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As we move into the second half of Black History Month in Canada and the US, we have again been struck by the lack of books currently on the market that celebrate the joy, accomplishment, and history of Black Canadians for kids. In partnership over the last month, both myself and Sueann Hall have worked to research, read, and assess as many books currently in print or available from our library systems as possible that specifically centre Black Canadians.
What we have found is there are only a couple dozen books that even touch upon the history of Black Canadians and of those, we chose our favourites that centred narratives that are as real, truthful, and we hope – highlight not only resilience but also Black Excellence. There is a lot of trauma that we cannot avoid in sharing the Black experience in Canada through these books, and we cannot turn away from the history of enslavement, segregation, and racism that are the unfortunate and unacceptable foundation of this country and its continuing systems.
We want to be clear that the history of colonization, enslavement, and oppression is NOT Black history, but within that history, there are important stories of community, resilience, and self-determination that we must celebrate. We need to work to teach this important history year-round, as our education systems have grossly failed to do in Canada for far too long.
We have divided this list into two, beginning with more traditional picture books, and moving into Anthologies and Middle-Grade books. Books that serve as Anthologies and include many short biographical profiles may still be absolutely appropriate for younger readers when used in bite-size parts.
We also want to encourage you to seek out additional resources, and use these books as a jumping-off point into learning about the rich cultures, histories, and accomplishments of Black Canadians and centre their voices.
To download a free PDF companion of this resource please click here
Please see our full Instagram post for more context and suggestions to complement this resource.
Note: We want to acknowledge that the language in a few of these books may now appear dated as we have culturally shifted to language that centres humanity, so wherever possible you should be correcting texts to say “enslaved persons” rather than “slave”, “Black vs “black”, etc. We have made the conscious choice to include these texts for now because we cannot throw out good history books with accurate, own voice information when there are so few to choose from at this time. Our hope is that with demand they can be updated for future printings.
Click here for Bookshop.org book list! Please note that not every title is available in the US at this time.
Oscar Lives Next Door
A fictional story set around real-life legendary jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson. Told with rhythm and style, we follow along with what it could have been like to live next door to Oscar’s family in 1930’s Montreal. The author connects her own experience growing up in the neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal after moving from Nova Scotia. The book details what his life may have been like as well as Oscar’s musical family, his battle with tuberculosis that ended his ability to play trumpet, and his perfect pitch. The back matter extends to more of his life including his remarkable career, receiving the Order of Canada, and his incredible contribution to Jazz.
All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine
Changing train travel for decades to come, this book follows the life of the inventor Elijah McCoy. Born in Colchester, Ontario in 1844, McCoy loved fixing things and wanted to become a mechanical engineer. As people would not employ him as an engineer after his studies, he worked as an ashcat to make some money; however, he still designed different things in his limited spare time. This Black Canadian invented the oil cup, which was crucial to faster and safer train travel. Although patented, several knockoffs were created, hence where we get today’s expression “The Real McCoy”. In his life, he filed 57 patents, more than any other Black inventor.
When I Get Older
Filled with bright and colourful images, this book follows the story of Juno award-winning artist, K’Naan and the circumstances that led to his well-known song “Waving Flag”. More importantly, the story unveils some of the complexities of being a refugee and displays parts of the modern immigrant experience in Canada. To round off the book you will find the lyrics and the music to the popular Coca-Cola’s FIFA World Cup 2010 anthem as well as further information of his country of birth, Somalia.
Highlighting an early period of Louise Bennett Coverley’s life, this book takes us to her homeland of Jamaica. While the story, written by Canadian author Nadia L. Hohn, follows how she gained confidence in sharing her words with her classmates (and eventually the world), the back matter includes more information about her life and her accomplishments. Miss Lou lived in Canada for 20 years before her death in 2006, but impacted people all over the world with her words and songs.
Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged
This book is a snapshot of the story of Viola Desmond’s act of bravery in the face of racist segregation practices at a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946. Almost a decade before Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of the bus – Viola Desmond bought a ticket to see a movie while waiting for her car to be repaired and suddenly became the target of racist policies insisting that she must sit on the balcony rather than the floor of the theatre – she refused to budge – and was eventually arrested. It inspired a movement against segregation in Nova Scotia and eventually all of Canada. This story does not expand into the full life and work of Viola Desmond or her sister Wanda Robson – who eventually was able to have her sister posthumously pardoned in 2010, 45 years after her death.
Meet Willie O’Ree
As the first Black NHL player, Willie O’Ree honed his skills on his family’s backyard ice rink, in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The youngest of 13 children, and the grandson of formerly enslaved people who escaped via the Underground Railroad – he grew up in an exceedingly white town. He first challenged racial segregation as a boy by finally working up the courage to sit down inside the barbershop for his haircut rather than outside. He was a talented athlete in many sports, including baseball, but his heart wasn’t in it the same way it was with hockey. After being drafted to the Boston Bruins, he still faced racism from the other players and was unfairly targeted on the ice. Willie still works with kids to this day to encourage access and diversity in hockey. 2018 O’Ree was finally inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. This is a very thorough book with a detailed timeline in the back matter for this living legend.
The Stone Thrower
As told by his daughter, The Stone Thrower is the story of how a young Chuck Ealey discovered and honed his talent in football by first throwing stones at the passing trains in his neighbourhood in the North End of Portsmouth, Ohio. His rise to fame and pure talent is unmistakable and earns him a scholarship to Notre Dame, which is where this book concludes. In the brief back matter, it continues to say that he was still barred from playing in the NFL because he is Black, but Ealey ends up moving to Canada to play for the CFL. He ends up leading the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the Grey Cup Championship in his very first season, and is named MVP and the CFL’s Rookie of the Year.
Race With Me
With a mix of real-life photos and graphic illustrations, this autobiographical book tells the story of Andre De Grasse’s gold medal-winning Olympic sprint and relates it back to himself as a child. It is an inspiring and encouraging story in an engaging format to connect with young aspiring athletes.
An imaginative story of a young girl returning to the site where her ancestors once lived and imagining what life would have been like living in this once vibrant and close-knit community on the shores of the Bedford Basin in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is a gorgeous book that is perfectly geared to younger readers and provides a window or mirror into a community as it was, and how its ancestors come together still to this day.
Set in North Preston, Nova Scotia, this fictional story brings some of the beautiful real-life experiences of its residents and those who have roots in the region, to life. Highlighted are the picking of fresh berries, and the interconnectedness of the community through food, fun, storytelling, church, and love. Preston was one of the largest Black settlements in Canada at one time, and the presence of Black people in the area dates back to the 1780s. Though the people of Preston have faced many challenges and marginalization, their sense of community has continually helped to carry them through.
Mayann’s Train Ride
This book retells a childhood visit of Mayann Francis from her neighbourhood of Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to New York City via train. This is a story of discovery, family, and the importance of community. Throughout her life, the Honourable Mayann Francis has broken down many barriers and was thus the “first” in many positions that she held. She became Nova Scotia’s 31st lieutenant-governor in 2006 and held that position until 2012. She was the first Afro Nova Scotian to hold that position. Her work has marked various higher education and political spheres as well as Canadian society at large.
Meet Mary Ann Shadd
Mary Ann Shadd is best known as the first Black female newspaper publisher in Canada, but she was also an activist, journalist, teacher, and lawyer. This book covers various highlights in her life starting with her birth to freed-Black American parents, in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1823, who were part of the Underground Railroad. Later, she moved to what is now Windsor, Ontario, where she opened an integrated school and later began to publish the “Provincial Freeman”. Consistently throughout this book, we see Shadd’s determination to act on things that she believes are right, to challenge the status quo (through words and deeds), and to see obstacles as opportunities. The back matter includes a timeline of her life which includes many of her accomplishments.
Middle Grade and Older Readers:
The Kids Book of Canadian Black History
A comprehensive overview of over 400 years of Black history in what is now called Canada, written by Rosemary Sadlier, former president of the Ontario Black History Society and instrumental in the official proclamation of Black History Month in Ontario (and later all of Canada), and the official recognition of Emancipation Day in Ontario. This is an accessible resource for kids that was written by a present-day champion of Black History.
Amazing Black Atlantic Canadians
Divided into 6 parts, this book tells the story of Black Canadians in the Atlantic provinces. Beginning with the Black Loyalists the first part tells a history of Black People In Atlantic Canada, followed by profiles of Athletes, Artists, Movers and Shakers, Military Heroes, and a Few Firsts, for the five remaining parts. Between the profiles of so many incredible people, we get slices of history that have shaped the Black experience on the east coast of Canada since the 1600s.
Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada
Beginning with a definition of what a trailblazer is, and moving into a visual timeline of the roots of Black Canadians, from 204 years of enslavement to 149 years of racial segregation, and onto present day in a society of racial inequality. This book then highlights 40 individuals by creating poetic profiles of amazing Trailblazers through history and all the way to the present day.
Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book
These books provide an interactive approach to learning about Black Canadian History. Volume 1 shares 26 “Big Dreamers” – one for each letter of the alphabet, and shares details about Black people and their history in each province and territory. Volume 2 takes a different approach, highlighting 50 “Big Dreamers” grouped by their province or territory. In addition to this, there are pages dedicated to Historic Black Communities all across Canada. Both books have several pages of activities to engage in the content learned and to encourage further learning.
Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Africville
In this book, you will find a comprehensive history of one of the most famous Black communities in Canada, Africville – located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Once a thriving and close-knit settlement, the community was subjected to environmental racism, and eventually forcibly removed from their home of over 120 years, which was then demolished. This is an in-depth history in words, pictures, and first-hand accounts of this once thriving community that flourished despite lack of access to any city services. The book brings context to the present-day struggles of the descendants of Africville residents and the ongoing history and use of the site by the community on the southern shore of the Bedford Basin.
SUGGESTED PAIRING FOR Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Africville: Africville By Shauntay Grant
Black Women Who Dared
Outlining biographies of 10 different Black women and community groups – this is a brief but remarkable collection of stories of radical Black feminist leaders. Notably, this is a book that makes beautiful and intentional inclusions of LGBTIA2S+ Black women in history like Transgender musician Jackie Shane, and Blockorama, which is a celebration of Black LGBTIA2S+ love of all genders and sexualities within Toronto’s pride celebrations. It also includes trailblazing women who improved their lives and the lives of generations after them with their achievements, such as Rosa Pryor, The Hour A Day Study Club, and the Black Cross Nurses among others. Written and gorgeously illustrated by Naomi M. Moyer, a Black interdisciplinary artist based in Toronto.
Amazing Hockey Stories: P.K. Subban
For hockey fans, this middle-grade book is about Toronto-born hockey star P.K. Subban. This book has a unique format that breaks in and out of graphic-novel style storytelling and more traditional chapter formats. Written especially for sports fans, this is a very engaging book to tell the story of an extremely talented athlete who at one time was the highest-paid defenseman and 3rd highest-paid player overall in the NHL. The book details his sports successes as well as personal and charitable achievements.
Birchtown and The Black Loyalists
This book is filled with historical information about the “Black Loyalists” and their journey to Birchtown, Nova Scotia and beyond. Beginning with the Middle Passage and the Enslavement of Black Africans on US soil, this text explains both the cruelty inflicted while also showing the resilience of Black people. There are sections on the American Revolutionary War, the harsh realities of life in Birchtown upon arrival and in the years that followed, the journey to Freetown, Sierra Leone, as well as the work being done in current day to commemorate and keep the history of the region and its people. There are many references in the backmatter that allow for further explanation and research.
SUGGESTED PAIRING Birchtown and The Black Loyalists: Abagail’s Wish
This book is a fictional tale that weaves in the historical settings and conditions of Black people living in Birchtown in the late 1700s. While this book does depict some of the poverty of many Black people living in the area at the time, it does more to show the significance and the strength of community for things as big as the birth of a new baby or the wish of a new dress. It shows how much the people cared for and relied upon each other for survival and care. This book can be used as an introduction to the history of Birchtown and the past and present issues that they and their descendants have experienced. We do believe that this book requires context and nuance and is not necessarily designed for younger readers which is why we have consciously put it into the middle-grade and older readers category.
In closing, we want to reiterate that we are working with a limited number of books in creating this resource – and from that, working with what is currently available in print. We reached out to nearly every publisher in Canada while curating this list, on top of combing retailer offerings and library catalogues. Black history is something that should be celebrated all year long, and we should be filling our shelves with fiction from Black Canadians like “Music From The Sky” by Denise Gillard, “Malaika’s Winter Carnival” by Nadia L. Hohn, “My Fade Is Fresh” by Shauntay Grant, or “Lasso The Wind” by George Elliot Clarke – and SO many more.