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Celebrating Indigenous literature

At the Library with Fiona Watson

This year Indigenous Services Canada-Atlantic Region donated many new books to our collection in honour and celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21).

I am a big fan of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit literatures, and was very excited to have an opportunity to bolster our collection.

Although I haven’t read as many of the incoming books as I would have liked yet (is there anyone who actually keeps up with their reading list?), I already know a couple of them are going to make it on my top five favourite reads list for 2018.

One book that really caught my attention was Jonny Appleseed. The author, Joshua Whitehead, is a Two-Spirit, Oji-Cree member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba. This book is not for the faint of heart—the protagonist, Jonny, is an Internet sex-worker estranged from his life on the reserve. Jonny spends most of his time scheduling and meeting clients in a frenzied attempt to keep food on the table, pay the rent, and find cab money. Despite this, Jonny’s life – and the book itself—is vibrant and resilient. Whitehead’s disjointed narrative weaves a beautiful, poetic, and sex-positive picture of a life filled with love, loss, and reconciling with the past.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, a member of the Georgian Bay Métis Nation, has been getting a lot of buzz; it won both the Governor General’s Award for Children’s literature and Kirkus Prize in 2017 and was featured on CBC’s Canada Reads competition this year. It is a dystopian novel that has merit well beyond the popular YA troupe, adding a strong, accessible voice to colonial criticism. The story follows Frenchie who is on the run from “recruiters.” These government agents are sent to collect Indigenous North Americans and rob them of a valuable substance that holds the key to the rest of the world’s lost ability to dream: their bones. Dimaline’s writing and characters are captivating and expertly echo the real atrocities committed against North America Aboriginal Peoples.

Now, I couldn’t possibly make it through a recommended reads list without touching on my favourite literary format: graphic novels. I’ll spare you the lengthy, flourished, description of the value of the art form and simply say that if you’re not into graphic novels and you’re not into First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literatures, now is your chance to start with both! Fire Starters by Jenn Storm, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, and Pemmican Wars (A Girl Called Echo) by Katherena Vermette are both small morsels of educational goodness that champion the formats “show, don’t tell” attitude. Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, edited by Hope Larson, on the other hand, is a hardy assortment of short stories from some of the most brilliant First Nation, Inuit, and Métis authors and artists you may not have heard of yet. The Outside Circle, written by Patti Lacoucane-Benson and illustrated by Kelly Mellings, is another favourite that will no doubt cause heavy sobbing.

The collection doesn’t stop there: if it’s picture books you’re after, I’d recommend looking into Julie Flett - a Cree-Metis illustrator who I had the honour of taking a class with at UBC. She uses delicate paper cutouts to tell gentle stories about love and family. If you have an older child, try the work Nicola I. Campbell and Kim LaFave have done together.

I have barely scratched the surface of our collection in my reading and recommending and you may notice that I skew towards western authors, this is because I only recently moved back from studying in British Columbia. I am eagerly accepting recommendations of Mi’kmaq authors for my never-ending reading list which includes: The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, No One Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont, Monkey Beach and Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson, Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, Strangers and The Evolution of Alice by David Alexander Robertson, The Break by Katherena Vermette, and Those Who Run in the Sky by Aviaq Johnson.

For these books and others, check out your local library and our website, www.cumberlandpubliclibraries.ca. And, of course, don’t forget you can come to the library and get your child a library card at any age!

Fiona Watson is the youth services librarian with the Cumberland Public Libraries.

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