Books·Canadian

When We Were Alone

This story by David A. Robertson is illustrated by Julie Flett and won the Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books.

David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett

(Portage & Main Press)

When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother's garden, she begins to notice things about her grandmother that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long braided hair and wear beautifully coloured clothing?

Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where everything was taken away. When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history and, ultimately, a story of empowerment and strength. (From Portage and Main Press)

How David A. Robertson wrote When We Were Alone

"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. 

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.- David A. Robertson

"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." 

Read more in his interview with CBC Books.

Interviews with David A. Robertson

The Winnipeg graphic novelist on his children's book about residential school, illustrated by Julie Flett. 5:21
The author of When We Were Alone meets with young readers to talk about Canada's residential school history. 7:51
A new children's book aims to respond to one of the TRC's calls to action — to begin education about the legacy of residential schools with children as early as kindergarten. 2:13
David A. Robertson is the author of numerous graphic novels, including Will I See?, Betty and Sugar Falls. CBC Books caught up with Robertson at his local comic book store to learn about the comic books he loved reading as a kid. 4:48
David A. Robertson is a Cree writer from Winnipeg, who writes books for kids of all ages. As a father to five kids, Robertson has a bit of experience combing through the children's section of bookstores. 3:54
Local child and elder, reading When we Were Alone aloud, in the roles of the granddaughter and her nókom for Winnipeg's TD Kids Book Club 2017. 1:35

Other books by David A. Roberston