17 Black Canadian authors to read this month and all year
Black History Month runs throughout the month of February, and it’s a time to celebrate and honour the many accomplishments of Black Canadians and their communities. Black stories matter, and this month we want to shine a light on Canadian authors and their work. We recommend reading these books not just this month, but all year.
From non-fiction to fiction, memoir to poetry, and short stories to children’s books, here are 18 books that celebrate and highlight the remarkable talent of Black Canadian authors.
The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole
Desmond Cole is an award-winning journalist, radio host, and activist in Toronto. In his debut book, a #1 national bestseller and winner of the Toronto Book Award, he chronicles the year of 2017. It was a year that saw calls for tighter borders when Black refugees braved freezing-cold temperatures to cross into Manitoba from the States, and a time when people watched as police across the country rallied around an officer accused of murder, and more.
A columnist for the Toronto Star at the time, Cole chose to sever his relationship with the publication after being told his activism violated company policy. The book paints a comprehensive picture, month-by-month, of entrenched, systemic inequality.
Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali
Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, a Somali Canadian writer, wrote his breathtaking memoir while living in a shelter for homeless men in Toronto. He tells the story of how he was taken away from his mother and kidnapped by his father on the eve of Somalia’s societal implosion. He was first taken to the Netherlands by his stepmother, and later to Canada.
Mohamed leans into his vulnerability in the book, and shares how, at the same time as he was trying to fit into the culture in the Netherlands, he was also discovering his sexuality and questioning his masculinity. When faced with the trauma of his past, Ali found comfort in pornography, drugs, and alcohol. In a 2019 interview with Quill & Quire, he stated, “It was really a way to escape myself and get out of this pressure cooker, constantly thinking about how I can escape my life.”
Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy by Rachel Ricketts
Powerhouse Rachel Ricketts was born and raised in Vancouver. She’s a queer Black woman, a spiritual activist, an attorney, and a bestselling author. Ricketts is clear in her mission statement to “advocate for intersectional racial justice in our personal, professional, and collective lives, while prioritizing healing for Black and indigenous women.”
Her book, a Globe & Mail and Toronto Star bestseller, which has received glowing praise from Mandy Moore, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Rumer Willis, is a transformative and actionable guidebook that includes soulful activities like guided meditations and breathwork. Do Better is a call to do the necessary inner work that’s often necessary for the external changes.
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi
Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer, artist, and filmmaker who was born in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, consumption, loneliness, and belonging.
Ekwuyasi’s unforgettable debut novel, Butter Honey Pig Bread, is one about food, family, and forgiveness. It’s an intergenerational saga about three Nigerian women. There’s Kehinde and Taiye, two twin sisters, and Kambirinachi, their mother. Kambirinachi feels she was born a spirit that plagues families with misfortune, and her worst fears come true when her daughter experiences devastating childhood trauma. The three women are torn apart for a while, then brought back together to face one another and address the wounds of the past. The book was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Acclaimed author Esi Edugyan was raised in Calgary and currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia. She has held a number of fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, and Germany, to name a few. Esi’s third novel, Washington Black, was the winner of the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The book is in the style of a memoir by George Washington Black, known as “Wash,” who is an eleven-year-old field slave on the Faith Plantation in Barbados. He gets a new master, Christopher Wilde, who takes him under his wing, teaching him to read, cook, and allow him to draw. The two develop an unlikely bond, and what follows is a voyage from Barbados to Nova Scotia, and from London to Morocco.
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
André Alexis was born in Trinidad, grew up in Ottawa, and now lives in Toronto. The author has received a number of awards and honours for his work, including the Windham-Campbell and Canada Reads prizes in 2017 and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2019. Alexis is well known for his second novel, Fifteen Dogs, which won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Canine lovers will adore this book, which tells the story of 15 dogs — kennelled at a veterinary clinic in Toronto — who are suddenly gifted human consciousness and language. You’ll read about Atticus, a Neapolitan Mastiff, the group’s natural leader, and Prince, a mutt who embraces his language skills to become a poet. Gorgeously written and memorable, this book will stay with you long after you’ve read the last sentence.
Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta
A Toronto-based writer, Zalika Reid-Benta is a Columbia University graduate. Her debut, Frying Plantain, is a collection of 12 interconnected, unique short stories. The book follows a young girl, Kara Davis, who is caught in the middle of her North American identity and her desire to be a “true” Jamaican. Readers will follow Kara from elementary school to high school graduation as she navigates being Black in a predominantly white society.
Benta’s must-read debut won the 23rd annual Danuta Gleed Literary Award, the 2020 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in literary fiction, was shortlisted for the 2020 Trillium Book Award, and was longlisted for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The Outer Harbour by Wayde Compton
Vancouver-based writer Wayde Compton currently teaches in the faculty of Creative Writing at Douglas College. He’s the author of two books of poetry, one work of non-fiction, one book of fiction, and one young-adult graphic novel.
The Outer Harbour, which won the City of Vancouver Book Award in 2015, is a remarkable collection of interconnected short stories that move from 2001 to 2025. The deeply moving stories, set in Vancouver, address themes of race, migration, and home.
Word Problems by Ian Williams
Acclaimed author Ian Williams was raised in Ontario and completed his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. He spent several years teaching poetry at UBC before returning to the University of Toronto as a tenured professor of English. Williams has written six award-winning books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. This year, he will be the Visiting Fellow at the American Library in Paris.
In his unique poetry collection, Williams revisits the seemingly simple questions of grade school for inspiration. Word Problems is a truly magnificent offering from one of Canada’s most talented voices.
The Gospel of Breaking by Jillian Christmas
Jillian Christmas has performed and facilitated workshops across North America. She’s a queer Afro-Caribbean writer, educator, organizer, and advocate based in Vancouver. She was also the first Canadian to perform in the final round of the Women of the World Poetry Slam.
In her debut award-winning collection of poetry, The Gospel of Breaking, she draws from family history, queer lineage, and the political landscape of a racialized life to create a rich and tender collection of poems.
Burning Sugar by Cicely Belle Blain
The founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver, Cicely Belle Blain is a Black, mixed, queer non-binary poet and activist, originally from London, now living in British Columbia. Blain has been named as one of Vancouver’s 50 most powerful people by Vancouver Magazine twice, BC Business’s 30 under 30, and one of Refinery29’s Powerhouses of 2020.
In their debut book, Burning Sugar, Cicely uses poetry to illuminate their activist work, exposing racism and anti-Blackness. The poems are a demonstration of how the world is a both beautiful and cruel place.
Young Adult & Children’s
Like Home by Louisa Onomé
The acclaimed author of two young adult novels, Nigerian Canadian Louisa Onomé holds a BA in professional writing from York University and currently lives in the Toronto area. Louisa’s debut novel, Like Home, received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.
The coming-of-age story is about a girl named Chinelo, also known as “Nelo,” her best friend Kate, and their beloved neighbourhood, Ginger East. Things start changing in town after a deadly attack at the local arcade, and then Kate begins to push Nelo away, right when Nelo needs her most. This is a beautifully written story that explores friendship, community, and change.
Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe
New York-based author and screenwriter Ben Philippe was born in Haiti and raised in Montreal. He attended Columbia University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts. Philippe has covered media and culture for publications like Vanity Fair, The Observer, The Guardian, and Playboy. He currently writes for television.
Ben’s novel, Charming as a Verb, has received glowing praise from book reviewers and readers around the world. The protagonist, a first-generation Haitian son named Henri, is an absolute charmer. There’s only one person immune to his smiles, and that’s his classmate Corinne. The two develop an unlikely bond that turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. This one is filled with humour and is, dare I say, very charming.
Hurricane Summer by Asha Bromfield
Born and raised in Toronto, Asha Bromfield is an actress, singer, and writer of Afro-Jamaican descent. Many will know Bromfield as Melody Jones, drummer of “Josie and the Pussycats” in CW’s Riverdale. Asha is also pursuing a degree in communications.
Her debut young adult novel, Hurricane Summer, centres around a main character named Tilly, who has spent her entire life trying to earn her father’s love. It’s hard when he leaves her every six months for what she believes is his true love, the island of Jamaica. Tilly ends up spending the summer there and is forced to face her father and all that comes with him, all in the midst of an impending hurricane. This is an excellent debut from a gifted writer.
I Promise by Catherine Hernandez, illustrated by Syrus Marcus Ware
Catherine Hernandez is a proud queer woman of colour and an award-winning author. She won a multitude of awards for her first novel, Scarborough, which was published in 2017, and is currently working on her third novel with HarperCollins Canada, set to hit shelves later this year.
Catherine’s second children’s book, I Promise, captures intimate moments of parenting, from dealing with children who don’t want to brush their teeth, to looking under the bed for monsters, and to cuddling after a long day. We love that Hernandez was intentional about showcasing the many shapes, sizes, and colours that families come in. The book is beautifully illustrated by award-winning visual artist Syrus Marcus Ware, a core-team member of both Black Lives Matter Toronto and Blackness Yes!/Blockorama.
The Blue Road by Wayde Compton, illustrated by April dela Noche Milne
Another by the talented Wayde Compton on our list. This one is a gorgeous children’s graphic novel that was chosen by Quill & Quire as Best Book of the Year in 2019. The Blue Road is about a girl named Lacuna who doesn’t have a family, a past, or a home. She embarks on a journey to the Northern Kingdom, overcoming many obstacles along the way, hoping to find others like her.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Filipino-Canadian April dela Noche Milne, whose work is inspired by grief and memories, everyday narratives, and issues of identity.
A Place Inside of Me by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Noa Denmon
Born and raised in Canada, Zetta Elliott is a Black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children. Elliot has written a jaw-dropping 30 books, many of which have won awards and been highlighted in literary publications.
Her children’s picture book, A Place Inside of Me, looks at the emotions of a young Black boy after a girl in his community is killed by police. It’s illustrated by American artist Noa Denmon, who won the acclaimed Caldecott Honor Award for her contribution to the book.