Michael Kusugak celebrates the 30th anniversary of his book A Promise Is A Promise

The picture book A Promise Is A Promise, co-written with Robert Munsch, weaves together Michael Kusugak's grandmother's traditional Inuit tales with his own stories.
A Promise Is A Promise turns 30 in 2018. It was Michael Kusugak's first book. (michaelkusugak.com)
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Born in 1948 in Repulse Bay in what is now known as Nunvaut, children's writer Michael Kusugak grew up in the traditional Inuit way of life — hunting, fishing, building igloos in the winter and living in tents and sod huts in the summer. Kusugak has written 12 books for children and spends the year in classrooms weaving together traditional stories from his grandmother and his own stories.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of his first book A Promise Is A Promise, co-written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka.

The origins of A Promise Is A Promise

"I had these three boys then — I have four now — and when I put them to bed at night they'd say, 'Dad can you read us a book?' This was about 31 years ago. In those days, there were hardly any books about kids in Canada and none about Inuit kids. I had grown up with all these stories that my grandmother used to tell me when I was a little kid and one night I said, 'I'm not going to read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish anymore. I'm just going to tell you a story.'

"I put the books away and I told my boys the story about when I was a little kid growing up in Repulse Bay. In the springtime we used to go out to these islands — way out on Hudson's Bay — and we would camp there all spring. All the men would go off to hunt seals along the floe edge and the only people who were left on the island were us kids and our moms. The sun was out all the time, so we didn't have to sleep at night. We'd play outside all day and all night long. One night we were out fishing on the sea ice, catching fish like Arctic Char and cod, and then all these bubbles started to come up. Someone yelled, 'Qallupilluit!' We got scared, dropped everything and ran all the way back to the land. Then we stood on the rocks and waited for the Qallupilluit to come up out of the water. I told my boys that story and they said, 'Dad why don't you write it down? So I did.'"

The legend of Qallupilluit

"The Qallupilluit, my mother and all my aunts and uncles used to tell us, are all these creatures that live under the sea ice. They are old women trolls and they have a huge coat that is a baby-carrying coat. I was told at one time that they were made out of loon skins. These Qallupilluit don't have any babies of their own, so if you go down to the sea ice by yourself they will say, 'A ha! There's a little boy with no mother and no father.' They will put you on their backs. They will take you down under the sea ice and they'll never bring you back. We were always scared of those creatures. 

"Up on Hudson's Bay, it's very dangerous in the springtime, all along the coast where the tide goes up and down. The ice gets all broken and jumbled up. It's a lot of fun to go down there and jump from ice floe to ice floe, before you fall in the water. That's what we were being guarded against, I guess."

Inheriting stories

"My [grandmother's] stories were thousands of years old. They were passed down from generation to generation until they came to me. They are stories that teach you how to live in peace and harmony and how to take care of all the young people; how to raise them properly so that they become responsible adults. They are also stories that teach you all kinds of morals. They were wonderful."

Michael Kusugak's comments have been edited and condensed.