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February 19, 2015

The magic of First Nations picture books

little-you“That is where change is occurring, when we can appreciate each others’ languages, stories and art.” –Julie Flett, Cree-Métis and Award-Winning Illustrator

I’ve been thinking a lot about First Nations issues these last few months, and have determined that the one useful thing I can do, in addition to the thinking, is reading. Not just reading either, but actually buying books by First Nations writers, supporting the publishers who support them. Buying and reading books by First Nations women’s writers in particular,  and helping to amplify these writers’ voices. I’ve been thinking a lot since reading Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, about “the dead Indian” and how it was public policy to exterminate First Nations culture (and people) for centuries. And perhaps, less indirectly than you’d think, it still is.

So how does one counter this? Well, by (as I’ve said) buying and reading the work of living, breathing First Nations authors, making these a part of my canon. And then by doing the same with my children, so that it never occurs to them that there is such thing as a Dead Indian. So that they only ever know First Nations cultures as being rich with art and story, with a proud but difficult history. And with the calibre of children’s books being produced these days by First Nations authors, conveying all this is no challenge at all.

beautiful thing about horsesWhat’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses?, by Richard Van Camp and George Littlechild

This book—Richard Van Camp’s second children’s book—was recommended to me when I was raving about Little You. It’s out of print, but I bought a used copy. It begins with Richard asking a simple question one day from his hometown of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, where the temperature today is forty below: “What’s the most beautiful thing you know about horses?” It’s a strange, meandering text, perfectly complimented by Littlechild’s illustrations. I like the book because it underlines the fact that First Nations people are undeniably present in the world—we see photos of Richard’s family members, the people to whom he’s asking his question. He’s asking because horses are foreign to his people so far in the north—in his language, Dogrib, the word for horse is “tlee-cho”, which means “big dog.” (‘When did dogs grow into horses? When did horses shrink into dogs? Do horses call dogs “little cousins”?’) He asks the question to his friend, George Littlechild, who is Cree. ‘The Cree word for horses is “mista’tim”. It means “big dog”—just like tlee-cho in the Dogrib language. Isn’t it neat how both our languages call horses “big dogs”?’ Emphasizing that First Nations are NationS indeed—separate but connected, each with its own language and culture. Which is a complicated thing to convey in a story, but Van Camp does it effortlessly. What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? is a book that takes a single question, and instead of beginning to answer instead opens the world up wide.

sweetest-kuluSweetest Kulu, by Celina Kalluk and Alexandria Neonakis

Published by the award-winning Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned publishing company located in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the only publisher in the Canadian Arctic, Sweetest Kulu is a sweet lullaby to a beloved baby whose existence is tied to the world all around. “Kulu” is an Inuktitut term of endearment, and indeed, this baby is adored—by the sun with its “blankets and ribbons of warm light,” by Snow Buntings that bring flowers, and by Caribou who “chose patience for you, cutest Kulu. He gave you the ability to look to the stars, so that you will always know where you are and may gently lead the way.” The message of the book, to the baby, is You Belong Here, which is powerful and important for political reasons, but is also an absolutely perfect way to welcome a new baby to the world.

not-my-girlNot My Girl by Christy Jordon-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and Gabrille Gimard

Not My Girl is a sequel to the When I Was Eight, both picture books based on the books for older readers, Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home, memoirs of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s experiences at a residential school. In Not My Girl, she returns home  to the Arctic after two years at school, and finds she is a stranger to her family, that she has lost her language and taste for her own culture. In a story that’s wholly compelling to young readers, Margaret must rediscover her place in her community and reconnect with her family. Not My Girl makes clear the trauma of children being removed from their families, suggests the painful legacy of residential schools, but ends on an empowering note as she learns to drive her own dogsled as her mother cheers her on.

layout_oct23.inddWe All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers, by Julie Flett

Has there ever been a more subtly subversive title for a First Nations book than We All Count? In this book, which teaches the numbers 1-10 in Cree, Flett celebrates bonds between family and to the land, the illustrations gorgeous and compelling in a style that has become Flett’s signature. Iris, my youngest daughter, is as crazy about this book as she is about Little You. Her favourite image is for “Three aunties laughing.” She likes to point to the picture and tell me, “Happy.”


5 thoughts on “The magic of First Nations picture books”

  1. Ann Marie says:

    Kerry, just purchased a couple of Julie Flett’s books – looking forward to reading and baking and posting…

  2. Christy says:

    I got Little You from the library last fall and LOVED it! Will check out the others as well. Thanks for the suggestions 🙂

  3. Taisa says:

    Thanks for this great list- a couple here are new to me and I’m excited to check them out! We love Berry Magic by Teri Sloat and Betty Huffmon, and another of Richard Van Camp books Welcome Song for Babies.

    1. Kerry says:

      Thank you, Taisa.

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