Danielle Daniel's Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox is one of the most gorgeous releases of the season. At first glance, an uncommonly beautiful book about animals and feelings, it's also an introduction to the Anishinaabe tradition of totem animals, with Daniel's author's note explaining the tradition further. A most intriguing premise, and oh, those illustrations. So we got in touch with Danielle Daniel to learn a bit more about her work.
49th Shelf: There is a universality in your book’s message. Every child can identify with trying on different emotions and identities, and kids relate to animals so well—perhaps their literature trains them to? But you are also teaching something very specific in your story, about Anishinaabe totem animals. How did you decide that this was a story you wanted to tell?
Danielle Daniel: I know this might sound hokey, but I think this story chose me. When the creative muse hits like a lightning bolt, you can decide to pay attention and listen or pass. When you pass, I believe the idea moves on to someone else who is more receptive. I’m so happy I gave in and proceeded to paint what was calling and finally write the accompanied text, after the paintings returned home from Québec. This was also at a time where I aspired to help my son connect with his Métis roots. Animals were the gateway to talking about indigenous culture and provided a bridge to teach him about our Aboriginal roots.
49th Shelf: Can you tell us about your illustrations? Some of the images are of children wearing masks or accessories, and in others, the animal nature is more fully embodied. Were you working to achieve a balance between the two?
Danielle Daniel: As a painter and a writer, stories come to me either through words or images. In this case, it came through the illustrations first; more specifically, a series of twelve paintings I prepared for a public library in Québec. I wanted this body of work to resonate with children. The premise was a series of children dressing up as their totem animal. Through play and discovery they learn to identify with the animal, and they eventually become one. The wearing of the masks signifies the onset of their relationship, where the child is literally trying on the identity and emotions of the animal. In other illustrations, where the animal parts are "worn" by the child, this represents a more fully embodied relationship with the animal. I wanted to symbolize our interconnection with the animals that surround us. I also wanted to express that we share similar character traits and the animal world has much to teach us. The solo art show was called "Becoming," and these paintings became my illustrations for the book.
49th Shelf: I really admire the political nuance of your beautiful book, which is underlined by your dedication "to the thousands of Metis and Aboriginal children who grew up never knowing their totem animal." (The nuance reminds me of a similarly quietly powerful book, Julie Flett’s wonderful, We All Count—such a perfect title.) Do you also see this work as a political act, as well as a literary one?
Danielle Daniel: I suppose everything I paint and write is tinted with my personal and political beliefs. I am a passionate person with many opinions. The dedication in the book felt like it had to be there. It was carefully and wholeheartedly transcribed.
As a former elementary school teacher, I also hope it serves as a teaching tool—a way for parents to remember and discuss the ways First Nation People have been treated in this country. While I don’t expect parents to talk about residential schools with their five-year-olds, I do hope they will share the truth about Canada’s history with their children when the time is right.
49th Shelf: In an interesting thread recently, Chelsea Vowel (who blogs at http://apihtawikosisan.com) was tweeting about the personification of animals. She wrote, "The traits we see as 'belonging' to certain animals are often much different than the traits assigned by western culture." Which made me think of your book, which positively presents the idea of feeling like a fox, for example, or a wolf—two creatures that don’t get a great rap in the western canon. How were you conscious of this distinction as you created Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox?
Danielle Daniel: I wanted to gear this book towards younger children; therefore I chose to keep the character traits on the positive side. It’s clear that animals (like humans) have both positive and negative character traits. My objective was to pull the strengths forward to empower the child with these positive attributes.
49th Shelf: Can you share with us some other Canadian children’s books that you’re particularly excited about at the moment?
Danielle Daniel: My favourite children’s books right now are an eclectic mix. I am loving The Mosquito Brothers, living in Northern Ontario, this makes for a very amusing book to gift, as we cannot escape these tiny annoying insects. A book that can make me feel compassion and, dare I say, love for a mosquito is a winner in my opinion.
Another picture book I am excited to gift is Butterfly Park. I am in awe of illustrator, Elly MacKay’s laboured process to create such stunning illustrations. Bring on the butterflies!
My third selection has to be the new boxed-set of Deborah Ellis’ books: The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, Mud City and My Name is Parvana. I read the first three books to my students when I taught a grade 4/5 class on a military base in Petawawa, Ontario. One-third of the students had parents serving in Afghanistan. Reading these books became a lifeline and the best hour of our day. These are very important stories to read and share, then and now.
Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox © 2015 text and illustrations © 2015 by Danielle Daniel. Reproduced with permission of Groundwood Books Limited. www.groundwoodbooks.com
Danielle Daniel, a mixed-media artist and writer, is Métis. She was inspired to write Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, which began as a series of paintings, to encourage her young son to connect with his Aboriginal roots. Her art has appeared in many group exhibitions and solo shows in Quebec and Ontario, and her work has been published in international art magazines. A schoolteacher for many years, Danielle now teaches art part-time in Canada and the US. She is currently working on a memoir, Collateral Damage: A Love Story. She lives in Northern Ontario.
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