Illustration of a beach scene with books floating in the waves

Illustration by Michele Perry

9 beach reads with purpose: A socially conscious book list

These books aren’t just great stories—they also shed light on important issues

We’re huge fans of breezy beach reads, but this year, we’re really excited by extremely readable books that also delve into social issues, such as LBGTQ+ rights, racism, food security and poverty. Read on for nine great beach reads—and suggestions on how you can put your new knowledge to good use by supporting organizations that focus on those same issues.

Book cover for Little Fish floating on waves

The read: Little Fish by Casey Plett 

Plot points: Little Fish introduces us to 30-year-old Wendy Reimer, who, during a cold Winnipeg winter, learns that her devout Mennonite grandfather may have been transgender. Praised for her essays and columns on transitioning, Casey Plett has been called “one of the authors to read if you want to understand the interior lives of trans women,” and her powerful and much-loved debut novel will no doubt end up on more than a few best-of-the-year lists. 

What you can doWork with United Way-supported The 519. Located on Church Street in downtown Toronto, this org is committed to the health, happiness and full participation of the LGBTQ+ community. You can assist its mission and extensive programming by volunteering or planning a third-party event.  

Book cover of The Fruitful City floating on an illustrated sea

The read: The Fruitful City by Helena Moncrieff 

Plot points: “When was the last time you considered eating fruit from a city tree?” asks professor and former radio journalist Helena Moncrieff in this non-fiction read. In it, Moncrieff takes a thorough look at our complex and sometimes fraught relationship with food and where it comes from. This inventive investigation into the urban fruit tree surprises and delights as much as it educates, all while having an accessible and entertaining conversation with the reader. 

What you can do: Support The Stop Community Food Centre, which has a mission to increase access to healthy food in a manner that “maintains dignity, builds health and community and challenges inequality.” Participate in a variety of different food bank and farmers’ market volunteer opportunities, or attend one of their fantastic community events. 

Book cover of I've Been Meaning To Tell You floating on illustrated sea

The read: I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by David Chariandy 

Plot points: On the heels of his award-winning 2017 novel Brother, David Chariandy returns with a small but mighty non-fiction offering. A beautiful, intimate and timely letter to his teenage daughter, I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You is a thoughtful and superbly written look at race and racism today, and—as we’ve come to expect from Chariandy—a must-read. 

What you can do: Support the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Founded as part of the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement, this organization works to end racism (often in partnership with other agencies) by lobbying policymakers, funding anti-racist research and developing anti-racist webinars, workshops and training materials. 

Book cover of Ayesha At Last floating on an illustrated sea

The read: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin 

Plot points: With this debut novel set in a close-knit Muslim community, Uzma Jalaluddin, Toronto Star columnist and high school teacher, gives us a modern, #OurVoices take on Pride and Prejudice. This decidedly summery read has been labelled witty, smart and charming, and offers its important enduring message of tolerance and acceptance with humour and insight. 

What you can do: Be a champion of diverse books through The Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which shines the spotlight on diverse authors and their stories. Attend its main event in Brampton every spring and additional events throughout the year, or apply online to be a volunteer. 

Book cover of There There floating on an illustrated sea

The read: There, There by Tommy Orange 

Plot points: There, There  has been touted as an all-at-once fierce, funny and heartbreaking offering. This multi-generational narrative tracks the lives of several Indigenous characters as they journey to California’s Big Oakland Powwow, using powerful and distinctive prose to look at issues of violence, loss, identity and recovery. Margaret Atwood called it “an astonishing literary debut.” 

What you can do: Support the Indigenous Voices Awards, which was founded in 2017 as a response to discussions of cultural appropriation in the Canadian literary community, with an initial grassroots initiative raising over $100,000 in four months. Since then, the program has further established its aim to support Indigenous literary production, to honour the sovereignty of Indigenous creative voices and to reject cultural appropriation.  

Book cover for Any Man floating on illustrated sea

The read: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn 

Plot points: With this provocative and experimental debut novel, poet, actor, director and sexual assault survivor Amber Tamblyn makes a searing statement about the pervasiveness of rape culture. A challenging, confrontational, but important read amid the #MeToo movement. 

What you can do: The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape  provides anti-oppressive, feminist peer support to survivors of sexual violence through support, education and activism. They train crisis line volunteers and accept student placements and are always looking for financial contributions. This fall, support the centre and get those steps in by doing the Toronto Annual Run & Roll Against Violence, a fun 5K race for runners, walkers and people of all abilities. 

Book cover of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls floating on an illustrated sea

The read: Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting 

Plot points: Alissa Nutting, acclaimed author of the controversial novel Tampa, gets a high-profile re-release of her lesser-known short story anthology. Weird and decidedly wonderful (one character steals a panda from the zoo, another falls in love in a pot of boiling soup), this quirky collection tackles gender dynamics and addresses the female body in inventive, bizarre and humorous ways. 

What you can do: Attend or host an event in support of The Canadian Women’s Foundation. This organization looks at the challenges facing women and girls—including violence, poverty and inclusivity in leadership—and invests in strategies for long-term change.

Book cover of Women Talking floating on an illustrated sea

The read: Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Plot points: Based on the true story of more than 100 Mennonite girls who were drugged and assaulted by men in their own remote community, this book by award-winning author Miriam Toews is a much-anticipated fictional response to the atrocity.

What you can do: Plan to attend The Assaulted Women’s Helpline’s annual Helpline Gala, which happens every fall. The Helpline is a 24-hour telephone and TTY contact open to all women who have experienced abuse. They provide counselling and emotional support, offer information and referrals, and help 49,000  women every year. You can also join their running teams, which accept pledges for everything from 5K runs to marathons. 

Book cover of I'm Afraid of Men floating on an illustrated sea

The read: I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

Plot points: “I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me to fear,” writes artist, musician and author Vivek Shraya. Deftly exploring issues of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, I’m Afraid of Men takes a deeply personal look at how notions of masculinity and femininity are wielded in our culture, and in doing so asks readers to “surrender to sublime possibility.” 

What you can do: Work with The Tegan and Sara Foundation, which fights for health, economic justice and representation for LGBTQ+ girls and women. You’ll be in good company—Shraya donated proceeds from preorders of I’m Afraid of Men to this org.

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