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

Traffic impacts in the downtown Kitimat area are expected to be finished by 4:30 p.m. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
Traffic impact in the downtown Kitimat area

The impacted intersections are Haisla/Lahakas intersection and Kuldo/Haisla intersection

“Skeena,” by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow is one of five fonts in the running to become the default for Microsoft systems and Office programs. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Font named after Skeena River could become the next Microsoft default

One of the five new fonts will replace Calibri, which has been Microsoft’s default since 2007

Water will be turned off in Service Centre on May 5th, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. (Black Press Media files)
Water in Service Centre will be turned off for system repairs

The water will be turned off on, May 5th from 9 p.m. until the following day at 5 a.m.

The Tamitik Status of Women Association has been receiving anti-racism funding since 2018 and has done a multitude of initiatives over the years. Unable to host in-person events, the TSWA plans to host virtual workshops for all who identify as a woman in Kitimat and Kitamaat Village. (Black Press file)
Tamitik Status of Women Association receive $7,500 in anti-racism funding

TSWA plans to hold women’s gathering events and engage with local government about diversity policies

A Rapid Word Collection workshop took place in 2020 where the Haisla community recorded thousands of words to help them reclaim their language. (Haisla Nation video screenshot)
Haisla reclaim their native language through word collection workshops

Over 10,000 words and 5,000 recordings are now available online

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. CDC updates info, acknowledging small respiratory droplets can spread COVID-19

Large droplets, not aerosols had been fixture of public health messaging for many months

A picture of Shirley Ann Soosay was rendered from a postmortem photographer and circulated on social media. (DDP graphic)
B.C. genealogist key to naming murder victim in decades-old California cold case

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped and stabbed to death

Mary Kitagawa was born on Salt Spring Island and was seven years old when she was interned along with 22,000 B.C. residents in 1942. (B.C. government video)
B.C. funds health services for survivors of Japanese internment

Seniors describe legacy of World War II displacement

Meghan Gilley, a 35-year-old emergency room doctor and new mom was vaccinated from COVID-19 in January, while she was pregnant. She’s encouraging others to do the same. (Submitted)
‘The best decision’: B.C. mom encourages other pregnant women to get COVID-19 shot

Meghan Gilley, 35, delivered a healthy baby after being vaccinated against the virus while pregnant

Most Read