How Melanie Florence and François Thisdale wrote a picture book about missing and murdered Indigenous women

Missing Nimâmâ tells the tale of Cree girl named Kateri whose mother has gone missing. The story alternates between Kateri, who wonders what happened to her lost loved one, to her mother, who maintains an invisible presence throughout Kateri's life.

The book won the 2016 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. Below, author Melanie Florence and illustrator François Thisdale discuss the process of collaborating on this emotional story.

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Melanie on giving voice to the voiceless

I have friends on social media who have lost loved ones. I kept seeing that nobody was taking any notice. Years would go by and they would have no answers. They were left with no justice, no closure. They felt that either nobody was aware of the severity of the situation, or that it was being downplayed, or that nobody really cared. It all came back to who it was that was going missing: Indigenous women and girls.

People were lost with no answers. I'm a mom of a little girl and I couldn't help but think, what if something happened to me and she didn't know why and nobody cared? I felt it personally as I started reading news reports. I was struck by how callous people were about this. They were blaming these women for being in high risk situations, if they were sex workers or drug addicts. It took a young girl who survived being assaulted and thrown into the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg to get any attention. I thought I could write a story about this subject, maybe come at it from a different perspective. The best perspective I could come up with was as a picture book.

Melanie on the mother-daughter connection

For me, I was looking at it from the perspective of mother and daughter. I wanted to portray this relationship between the girl and her grandmother, who stepped up to take care of her, but also this existing relationship between the daughter and her missing mother. I tried to write it as something I would be comfortable passing on to my children.

There isn't an age limit on loss. I wanted to portray it in a way that a child who was going through a loss could relate to. It honestly just kind of wrote itself.

François on bringing pain to page

When I read it I was moved. I cried. I adopted my daughter from China and when you have been adopted, you realize you have been abandoned somewhere. My daughter, you could say she suffered a bit when we talked about her adoption. She found it hard to talk about her Chinese mom. This isn't the same as Kateri, whose mother is missing, but it is a loss inside you. I brought this information to build the character of Kateri.

When I read Melanie's manuscript for the first time, I thought it was made for my style. That back and forth between the mother's thoughts and daughter's voice, it was a special way to go through illustrations because my style is very moody, poignant with strange atmospheres.

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