Illustrator Julie Flett brings light to a dark period of history

How do you make pictures for a book about life in residential schools kid-friendly? And how do you bring that lightness to a difficult and dark period of history? That's what Julie Flett had to figure out.
Julie Flett is the illustrator of When We Were Alone which won a Governor General's Literary Award.

How do you make pictures for a book about life in residential schools kid-friendly? And how do you bring that lightness to a difficult and dark period of history? That's something Julie Flett had to figure out. 

She is the award-winning illustrator behind the children's book When We Were Alone. That book, written by David Alexander Robertson, recently won the 2017 Governor General's award for young people's literature. 

Flett, who was too busy with other work at the time, initially passed on the project. She quickly changed her mind when she read the manuscript.

"I read the manuscript and I thought, 'This is an important story. I need to work on this,'" Flett said.

The story recounts one woman's experiences in residential school, including having her braids cut off.

A child has her braid cut off at residential school in When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett. (supplied)

Flett, who lives in Vancouver, had never met Robertson, a Winnipegger, in person before agreeing to work on the book. They met over Skype in 2015 and read the story to each other. Tears flowed, she said.

"I remember asking David how were we going to read the story to children if we can't read it without crying. It was that initial reading, when we were both connecting to the story on a personal level, in an intimate way. It was a responsibility that I didn't take lightly," Flett said. 

She began creating illustrations, using pencils and pastels, and computer-aided collage, to complement Robertson's words.

When We Were Alone jumps from past to present as the woman, now a grandmother, recalls her life in school. Flett tried to draw all the past sections first but abandoned that strategy because the "emotional tone" of the children in the residential school setting was too taxing, she said.

Instead, she illustrated the book in the order it was written. 
Julie Flett also illustrated A Day With Yayah. (Tradewind Books)

The page depicting her haircut at residential school was the hardest to work on, she said. In it, a non-Indigenous teacher cuts a young girl's hair. A shorn braid lays on the floor as a girl sits with her feet pushed together.

Flett tried to capture the girl's vulnerability in that moment. "I found myself having to work and rework this image so that it was sensitive enough for children," she said. "I tried to draw it in a truthful way but in a sensitive way."

That truth and sensitivity in Flett's work has made her a sought-after illustrator. 

She has illustrated more than a dozen books, including two recent releases A Day With Yayah and Black Bear, Red Fox; Colours in Cree.