We spoke with the creators of When We Were Alone, author David A. Robertson and illustrator Julie Flett, about the upcoming release of the When We Were Alone Swampy Cree Edition. This edition includes the text in English, Swampy Cree syllabics, and Swampy Cree Roman orthography.
Read to learn more about the inspiration behind the story, the illustrations, and what the Swampy Cree edition means to them.
A conversation with David A. Robertson:
- What inspired you to begin writing books about Indigenous history, especially the award-winning children’s picture book, When We Were Alone?
For me, it was always about what I was taught when I was a child, or more specifically, what was available for me to be taught with, the focus of education in the 80s and 90s. There just weren’t the books then that are available now. And there wasn’t a desire or awareness to teach Indigenous history, about Indigenous people, contemporary issues.
When I became aware of all this, I wanted to tell stories that would teach youth, and frankly everybody, about the things I missed when I was younger.
For When We Were Alone, I wanted to write a picture book about residential schools that would honour my grandmother, and that would fulfill one of the calls to action of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s final report. And that is to teach residential school history to kids as early as kindergarten. There weren’t books like that available even in 2016, and there needed to be.
- The Swampy Cree edition of When We Were Alone will be released this summer. What is the connection between this story and Swampy Cree? What does the Swampy Cree edition mean to you?
It means a great deal to me. It’s my father’s first language, which is important. But it contributes to undoing intergenerational trauma, via loss of language for one (among many other traumas), by teaching the language in a book about a system that tried to eradicate it. I think that’s profound and vitally important.
- In a recent article with CBC, you spoke about storytelling as healing. In it, you have an amazing line that reads, “Storytelling breaks through intergenerational trauma because it’s an act of intergenerational healing.” Can you talk about how that idea relates to When We Were Alone?
The book is about a grandmother talking about her history with her grandchild. When we share our truths, it helps us to heal, and it helps others to heal because they can connect their own traumas with ours.
That connection is community, and it facilitates collective and lasting healing that I think is what reconciliation is. It takes a long time, but that’s the act: healing through sharing truths, through listening and learning. Trauma was passed down through generations, but healing can be achieved through a similar act, by passing down truths.
In the oral tradition, we passed down traditions, values, histories, mythologies, ways of living through stories. We passed these things from one generation to another to ensure they are not lost. Healing happens that way. It’s a beautiful act, and one we should all strive towards. Books play an important role in that process.
A conversation with Julie Flett:
- Your colourful and calming illustrations help bring When We Were Alone to life so beautifully. Can you talk about the inspiration behind your illustrations?
I find that when I’m working on pictures for a story, I often start with the landscape. The children in the story When We Were Alone have been separated from family and home, and I thought of the land and landscape as connecting the children to their homes, if only briefly, a sense of autonomy from the confinement of the institution.
‘When they were alone’ and the ‘teachers weren’t anywhere around the place they were’, they were on the land. From there, I looked at pictures from the places where my dad and David’s father had grown up in Manitoba and drew from the colour systems of those landscapes.
- How did you want your illustrations to feel? What was the tone you were aiming for with When We Were Alone?
I remember reading one of the children’s books I’d worked on with a residential school survivor years ago—she ran her finger along the words to follow along. The book wasn’t about residential schools, but when we were finished reading, she shared some of her experiences of residential school.
It was very tender for her to share this. I thought about her and so many of the survivors we know, when I started to work on When We Were Alone, and how to make pictures that honoured their experiences while being sensitive to what they would be looking at, if they encountered When We Were Alone. Similarly, for the children who encounter When We Were Alone, most importantly, the visuals needed to speak to the experience in a sensitive way.
- How was this project different from other books you have illustrated?
I had to take my time on some of the more emotionally challenging images. That was not always easy as the story went along. I worked and reworked the image for the page that reads ‘they cut off their hair.’ I remember leaving that one for a time.
Initially the drawing had several braids that I’d set on the floor below the little girl, who was so vulnerable. Eventually I took the braids out and left just the one. And the picture with ‘they wanted us to look like everyone else’ also took some time. It’s also such a vulnerable image, thinking about the kids over and over and what they were feeling and going through.
All of this said, it’s such an important story and I’m so grateful to have been able to collaborate on it. I know that it honours survivors and all the children and caregivers we’ve shared it with over the years now.
The Swampy Cree Edition of When We Were Alone will be published on August 25, 2020.
Pre-order it on our website now.