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The Old Woman, Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Nahid Kazemi (Groundwood Books, 4-9) Readers follow an old woman and her scruffy dog out into the woods on a chilly fall day. Small things resonate deeply as the old woman wonders what it would be like to have a crow’s-eye view of the world, listens to the satisfying crunch of leaves, watches the harvest moon rise in all its magnificence while her scruffy dog chases sticks. The quiet and poetic text is beautifully matched by the chalk pastel and pencil illustrations that Kazemi uses to bring this world to life.

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The Paper Boat, Thao Lam (OwlKids, 6-9) Lam tells her family story, about fleeing Vietnam in 1980 in the chaos following the end of the Vietnam War, entirely through pictures. She carefully guides her readers through the emotional trauma of that historical moment from the perspective of a child whose world is being torn apart. But there’s another story too. Lam’s fascinated by the ants who invade her home, threatening the family’s dinner table, and readers watch as she rescues them from drowning in the sugar water her mother uses to get rid of them. Lam shares her story in an equally moving afterward but it’s the wordless story that will resonate with readers.

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I Talk Like a River, Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith (Heritage House, 4-9) One of the most powerful books that I’ve read in 2020. Scott takes us into the world of a boy whose stuttering is devastating to him. But on a “bad speech day,” his father takes him to the river where he discovers that the river mirrors how he talks – bubbling, churning, crashing and whirling – and that gives him something to hold on to and use as a lifeline. Scott’s loving and lyrical text is made real through Smith’s illustrations, which shimmer with emotion and make readers feel that they’re truly seeing the world that Scott describes.

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111 Trees, Rina Singh, illustrated by Marianne Ferrer (Kids Can Press, 5-8) Singh tells the inspiring story of Sundar Paliwal, who was determined to try to find a way to heal his village in Rajasthan from the devastating impacts of mining, but also to redress the unjust belief that girls are not as important as boys. When his own daughter died suddenly, Sundar seized the moment and challenged the discrimination of old customs and beliefs but also did something to help bring balance back to nature.

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When We Are Kind, Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt (Orca Book Publishers, 3-5) The text of the book by this award-winning author seems so simple but offers a powerful message as young readers are asked to think about what being kind means to them and how it makes them feel – both as recipients of kindness and as practitioners of kindness themselves.

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What the Kids Did, Erin Silver (Second Story Press, 6-8) Silver shares stories of the way that kids have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Toronto’s Junior Girls raised more than $20,000 for the University Health Network’s Emergency COVID-19 fund; nine-year-old Stephen’s semi-automatic handwashing machine earned him the Order of Service from the President of Kenya, and Chelsea has sent out art kits to 1,500 kids in shelters and foster homes across the United States.

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Nice Try, Charlie! written and illustrated by Matt James (Groundwood Books, 3-8) A book that makes readers think twice about how they see the people in their neighbourhoods, particularly street people and the homeless. Charlie finds things – old televisions, cats in trees – but when he finds a pie that doesn’t seem to have an owner, he wants to claim it for his own but he also wants to make sure that it doesn’t belong to anyone else. As he winds his way through his neighbourhood, trying to find out if anyone has lost a pie, readers get to know a wonderful community that they might not have seen before.

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Kid Sterling by Christine Welldon (Red Deer Press 12-15) A book that pulses with a bluesy beat that whisks readers back in time to New Orleans in 1906 when Buddy Bolden was King and turning the musical world upside down. Told from the perspective of 11-year-old Sterling Crawford, this isn’t just Bolden’s story about the founding of jazz, it’s a powerful portrait of a young artist as he pulses with the passion to create and begins to find ways to follow his artistic dreams. It’s also a novel that seethes with the racial tensions that still pull communities apart. But ultimately, Sterling sings the music he wants to make.

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From the Roots Up by Tasha Spillett, illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Highwater Press, 12+) In the second book in the powerful Surviving the City trilogy, Spillett not only movingly offers, with the help of Donovan’s amazing graphics, a further look into the world of her teenage heroines, Dez and Miikwan, and their lives in Winnipeg, but continues to probe themes she explored in the first book including reconciliation, the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and the importance of Indigenous teachings and culture. Change, compassion and empathy are key to both Dez’s struggle in foster care after her grandmother’s death and her journey to come out as a two-spirit person. Miikwan isn’t sure what’s happening to her friend and isn’t sure how she can best support her. Moving and heartfelt, readers definitely will want to know what happens next.

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The Lady with the Books, Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Marie Lafrance (Kids Can Press, 4-9), Stinson reimagines how the work of Jella Lepman, who believed books and reading could be “bridges of understanding,” touched German children who visited a travelling exhibition of books from 20 countries in 1946. Lepman founded both the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) in 1951 and the International Youth Library in 1949. In telling the story through the eyes of Annaliese and her little brother Peter, who stumble across the exhibition in Munich, Stinson brings what Lepman did to life. This is a poignant and powerful picture book, exquisitely illustrated by Lafrance’s pencil illustrations, that shows young readers that reading can be life-changing.

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