Dark and Bright YA Fiction: Spotlight on Two Canadian Authors

There’s lots to love in Canadian YA, but in the United States, we tend to focus more on authors originally published here. As a dual citizen, I am always pleased to see Canadian authors recognized in the United States too. This article describes selected titles by two award-winning Canadian authors. Expand your collection with Canadian titles that explore mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, trauma, and more through nuanced characters, humane writing, and even humor!

Teresa Toten

You may have discovered Toronto writer Teresa Toten when she won the 2016 Schneider Award for a Teen Book for The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (Delacorte/Random House, 2015). In Unlikely Hero, Adam, while attending his teen Obsessive-Compulsive support group, falls hard for Robyn. There’s a lot going on in this story; many characters are holding onto secrets and it’s not always clear who is protecting whom. This engaging narrative, which sheds light on living with OCD, is grounded in a city I recognized as Toronto, though I don’t think the setting is named.

Canadian readers had access to Unlikely Hero two years before readers in the U.S. First published by Doubleday Canada in 2013, the book had already won the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature – Text and a number of other Canadian awards when it was published by Delacorte.

I’ve been intrigued by Toten’s work since the publication of her first book, The Onlyhouse (Red Deer Press, 2003, c1995), a tween book with plenty of heart. The plot drew on Toten’s own experience as a Croatian immigrant in Toronto who didn’t fit in, and was a finalist for the 1996 Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Awards. The Game (Red Deer Press, 2001), a hard-hitting look at physical and emotional trauma, shortlisted for the GG, is one of Toten’s best-known novels. She also has a funny and poignant trilogy set in the mid-1970s called The Blondes that chronicles Sophie Kandinsky’s attempts to keep her crazy family separate – and secret – from life at school. The first book, Me and the Blondes (Puffin Canada, 2006), was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. Toten’s latest is the psychological thriller, Beware that Girl (Delacorte/Random House, 2016 in the U.S.; Doubleday Canada, 2016 in Canada).


Martine Leavitt

Winner of the 2013 Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award, High River, Alberta writer Martine Leavitt’s My Book of Life by Angel (Margaret Ferguson/Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012, in the U.S; Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2012, in Canada), has been successful in both the U.S. and Canada. In this luminous novel in verse, Angel, a sixteen-year-old prostitute, has resigned herself to sleepwalking through life – the drugs help — when she is suddenly put in charge of a much younger girl and told by her pimp to show her the ropes. This challenges Angel to save eleven-year-old Melli from sexual exploitation in a way that she could not save herself. Excerpts from Milton’s Paradise Lost function as part of the plot and a commentary on the action. An author’s note explains that the book is set during the time of the infamous Pickton murders. Beginning in 1983, sex workers and other women disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in alarming numbers. Finally in 2002, Robert Pickton was arrested and admitted to killing forty-nine women. In her fictional portraits of Angel’s friends and the listing of their real names in the back matter, Leavitt restores dignity to these women who were so poorly treated in real life. It is an absolutely gripping read that you could easily pair with Patricia McCormick’s Sold or Ruta Sepetys’s Out of the Easy.

In Leavitt’s Calvin (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015 in the U.S.; Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2015 in Canada), the eponymous protagonist is a teen who carries on hallucinatory conversations with Hobbes, the orange tiger of the comic strip. When Calvin was a child, Hobbes was his imaginary friend. Now that Calvin is 17 and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, the reappearance of Hobbes is not so benign. Calvin is convinced that if he can just meet the cartoonist, Bill Watterson, and get him to draw Hobbes out of his life, the hallucinations will stop. Calvin emails Watterson to say when he’ll be arriving, buys winter camping equipment, and decides to walk across frozen Lake Erie from Leamington, Ontario, to Cleveland, Ohio, accompanied by his friend and neighbor, Susie – yes, like the girl in the comic. There’s some light romance and a lot of soul-searching along the way in this beautifully written novel, couched in the form of a letter to Watterson. Calvin won the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature – Text.

In addition to her realistic fiction, Leavitt has written quite a few fantasy novels, the earlier ones released under the name Martine Bates. Her most recent, Keturah and Lord Death (Boyds Mills Press, 2006 in the U.S.; Red Deer Press, 2006, in Canada), features a young woman who uses storytelling to bargain with Death. Keturah was shortlisted for the 2006 National Book Award in the U.S., and in Canada was a 2008 White Pine Award winner – an Ontario Library Association reader’s choice award for high school fiction.

Pairing Leavitt’s Heck Superhero (Front Street, 2004, in U.S.; Red Deer Press, 2004, in Canada), which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, with Toten’s The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B showcases two fine writers playing with a superhero trope. Heck fantasizes that he has the superpower, through one Good Deed, to find his dysfunctional mother, who is missing, while Adam sees himself as Batman to Robyn’s Robin. 

Canadian YA Book Awards and More!

Where is the best place to find the awards? There are links to individual awards, but the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (the other CCBC, in case that acronym only means the UW-Madison Cooperative Children’s Book Center to you) maintains a complete list of Canadian children’s and YA awards on their Resources page. They also have a searchable database, Best Books for Kids & Teens – a real treasure trove!


Annette Y. Goldsmith is a GLLI contributor to The Hub and a Los Angeles-based Lecturer for the University of Washington Information School.