Books·How I Drew It

How Jay Odjick illustrated the Robert Munsch picture book Bear for Breakfast

The Algonquin artist discusses teaming up with the iconic storyteller to create a children's book that reflects Indigenous decor and language.
The children's book Bear for Breakfast is available in English, French and Algonquin. (Submitted by Jay Odjick, Scholastic Canada)

Jay Odjick is a writer, artist and television producer from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg community known for creating the Indigenous superhero Kagagi.

Odjick teamed up with children's author Robert Munsch to create the 2017 children's book, Blackflies. The two recently teamed up again to create a second picture book, Bear for Breakfast. In this tale, a boy named Donovan decides to catch a bear to eat for breakfast, just like his grandfather used to. 

In addition to drawing Bear for BreakfastOdjick was instrumental in ensuring the book is also available in English-Algonquin and French-Algonquin.

Odjick spoke to CBC Books about working with Munsch and more.

Creating pictures from words

"Even though Robert and I don't work closely together, it speaks to him trusting me and what I can do. He has the mindset of letting the artist create the art and the writer write the words. To me, that's perfect.

"I like the way we have things set up. I'll receive the manuscript and then what I'll do is what I call 'shotlisting,' like when you are creating a film. I review the Munsch's manuscript and identify the visuals that I think best represent the action or comedic moment on the page. So looking at each page in a manuscript, I'll pick a visual and angle that I think best represents the best opportunity for reader engagement.

I'll pick a visual and angle that I think best represents the best opportunity for reader engagement.

"The editors and Robert would then review and provide feedback. A lot of the time, it'll come down to how best to capture things in an interesting way. There's one shot where Donovan encounters an ant and we captured a cool forced perspective shot from an ant's point of view. Coming from a comics background, I like stuff like that. It mixes things up and makes every page interesting, even where just a kid conversing with an ant can be cool!"

An interior image from Bear for Breakfast, illustrated by Jay Odjick and written by Robert Munsch. (Scholastic Canada)

Comics-influenced art style

"I come from a background of having an American comic book artistic style. There's a lot of manga or anime cartoon influences in the stuff I do. The book looks very much like a mixture of those two things and a cartooning approach. I was nervous about how people would react to it because it's such a huge departure, but the response has been really good. It's a style I've got where the art is bubbly and cartoony with bright colours. I think it appeals well to kids."

Going digital

"I stopped working on pencil and paper a couple of years ago. At this point I work on an iMac, an iPad and Apple Pencil for my art. It's good for me because I was running out of physical space in my house because I had these gigantic comic artboards piled up all over the place! What's buried under that pile of paper? More paper! I like going digital and the ability to get rid of stuff like my scanner and all this gigantic equipment I had laying out. Now I can just draw something and send it to my editor directly from a device."

An interior image from Bear for Breakfast, illustrated by Jay Odjick and written by Robert Munsch. (Scholastic Canada)

An Indigenous setting

"I'm an Algonquin and I thought it was cool to put some decor in the book from various Indigenous nations. Some of the paintings you see in these houses in the book are of a medicine wheel and another was a painting of Turtle Island. You can also see some birch bark containers in the home decor. I've had a surprising amount of people come up to me and say they liked the Indigenous decor in the houses pictured in the book. It was a neat touch and also helped put some more colour in the background of the images. All too often, we don't think of these houses in fictional environments as living, breathing homes where people live and operate. They make the illustrations look lived in."

Keeping language alive

"I can't speak to every Indigenous community, but within my Anishinabeg community we are losing our language at an alarming rate because our speakers are getting older and dying. A lot of the kids never learn or never have the chance to learn it. I'm not an educator, but I wanted to help and work with educators. We all have our own gifts, talents and skill sets. One of the things I started on Twitter is the Algonquin word of the day, where it's a word in English translated into Algonquin and making digital flashcards that we put up on my website. 

I wanted to help and worked with educators. We all have our own gifts, talents and skill sets.

"I think Bear for Breakfast is the next logical step. Robert and I both waived all of our rights and royalties to this book, so if a First Nations community wants to print the book in their own language, then they can. Which is fantastic! I love that the publisher and Munsch can do that!"

An interior image from Bear for Breakfast, illustrated by Jay Odjick and written by Robert Munsch. (Scholastic Canada)

Jay Odjick's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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