The Chat with Governor General's Award Winners David Alexander Robertson & Julie Flett

In the final installment in in our Governor General Award special edition of The Chat, we speak to David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett. Their book, When We Were Alone, won the 2017 Governor General's Award for Young People’s Literature (Illustration).

David Alexander Robertson

From the Peer Assessment Committee: “When We Were Alone is a poignant story of a dark and unforgettable part of Canadian history. David A. Robertson gently links the residential school experiences to a new generation with an enduring example of healing, love and understanding. Julie Flett’s simple but profound illustrations expertly complement the text and elevate this important story.”

David A. Robertson is an award-winning writer. His books include When We Were Alone (TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award nominee, Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature winner), Will I See? (winner of the Manuela Dias Book Design and Illustration Award Graphic Novel Category), and the YA novel Strangers. David educates as well as entertains through his writings about Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, reflecting their cultures, histories, communities, as well as illuminating many contemporary issues. David is a member of Norway House Cree Nation. He lives in Winnipeg.
 

Julie_Flett_2017_1

Julie Flett is an award-winning Cree-Metis author, illustrator and artist. She has received many awards, including the 2016 American Indian Library Association Award for Best Picture Book for Little You, written by Richard Van Camp (Orca Books), and the Canadian Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Award in 2015 for Dolphins SOS, written by Roy Miki (Tradewind Books) and in 2017 for My Heart Fills with Happiness, written by Monique Gray Smith (Orca Books), 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). Her own Wild Berries (Simply Read Books) was chosen as Canada’s First Nation Communities Read title selection for 2014–2015.

TheChat-GGs-2017

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Trevor Corkum: How did When We Were Alone come to life?

David A. Robertson: I think there are different levels to that. I remember reading through the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action early in 2016, and how they called for Residential School history to be taught from kindergarten all the way to Grade Twelve. I knew there were excellent books about the history out there, but a lack of resources for very young learners. So, I decided that I was going to write a picture book about Residential School history. That was the seed.

The book itself came to life, on my end, from drawing on the stories I’d heard from survivors over the years, and also talking about the history to my own children. I understood the history, and I knew how to address it in an age-appropriate way. Elder Betty Ross told me that she always wears colorful clothing now, because she wasn’t allowed to when she was younger at Cross Lake residential school. That whole idea of eliminating identity, and then the act of reclaiming it, was a huge inspiration. Finally, of course, there was Julie Flett. She was the only person I wanted to work with for When We Were Alone. Her work here is tender, powerful, sensitive, and beautiful. Everything came together in a good way.  

Elder Betty Ross told me that she always wears colorful clothing now, because she wasn’t allowed to when she was younger at Cross Lake residential school.

Julie Flett: Highwater Press contacted me a few years ago to ask if I’d like to work on a story. At the time I was preparing to teach, and working on a number of books with more than a few more deadlines to go. I didn’t think I could take on another project, but this is before I’d read the story. After reading the story I thought, okay yes! this is such an important story, it’s written so beautifully and tenderly—I just felt there was no question and we started work on the book within a few months.

I didn’t think I could take on another project, but this is before I’d read the story. After reading the story I thought, okay yes!

TC: When We Were Alone is the story of a curious young girl learning about her grandmother’s experience in residential school. Why was it important to tell this story?

DAR: For a few reasons. You know, reconciliation is really an “all hands on deck” kind of thing. It requires the involvement of every Canadian, but for every Canadian to be involved, they need to understand the truth. There is no reconciliation without truth. Truth involves knowing the history and understanding its impact. Reconciliation is restoring a relationship. Here’s the thing: First Nations people have nothing to reconcile. Perhaps within a family, a community, sure. But from a broader perspective, reconciliation requires the involvement of non-Indigenous Canadians.

You know, reconciliation is really an “all hands on deck” kind of thing. It requires the involvement of every Canadian, but for every Canadian to be involved, they need to understand the truth.

What is your role? That’s the question I ask people. Now, Indigenous peoples, I feel like our role is to provide that truth by telling our stories. That does two things: it provides the tools Canadians need to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. It also is an act of healing, within families and communities. I’ve lived this. So, reconciliation is this very complicated movement that I think sometimes we oversimplify by relegating it to an all-encompassing buzzword. We need to unpack it a bit. So, all of this means: When We Were Alone is a story of truth, and if every child reads it, and understands it, then I think we’ll be in a better place, collectively.

TC: An illustrated children’s book is a collaborative endeavour. What was it like to work together on the project?

DAR: Fluid. Organic. Powerful. Emotional. It was a dream to work with Julie. I remember the first time we spoke. I was in Thompson, and she was in Vancouver, I believe. We spoke for at least two hours about the story. We read through it together, and with each page of manuscript, we discussed illustrations, and what they would look like, and how they would serve the story. It was a conversation I won’t ever forget. I remember laughing and crying and knowing, above all else, that we were doing something important. And I think Julie felt that too.

It was a conversation I won’t ever forget. I remember laughing and crying and knowing, above all else, that we were doing something important. And I think Julie felt that too.

Then, when she was working on the illustrations, I saw them as they came in, but I really just let her do her thing. That’s the thing about illustrated literature. I am a storyteller, but so is the illustrator. We both are storytellers, and I tell stories in one way, and she in another. And she’s really, really good at it. In the end, we came up with this once in a lifetime, beautiful story.

JF: I knew that working on a book about residential school was going to be an enormous responsibility, and I didn’t take this lightly. Most importantly, I felt safe working with David and with the publisher. David had written the story so gently and sensitively—in publishing you don’t always know who you’re going to be working with and co-telling a story is a very intimate process. Even though we may not have spent a lot of time together after our first meetings, which were beautiful and telling in and of themselves, as an illustrator, you’re spending a lot of time with the story. The way David treated the text spoke to his integrity with the content. Both David and I have a strong connection to children, their curiosity and deep care—and I think this is reflected in the work we did together.

David had written the story so gently and sensitively—in publishing you don’t always know who you’re going to be working with and co-telling a story is a very intimate process.

TC: What’s your litmus test for great stories for young people?

DAR: I mean, we can get into the technical aspects of a “great story.” The rhythm of the story, the tone, finding the right times to use repetitive phrases, etc. All of those things are extremely important to engage readers, but also to keep them reading a story over and over again. Stories that are able to do these things, to find the right pitch, right words, right characters, right content, are the stories that become timeless. So, just the act of reading it should be this incredibly immersive experience. The words should roll off your tongue, the pictures should sing, and both the words and pictures need to compliment each other in the best possible way.

Now, for When We Were Alone, the litmus test to me was “Am I reaching kids?” That requires empathy, and engagement. Kids needs to care for the grandchild and the grandmother, they need to find things they can relate to, and they need to want to learn more. I have found this to be the case. When I read the book to a classroom, and after I’m done I have fifty questions, I know the kids are engaged and they want to learn more. And I know Julie and I have done our jobs.  

JF: I often go into our local children’s book store or library and gather a stack of children’s books to read. I sit in one of their reading chairs with my stack beside me. The ones I’m drawn to either make me laugh out loud, or speak to vulnerability in earnest ways (not moralizing). They warm the heart—or break your heart (open). I find myself starting to look around the room for a child to read to. It’s not something I would do, but that’s the feeling I get. The last time I went to the book store, I made sure to bring my son (who is a young adult), so I had someone to share the books with.

TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?

DAR: So, right now, in no particular order, I am reading these authors: Vikki Vansickle, Angie Abdou, Alice Kuipers, Katherena Vermette, Cherie Dimaline, Jael Richardson, Melanie Florence. (To name just a few!)

JF: Yes, I would recommend all of this year’s nominees for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards and the GG’s!  I recently stopped by Vancouver's Kidsbooks store to pick up a book that I had special ordered by one of my favourite illustrators, Laura Carlin, and I picked up a number of books by the CCBC finalists. My son and I read some of them together. A few of them made me cry, they were so powerful, and he "oohed" and "aahed" at a number of the illustrations.

I also recommend some of the books I read over the summer: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost, Life Among the Qallunaat by Mini Aodla Freeman, Sharon Proux-Turner’s what the aunty’s say and Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson (I’m already looking forward to the second in the series).

I did a cover recently for a new book that’s not yet been released called The Journey Forward with novellas by Monique Gray Smith and Richard Van Camp, McKellar & Martin Publishing Group that I’m excited about. Keep an eye out for this one.
Sitting beside me right now is The Fog by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Kenard Pak. It’s beautiful! Kyo is one of my favourite children’s book authors.

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November 28, 2017
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