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  • Challenging Stories: Canadian Literature for Social Justice in the Classroom ed. by Anne Burke, Ingrid Johnston, and Angela Ward
  • Julia A. Boyd (bio)
Anne Burke, Ingrid Johnston, and Angela Ward, eds. Challenging Stories: Canadian Literature for Social Justice in the Classroom. Canadian Scholars. x, 214. $56.95

Canadian children's and young adult literature offer a wealth of novels, picture books, and graphic novels about social justice issues, ranging from residential schools to African Canadian history. Yet their classroom potential carries a risk; just like Canada's official multiculturalism policy, if texts and teachers interpret diversity as "food, festivals, and fun" without addressing the systemic roots of ongoing injustices in and beyond their own communities, they disempower the very students they aim to include. At the same time, teachers who raise controversial issues about local racism and family diversity risk pushback from administrators, parents, and students threatened by perceived assaults on deeply held biases. This collection insists that children's literature empowers teachers to address these challenges, allowing them to be "agents of social change" without "impos[ing] … ideology" on their students. Chapters are authored by participants in the Teaching Canadian Literature for Social Justice project, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded longitudinal qualitative research collaboration amongst literacy scholars and practising teachers. At eight sites across six Canadian provinces, teachers and researchers formed inquiry groups in which they discussed and piloted new Canadian social justice-focused texts in their classrooms. The collection pairs a critical introduction to multicultural social justice education with seven thematically grouped chapters, each integrating researchers' reports with short sections and quotations in teachers' own voices. It concludes with a lengthy annotated bibliography of social justice-themed children's and young adult literatures by Canadian authors, which is also digitized at

Section one follows two teacher inquiry groups in Saskatchewan and British Columbia as they use children's literature to "unsettl[e]" the exclusion of Indigenous and immigrant histories from their local settings. Geraldine Balzer reports on a group of rural teachers as they select texts to reflect their increasingly diverse students and challenge "prejudices" without prompting censorship from their traditionally conservative communities. Angela Ward and a group of non-Indigenous teachers on Vancouver Island expand their established work in Indigenous-inclusive and human rights education, each teacher describing the classroom activities they used to interweave First Nations history with global human rights issues. Section two outlines the "pedagogy of discomfort" that teachers can cultivate to teach texts about controversial issues or other "challenging" content. Ingrid Johnston, Karen Jacobsen, and Bill Howe explore a "multimodal" graphic novel and play that immerse students in tough questions about activism and humanitarian atrocity. Anne Burke and Aedon Young follow a Newfoundland and Labrador school as it builds a resource collection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer young adult literature. Section three turns to the practical aspects of social justice pedagogy and [End Page 189] its capacity to create "communities of practice," both through teacher inquiry groups and reciprocal learning between students and teachers.

One strength in this collection is that each school and classroom demands distinct interpretations of the critical social justice literacies surveyed in the introduction. Amarou Yoder and Teresa Strong-Wilson profile a teacher who uses Larry Loyie's As Long as the Rivers Flow to spark sixth grade students' self-directed research into the history of residential schools. Loyie's voice helps students develop a "recognition"-based model in which they understand the "tru[th]" of survivors' traumas without demanding that they "understand" them. In other case studies, these "awareness"-building activities encourage age-appropriate "action[s]"; Lynne Wiltse and Shelby LaFramboise-Helgeson describe a grade six literature circle that prompts a new "culture corner" of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit books for the whole school.

This collection's conscientious grappling with multicultural education is not matched with equal attentiveness to criticisms of Canadian recognition politics. The schools that are profiled are diverse, ranging from rural to urban and including Indigenous and first-generation immigrant students, but more attention to Indigenous-centric and on-reserve schools would have been beneficial. The annotated bibliography, teacher reflection questions, and...


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pp. 189-190
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