Canada 150: Ten Powerful Historical Novels

April 26, 2017 | Kate S.

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Historical fiction not only engages the reader, but it teaches them about the world of the past. These titles, for the most part set in Canada, show Canada’s history as a diverse nation and displays how much the country has changed and grown. Although the stories take place years ago, readers will still identify with the characters and will empathize with their plight. Many of the stories address serious issues, but are written for a middle grade audience making them suitable for ages nine to 12. 


Angel Square

Angel Square by Brian Doyle

The year after the end of World War II, young Tommy, aka “Lamont Cranston, the Shadow”, attempts to discover who assaulted the father of his best friend, Sammy Rosenberg. This award-winning novel examines racial tension and discrimination in post-war Ottawa.

Tommy is a likeable and appealing character whose search for truth and justice will appeal to young readers. The theme of religious and racial discrimination is still very relevant to the world today.

Elijah of Buxton

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Set in Canada during 1859, 11-year-old Elijah is the first child born into freedom in Buxton, a settlement of runaway slaves just across the border from Detroit. When the money his friend has been saving to buy his family’s freedom is stolen, Elijah pursues the thief across the border into dangerous territory. Winner of the 2008 Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and a Newbery Honor book.

One of the most powerful and memorable books about slavery for middle grades, this book is a must read for children and adults. The story is beautifully told with rich detail, and there are many humorous moments despite the heaviness of the story. 

Hero of Lesser Causes

Hero of Lesser Causes by Julie Johnstone

Set in the late 1940s, Keely Connor is devastated when her brother Patrick is paralyzed by polio. Keely tries her best to transfer her energy and health to her brother, while struggling herself with growing up.

Keely is a precocious 13-year-old with an active imagination whom readers will fall in love with. Her determination to help her brother is inspiring, and you can't help but empathize with her.  

How it Happened in Peach Hill

How it Happened in Peach Hill by Marthe Jocelyn
Set during the 1920s in New York, 15-year-old Annie Grey is tired of moving from town to town. Her mother is a fake clairvoyant who comes up with a scheme to use Annie to help swindle her customers. Annie attempts to change her mother’s ways and finally settle down.

Intriguing and entertaining, readers will empathize with Annie's desire for a normal life and her struggle to escape from her mother's shadow. 

The Landing

The Landing by John Ibbitson

Set in northern Ontario during the Depression, Ben thinks that he will always be stuck living with his mother and uncle at Cook's Landing. When a wealthy widow from New York City hires him to play his violin, he begins to dream about other possibilities. Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2008.

This is a lovely quiet book about pursuing your dreams. Ben’s love of music is beautifully depicted and anyone who has ever visited the Muskoka region will appreciate the rich details about the history and land.  


Lisa by Carol Matas

Set in Denmark during World War II, this is a powerful account of a young Jewish girl named Lisa and her family who fight back against the Nazis. Lisa was the winner of the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction in 1988; Canadian Children's Book Centre Our Choice; IRA Young Adults' Choices for 1991; Sydney Taylor Book Award 1989; and a New York Times Book Review, Notable Book, 1989.

Inspired by true stories about Matas' family during the war, Lisa is a dark, yet inspiring story about having the courage to fight for what is right. It is an empowering story about how one person can make a difference.

The Root Cellar

The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn

After 12-year-old Rose is orphaned, she is sent to live with unknown relatives in rural Ontario. There she discovers an old root cellar which transports her back to the time of the American Civil War, where Rose befriends the people who lived in the house a century before her. 

The mix of fantasy and historical fiction make this a compelling read. Rose is an endearing character who longs to find a place where she fits in. Beautifully written, this was a childhood favourite, the book that sparked my love of historical fiction. 


Run by Eric Walters

Blending fact and fiction, Winston Macdonald travels with his journalist father to Nova Scotia to cover the story of Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope.

Rather than writing a biography, Walters tells the inspiring story of Fox through the eyes of troubled young Winston and shows how inspiring Fox was to individual Canadians. 

The Sky is Falling

The Sky is Falling by Kit Pearson

During the summer of 1940, Norah and her brother Gavin are sent from England to Canada as a safe haven from Hitler’s army. Living in a strange country with increasingly bad news from home, Norah must adapt to her new life. 

Many readers will identify with Norah's struggle to fit in at her new home and new school. There are lots of historical details about Toronto and the Rosedale neighbourhood, which add to the story. The importance of community and helping strangers is displayed throughout. On a personal note, I love that Norah finds sanctuary at the local library. 

Underground to Canada

Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker

Taken from her mother by a ruthless slave trader, Julilly dreams of escaping to freedom. When agents of the Underground Railroad offer to help Julilly and her friend travel to Canada, they embark on the journey north to freedom.

Based on first-hand experiences of fugitive slaves and actual routes of the Underground Railway, Smucker writes a beautiful and powerful novel about the escape to freedom in Canada.   

Canada 150 Lists(s):

Canada 150: Comic Books and Scary Stories

Canada 150: Books for Our Littlest Readers and the "Big People" Who Read With Them 

Canada 150: Sweet, Silly, Serious- We've Got It All!

Canada 150: Ten Powerful Historical Novels

Canada 150: Wonderful Picture Books That Are Perfect for Reading Aloud

Canada 150: Ten Amazing Children's Books

Canada 150: Stepping Outside a Young Reader's World

Canada 150: Ten Books to Empower Younger Readers

Canada 150: Ten Delightful Books for Younger Readers