Books·In Conversation

Julie Flett is reclaiming Indigenous themes of community and language through her children's books

The award-winning Cree Métis illustrator and author talks about her latest book Birdsong and her approach to creating picture books.
Julie Flett is a Cree-Métis author, illustrator and artist based in British Columbia. (Greystone Books)

Julie Flett is a Cree Métis author, illustrator and artist. Her focus as an Indigenous artist and author revolves around intergenerational storytelling and connecting children with language and heritage through literature. 

She has illustrated several picture books including Little YouMy Heart Fills with Happiness and We Sang You Home. Her children's books have won awards and recognition: The David A. Robertson-authored When We Were Alone won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustration and Birdsong was a finalist for the same prize in 2019.

Birdsong was also a finalist for the $50,000 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and the $20,000 Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award.

The prolific artist spoke with CBC Books about her art, her career and her approach to Indigenity in children's literature. 

How did you get your start as an artist?

"I did about a year at Alberta College of Art when I was pretty young. I wasn't quite ready at that point, but I took a textiles course and some foundation stuff. I then went to what is now Emily Carr University of Art + Design‎ in Vancouver. At the time, Emily Carr didn't grant degrees but I took film courses in the first year. 

"I then transferred to Concordia University to finish up a studio arts degree. I didn't study illustration or anything like that. It was conceptual work in that time."

What made you decide to illustrate and write children's books?

"My sister was working for Theytus Books, which was one of the first publishers of Indigenous voices in Canada. She had come across a manuscript for a children's book. She knew that I did art and wondered if I wanted to work on it. 

"She sent me the manuscript for The Moccasins by Earl Einarson. I put together some drafts of collage art that I did on the computer. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing! I went to fine arts school but had no training in illustration. 

"I sent it in and they decided they wanted to work with me. That was the first book that I worked on. It was the most beautiful experience. I loved working on it. I wasn't the greatest illustrator at the time, but it had heart. 

We didn't have any books representing us, our parents or grandparents when we were growing up.

"I was working in the Downtown Eastside at the time in a program for Indigenous students learning print production. One of the parents, who was an elder, came in one day and I had the book beside me. She picked it up and flipped to the page with the four boys in the bedroom and said, 'This is how we used to sleep when we were little!'

"It occurred to me then that we didn't have any books representing us, our parents or grandparents when we were growing up. That hit me. It was so beautiful to work on and I decided that this is what I want to do." 

Governor General Julie Payette presents David A. Robertson and Julie Flett with the Governor General's Literary Award for English young people's literature, illustrated. (The Canadian Press/Patrick Doyle)

A lot of your work focuses on the reclamation of Indigenous voices and heritage through literature. Why?

"My Cree and Métis grandparents were multilingual. When I started working on kids books, I was learning about languages that my grandparents had spoken. I started with the Michif language. As I was getting to know more about it, I recognized a few words or phrases that my grandmother had sung around the house. 

"I didn't think too much about it at the time, but they were rhythmic. Mostly what I remember is the food — the stews and soups, things like that. I recognized those when I was learning a little bit about Michif. 

It occurred to me that an introduction to the language was something that I could do and pass along to my community through my artwork in kids books.

"It was then I did the book titled Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet. From there I started to learn a beginner Cree, a language that my grandfather had spoken. Just before he passed away, I'd spoken to him on the phone and I asked him if you could share something with me in Cree. I've hardly finished asking before he started speaking to me in the language, as though he'd been waiting for me to ask him.

"It occurred to me that an introduction to the language was something that I could do and pass along to my community through my artwork in kids books. I didn't have anything like that when I was a kid."

How much research did you do in learning about your heritage and Indigenous languages?

"It was connecting with the community, including family members and linguists. There's definitely a coming home; it was celebratory. I was learning and reconnecting to so many of the teachings through language.

"There was a connection to the teachings through speaking with family members like my dad. I was getting to know them in a new way."

An interior page from Birdsong by Julie Flett. (Greystone Books)

What does your creative process look like?

"I started out with creating a digital collage with The Moccasins. That book took three weeks to put together. I usually take about six months to eight months to work on a book these days. 

What I've noticed over the years is that I'm often starting with illustrating the landscape. That often sets the tone and the colour scheme for the book.

"A lot of the time, I start on paper and create thumbnail drawings of the art. For the last few books, I've worked with pastels on paper and then I scan it into the computer. It gets composited digitally and I've just started to get to know how to work with brushes in Photoshop.

"Before that, it was just collage work. That's been a life saver and it's playful too. What I've noticed over the years is that I'm often starting with illustrating the landscape. That often sets the tone and the colour scheme for the book. So I'm using landscape a lot as a starting point."

Your books often have themes of connecting with community. Why do you find yourself returning to these themes in your work?

"With a book like Birdsong, it's a book about the intergenerational friendship between two neighbours, an older artist named Agnes and the young girl Katherena, told from a child's point of view. Agnes sees the child as an equal. These are the relationships that are very familiar to me. Birdsong really honours the makers and artists from my childhood." 

How important is it for you to help children better understand their identity and culture through books?

"I think about my dad. I think about my nieces, my son and myself, my sister. You can't only learn the language in a book. It's just one of the resources. This is something that I contribute to through my artwork. 

"But there's a video online where a father who is Cree named Wayne T. Jackson is reading my book We All Count to his daughter. It's so beautiful to see and she's listening and engaged. It makes me think about something that we didn't have. And I'm so glad. It's something we can share now."

What makes you say yes to working on a project with an author compared to your own work?

"I feel so lucky to have worked with incredible authors: Tomson Highway, Monique Gray Smith, Richard Van Camp, Katherena Vermette, David A. Robertson and more. You get so attached to the work and to the collaboration. There's always this incredible synchronicity that happens when I work with authors." 

How do you define success for books like Birdsong and your career overall?

"It's about getting to see ourselves represented in books. I get lots of messages from moms and caregivers. They tell me that their children see themselves in my books.

"The fact that my books are being received is success to me!"

An illustration by Julie Flett, in the book, 'When We Were Alone', by David A. Robertson (HighWater Press/CBC)

Julie Flett's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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