Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Julie Flett on Illustration and First Nations Children's Literature

A conversation about holey socks, wallpaper patterns, big suns, and all the exciting things happening in First Nations children's literature in Canada right now.

Book Cover Little You

Right now is a particularly amazing time for Canadian children's literature, in particular due to a fleet of incredible illustrators whose work has catapulted us into a golden age. Julie Flett is one of them. 

Julie Flett is an award-winning author, illustrator, and artist currently living in Vancouver, BC. She is Cree-Métis. Julie studied fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal and Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver. She received the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature for her book Owls See Clearly at Night (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer): A Michif Alphabet (L’alphabet di Michif), and most recently Julie's book Wild Berries/Pakwa che Menisu was chosen as the First Nation Communities READ title selection for 2014–2015. As the author and illustrator of the 2014–2015 selection, Julie is the first-time recipient of the 2014 Aboriginal Literature Award sponsored by the Periodical Marketers of Canada.

She is also remarkable for illustrating Little You by Richard Van Camp, the only book my baby daughter would pay attention to during her first 16 months of life. Which is to say that I'm very familiar with Julie Flett's work, so I was pleased to have her answer my questions about holey socks, wallpaper patterns, big suns, and all the exciting things happening in First Nations children's literature in Canada today.


Julie Flett Let's All Dance

Kerry Clare, 49th Shelf Editor: Your illustrations manage to combine refreshing simplicity with the most exquisite detail; I’ve written elsewhere about how much I love the hole in the mother’s sock in Little You, your picture book written by Richard Van Camp (which I have read 978 times). How do you strike such a balance?

Julie Flett: Thank you, Kerry!

I’m interested in the everyday experience, in the intimacy of my subject matter. For Little You, I thought a lot about my son as a baby and toddler. The page with the hole in the mother’s sock reads, “Let’s all dance, let’s all sing,” and the image for this page came to me right away. I often played music for my son when he was a baby and we would dance around the kitchen or living room together.

It’s funny because I couldn’t quite capture the feeling of the dance in the drawing—I had some very awkward sketches to start. I often draw from a photograph or real life, especially when there’s motion involved (and in this case, the baby’s expression), and didn’t have a picture to draw from.

Around this time I happened to run into a friend with her baby at the grocery store and asked if she would mind having her partner take a picture of her and her baby dancing. They were happy to do this and sent me a photograph later that day. It was perfect, except that they had forgotten to include feet—that’s when I had a memory of holes in socks and of course, mismatched socks (on the baby on one of the following pages).

I think a lot of the drawings in my work come from memories, family, and friends and that’s probably why the images feel connecting. It’s real life experience and often, visually, everything is pared down to the essential.

Julie Flett Dolphin SOS

49th Shelf: I’m also really drawn to the prints in your images—the patterns on the clothes in Little You, the wallpaper in Dolphin SOS. Are these of your design as well? Do you have a background in textiles? 

JF: I design all of the patterns and they often have symbolic meaning—certain flowers or motifs are chosen for various reasons, often related to what’s happening in my life at a given time.

My mom was a textiles artist, not in a formal way but she did a lot of textile work when my sister and I were growing up. She also had a weaving shop in the '70s, and collected vintage fabric from the '20s and '30s, which she would use in her own work.

I also studied textiles briefly at Concordia University and the Alberta College of Art, and of course I’ve always had an interest in indigenous textiles.

Wild Berries Julie Flett

49th Shelf: Your book, Wild Berries, as well as your others, seems to have its illustrations anchored by a perfectly round, vividly coloured sun or moon at the top of the page (which is a similar image to the header on your website).

What can you tell us about your relationship to this shape in your art?

JF: It’s true, the sun and moon tend to be an anchor both conceptually and visually. In some of the books I’m communicating a day-to-night theme so you’ll see the sun on each page subtly moving across the landscape. In Wild Berries, Clarence and his grandma “okoma” start berry picking in the morning and end as the sun is going down.

We often talk about these little details when I’m on a school visit. I’ll ask the kids about some of the reoccurring motifs that they might have noticed as I was reading and they enjoy guessing; sometimes they point out motifs that I hadn’t even noticed.

I’m also interested in the symbolism of the sun and moon—there are some beautiful creation stories about how the sun and moon come to be; I would love to illustrate one of these.

49th Shelf: You’ve been chosen to create the poster for the 2015 TD Children’s Book Week in May, whose theme is, “Hear Our Stories: Celebrating First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Literature." What’s your take on the landscape of First Nations kids’ books at the moment? How has it changed in the decade you’ve been making books, if at all?

Book Cover The Moccasins

JF: Our First Nation, Métis, and Inuit communities vitally need books with text and artwork that reflect our cultures and realities. Our works are also critical resources for increasing awareness and understanding in Canadian society, contributing relevancy to literacy programs, improving curricula, at all levels, across Canada, and adding significantly to the body of Canadian literature.

It has been expanding over the last decade, and I’m so glad to be a part of this shift. I came into the field unexpectedly. I was asked to do the illustrations for a beautiful story called The Moccasins, by Earl Einarson. The publisher, Theytus Books, a First Nations owned-and-operated publisher of indigenous voices, really got me started.

Simply Read Books approached me a number of years later about submitting a project proposal. I submitted a proposal to work on an alphabet book about the Michif language.

Book Cover Owls See Clearly at Night

After the book was published, one of my mom’s friends said something a little disheartening to me. She said she’d seen a wonderful article in the Globe and Mail on my book Owls See Clearly at Night (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer): A Michif Alphabet (L’alfabet di Michif) and thought “how lovely and interesting,” but couldn’t find any reason to pick up an introduction to an indigenous language picture book for her grandchildren. She did end up picking it up and was happy she had.

I’m making books I would have wanted to see when I was little, that I would have shared with my own son and community. They’re not meant to be obscure. They’re meant to be accessible to everyone. Another friend told me that her 13-year-old son had a copy of Owls See Clearly at Night, and when they were renovating their home, he was asked to pack up all of his belongings for a period and he asked his mom if he could keep a couple of books out—one of them was Owls See Clearly at Night.

Book Cover Dolphin SOS

It meant so much to hear that the book is accessible and also held dear outside of the bounds of race or age group. That is where change is occurring, when we can appreciate each others' languages, stories and art. 

I read Thomas King’s children’s books to my son when he was little. We nearly fell out of bed laughing while reading one of his stories—I think it must have been Coyote Sings to the Moon. I recently read one of his stories, Coyote’s New Suit, to my friend’s son. Her son is four and I’d forgotten how long the story was. We were at the park and while I was reading he had to get up a couple of times to run around and squeeze the horn on his bike. I did ask him a couple of times if he wanted me to stop reading but he really didn’t want me to—he had to find out what happened to the coyote’s suit. 

The stories are for the children—well, they’re for all of us—and again, they’re not meant to be obscure. They’re culturally relevant, they present a unique world view, they’re important contributions to our communities. And the stories are universally accessible, which really comes across when reading to children.

Book Cover Wild Berries

Last year one of my books, Wild Berries/Pakwa che menisu, was one of the nominated titles selected for the First Nation Communities READ program and received the inaugural Periodical Marketers of Canada Aboriginal Literature Award. The book selections and recommendations are made by First Nations librarians working in and with First Nations communities. It’s an ongoing project that encourages and reminds libraries across Canada to purchase, display, read, and discuss all of the selected titles. These sorts of programs help tremendously. 

I think that the next ten years is going to be an exciting time for indigenous children’s literature.

49th Shelf: What other books by Canadian authors and illustrators do you recommend? What are some titles you’re excited about?

JF: Canadian children’s book authors I’m excited about and recommend are Richard Van Camp, Thomas King, Tomson Highway, Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, Michael Kusugak, Roy and Slavia Miki, Ningeokuluk Teevee, Penny M. Thomas (Powwow Counting in Cree), Maria Campbell, Leah Marie Dorion, Victor Lethbridge, Rene Andre Meshake, Andrea Spalding, and Roy Henry Vickers, just to start!

I also fell in love with a series of picture books I found at the public library a couple of years ago, by Eagle Crest Books: Picking Flowers, My Grandma, My Grandpa, and In the Forest

Books that have just been released or will be released later in the year and recommend: Terra White, Where I Belong; Monique Gray Smith, My Heart Fills With Happiness; Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden, The Moon Speaks Cree: A Winter Adventure.

Book Cover We All Count

Right now I’m working on illustrations for the reissue of Tomson Highway’s Dragonfly Kites. Native Northwest recently released a board book that I worked on called We All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers, and will release the second in the series, Colours of the Woodlands, later this year.

I love and recommend the work of illustrators and authors Julie Morstad, Jon Klassen, Isabelle Arsenault, Leanne Shapton, Kyo Maclear, Fanny Britt, Geoff McFetridge, Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber—to name a few!


Julie Flett recommends great First Nations literary resources for further reading:

Comments here

comments powered by Disqus

More from the Blog