I have several favourite Canadian middle-grade/YA novels that have inspired my own writing—these four are superbly written novels with interesting/likeable characters and believable dialogue, and contain a common thread of humour:
Getting the Girl, by Susan Juby
Saying Goodbye to London, by Julie Burtinshaw
No one writes humour for kids/teens quite like Susan Juby and Susin Nielsen, while at the same time tackling tough topics like bullying in high school (Getting the Girl), homelessness (No Fixed Address), a parent coming out and the relatable tribulations of blended families (We Are All Made of Molecules).
Along with Juby and Nielsen, Julie Burtinshaw (Saying Goodbye to London, about teen pregnancy) seems to really understand kids and teens and what makes them tick—their humour, their thinking, and their language. I’ve learned a lot about writing for kids/teens from reading these three authors.
Other favourite Canadian novels that are keepers on my bookshelf are:
Republic of Dirt: A Return to Woefield Farm, by Susan Juby (at her hilarious best)
I love Juby’s hilarious writing, and Republic of Dirt, a sequel to The Woefield Poultry Collective, is probably my favourite. I really enjoy and appreciate the insights gained from stories written from multiple character POVs, and for an author to get the different voices right is not always an easy thing to do. Juby nails it with her motley crew of four oddball characters thrown together in unlikely circumstances: Prudence, an idealist young city woman who inherits a somewhat dilapidated farm; Earl, an old, reclusive bluegrass legend; Seth, an agoraphobic heavy metal blogger in early recovery; and 11-year-old Sara, who keeps a flock of 4H show poultry.
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald
I am a gay woman and this LGBTQ-themed novel made a big impact on me when it came out in 1996. This book is big and epic and delicious with its beautiful prose and four unforgettable sisters. It begins on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, in the early twentieth century, and then stretches through World War I and into the emerging jazz scene in New York. It explores “inescapable family bonds, terrible secrets, miracles, racial strife, attempted murder, birth and death, and forbidden love.” After all these years, these riveting characters have never quite left me.
Cereus Blooms at Night, by Shani Mootoo
This is another LGBTQ-themed book with a story and characters I fell in love with. Mootoo’s 1998 debut, multi-generational novel offers a rich and colourful tapestry of unforgettable characters in an Asian-Caribbean world where “love and treachery collide” and includes themes of gender, sexuality, abuse, madness, love and resilience.
Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King
This book was my first introduction to King’s writing and I have been a fan ever since. Shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award, this book, published in 1993, has been described as “a first-class work of art.” It’s a magical book with its beautifully written narrative and dark humour that unfolds the story of four Indigenous Elders who escape from a mental institution with their companion, the trickster Coyote, and end up in Blossom, Alberta, where they meet an array of others—“and nothing in the small town of Blossom will be the same again…”
The Cure for Death by Lightning, by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
I love books that open our eyes to some of the magic in the world around us, and Anderson-Dargatz' debut novel definitely does that. The Cure for Death by Lightning is a beautifully written coming-of-age story set in Turtle Valley, BC, “where strange things are happening.” It shines a light on the darkness within an eccentric family living there on a farm and the equally eccentric characters living at a nearby First Nations reserve.
Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson
I am a huge fan of Eden Robinson’s writing, and her debut novel Monkey Beach is one of my favourites. Set at a Haisla reservation in Kitimat, BC, the book follows Lisamarie, “a wild tomboy” searching for her brother who is presumed dead by drowning. The book is both humourous and dark and is full of ghosts and shapeshifters, premonitions, and other magical things.
Summer is only a month away, but things aren't going according to plan for fifteen-year-old Nick Bannerman. Nick dreams of making it big in music, and summer means scoring a deal for his band, mega parties, surfing in Tofino—and not much else. His best friend, Trevor, wants him to spend the summer with him in Africa building a school with a changemaker organization, but Nick isn't at all interested. Unlike Trevor, Nick has no interest in global activism, volunteering, or physical labour. So how does a teen like Nick, intent on being a famous rock star, end up in Thailand volunteering at an elephant refuge?
Meanwhile, in glimpses from Africa, Trevor learns about Kenyan culture and language from twelve-year-old local boy, Kito, and encounters child soldiers who threaten the young boy's family.
Back at the refuge, Nick meets sixteen-year-old Camila, an intimidating and self-assured local girl who wants to be a mahout, even though local tradition won't allow it. When Nick encounters an extreme animal rights activist, drugged tigers, and rampaging elephants, will he have the courage to act and care about more than just himself?
With themes of: elephants, global activism, animal rights and welfare, social activism, volunteering, feminism and female empowerment, coming of age, and the complex and controversial topic of elephant captivity, What's in It for Me? is an excellent middle-grade novel to spark classroom discussions.
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