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"I Was Completely Transported by Every Sentence" The CBC Canada Reads Panellists on Their Debate Strategies & Their Love for Their Chosen Books

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Everyone's favourite literary smackdown returns today through Thursday: the 2021 edition of CBC Canada Reads will bring the same fiery debates from passionate panellists championing their chosen book as always, tweaked only slightly by the lack of a studio audience. 

We got to speak to the panellists, who headed into battle today, about the books they're defending, and if these responses are anything to go on, this year's debates will be not only fiery but extremely entertaining. 

This year's impressive panellist group is composed of Olympian and broadcaster Rosey Edeh, defending The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk; singer-songwriter Scott Helman defending Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee; actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs defending Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead; chef, recording artist, and TV host Roger Mooking defending Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi; and actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee champions Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots.

All five of the panellists made time to chat to Open Book about their debate strategies ("scorched earth", oh my!); their magical first reads of their chosen books ("four pages in and I knew"); and how they'd love to celebrate a Canada Reads win ("a celebratory dance to Haviah Mighty's 'Bag Up'"). 

We won't spoil who got voted out today (you can check out the details on CBC here!) but regardless of who topples when, you'll want to hear from these witty, book-loving panellists here and throughout the debates, which are available on YouTube, Facebook, CBC Gem, and the CBC website, as well as CBC Radio One. 

And be sure to stay tuned to Open Book for Canada Reads coverage this week. 

Open Book:

What is your strategy going into the debates? Is "all fair" in books and war?

Rosey Edeh: 

Stay on message. Focus on all things surrounding the power of a woman's will, the author's brilliant imagination, and the enchanting lure of magic. The Midnight Bargain is the "One book to transport us". 

Scott Helman:

I’m really just so happy to be defending this wonderfully informative, personal and beautiful book by Jessica J. Lee. Ultimately, I believe this book is the most important of the lot, and the more I can connect to why I believe that to be true, the better. Although I enjoyed the other books, I have my critiques, and I won’t be afraid to voice them.

Devery Jacobs:

Contrary to popular belief, all is not fair in books and war! For me, it’s fundamental to come from a place of respect — for the books, their authors and all the other competitors. Everyone is exceptionally talented and has worked incredibly hard to be there. I’m not there to take down someone’s personhood or to shame anybody, I’m there to debate which is the best book for Canada Reads. But! Don’t get me wrong, I’m going in there with my dukes up and guns blazing! I wholeheartedly believe in the book I’m defending, and I may as well be Jonny’s tough Native auntie from the rez, because I’ll defend him ’til the end!

Roger Mooking:

Like most of us, I've watched a lot of American political rhetoric over the last 5 years and it is clear that for every sound talking point there is an alternate reality that can be vehemently defended. I've read all the books and in my mind it is so clear that no other book is as dense, as mechanically sound, as sensuous, or as lyrical in their storytelling as Butter Honey Pig Bread.  This book is one of the best books Ive read in my entire life, and as this is everyones introduction to this brilliant author, I only hope to do Francesca the justice she deserves as a fantastically gifted author and thinker.  Im going in with the sole intent to defend and highlight her wizardry, and if that requires employing an alternate reality mountain top screaming approach then I have been blessed with nothing more than a very big mouth and a loud voice to match.  If all that is accomplished is that she gains a readership worthy of her talents, and that I contributed in some menial way by sharing my blinding passion for her sorcery, then sound sleep is mine.  

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee:

My strategy is scorched earth policy. If I can't win, I will ensure that NO ONE ELSE WILL. Just kidding. I have no idea what I'm doing, so I will speak from my heart and champion Hench to the best of my limited abilities in a respectful, kind and above all else FUN manner!


Where were you the first time you read your chosen book?


At home in bed, on my spin bike — one or the other.


At home, on the couch, I was engrossed as all heck. I couldn’t put it down, as each sentenced jumped out and spoke directly to me. I don’t really remember much else from when I was when I reading it because I I felt so completely transported to Taiwan!


While physically I was curled up with some tea in my plant-filled home office (because, it’s a pandemic, and where the hell else would I be?), mentally I was in Winnipeg and Treaty 1 territory. Joshua Whitehead’s novel is so intimate, it feels like a full-body experience; I was completely transported by every sentence, thought and memory Jonny has throughout the book.


It was the beginning of December and Ontario was mid-Covid, first or second wave... who knows. Butter Honey Pig Bread was the second of several books I read in the following weeks from a secluded quiet corner of my house while my kids did virtual school a couple floors up. Four pages in and I knew it was going to be one of the books that left a stamp on my spirit, one of those books that you will ponder for years and perhaps a lifetime. Once you crack its pages, it is impossible to pry yourself away. Over the next 24 hours, between feeding kids, trying to maneuver new work realities, and life in general, I had finished the book after traversing every single human emotion possible from every depth and height. After reading so many books since that first read in preparation for Canada Reads, I've found myself returning to the greats like Octavia Butler, Alex Haley, and Khalil Gibran to rediscover reads that take me to those same emotional reaches.  


I was jetting over the Andes mountain range in my personal jet. Really? I was at home, being a responsible citizen and sheltering in place because of the, you know, PANDEMIC. But man, did Hench make the time fly!


If the book you're defending wins the competition, how might you celebrate?


When The Midnight Bargain wins I'll see if C.L. Polk is up for a ZOOM dance party! We'll have a celebratory dance to Haviah Mighty's "Bag Up".


By planning my post-COVID trip to Taiwan :) 


If Jonny Appleseed wins Canada Reads, I’m going to celebrate virtually with the author Josh, with likely lots of tears, toasts, and bubbly! 


Any celebration is entirely at the will of Francesca, it would be her win entirely. I'm confident that she will be doing enough celebration for everyone who had anything to do with this gorgeous piece of art. If she chooses to include me in any sort of celebration, I would be beyond honoured and will humbly partake at her whimsy. As of February 25th 2020, Butter Honey Pig Bread is the #1 Canadian fiction book in Canada 

Personally, I've already celebrated, and moving forward everything else is gravy; preferably Curry Goat gravy but thats just me. Bookmark this woman, she is special. #blackexcellence


If Hench wins, I will do what all champions do: BATHE IN THE TEARS OF THE VANQUISHED COMPETITORS. No, really. Or I might just have a virtual drink (or six) with Natalie Zina Walschots - my newest nerdy bestie!


Follow CBC Canada Reads on the CBC Books website.