Cree-Metis illustrator Julie Flett of Vancouver, formerly of Penticton, is easily one of the most successful book illustrators in B.C. you've never heard of.

In 2017, for the Governor General's Illustrated Children's Book Award, Julie Flett won for When We Were Alone (HighWater) with text by David Alexander Robertson. Simultaneously she was a finalist for the$30,000 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award for her latest book, Black Bear Red Fox: Colours in Cree Board (Garfinkel Publications),a detailed explanation of how colour words work in Cree from the Cree Literacy Network.

Flett's success at the annual B.C. Book Prizes is unprecedented. First, Flett provided illustrations for Earl Einarson's children's story, The Moccasins (Theytus, 2004), winner of the Christie Harris Illustrated Children's Literature Prize. [See Earl Einarson entry]. Then she won the Christie Harris Illustrated Children's Literature Prize in 2011 for her picture book, Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L'alfabet di Michif) (Simply Read Books 2010). It was also shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature and nominated for the Neustadt Prize.

Flett received her second Christie Harris Illustrated B.C. Book Prize in April of 2015 for Dolphin SOS (Tradewind 2014), co-authored with Roy Miki and Slavia Miki. Based on true events, Dolphin SOS recounts the story of three dolphins trapped in an ice-covered cove on the coast of Newfoundland. After the government fails to provide assistance, some young boys take matters into their own hands in order to save the distressed dolphins. Dolphin SOS was also nominated for the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award 2015 and was cited with an honourable mention for the 2015 Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award.

In 2017, the B.C. Book Prize that stresses the role of the illustrator, the Christie Harris Illustrated Children's Literature Prize, was presented to author Monique Gray Smith-who contributed 71 words of text-and illustrator Julie Flett for their collaboration on My Heart Fills With Happiness (Orca). Both appeared on stage but Gray Smith did all the talking. No mention was made of the fact that it was Flett's third win in that category in seven years.

Wild Berries/Pakwa che Menisu (Simply Read, 2013) was chosen as the First Nation Communities READ title selection for 2014-2015. From promotional materials: "Spend the day picking wild blueberries with Clarence and his grandmother. Meet ant, spider, and fox in a beautiful woodland landscape, the ancestral home of author and illustrator Julie Flett. This book is written in both English and Cree, in particular the n-dialect, also known as Swampy Cree from the Cumberland House area.";

Julie Flett's story board book for infants, Little You (Orca 2013), with text by Richard Van Camp, has reportedly sold more than 50,000 copies, while also garnering the 2016 American Indian Youth Library Association Award for Best Picture Book. The American Indian Youth Literature Awards take place every two years to honour the best children's literature by and about indigenous people.

In 2014, Julie Flett provided the cover art for Kwe: Standing With Our Sisters, an anthology in response to violence against indigenous women, edited by Joseph Boyden.

Walking barefoot on grass. A hand to hold. Bannock baking in the oven. Written to support the wellness of aboriginal families in particular, Monique Gray Smith's board book for small children, My Heart Fills With Happiness (Orca 2015), illustrated by Julie Flett, encourages young people to reflect on what brings happiness. [Monique Gray Smith is a mixed-heritage woman of Cree, Lakota and Scottish ancestry and a proud mom of young twins. Having been sober and involved in her healing journey for more than twenty years, she published a fictionalized memoir, Tilly: a Story of Hope and Resilience (Sono Nis Press 2013). It won First Prize in the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature in 2014.]

Set in the Nicola Valley, Nicola I. Campbell's A Day with Yayeh (Tradewind 2017), illustrated by Julie Flett, is a picture about a girl who spends a day gathering edibles such as herbs and mushrooms with her grandmother from the world around her. It, too, was shortlisted for the Christie Harris Illustrated Children's Literature Prize.

Julie Flett was born in Toronto but grew up in Calgary from age nine onwards. She studied fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal and Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver. Julie Flett is the first-time recipient of the 2014 Aboriginal Literature Award, sponsored by the Periodical Marketers of Canada.


The Moccasins (Theytus, 2004)

Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L'alfabet di Michif) (Simply Read Books 2010)

Wild Berries (Simply Read Books, 2013) $18.95 9781897476895

Little You (Orca 2013) Text by Richard Van Camp (text) and Julie Flett (illustrations) $9.95 9781459802483

Dolphin SOS (Tradewind 2014) Text by Roy Miki and Slavia Miki 9781896580760

We All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers (Garfinkel Publications 2014) $10 9781554763986

A River of Stories: Tales and Poems from Across the Commonwealth, Volume 3 (Commonwealth Education Trust 2015)

My Heart Fills with Happiness (Orca Books 2015) Text by Monique Gray Smith. $9.95 9781459809574

Dragonfly Kites (Fifth House Publishers 2016) $19.95 bilingual, text by Tomson Highway

We Sang You Home (Orca 2016) by Richard Van Camp (text) and Julie Flett (illustrations) 9781459811782 $9.95.

When We Were Alone (HighWater 2016) $19.95 978-1553796732 Text by David Alexander Robertson.

A Day with Yayeh (Tradewind 2017) 978-1-926890-05-0 $19.95 Text by Nicola I. Campbell.

Black Bear Red Fox: Colours in Cree Board (Garfinkel Publications 2017)

We Sang You Home (Orca 2018) $6.95 978-1-4598-2014-2 Text by Richard Van Camp. Second printing in Plains Cree and English. Translation by Mary Cardinal Collins.

My Heart Fills with Happiness (Orca 2018) $6.95 978-1-4598-2018-0 Text by Monique Gray Smith. Second printing in Plains Cree and English - Translation by Mary Cardinal Collins.

Little You (Orca 2018) $6.95 978-1-4598-2006-7 Text by Richard Van Camp. Second printing in Plains Cree and English - Translation by Mary Cardinal Collins.

Zoe and the Fawn (Theytus 2018) $19.95 978-1-92688-653-4 Text by Catherine Jameson - Translation by Richard Armstrong, a syilx traditional knowledge/language specialist.

The Girl and the Wolf (Theytus 2018) $19.95 978-1-92688-654-1 Text by Katherena Vermette.

Birdsong (Greystone 2019) $22.95 hc 978-1-77164-473-0

Johnny's Pheasant (U of Minnesota 2019) $16.95 978-1-5179-0501-9 Text by Cheryl Minnema

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2019] "Illustration"


We Sang You Home text by Richard Van Camp; art by Julie Flett (Orca $6.95)

Little You text by Richard Van Camp; art by Julie Flett (Orca $6.95)

My Heart Fills with Happiness text by Monique Gray Smith; art by Julie Flett (Orca $6.95)

Orca book publishers now offers dual-language picture books for pre-schoolers, three of which are illustrated by multi-award winner Julie Flett. Previously published in English, We Sang You Home and Little You, both with text by Richard Van Camp - a Tlicho Dene from the NWT, and My Heart Fills with Happiness, with text by Monique Gray Smith-of Cree, Lakota and Scottish ancestry, are now available in bilingual, Plains Cree versions translated by Mary Cardinal Collins.

Positive messages of parental love can be a healing balm for Indigenous peoples still struggling after generations of familial destruction wrought by generations of residential school systems that separated First Nation families. Those messages are more effective when they are in traditional languages.

Little You is a paean to a newborn baby, much adored by his mother and father. Each double page spread includes one side for text and the other for Flett's elegant, contemporary illustrations. The book ends with: "You are the birth/of everything new/you are perfect/you are you!"

We Sang You Home is another love story from parents to a young child.

Narrated from a child's point of view, My Heart Fills with Happiness describes looking into the face of a loved one, smelling bannock baking in the oven, singing, feeling the sun warm your face, walking barefoot on the grass, holding the hand of a loved one, listening to stories, and drumming. The final text is a call to action - "What fills YOUR heart with happiness?"

Julie Flett did not grow up speaking her traditional languages although her grandparents were multilingual (Michif, Swampy Cree, as well as English and French). "They didn't teach their languages to their children for complex reasons that many indigenous families face," says Flett.

When her Swampy Cree-speaking grandfather was in the early stages of Alzheimer's, Flett asked him, during one of their last phone conversations, to say a few words in his first language. "It was almost as if he was waiting for me to ask," she says. "He spoke it to me very well."

Her grandfather died not long after that exchange but it left its mark on Flett. "I was really impacted and began to wonder what I could do for my children's generation and my nieces to re-connect with our languages."

An opportunity came when Flett was asked to do a book project of her choice. She opted to write and illustrate an alphabet book, Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer: L'alfabet di Michif) (Simply Read, 2010). Working with two linguists and a Michif speaker, Flett also spent time talking with her Metis relatives and visualizing her family's experiences to develop the book's illustrations.

"I wasn't looking at objects, rather, it was experiences - being and doing - that I worked with. Instead of 'A is for Apple,' I used activities like picking berries or actions like 'fly up, fly away' that is ohpaho in Michif. It was such an organic process for me and worked really well."

By the time of the re-release of her Orca books into dual English and Plains Cree, Flett's intuitive approach to picture book illustration was well-developed. "I'm such a visual person that as soon as I read the story for the first time, I start visualizing it. I begin by doing spontaneous sketches, immediately getting the images down within hours. The labour comes later in developing the sketches, though I usually stick close to the original sketches."

And in keeping with her instincts to take inspiration from her family experiences, images in the Orca books often reflect Flett's personal experiences and those of people close to her. An image of two parents lying in bed with their newborn baby in We Sang You Home came from times that Flett spent cuddling in bed with her baby son. And the last picture in My Heart Fills with Happiness of a father carrying his daughter on his shoulders as he shows her a Narwhal, was conjured by stories of her father, who spent time in his later teens in Churchill, Manitoba where he would have witnessed the northern tusked whales.

After working on dual language books, Flett is learning to speak her traditional languages. "I'm a beginner speaker," she quickly admits. But clearly, Flett is dedicated to learning more about her grandparents' languages and helping children do the same.

We Sang: 978-1-4598-2014-2
Little You: 978-1-4598-2006-7
My Heart Fills:978-1-4598-2018-0

Article by Beverly Cramp, associate editor of BC BookWorld.


The Girl and the Wolf by Katherena Vermette (text) and Julie Flett (illustrations)
(Theytus Books, $19.95)

Review by Irene N. Watts† (BCBW 2019)

It is berry-picking time. A little girl wearing a bright red dress runs with joy in every step of her moccasin-clad feet.

Her mother?s warning not to stray too far before dark floats over the girl?s head like the butterfly just ahead of her.

When she stops running she no longer sees her mother and cannot remember the way back to her. The trees loom thick and black; she is scared and hungry.
Suddenly a tall grey wolf with flashing white teeth appears:
The wolf came up close and
sniffed her.
His wolf breath was hot and
stank of meat.

Will this wolf use his wiles to trick the child? As happened to Little Red Riding Hood?
No, this is not a story about a wolf from old European fairy tales. This is a compassionate, helpful wolf. He tells her:
Take a deep breath.
Close your eyes, then look.
What do you see?

And so the child, too young to hunt, discovers berries to eat and safe water to drink. She finds her way home by recognising trees close to her camp. The wolf has given her strength, a power she did not know she possessed, the ability to rely on herself. Her happiness restored, the girl runs back to her mother, a happy reunion.

The wolf is no longer beside her. He has disappeared, his work done.

That evening, the girl wraps a special gift of tobacco, one of four sacred medicines ?as a thank you for the help she was given.

The illustrations by Julie Flett, a Cree-Mťtis artist based in Vancouver, are outstanding. Her textured images are perfectly in tune with the story, both supporting and enhancing the words.

One of the most striking illustrations is when the wolf first appears, white teeth gleaming, eyes glinting. Flett has created a brilliant image of the girl?s apprehension, as she holds herself still. Yet moments later, the wolf appears as a caring companion watching over her; the artist?s image now exudes gentleness and compassion.

The end papers?a delicate shade of palest blue, with a motif of white butterflies in the upper and lower corners?provide serenity and contrast to the darkness that falls rapidly as the tale unfolds. The girl with her flowing black hair and scarlet dress illuminates each page.
This is an intrinsically Canadian picture book that is sure to resonate with children, both in this country and beyond. The Girl and the Wolf is the work of Katherena Vermette, an innate storyteller who has chosen her words?not too many and not too few?perfectly. Dialogue is sparse yet totally apt, lending depth to the story.
Highly recommended for ages 4-8.


Playwright/writer, Irene N. Watts most recent work is Seeking Refuge, a graphic novel illustrated by Kathryn E. Shoemaker (Tradewind Books, 2016).