News and Interviews

"I’m Coming in as a Book Lover": CBC Canada Reads Panelists on their Upcoming Literary Battle


CBC Canada Reads is unlike any other book prize in the country - rather than a jury selecting a book in private, the process is not just out in the open but televised, with panelists going to the mat for their chosen title throughout the four-day debaet process. The competition takes the idea of a literary prize and makes it interactive, with the selection process becoming a story in and of itself for readers to see and experience. 

This year is shaping up to be a particularly memorable one, with five high-profile panelists: fashion icon Jeanne Beker defending Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto; Juno Award winning singer Jully Black defending The Marrow Thieves by Cherie DimalineMozhdah Jamalzadah, host of The Mozhdah Show, defending The Boat People by Sharon Bala; storm chaser and weather expert Greg Johnson defending Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson; and Battlestar Galactica actor Tahmoh Penikett defending American War by Omar El Akkad

We spoke to all five panelists about their strategies, how they first came to love the books they're defending, and how they might celebrate if they emerge victorious next week. We hear who's leaning into kindness in their strategy, who loves to snack while reading, and which author can look forward to a libatious treat from their panelist if they're lucky enough to win. 

The Canada Reads debates will take place in front of live audiences over four days from March 26 to 29, 2018, and will be broadcast on CBC Radio One, CBC and online at  Each day of the competition, one book will be eliminated by the panellists, until a winner is voted the must-read book for Canadians in 2018.

Open Book:

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

Jeanne Beker (defending Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto):


I'm afraid to say I have no real strategy, except for tapping into good old fashioned passion. On a personal level, Mark Sakamoto's book resonates with me profoundly, since I'm the child of Holocaust survivors and was raised with the notion of always  keeping an open heart and open mind. I'm also very passionate about the concept of intergenerational storytelling. These tales of toughness and tenacity are all we have to give one another—and they ultimately help define who we are.  Of course, as I prepare for the debates, I'm voraciously reading all the books we'll be discussing, though comparing them is really like comparing apples and oranges: a daunting exercise to be sure!

Jully Black (defending The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline):

My strategy is to tell the truth. The truth is something you don’t have to practice. It’s always available to you, and it’s where I’m most confident and comfortable. And I plan to be kind. My strategy is not to "take out" any other book, it is to uplift my own.

Mozhdah Jamalzadah (defending The Boat People by Sharon Bala):

Having a powerful strategy is always important in a debate, but I’ve never had to debate with one of my favourite singers or sit across from a fashion icon I’ve looked up to for as long as I can remember. I can tell you this is quite the different experience for me. The best thing I can do is speak from the heart. I believe in the book The Boat People. I connect with it, not just because I’m a refugee myself, but because it’s very relevant. It won’t take much for Canadians to see the importance and relevance of this book.

Greg Johnson (defending Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson):


A key aspect of my strategy is going to be to draw from the book itself and from Craig's own words and wisdom. Looking at this year's theme — "One Book to Open Your Eyes" — I also think the biggest advantage Precious Cargo has is that every single Canadian will find something eye opening about this book. The issues addressed in some of the other books are super important. Each book on its own has a very clear message around opening readers’ eyes. However, I really think Precious Cargo achieves that goal best, partly because of its first person approach, and partly because some of the other books are going to appeal more to certain reads than others. In American War and The Marrow Thieves, for instance, you have this fantasy/dystopian thing going on that might not be for everyone. But Precious Cargo will appeal to the masses. Some of the other books may be more "literary," but my book is relatable and it’s a story that all Canadians need to hear. I also love that it makes you laugh. Humour is absolutely essential in storytelling, in my opinion.

Tahmoh Penikett (defending American War by Omar El Akkad):

Does a general inform the enemy of his strategy before engaging?! I must keep my strategy secret, of course... In all honesty, I have no experience with live debates. I’m coming in as a book lover, who will hopefully be able to retain as much as I can of these five great books and perform on game day.

Open Book:

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


I've been doing most of my reading at my country house, in Northumberland County, Ontario, in the relaxing little artsy village of Warkworth, that's very much about culture and most importantly, is a close-knit community. 



Physically, I was on a plane to Madrid for an incredible trip. Mentally, I was in a particular place too. I first read The Marrow Thieves very shortly after my mom’s death. And I was quite melancholy when I first got the book, but it’s crazy how quickly my imagination was able to be sparked by this book.


I was at home sitting at my dining room table the first time I read my chosen book. I have a habit of eating while I read… actually I’m pretty much eating and reading all the time.


I started reading it on an airplane and finished it while I was in Mexico on a winter getaway with family.



I started reading it on an airplane and finished it while I was in Mexico on a winter getaway with family.

I believe I started reading it at my cabin. You can always tell whether a book is grabbing in the first ten pages. There was no doubt I was going to be into this book. I had a hard time putting it down once I started it, in fact.

Open Book:

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


Perhaps by buying my nearest and dearest friends and family members copies of the book! But then again, I'll likely be doing that anyway since I feel so strongly that everybody could gain something wonderful from the message this beautiful book imparts.


I will celebrate with a gluten-free Pizzaville pizza that has spinach, pesto and marinara mix, green olives, pineapple, double jalapeño, basil, and I might sprinkle some goat cheese… just for that day (it would be a cheat day). Then I’m going to have some Amaretto with some Sprite. Don’t tell my nutritionist, please! And a bag of SkinnyPop popcorn. In my mom’s pajamas, feet up, watching Netflix. Boom.



Celebration for me always consists of great food and great wine. I’m hoping that whichever book ends up winning, that we could all, panelists, authors and the Canada Reads team, celebrate that win together.


That’s a really good question. I think the celebration would be Craig’s, to be honest. I’m just a messenger. The message was written by him. So for me a good celebration would be buying Craig a drink!


If American War wins the competition, I want to break bread and drink with all the panellists and writers and celebrate their fantastic work and making the world a better place by sharing their stories.


Jeanne Beker has covered style for over 30 years as the host of Fashion Television, which had viewers in more than 130 countries, and as the former editor-in-chief of FQ and SIR magazines. She is also the author of five books, including her 2010 autobiography, Finding Myself in Fashion. Jeanne was a contributing editor at the Toronto Star, the Kit and a columnist for Metro, the National Post, the Globe and Mail and Post City magazine. She is currently style editor at the Shopping Channel and host of the series Style Matters. Her contributions have been recognized with the Order of Canada (2014), a star on Canada's Walk of Fame (2016), a Canadian Screen Achievement Award (2013) and the Canadian Award of Distinction from the Banff World Media Festival (2012).

With her powerhouse vocals, hilarious personality and love of people, Jully Black has been dubbed "Canada's queen of R&B" by fans and peers. She has shared the stage with superstars such as the Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, Celine Dion, Elton John and Etta James. Her passion for philanthropy has taken her from the shantytowns of Bangladesh to the villages of South Africa and all across Canada. As a woman of faith, she champions important causes and believes in using her career as a platform to inspire others to celebrate the greatness that lies within each of us.

Dubbed the "Oprah of Afghanistan," Kabul-born, Vancouver-raised Mozhdah Jamalzadah came to Canada when she was just five years old. When Mozhdah's father wrote a protest poem inspired by an acid attack on a group of Kandahar schoolgirls, Mozhdah set it to music and turned it into a hit. Afghan Girl was 2009's song of the year in Afghanistan, and in 2010 Mozhdah was invited to the White House to perform it for Michelle and Barack Obama. The attention led to a hosting gig at a TV station in Afghanistan. The Mozhdah Show focused on families, tackling taboo subjects from child labour to divorce. These bold conversations led to death threats, and Mozhdah was advised to return to Canada. Today, Mozhdah continues to release new music and contributes to charitable work benefiting orphans supported by the Azizi Foundation. 

Greg Johnson is one of North America's top professional storm-chasers and severe weather experts. Selected as one of Canada's Top 100 Explorers by Canadian Geographic Magazine, he is also an accomplished photographer, speaker and workshop leader. A graduate of Acadia University, he has turned his passion for capturing nature's most beautiful and deadly displays of severe weather into a full-time career, and is best known for his work on the show, Tornado Hunters

Born in Whitehorse, Yukon, Tahmoh Penikett is the son of former Yukon premier Tony Penikett and Lulla Sierra Johns of the White River First Nation. Best known for playing Karl "Helo" Agathon on SyFy's television series Battlestar Galactica, Tahmoh has also starred in TV series Supernatural, Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, the Showcase time travel show, Continuum and, most recently, the Netflix series, Altered Carbon and NBC's Taken.