Julie Flett’s “Birdsong” won the 2020 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award — marking how Indigenous stories are gaining broader recognition.

“You’re going to learn a lot about … the Cree worldviews and values just through learning the colors,” Flett said.
Jane Newland, an associate professor of French at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, who is working on an article about Flett, said, “What I absolutely love about Julie’s work is there is this foregrounding of the Native languages, Indigenous languages.” Flett’s Michif alphabet book, “Owls See Clearly at Night,” “throws the English alphabet into chaos,” associating entries like the Northern Lights into a letter of the Michif alphabet. (C, if you’re wondering.)
That is an intentional process of disrupting Western, non-Indigenous perspectives and providing an alternative worldview, not just for children, but also for the caregivers who are likely to be the ones reading the books aloud.
“The more diversity we can bring to children through literature, the more they see that their point of view is not their own,” said Heather Jessup, an assistant professor of creative writing at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Flett’s books are rooted in real natural landscapes like the Canadian prairies. The plants and animals are the ones that live in those areas. Characters are connected to the natural world as a matter of course they are familiar with when birds migrate and frogs come out in the spring. When they pick blueberries, they leave some for the birds.
Flett’s books are rooted in real natural landscapes.Greystone Kids
“You’re going to read, whether you recognize it or not, Indigenous values when you’re reading our books,” Flett said. “Those are reciprocity, generosity, Honorable Harvest.”
Groups like We Need Diverse Books and accounts like The Conscious Kid have pushed for diversity and inclusion on children’s bookshelves and promoted stories written by and featuring Black and Indigenous people and other people of color. Only 46 out of 4,035 books for children and teens reviewed in 2019 were by Indigenous authors, according to data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The wider publishing market has started to respond, including the literature giant HarperCollins Children’s Books, which announced Heartdrum, an imprint focused on Native stories that will launch this winter.
“I can’t think of anything more hopeful than working with kids, but I also feel the responsibility and the privilege of being able to do this,” Flett said. Her work has only in the last few years been able to bring a measure of financial stability, and she previously worked two or three jobs to support her book work, she said.
Flett places her work in the larger context of advocacy for full recognition and inclusion of Indigenous peoples in all areas.
“Our voices need to be at the table, our land stewards, our educators, our storytellers, our artists. Our leaders and caregivers,” she said. “At this point, it’s just so vital … vital for future generations, for our planet.”