A Book About a Historical Event You Are Unfamiliar with: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2023

September 11, 2023 | Silvia

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History has always been one of my favourite subjects since high school. It was there that I had a passionate history teacher who brought the subject to life. Even after graduating, my interest never waned, and I continued to read books on the subject. When I travel, I always research and look for local historic sites. Even when walking in Toronto, I will find spots that have historic significance in the city. Then I can share that information with my travelling partners. As life has gotten more hectic over the years, I have looked at other ways of getting my history fix, including watching educational YouTube videos, listening to podcasts and downloading audiobooks. With so many ways to consume information, I find that reading a good history book is still the best.

This is my recommendation for a book about a historical event you are unfamiliar with:


The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon

On a quiet morning on December 6, 1917, the people of Halifax were getting ready to start their day. Many saw a ship burning in the harbour, but they thought nothing of it. It was the third year into the Great War, and with all the passing warships, they knew that accidents were bound to happen. However, what the citizens did not know was that the burning ship carried over three thousand tons of explosives. The ship exploded at 9:04 am, and it forever changed everyone's lives.

John U. Bacon writes a compelling book about all the factors that led to that fateful day and the consequences that followed. He also gives us a snapshot of the people living in Halifax before and after the explosion. If you have ever been curious about the Halifax explosion, I highly recommend this book.

Other categories:

  • A book about survival
  • A book set in Atlantic Canada
  • A book with multiple timelines
  • A book of investigative non-fiction

Staff recommendations

These books were picked by our staff for this category.

The riot at christie pits levitt shaffir

The Riot at Christie Pits by Cyril Levitt and William Shaffir

Exploring Toronto neighbourhoods and their history through walking tours has of late become a favourite pastime. On one such tour, I came across Christie Pits Park and the dark history behind it. This book chronicles the worst-ever riots between Jewish and non-Jewish ballplayers in Toronto on August 16, 1933. Each time a Jewish player stepped up to bat, troublemakers from the opposing team would bring out Swastika flags shouting, "Heil Hitler," resulting in riots that lasted almost six hours. While this piece of history is disturbing and a blot on our city’s image, it nevertheless must be known so that it is never, ever repeated again.

Other categories:

  • A book about sports
  • A book of investigative non-fiction
  • A book you would recommend to your younger self

—Radha, Senior Branch Head


Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham

This fiction book talks about the Christie Pits riots. Life in Toronto is bleak during The Depression, but Molly Ryan loves to attend local baseball games with her best friend Hannah Dreyfus. Together the friends watch with horror as anti-Semitism grows around them. This author tends to write about little-known Canadian historical fiction. 

—Despina, Branch Head

8 Lives

8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster by Mirinae Lee

Inspired by actual events, this book covers a sweeping century of Korean history through the fictional tale of a century-old woman living in the Alzheimer's ward of a Senior Care Centre just south of the North Korean border. The stories of her eight lives are an ode to the stubborn resilience of Korean people who survived both WWII and the Korean War as well as all the hardships that preceded and followed them. Told in a deft and evocative style, these tales turn history that is often only lightly touched in Canadian education into a very real, visceral account of how global geopolitics can shape individuals and their many lives.

Other categories:

  • A book published this year

—Brittney, Librarian

Half of a yellow sun (1)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel that documents a very real and tumultuous time in Nigerian history — the Nigerian Civil War and the formation of Biafra, a secessionist state in West Africa that existed for three years between 1967-1970. The story is told mainly through the eyes of Uguwu, who begins the novel as a 13-year-old peasant houseboy and ends up as a conscript in the Biafran army. It also follows twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, who end up on very different sides of the war.  The novel not only documents the rise and fall of Biafra, but it also explores the effects of class, education and racial divides, as well as the devastating and long-lasting effects colonialism left behind, even when they were no longer actively occupying countries.

—Emily, Assistant Branch Head


Safe area Goražde by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco, a comic artist and journalist, spent five months in Bosnia, chronicling the war in the former Yugoslavia. The book collects stories from Goražde, a Muslim-held enclave that was under siege. Sacco collects stories from the residents who live without running water or electricity and struggle to understand how their former lives living among their Serbian neighbors turned violent. Originally published in 2000, it won an Eisner award in 2001. Although the book documents a historical event that seems largely forgotten, its warnings about the collapse of tolerance and the risks of violent nationalism are unfortunately still relevant.

—Emily, Assistant Branch Head

White Ship

The White Ship by Charles Spencer

A fascinating story about the far-ranging consequences of one shipwreck in 1120 on European history. King Henry I lost his son and heir, and many noble families lost sons, daughters and future alliances. Written by Princess Diana's brother.

—Linda, Requirements & Quality Assurance Analyst


King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner

Victor, a Chinese immigrant living in 1950s Manhattan, has been diagnosed with Hansen's Disease, otherwise known as leprosy. Victor's best option for treatment is to go by himself under strict quarantine to the Carville Hospital in Louisiana. There he meets other teens dealing with Hansen's and discovers a love and talent for music.

King of the Armadillos explores family connections, duty, secrecy, stigma and the dually-challenging world of being in the 1950s South as an immigrant with a highly-stigmatized disease. Victor's courage and empathy lead the story with interesting perspectives from family left back in New York.

—Mallory, Librarian


Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

This book spans many eras of time from the 1940s-1970s. We follow the main character Jess through their life as they discover that they are a transgender lesbian, specifically trans-masculine. We follow them through bar raids and hospitalizations. Stone Butch Blues is a queer classic. If you want to learn more about transgender lesbians, this is the book for you.

Content warning for Stone Butch Blues: gang rape, gate crimes, homophobia, injury, police brutality, rape (implied), sexual harassment, transphobia, underage sex, violence and suicide.

Other categories:

  • A book about survival

—Francis, Public Service Assistant

Recommendations from the Facebook Group

These are just some of the suggested titles from our Facebook TPL Reading Challenge 2023 discussion group. You can read all of the responses in the original post. You do not need a Facebook account to read the suggestions.

French recommendations

If you like to read in French, check out the list of recommended books for Un évènement historique qui vous est nouveau: suggestions pour le Défi lecture. There's a mix of books, ebooks and digital audiobooks to try.

What would you recommend for this category? Add your suggestions in the comments below.