Julie Flett (Cree-Metis) is the author and/or illustrator of 18 children’s books, including Birdsong and The Girl and the Wolf (written by Katharena Vermette), both named best picture books of 2019 by Kirkus. Her latest work is We All Play/Kimêtawânaw (Greystone Kids, May 25), which made our list of the Best Picture Books of 2021. Kirkus said its “simple text and bold, graphic illustrations celebrate our interconnection with the creatures who share our world.” Flett answered our questions by email.
What inspired you to create this book?
I’ve always loved drawing animals, and they seem to show up in my work whether they’re specifically a part of the story or not. I think when you’re working on books over the years, recurrent themes come up, and one of them for me is stories within stories, or nested stories—often animals, birds, or insects doing something in the scene or kids interacting with animals or insects in the background (a bear waiting to sneak the bannock [flat bread] away, a pheasant squawking at a coyote). The theme of play felt like a good place to start. And the name of the book came from the Cree translation of play.
What was it like having a book come out in 2021? How did you connect with children in this socially distanced year?
We were lucky to have launched We All Play through the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. David Feinstein, the Literacy Director of the ECM, did a live reading on Facebook, and it was pretty extraordinary. Lots of parents listening in with their kids, and the comments were a lot of fun to read.
I’ve also done some virtual visits and letter writing. The B.C. and Yukon Book Mail project created a program for readers to write letters to [poet] Joy Kogawa and me. It was such a beautiful way to connect with kids. Their questions and observations are always so thoughtful—and often philosophical (and inevitably, whether in person or by letter, someone always asks how old I/we are). Some of the letters were pictures, and they made my day.
Who is the ideal reader for your book, and where would they be reading it?
I would say the ideal reader would be kids and kid-hearted people. And the fun thing about this book, I think, is that it can be read anywhere, from bedtime to parktime. As long as there’s room to move around a little, or a lot.
What qualities, in your opinion, make for a standout picture book?
I think the most standout pictures books are heartfelt stories and stories that help us understand ourselves and each other, to see ourselves. I also love picture books in which the words and stories work together to build on each other.
It’s story hour at the library. If you could have anyone in the world present your book to the kids, who would it be?
My dad. If I could, he would be the one.
What children’s book most dazzled you this year?
This is hard to pare down; here’s a few of the dazzlers: Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson; I Sang You Down From the Stars by Tasha Spillett-Sumner, illustrated by Michaela Goade; All That I Am by M.H. Clark, illustrated by Laura Carlin.