Julie Flett (Julie Flett handout)

Julie Flett (Julie Flett handout)

Q&A: Vancouver Cree-Metis author awarded $50,000 for ‘Birdsong’

Julie Flett is the winner of this year’s TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

Julie Flett, an award-winning Cree-Metis author from B.C., has been awarded one of the largest cash prizes available in the Canadian literary world for her children’s book ‘Birdsong’.

The Vancouver-based author and illustrator has been awarded the $50,000 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for 2020.

Birdsong tells the story of a young girl who moves to a small town and feels out of place until she meets an elderly woman living next door. While her new friend shares her love of arts and crafts, she needs to endure the changing of the seasons as well as the failing health of her new friend.

In a recent interview with Black Press Media, Flett shared her vision for the award-winning book, as well as how she incorporates her Indigenous heritage into her work.

Black Press Media has edited the responses for clarity and length.

What inspired you to write Birdsong?

For me, Birdsong was inspired by the people in my life. I used to take long walks in the neighborhood that I lived in and I stopped at this one house that almost looked like a cabin. It had big trees and an ungroomed, yet beautiful yard. In the spring, the yard was covered in snow drops. One day a woman came out to the front balcony, and I said to her that I loved the snowdrops. She replied saying, “I know.”

Over a few weeks, we slowly got to know each other and I learned that she was a ceramics artist. A year before I moved from that neighborhood, she dropped a little bag of snowdrop bulbs on my doorstep. No note, just the snowdrops. I kept them for a while in my studio before planting them.

That story kept coming up for me. I knew that I wanted to share a story for children about the connections we have with the people in our communities.

What was the motive to include Cree words within your storytelling?

Birdsong started off as a wordless picture book and the two characters, Agnes and Katherena came to mind so strongly. It was almost like I made the music and then the lyrics just came. It wasn’t a sort of afterthought, the conversation between them just started to come to me organically.

I remember an older woman telling me about waxing and waning moons when I was much younger. I’m learning Cree myself, my grandparents were speakers but they weren’t able to pass on the language. I was learning about the moons and the seasons, and I thought it was a beautiful exchange, the conversation between my two characters just came to be.

What components do you think make a good story?

Richard Vancamp, who is an extraordinary author, said to me recently that I should just stay true to myself and my stories.

When writing children’s books, what is your main focus for the younger generation to take away from your words and art?

I want children to feel and see themselves in all the unique ways they do. I’m always surprised by what kids take away from the stories that I work on because it’s often something I wouldn’t have expected.

I remember a child asking me why the book was called Birdsong.

My answer was that when my son was little and was visiting a friend on Gabriola Island, he called me one night to tell me about some frogs he could hear. He held the phone out so that I could hear them, kind of like a bird song, but a frog song. All these sounds that kind of locate us and make us feel at home. I found that the two characters in Birdsong lived close enough to one another, that I knew they’d be able to hear that bird song around the same time and that they would think of each other.

What inspired you to write children’s books?

I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, I love drawing. I knew that I wanted to work in the field of art but when I graduated from Concordia University, I ended up taking some work in the Downtown East-side, as an advocate outreach worker, and program coordinator.

While I was working one of those positions, my sister wrote to me while she was working for Theytus books, one of the first publisher’s of Indigenous voices in Canada. She came across a manuscript called The Moccasins, by Earl Einerson and my sister provided the opportunity for me to be the illustrator for the book.

After the book was finished, I took it to the place where I was working. One of the parents was visiting her son in the program. She was an elder and she started flipping through the pages when she noticed that there was an image of four little boys sleeping in a room together. She said that she once had a bedroom set up that way too. It occurred to me in that moment that we don’t have books for our community members – I didn’t have books growing up that represented my community. That really hit home, I was reminded about this feeling of people seeing themselves in books, that inspired me too.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The rocks are painted and then hidden around town. Those who find them can keep them, leave them where they are or hide them elsewhere. (Submitted)
Spreading love and kindness in Nakusp

New group launched to nurture rock painting and hunting community

The Okanagan Regional Library is holding a pair of online contests for its young readers. (File photo)
Okanagan Regional Library challenges young readers

Pair of contests online aimed at kids aged up to 18

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

Interior Health reported 79 new cases of COVID-19 and two new death in the region Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)
79 new COVID-19 cases, two deaths reported in Interior Health

Both of Friday’s deaths were both recorded at long-term care homes

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

Auldin Maxwell stacks the 693rd block on the top of record-breaking Jenga tower on Nov. 29. (Submitted)
Salmon Arm boy rests world-record attempt on single Jenga brick

Auldin Maxwell, 12, is now officially a Guinness world record holder.

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

A Dodge Ram pickup similar to this one was involved in a hit-and-run in Lake Country on Saturday, Jan. 16. (Crime Stoppers photo)
Stolen truck involved in Okanagan hit-and-run

Incident happened on Highway 97 in Lake Country just before 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

Kelowna Fire Department. (FILE)
Early morning downtown Kelowna dumpster fire deemed suspicious

RCMP and the Kelowna Fire Department will conduct investigations into the cause of the blaze

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Most Read