“Too often I’ve seen, we’ve all seen, those headlines that send shivers down spines, spin stereotypes to soaring heights, and ultimately shame Indigenous women. Yet when I look around me, I see so many bright, talented, ambitious Indigenous women and girls, full of light, laughter, and love,” writes Lisa Charleyboy (who is a member of Tsilhqot’in, Tsi Del Del First Nation) in the foreword of her book #NotYourPrincess. This statement neatly summarizes the key objective of Annick’s indigenous publishing program: to articulate the struggles of North America’s indigenous peoples while emphasizing and celebrating remarkable stories of resilience, achievement, creativity, and success.
For many of us, when we did see stories of indigenous peoples, they focused on legends or selected historical events, and rarely presented indigenous voices or perspectives. Now, as Charleyboy’s coeditor, Mary Beth Leatherdale, points out, there has been an explosion of publishing on indigenous topics. Gone are the days when good books were being produced by indigenous publishers but were not widely seen. Now we read beautifully written and produced books by indigenous creators.
We’re able to venture into challenging subject matter to tell stories that demand that perspectives and attitudes be reexamined. In What the Eagle Sees, Annick authors Eldon Yellowhorn (Piikani Nation) and Kathy Lowinger relate selected indigenous episodes of resilience and ingenuity following the arrival of the European invaders. While acknowledging terrible historical tragedies, this book is about survival, adaptation, and innovation. Fatty Legs, by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (Inuit), recalls the true story of Pokiak-Fenton’s childhood at a residential school where her language, customs, and sense of self were shattered by a ruthless and punitive system. But we meet a resilient girl who finds her way to fight back with ingenuity and an inspiring sense of self. Is there interest in these stories? Fatty Legs has sold well over 100,000 copies; What the Eagle Sees by Eldon Yellowhorn, illustrated by Kathy Lowinger, is on multiple most-anticipated nonfiction lists; and Yellowhorn’s previous title, Turtle Island, has sold more than 13,000 copies.
A critical market for these publications is schools and libraries. Curricula across North America are recognizing the pressing need for publications that bring indigenous stories to youth. As Leatherdale points out, this is where they will be able to access these books, and teachers are hungry for resources that leave the traditional textbook far behind. Publishers need to be mindful of some key factors to get it right. It must be recognized that there is a diversity of indigenous voices, and that Nations have their own history and worldviews. When developing a book, authors and editors must consult widely and get permission from indigenous constituents to tell stories. Added to this, creators like Lisa Charleyboy are aware that to communicate with youth, the books must emphasize visual appeal and offer a modern aesthetic.
At Annick, we have instituted policies to ensure that manuscripts are widely read within a variety of indigenous communities. This takes the form of a sensitivity review, in which the manuscript is evaluated by indigenous educators for authenticity, accuracy, and relevance to the curriculum.
To ensure that indigenous literature has a place in the classroom, Annick Press has produced an extensive teacher’s guide. In part, this is to address the fact that many educators seek guidance on how best to deliver a program. At 34 pages, “An Educator’s Guide to Understanding Indigenous Content in K–12 Classrooms” covers subject areas such as terminology, setting the context, and how to integrate titles into the curriculum.
An important and exciting component of the explosion of indigenous creativity is seeing writers move to new subject areas. Allison Mills’s The Ghost Collector is inspired by her Cree background, but Mills has also ventured into an indigenous version of Ghostbusters by creating what School Library Journal has described as “a gentle, understated story about grief and loss through a paranormal lens. Highly recommended.”
If there is a moment that speaks volumes on the importance of indigenous literature, Charleyboy and Leatherdale experienced it at the ALA in Seattle earlier this year, when they accepted the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award. While they were signing books, a librarian approached the table, clutched #NotYourPrincess, and simply said, with deep, heartfelt emotion, “Thank you.” Indeed.
Rick Wilks is director of Annick Press in Toronto. This article was written in collaboration with Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale.