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GGBooks Special: The Chat with David Robertson & Julie Flett

“With its muted palette and gentle text, On the Trapline is quietly profound. Robertson’s reflective storytelling coupled with Flett’s masterpiece illustrations make this picture book a must-read about the connection to language, family, the land and tradition.” – 2021 Peer Assessment Committee

Headshot David A. Robertson

David A. Robertson is the author of numerous books for young readers, including When We Were Alone (illustrated by Julie Flett), which won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award and was nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. Strangers, the first book in his Reckoner trilogy, a young adult supernatural mystery, won the 2018 Michael Van Rooy Award for Genre Fiction.  He is also the author of The Barren Grounds and The Great Bear, two books in a middle-grade fantasy series called The Misewa Saga. The Barren Grounds was a Kirkus and Quill & Quire best middle-grade book of 2020, as well as a USBBY and Texas Lone Star selection, and was shortlisted for the Silver Birch Fiction Award and the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. A sought-after speaker and educator, Dave is a member of the Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg.

Book Cover Julie Flett

Julie Flett is a Swampy Cree and Red River Métis author, illustrator, and artist. She has received many awards for her picture books, including the Governor General’s Award for When We Were Alone (written by David Robertson), the American Indian Library Association Award for Best Picture Book for Little You (written by Richard Van Camp), and a BolognaRagazzi special mention for We Sang You Home (also written by Richard Van Camp). She is the three-time recipient of the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Award. Her picture book Birdsong is a Boston Globe-Horn Honor Book and Wild Berries was chosen as Canada’s First Nation Communities Read title selection for 2014-2015. Julie lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sḵwxwú7mesh, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ lands.

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Book Cover On the Trapline

On the Trapline tells the story of a young boy and his Moshom travelling north to a place of great importance to his Moshom. Can you tell us more about the inspiration for the story?

David Robertson: In 2017, my father asked if I would take him to his trapline one last time. In the summer next year, June 2018, we went up to Norway House, our home community, and then out onto the land. We spent the day together in one of the places where my dad grew up. He toured me around the land and by the water. He seemed ten years younger, and I understood the beauty of the land, and the life-giving waters that brought him there every year, for the first ten years of his life. It was a transformative day, and after we left, I felt the need to document it, and so wrote a picture book manuscript to honour our day, to honour him, and to honour our relationship.

Julie Flett: I’m so glad that I got to know David’s dad before working on the book, his spirit is so much a part of the artwork.  As is my own dad’s. He’s always been so much a part of the work, he was my mentor and the person I went to with questions and just connected with when working on the stories.

This is something I share in the Illustrator Notes and dedication in On the Trapline:

Kinanâskomitin, Dad, for the love and the sweetgrass

I was thrilled to be asked to work on a story about David and his father. David’s mom and dad are dear to me. Some of my own family come from Norway House Cree Nation, the same community that David’s family come from. My family worked in the fur trade. My grandfather and great uncles were trappers and traders, hunters and fishers. My grandmother’s beaded, and sewed mittens, parkas, vests, leggings and moccasins from caribou and deer hide. My father hunted as a young boy to bring food home for his family. Though I missed out on learning many of these practices, I’m happy to see that my son and nieces have since learned the skills for living on the land, they’re learning their languages, and my niece beads like her grandmothers did.

David and Julie, you’ve worked together on previous projects for young people. In what ways has your collaboration changed over time?

DR: I don’t know if it’s changed so much as we’ve grown together, over the two books we’ve done. In both cases, things came together organically, and almost magically, like it was meant to be. Julie has so much talent, and has such a great vision, is so connected to the land in her work. Her illustrations are like poetry, and when I wrote On the Trapline, I tried to write poetry as well. The words and pictures went well together in this way. She was the only person I ever wanted to illustrate Trapline, and I’m very grateful that she did.

JF: The two projects had overlapping themes of the relationship of grandparent to grandchild, and the land that grounds them. We both have connections to the stories in unique and yet similar ways. David trusts me to bring my own experiences, family history and knowledge of the land to the work, to tell the story in pictures. I think that trust and care is at the core. 

How does it feel to be recognized yet again by your peers with this Governor General’s Award?

DR: It’s an indescribable feeling. I feel so incredibly thankful and humbled. This was a special book, it would have been just as special either way, but to have it recognized in this way means more than I can express. Dad would have been proud, and so very happy.

JF: I feel incredibly grateful that the work has been recognized on this level, and to our peers for acknowledging the importance of the work, the heart of the work. I also feel honored to be amongst all of the nominees, Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This Is How I Know, by Brittany Luby and Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley; Out Into the Big Wide Lake, by Paul Harbridge and Josée Bisaillon; The Library Bus, by Bahram Rahman and Gabrielle Grimard; and The Wind and the Trees, by Todd Stewart!

What motivates each of you as visual creators and storytellers? 

DR: I just want to find the beauty and poetry of the story. I want to be able to express myself in such a way that the reader can feel what I feel; I want them to experience a story, more than just read it. I want the words to evoke emotions, empathy, passion. I want readers to feel as though they are in the story, not outside of it, as though they are not a part of it. 

JF: For me it’s so much about these tender relationships, with family, friends, to the land, to the animals, to the earth and stars. It’s also about books that I wished we’d had as kids.

49thShelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading lately?

DR: Cherie Dimaline, Jael Richardson, Katherena Vermette, Heather O’Neill, Miriam Toews, Colleen Nelson.

JF: All of the above nominated titles, all of the titles David recommends; and Gather: Richard Van Camp on the Joy of Storytelling, and kid’s books Jigging for Halibut With Tsinii, by Sara Florence Davidson & Robert Davidson Illustrated by Janine Gibbons (and all in the series); The Bug Club, by Elise Gravel; Our Little Kitchen, by Jillian Tamaki; I Sang You Down from the Stars, by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, illustrations by Michaela Goade; and Story Boat, by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh, to name a few!

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EXCERPT 

Spread from Trapline

 

Spread frm Trapline

 

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

December 7, 2021
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