CBC’s 20th Season of ‘Canada Reads’: Five Books and Their ‘Champions’

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Discovering ‘which books matter most to Canadians’ is a goal of the annual ‘Canada Reads’ program, now opening its new season.

The 2021 CBC ‘Canada Reads’ champions and the books they’ll defend are, from left, Scott Helman championing Jessica J. Lee’s ‘Two Trees Make a Forest’; Devery Jacobs championing Joshua Whitehead’s ‘Jonny Appleseed’; Paul Sen-Hyung Lee championing Natalie Zina Walschots’ ‘Hench’; Rosey Edeh championing CL Polk’s ‘The Midnight Bargain’; and Roger Mooking championing Francesca Edwuyasi’s ‘Butter Honey Pig Bread.’ Image: CBC

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Hassan: To ‘Explore New Perspectives’
Easily the most valuable show of its kind we know in the English-language publishing world, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Canada Reads today (January 14) has announced its 2021 books and the “champions” who will argue for them in March.

The main reason to like this annual effort, now celebrating its 20th edition, is its serious intent. For all the program’s stylish book-holding photography and fine production values, Canada Reads takes the promotion of contemporary literature far beyond the happy talk off too much marketing.

Issue-driven and running fearlessly close to the fault lines of Canadian social controversies, the program sets up an initial set of five titles and names one non-book media personality to “champion” each one. On four days, this year March 8 through 11, those “champions” debate and defend their books. One title is eliminated daily until a single title remains as the “One Book to Transport Us”—this year’s theme—remains.

A form of awards show, then, the program is about something much more important than getting shiny seals onto book covers. It engages the viewers and listeners of CBC Radio One, CBC TV, CBC Gem, and CBC Books each year in a culturally important conversation. One book arrives as the “winner” because its observations and perspectives and context have resonated most successfully in a trial-by-discussion at a national scale.

Many who will view and/or listen to the debates in March now are beginning to read the five books selected so they can intelligently follow the debate, which is led each year (since 2017) by CBC Radio host Ali Hassan.

“In 20 years of debating which books matter most to Canadians,” Hassan says in a prepared quote for the news media today, “there has never been a more poignant time in Canada Reads history to be reminded of the transportive quality of a great book to take us on a journey and explore new perspectives.

“This season, I’m looking forward to hosting conversations around stories that reflect perseverance, resilience, and hope, each in their own unique way.”

The 2021 ‘Canada Reads’ Shortlist

An overhead shot of Ali Hassan and three champions of books in the 2020 ‘Canada Reads’ show on the set in Toronto. Image: CBC

Always thoughtfully presented, this year’s five books can be had in accessible formats here.

And in our listing here, we’ll link you to the CBC page set up for each title.

  • The Midnight Bargain by CL Polk, championed by Olympic athlete and broadcaster Rosey Edeh
  • Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest, championed by singer-songwriter Scott Helman
  • Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed, championed by filmmaker and actor Devery Jacobs
  • Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, championed by actor Paul Sen-Hyung Lee
  • Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesa Ekwuyasi, championed by chef, recording artist, and television host Roger Mooking

CBC Books has launched a Facebook group for those who want to read the Canada Reads books together. You can join that conversation here.

Canada Reads premiered in 2002. The first winning book was In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, which was championed by musician Steven Page. Other past Canada Reads winners include Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, championed by Olympian Clara Hughes; Kim Thúy’s Ru, championed by Toronto International Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey; and Lisa Moore’s February, championed by comedian Trent McClellan.

Last year’s winner was actor Amanda Brugel, championing the memoir We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib.

Below are the longlisted books from which Canada Reads has drawn this year’s shortlist of five.

Image: CBC

More from Publishing Perspectives on book awards is here. More on ‘Canada Reads is here. And more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.


  1. As an older reader I sometimes find myself wishing for the days when books were just about stories about people I knew and understood This year has taught me that we have to start knowing and understanding people that aren’t like us on the surface but that share our common humanity. Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender is an enemy of all of us and I think CBC is brave in bringing us stories that we might not ever seek out on our own. Thanks to Canada Reads for helping us to grow and look at the world through a broader and clearer lens.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your good note and very good thoughts.
      You don’t have to be an older reader, or a younger one, to feel this.
      The role literature plays in connecting us has been heightened by both the pandemic and by political travesties around it on all sides. This is one reason we’ve seen so much translated literature rising in importance, as consumers look for ways to cross borders and reach other cultures despite the efforts of many political regimes to encourage isolationism, nationalism, xenophobia.
      We agree with you on the courage CBC brings to its Canada Reads table each year with this issue-driven program and can recommend all its chosen books this year as good ones to reach for.
      Thanks for reading us.

      On Twitter: @PubPerspectives, @Porter_Anderson

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