Manitoba

Winnipegger's picture book about residential school legacy wins Governor General's Award

Winnipeg writer David Alexander Robertson's children's book, When We Were Alone, has won the Governor General's Award for young people's literature, illustrated books.

'Even this morning, just seeing it online, I was kind of questioning whether I was awake or not'

David Alexander Robertson, winner of the Governor General's Award for young people's illustrated books, says it was important for him 'to try and educate kids about residential school history.' (Provided by David Robertson)

David Alexander Robertson says hearing he won the Governor General's Award for young people's illustrated books was "surreal."

"Even this morning, just seeing it online, I was kind of questioning whether I was awake or not," he said after the news was released Tuesday morning. "It's been a surreal kind of few weeks for sure."
David Alexander's children's book is about a child talking to her grandmother about residential school. (David A. Robertson/Portage & Main Press)

The Winnipeg writer found out a few weeks ago that his children's book, When We Were Alone, had won the $25,000 prize.

When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett, is about a young girl gardening with her grandmother who curiously asks about her grandmother's clothing, second language and the amount of time she spends with family. Her grandmother's answers paint a picture of life in residential school, and how it still affects her.

"I wrote it to try and educate kids about residential school history," said Robertson, who is Cree and whose own grandmother went to residential school.
Students from Laura Secord School are in the midst of a months-long project that will help other children understand how they can make a difference when it comes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action. 2:25

"I was kind of thinking about what my role is in this kind of path to reconciliation, and it was important for me to write the book."

He speaks with his own children about their family's history and the role colonialism has played in their lives, he said.

"My grandmother went to residential school. My dad went to a day school in Norway House where he wasn't allowed to speak his language," he said.

"It's something that's really important for me … that they're aware of who they are but also that they know the history."

Robertson didn't know about residential school until after high school, and he's glad that's changing.

"To know that elementary school kids, middle years kids know about the history and can articulate it is, you know, it's really encouraging me to see that."

'Contribution that I needed to make'

But he noticed there weren't many books on the subject for children in kindergarten to Grade 2.

"I felt like that was the contribution that I needed to make," he said.

Talking to his own children helped him understand what was appropriate for younger kids and prepared him to write When We Were Alone.

"The 14-year-old can understand a lot more than the seven-year-old," he said.
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

He also went through a careful vetting process, consulting with different people to make sure the story was accurate and appropriate.

While winning the Governor General's Award is the type of thing writers dream about, the best part is that it raises the book's profile, he said.

"It just means that more people will read the book, and that's, for me, what's most important about this."
A Winnipegger's picture book about the residential school legacy has won the Governor General's Award, David Alexander Robertson found out a few weeks ago that his children's book, When We Were Alone, had won the $25,000 prize. He spoke with the CBC's Caroline Barghout earlier today. 4:18