May 25, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #179: Julie Flett

I felt so honored to catch multi-award-winning Cree-Métis author and illustrator Julie Flett so I could ask her about her work. Julie is a master at capturing energy in her work, and We All Play felt like the perfect backdrop for creating a conversation about the universality of play and exploring the connections between how humans play, how nature plays, and how we all play together on this planet. Enjoy our conversation below!

About the book:
Animals and kids love to play! 

This wonderful book celebrates diversity and the interconnectedness of nature through an Indigenous perspective, complete with a glossary of Cree words for wild animals at the back of the book, and children repeating a Cree phrase throughout the book. Readers will encounter birds who chase and chirp, bears who wiggle and wobble, whales who swim and squirt, owls who peek and peep, and a diverse group of kids who love to do the same, shouting:

We play too! / kimêtawânaw mîna

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Julie Flett!

LTPB: Where did the idea for We All Play come from? What was the biggest challenge you encountered in creating it, and what were you most excited for readers to see?

JF: Animals seem to show up in my work whether they’re specifically in the story text or not (stories within stories), often playfully, and it’s definitely been on my mind for some time now. At a certain point it just became apparent that a book was starting to come together. I started to think specifically about the theme of play, animals to start, and as it went along, I started to think about my son and nieces and all of the kids I read to and interact with during and after readings, often so playfully; one little boy showed me his whale impression during the Q&A after a book reading: the library carpet was the water, and he had the whale part down. And my son often comes home to share his animal encounters of the day, often in animated ways. He cycles everyday, and he’ll share something along the lines of a coyote riding alongside, or encounters with a bear or beaver, hawks and eagles, herons or a channel full of frogs. 

Play is so much a part of our lives, it’s immersive and I wanted to share something with kids that shines that light back on them. Helen Hughes, a dear friend and colleague and the founder of Windsor House, an alternative school and community that my son and I were a part of, writes of play: "To me, play means becoming engaged, usually with other people, but not always, and with your surroundings." In We All Play, as pared down as the images are, you have a sense of the environment that the animals and kids are in, and they’re either playing with each other or within their surroundings or both. That felt important to the story.

Probably the hardest part of the process was paring down the list of animals and all of the different ways kids play. And of course I wanted their play to reflect the play of the pages leading up to the refrain "we play too, kimêtawânaw mîna." There are so many images I would have loved to include. 

I learned something while working on Birdsong. The character Katherena, who is around 8 or 9 years old, is shown drawing and of course I had to do those drawings, it was a lot of fun, thoughtful and playful, that really informed the style of this book, just playful and spontaneous and that’s what I’m hoping kids find in the book, themselves and their environments and just to be able to connect in the ways they can and do connect.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the text and the back matter, specifically how you worked with a set of sounds? What does it mean to you to have Plains Cree language throughout the book, as well as the glossary in the back so readers can form their own unique sentences?

JF: I think it’s both simple and complicated. I made a list of animals that I was considering for the book, all of them from the geographical regions my families are from. I jotted down sketches and responded to images in a way that I remembered my son responding to animals when he was younger (or myself for that matter). I remember a friend telling us a story about her little girl, she’d asked her how school had been that day (she was in kindergarten), and the girl told her mom that she had "sneaked and hided about." I also thought about how my son animated his stories of the day (and still does). I wanted it to feel as spontaneous as a kid would be, this one "bubbles and bends." All of this said, these particular words didn’t translate in an introductory way from English to Cree.

It’s really interesting to go back and forth between languages, I’m always learning. In the Cree colors board book, Black Bear, Red Fox, I drew the images first, and then we translated those images into Cree. From there, we translated the Cree words or phrases into English. This one was different, we had to get creative about the translations. The repeating refrain in both Cree and English is a great introductory phrase for kids to learn; “We play too! kimêtawânaw mîna,” or if they’re Cree speakers and learners, it will be familiar to them. And then of course, sharing the animals' names works well at an introductory level. 

The Cree animals' names are at the back of the book so that kids and their caregivers can go over them at their own pace. We’ll have a recording posted online, read by Cree speaker, Dolores Greyeyes Sand of the Cree Literacy Network. She, Arden Ogg and Cree speaker Solomon Ratt, all of Cree Literacy Network have been tremendously supportive of the work along the way. We’re supporting each other and our communities: "Creating connections that promote literacy in Cree language and culture."

My dad, who is Swampy Cree and Red River Metis, has been so much a part of the work that I do. As I share in the book, “When I was growing up, my dad shared a lot about our relationship to animals and to each other, including the land and plants and rocks and water and sky. Whether we are running and hopping through the grass or rolling along the street or pondering creatures in the creek, we are all connected, living in relationship and in care of one another, in kinship. In Cree, this is called wâhkôhtowin.” 

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text?

JF: When I’m illustrating someone else’s text, I’m really responding to the story, visually. When I work on my own, I sometimes start with the images, so I’m responding to the story that I’m thinking about and to the images. Sometimes I write the story out first, but as this goes along, there’s more of an interplay between image and text, going back and forth, one informing the other.  

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? How has your illustration technique changed over the course of your career so far? 

JF: I usually start with spontaneous responses to the text, little thumbnail sketches to get a sense of how everything is going to work together. They’re usually pretty rough and I wait until I develop them a little more before sharing them with the publisher. I trace them into an illustrator program, along with painted backgrounds and textures, and start collaging everything together from there.

It’s changed so much over the years, I’m really learning as I go. I didn’t study illustration formally, I studied studio arts, film and textiles. I think that studying fine arts helped more in terms of what's needed to ground myself in a project. As far as illustration goes, I’m learning with each new project, trying out different mediums and learning more about the process. 

I’m always thinking in terms of story, they’re always coming up and have lots of projects on the back burner, for me it’s a matter of making sure those ideas get jotted down and finding the time to follow up on them. 

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

JF: I’m working on two books that I’m really excited about and am booked up with some incredible work to come. I’m working on a book with Buffy Sainte-Marie about one of her songs STILL THIS LOVE GOES ON, forthcoming from Greystone Kids, and JUST LIKE GRANDMA by Kim Rogers, forthcoming from Heartdrum/HarperCollins, and I have a few that are upcoming that I’m really excited about, a few with others and few of my own. I feel pretty lucky! 

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

JF: The first artist who comes to mind is Christian Robinson. He draws everyone so tenderly and playfully. I know he’d capture the spirit of this introverted kid with lots to say, maybe climbing a tree in her grandma’s slippers. I would be delighted.

A HUGE thank you to Julie for talking to me about this book and her work! We All Play publishes TODAY from Greystone Kids!

Special thanks to Julie and Greystone for use of these images!

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