibín masterfully explores the tension between the admired public figure and his timorous private self thanks to the now known contents of his diaries. Wholly immersive.
Middle Grade and Young Adults
Across the Rainbow Bridge, Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Jeffrey Alan Love (Candlewick Studio)
This luscious, dramatic collection of five Norse tales of trickery, riddles, bounty and the glory of the natural world makes for superb reading aloud or alone. Crossley-Holland’s poetic language highlights courage, wit and mystery; Love’s art introduces kids to a strange, mesmerizing world.
A Boy is Not a Ghost, Edeet Ravel (Groundwood)
Sequel to the award-winning “A Boy is Not a Bird,” this captivating biography continues the difficult adventures of Natt and his mother, sentenced to Siberia under Stalin’s regime. The two books make a suspenseful, heartwarming read as Natt, doggedly brave despite his fear, relies on the uncertain kindness of strangers, and endures everything from bedbugs and lice to Soviet secret police.
The Genius Under the Table, Eugene Yelchin (Candlewick)
Yelchin’s mordant humour and sense of the ridiculous suffuse this snappy funny/serious childhood memoir of growing up in Cold War Russia. A mixture of comic family drama, poignancy and the high stakes in Communist Russia makes it both entertaining and enlightening, and an inspiration for budding artists.
The Case of the Burgled Bundle, Michael Hutchinson (Second Story)
The four crime-solving friends of fictional Windy Lake First Nation go into action when the treaty bundle goes missing during the National Assembly of Cree Peoples. An engaging, quickly paced mystery, exceptional in its portrayal of the kids’ rez humour, community relationships and traditions of teaching and learning. Bundle up all three “Mighty Muskrats Mysteries” for a perfect gift for young mystery fans.
The Robber Girl, Franny Billingsley (Candlewick)
A dagger-bearing, britches-wearing wild girl, Robber Girl’s life with outlaw Gentleman Jack is turned upside down when she’s adopted by the very judge who apprehends her hero. This magical wild west fantasy fairly glitters with the intelligent intricacy of its plot, language and themes. An irresistible lose-yourself-in-it read.
The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne, Jonathan Stroud (Knopf)
In dystopic, climate-scarred Britain, Scarlett has survived thanks to her wits, agility and talents as a bank robber, but when she rescues hapless, naive Albert Browne from a strange bus accident, even she is amazed by the pursuit that ensues. Incisive, elegant action scenes stuffed with daredevil escapes and shoot-’em-up confrontations keep this well written fantasy racing.
The Words in My Hands, Asphyxia (Annick)
Growing up deaf, Piper’s had to adapt to the hearing world by speaking and lip-reading. Then she encounters Australian Sign Language and communication breaks open for her. In a time of food scarcity and environmental collapse, her new-found passions for deaf culture and sustainable living converge in vital activism against a dystopic future. Vibrant illustration and welcome engagement with deaf culture and language make this stand out.
The Last Cuentista, Donna Barba Higuera (Levine Querido)
Awaking from an induced sleep of 380 years, Petra finds that except for herself, passengers sent to colonize a new planet have had their memories of Earth erased by an authoritarian collective. In the tradition of her story-telling abuelita, Petra musters her memory of Mexican folklore and how to weave stories to reach through the brainwashing and fear brought on by the Collective.
Aquí era el paraíso/Here Was Paradise, Humberto Ak’abal (Groundwood)
Amid all the tales of dystopias, refugees of totalitarian regimes and environmental collapse, this Mayan poet’s words are vital and refreshing. Reading them allows us, young and old, to take a moment to look and feel our world as it is now, to observe the moon in a puddle, see the air as “a great bird” and “feel the puff of its wings,” notice bees’ little “shoes of pollen” and inhale that moment in spring when “the earth already smells of mother.” Highly recommended.
Kids’ books to picture books
Santa in the City, Tiffany D. Jackson, illustrated by Reggie Brown (Dial Books)
Deja loves Christmastime but is worried Santa won’t be able to reach her in her apartment building.Her mother comforts her and reminds her that all is possible.
Something Good, Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken (Little, Brown)
This book models how a community comes together to tackle an incident of hate speech using art as a form of healing.
Our Table, Peter H. Reynolds (Scholastic Canada)
This book explores how a little girl uses the “dinner table” to reunite her family during these busy and difficult times.
A Sky-Blue Bench, Bahram Rahman, illustrated by Peggy Collins (Pajama Press)
Aria is excited to start school again and, through her own knowledge, abilities and support from her local community, builds a bench. This bench will help her learn in comfort and support her new prosthetic helper-leg.
We’ll be Together Again, Lucy Menzies, illustrated by Maddy Vian (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books)
Belle and her Grandpa Jack share their own perspectives in this uniquely designed book. They remember all of the fun activities they did together and share their hope for when they will be together again.
Sushi and Samosas: A Trip of Tasty Transformations, Rishma Govani (Tellwell)
Through trying new foods from different communities and cultures, Raine and Asha learn that we are all similar and different. These elements make our communities amazing places.