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David Alexander Robertson, author of Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story.The Canadian Press

There is a wealth of Indigenous literature to be explored, for adults and children both.

And as we struggle with the recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, trying to understand how this could have happened and how we can help affected communities heal, we can also turn to those works as a way to come together.

Jeffrey Canton spoke with eight Indigenous children’s authors from across Turtle Island to discover the books that shaped them and what inspires their writing now.

David Alexander Robertson (Swampy Cree) When We Were Alone (Highwater Press) and On the Trapline (Tundra)

My childhood reading I’ve always been driven by the absence in my childhood of Indigenous literature. Growing up in the ’80s, I can’t think of any books for kids about Indigenous people by Indigenous writers.

What inspires me now There really wasn’t a picture book like When We Were Alone about the residential schools for children as young as five. But I saw what was possible with books like Fatty Legs (Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton).

Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton.The Associated Press

Today, there are so many Indigenous artists creating vital work. Cherie Dimaline wrote one of the best books in the last decade, The Marrow Thieves (Cormorant). I feel picture books are like poems, so writers like Katherena Vermette and Rosanna Deerchild have had an impact on me. I love finding a rhythm and cadence to my picture book.

Brett Huson (Gitxsan), The Frog Mother (Highwater Press)

My childhood reading When I was growing up, I was raised as a Gitxsan person. We never identified as Canadian, because the Gitxsan people have been Gitxsan for tens of thousands of years. There were books about my people, but none for my age group. My third-grade teacher, Dr. Jane Smith, is a Gitxsan knowledge keeper who endeavoured to include our culture in the school curriculum. She always supported my way of sharing stories even at a young age. This is part of our pedagogy.

I also learned about our stories and knowledge systems from my wilp (this is a house group which is comprised of one or more families tied together through clan and history). My dad also did everything he could to keep me on the land and teach me what he remembered from his childhood though he was taken from home as a baby and kept at residential school, then Indian day school. When I published my first book, Dr. Smith sent me a package of fan mail from her students including a poem I had written when I was in Grade 3! Attached to the poem was a Post-it that said “I always knew you would be a writer.”

Michael Hutchinson (Misipawistik Cree Nation), The Case of the Burgled Bundle (Second Story Press)

My childhood reading I’m not sure if there were any well-known Indigenous children’s book authors when I was a kid but Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf is a book that I really enjoyed. His books were a family favourite. I was also a big fan of Gordon Johnston’s It Happened in Canada series. For a kid who lived at the edge of the bush or out on the farm, the Scholastic books that we ordered through school were like Christmas a few times a year.

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat.Handout

What inspires my writing Two books have been especially important to my writing. Volume 2, Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in Manitoba by Justices Hamilton and Sinclair because being from northern Manitoba, and then moving to Winnipeg, the stories of Helen Betty Osborne and Joseph Harper echoed throughout my childhood, teen years and early adulthood. This report and its findings spurred me to take an interest in the politics of my people within the colonial umbrella. Shortly after this I began to pursue a career as a journalist. I began to believe it was crucial for First Nation stories to be told. And Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Although he isn’t Cree, King’s writing is a good example of the wry humour and tongue-in-cheek delivery of conversation with familiar Neechies (Cree slang for “friends”). In all his books, King pulls down the story arch of mainstream story-telling and adds a bit of the trickster to his telling.

Katherena Vermette (Red River Métis/Michif), Road Allowance Era: A Girl Called Echo Vol. 4 (Highwater Press)

Katherena Vermette, author of The Break, in Toronto.Marta Iwanek for the Globe and M/The Globe and Mail

What I read when I was younger I don’t remember a whole lot of Indigenous books when I was coming up but those I knew figured prominently. In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier and Halfbreed by Maria Campbell (definitely not for kids though there was a version edited for high schools). I found those when I was a teenager. A bit later I found Ravensong by Lee Maracle and A Really Good Brown Girl by Marilyn Dumont. Those four are a pantheon for me.

In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier.The Associated Press

Picture book-wise, I have fond memories of the Nanabosho books by Joe McLellan. And when my kids were young we found The Moccasins, the first book illustrated by Julie Flett, written by Earl Einarson. We loved that one. Theytus produced some great picture books, well before anyone else seemed to be doing it.

Monique Gray Smith (Cree, Lakota and Scottish), When We Are Kind (Orca Books)

My childhood reading I never saw myself in any books I had read to me, which was always in school. We didn’t have any books in my house growing up. Not till Grade 7, when my dad started to sell encyclopedias. But we had a lot of stories. There were always stories being told. It was fertile ground for my young imagination. My dad used say to me, “Now Monique, did that really happen or is that one of your stories?” Ha!

It wasn’t until I was in nursing school that I read my first novel where I experienced myself on the pages – that was Bobbi Lee, Indian Rebel by Lee Maracle. It was incredibly validating and inspiring.

Bobbi Lee, Indian Rebel by Lee Maracle.The Associated Press

What inspires me now I want books that support both the child and the adult reading to connect with their emotions in a gentle way that is uplifting. There is enough pain, especially right now, that all of us can use the gentleness and teachings woven into children’s books.

Nicola Campbell (Nłe7kepmx, Syilx and Métis), Stand Like a Cedar (Highwater Press)

My childhood reading Despite not having the best grades in school, I was always a very avid reader. I recall Lynne Reid Banks’s The Indian in the Cupboard, but I don’t remember many other books with Indigenous content. However, my auntie Maria Campbell’s books were an inspiration for me. Her book Little Badger and the Fire Spirit remains a book that I saw myself in as a child. There’s a section about the little girl being raised by her grandparents, which was particularly impactful for me as I was passed around a lot between aunties and elders. My godparents especially had a huge role in raising me.

Who influences me now The work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and other Indigenous scholars have had a huge impact on my creative thought process. I wrote Shi-shi-etko for an assignment for a writing for children’s class that I took at UBC. It reflects the awakening I went through after coming to an understanding of how vast the impact of Indian residential schools was, especially since my own family and community were torn apart.

Writer and scholar Wendy Wickwire is another major influence. She’s not Indigenous but has dedicated her life’s work to her studies in our traditional territory. I’m not entirely sure I knew I was Nle7kepmx and Syílx and what it meant, when I was younger. I knew I was “Indian” but not Indian enough to be status Nle7kepmx and Syílx. I didn’t know what Interior Salish was and I didn’t know, that in the Nicola Valley, we were entirely surrounded by other Indigenous nations on every side of the lands where I grew up.

I grew up with elders who were multilingual, who covered their mouths when they spoke. Where the rhythms of their languages surrounded me. I often played under the table and listened to them tell stories amongst themselves while only catching words in order to understand the gist of their talk. I didn’t know it was different languages, I only knew their rhythms.

Rebecca Thomas (Mi’kmaw), I’m Finding My Talk (Nimbus Books)

What I read as a child Rita Joe’s poem, I Lost My Talk, which inspired my book, I’m Finding My Talk, is so meaningful to me. I felt she was speaking to me not only about surviving Shubenacadie Residential School but in re-learning Mi’kmaw, she was able to reclaim herself and her identity. I never saw anyone who looked like me or had a similar experience growing up represented in books, movies or TV. It was very difficult to feel connected to my identity when I didn’t see myself in stories.

I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe.The Associated Press

What inspires me now Indigenous people are reclaiming and taking back the space around our culture and our stories. It’s revolutionary. And for me that means writing the books I needed as a kid. I want my books to show the modern and often complicated life of Indigenous kids – stories that aren’t necessarily set on the reserve or our retellings of our legends but stories set right now in 2021 about a kid who’s nervous to go to the reserve because she grew up with her white mom. There’s a beauty in that mundanity.

Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley (Inuit, Cree, Scottish), Tanna’s Owl (Inhabit Media) and The Raven and the Loon (Inhabit Media)

What I read Because my father was an Anglican minister, I always had books in both English and Inuktitut to read. My father was unilingual so I often had to act as a translator for him. The Hudson Bay manager, George Porter, gave me access to his library and I spent a lot of time reading his books. I also read lots of comics too. And as I grew up, I not only discovered how nasty the residential school system was but I found out how to take shelter in books, escaping into a world that I could feel safe in. I remember reading Babar, The Five Chinese Brothers and The Story of Little Black Sambo.

Bonjour, Babar! by Jean De Brunhoff.

What inspires me now My writing does have activist overtones. As an Inuk person, I’m part of a marginalized community. And growing up, my culture wasn’t available to me. In residential school, we read about Dick and Jane! But growing up between two cultures was pivotal for me and now writing in my own language is so important. I want to break the “museumizing” of the Inuit. I did a lot of hunting with my father and I was responsible for the dog team and I had a very traditional upbringing when I was at camp with my family and I want to tell those stories like Tanna’s Owl, which is a true story. When I went hunting with my father, he told me traditional stories and shared oral histories with me and I want to share those too with young readers. But in telling these stories, like the story of the goddess Sedna who made all the sea animals, I want to make the story come alive. I want readers to feel like that they are actually there and see her as a figure of rebellion and opposition.

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