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April 16, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #287: Caitlin Dale Nicholson

Earlier this month Caitlin Dale Nicholson published Ninitohtênân / We Listen,  translated by Leona Morin-Neilso and the third book in her Nôhkom series. Ninitohtênân / We Listen is the follow-up to niwîcihâw / I Help (2008) and Nipêhon / I Wait (2017), and getting a chance to talk to Caitlin about the full series––which is almost two decades in the making––was an honor. Enjoy our conversation!

About the book:
A child, her family and her friend have arrived at their favorite picnic spot by the lake, but before they eat lunch Nôhkom suggests they pick leaves for Labrador tea. Once among the trees, Nôhkom pauses for a moment to listen, and the others do too. Nôhkom prays, the girls take their turn, then Nôhkom shows them where to find the leaves. Nôhkom and Mom rest after harvesting, but the girls opt for a swim in the lake ... though they're quite happy to warm up afterwards with freshly brewed Labrador tea. And when it's time for the picnic, the girls take another turn at listening.

Let's talk Caitlin Dale Nicholson!

LTPB: Where did the idea for the Nôhkom series (2008’s niwîcihâw / I Help, 2017’s Nipêhon / I Wait, and now Ninitohtênân / We Listen in 2024) come from? How does each new book come together?

CDN: The original idea started in 2001, when my sons Garth and Dalton were in Aboriginal HeadStart and grade 1. I noticed there were very few authentic children’s books depicting my children’s reality as indigenous kids in their programs. There were cultural and language teachers, and oral storytelling, but the picture books the kids were learning to read from did not reflect their identity and experiences in northern bc. I was doing a graduate program in First Nations Studies at the University of Northern BC at the time. My Graduate Supervisor, Perry Shawana and I were sharing some ideas for my thesis, or thesis project. We talked about my background, my passion for painting, my commitment to raising my children in a good way, and we decided a children's book project wrapped around research on decolonizing literature for early readers would be an amazing thesis/project. The research evolved and I interviewed several elders in the Northern BC area. I met Leona Neilson, my collaborator on the books, in one of those interviews. We clicked, becoming good friends. Our families began hanging out together and she started teaching me and my sons about gathering and using traditional plants as medicine. It’s been 23 years now of friendship and I continue to learn from her. The first story was inspired by one of those trips, and each story in the series after that through the years, is based on our trips and her teachings. Leona is Cree, my children are Tahltan. I’ve always been very clear in the books that Leona teaches her culture, my children’s culture has many connecting values, but they are Tahltan First Nations through their paternal line, and they know who they are. We have gained so much knowledge from Leona, and other Elders from different Nations in PG. We are very, very grateful for those connections and experiences.

The process for each book is very similar, Leona decides on what medicine she’d like to focus on for each book, and we go out as a family to pick with me taking tons of photos the entire time. Later, I browse through the photos from the trip, and start to form a storyline in my head, based on our trip but also adding ideas related to the values, and family interactions Leona shares with us every day. Leona and I go back and forth with the story to make it a true reflection of her, and our shared family.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating Ninitohtênân / We Listen? What did you find most rewarding?

CDN: The most difficult part of creating Ninitohtenan / We Listen was the illustration part. When I get the story down, sometimes in order to make the story materialize, I need other images not included on the trip. Which often includes different character interactions or positions the Publisher’s Art Director wants changed – all usually really good suggestions! I have to go find those images to work from as reference material and rework the paintings. Lol, it’s often very obvious where this has occurred in the pages, as it doesn’t look like a painting, I was super comfortable with. Thankfully, it’s never too many edits.

The most rewarding aspect is the trip out on the land to get the medicine, and the final email where the publisher says it’s a wrap for revisions! It’s complete then, and such a high for me.

LTPB: What kind of research do you do for the text of these books?

CDN: I try to keep the words minimal but impactful, and let the paintings tell the whole story. There is always love and family denoted by each word on the page, it’s mostly a subject, verb format. The characters are doing something, sharing something on each page.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

CDN: In this series, acrylic on canvas is the preferred medium. I’m doing more sketching for another book outside of this particular series right now. This too, could end up as paintings, just figuring it out. I love to paint; it has always been my preferred art making method for over 30 years since Art School days.

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

CDN: My partner and I are working on a children’s book based on a traditional story he learned from his father and grandfather. He speaks his Tahltan language fluently and writes it as well. I think he may be the only one in his nation that can do both. I’m currently sketching images of the Tutsey (Loon) and Tsesk’iye (Raven) just to get familiar with their physical characteristics before I start storyboarding the text he wrote.

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?

CDN: My son Dalton is a fabulous artist, but he doesn’t do it professionally. He’s busy working his way through an Economics degree. He would be my first choice. I love his art and my children know me the best.
A massive thank you to Caitlin for talking to me about this incredible series! Ninitohtênân / We Listen published earlier this month from Groundwood Books!

Special thanks to Caitlin and Groundwood Books for use of these images!

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