Books·How I Wrote It

How David A. Robertson wrote a picture book about the history of Canada's residential schools

The graphic novelist and author talks about how he wrote When We Were Alone, one of the finalists for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
The Winnipeg graphic novelist and author of When We Were Alone. (David A. Robertson/Portage & Main Press)

David A. Robertson is a Winnipeg-based author and graphic novelist. While Robertson has authored several graphic novels and comics, his picture book When We Were Alone represents his first attempt at writing for younger children. Featuring vibrant illustrations by Julie Flett, the book delves into the legacy of Canada's residential schools in an age-appropriate manner.

When We Were Alone was on the shortlist for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books.

In his own words, Robertson discusses how he wrote the resourceful and empowering children's book.

Seeding the idea

"I think that with a lot of literature, the creative seeds are planted before you even realize it. I remember spending time in Winnipeg with an Indigenous elder and spiritual advisor named Betty Ross — I wrote a book about her called Sugar Falls.

"Before she told me her story, she changed clothes, putting on a brightly coloured robe. I asked her why she changed clothes and she told me that when she had attended a residential school she was forced to wear a dull uniform. So now she always wears colourful clothes because of how it empowers her. When I was thinking about writing a children's book — because I didn't see a lot out there for kindergarteners about residential school history — I remembered that moment with Betty Ross and started with that beautiful image and worked from there."

Age-appropriate material

"I wanted to make sure the history that I was discussing in this book was something that was digestible and appropriate for younger readers. It was also about capturing the right tone and rhythm — this was something that I worked really hard at. A lot of that knowledge comes from myself being the father of five children. I've read them thousands of children's books and I see what they connect with. I've seen the ones that they want to read over and over again. 

"Conceptually, I had the idea of where I wanted to go with the story. I've discussed residential school history with my own children and I felt like I knew how far to go and where not to go in terms of subject matter. Any complicated subject needs to start with a foundation. I looked at the foundational teachings of residential school history and focused on the institutionalized attempts to strip identity away from Indigenous children. The book is based on universal experiences of children at these schools — including attempts to change their hair, clothing, language and familial connections — and I felt these were things kids could really empathize with." 

Brought to tears

"Working with illustrator Julie Flett was incredible. I'm a very visual writer — I have pictures in my head when I'm writing — and I always pictured her work in telling the story. I wrote the manuscript and we worked together, breaking down verses in the story to determine how many illustrations there should be and how they could match with the text.

"When we originally sent her the request to do it, she said no because she was too busy at the time. But I asked my publisher to send her the manuscript anyway, just to see what she thought. She read it and the very next day she reached out and said she would do it. The first time we connected to talk about it over Skype, we talked for over two hours about the story. We read the book together and we were crying together. We were discussing the images, the history and it was just this incredible connective moment between the two of us."

David Alexander Robertson's comments have been edited and condensed.