Indigenous Picture Books

  • Monique Gray Smith and Danielle Daniel (Illustrator)
    You Hold Me Up. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at
  • Roy Goose, Kerry McCluskey and Soyeon Kim (Illustrator)
    Sukaq and the Raven. Inhabit Media (purchase at
  • Louise Flaherty and Jim Nelson (Illustrator)
    The Gnawer of Rocks. Inhabit Media (purchase at
  • David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett (Illustrator)
    When We Were Alone. HighWater Press (purchase at
  • Patricia McCarthy and Hwei Lim (Illustrator)
    Jon's Tricky Journey: A Story for Inuit Children with Cancer and Their Families. Inhabit Media (purchase at
Reviewed by Britney Burrell

As an elementary school teacher, it can be difficult to find Indigenous picture books that are representative of modern Indigenous peoples and experiences, which is why the following books make strong contributions to the existing corpus.

In The Gnawer of Rocks, Louise Flaherty presents a traditional Inuit story, used as a morality tale, in the form of a graphic novel. While their families are preparing for winter, two girls wander away from camp following a trail of strange, beautiful stones. The trail leads them farther and farther away, until they enter a cave and become trapped in the lair of Mangittatuarjuk, an ancient land spirit that devours children. Flaherty’s approach to telling this dark Inuit story in the style of a graphic novel acts as an entry point for those readers who may be familiar with the popular genre, yet unfamiliar with Inuit literature. The book’s consistent use of only a few lines of text on each page, with the occasional speech bubble, offers a form that is approachable for younger readers; however, its dark themes and frightening content make this story more suited for a read-aloud with an older primary or an intermediate audience. The dark, muted tones of Jim Nelson’s illustrations complement the alarming story.

In another Inuit tale, Sukaq and the Raven, Kerry McCluskey retells a traditional legend from storyteller Roy Goose using the frame of Sukaq, a little boy who loves to fall asleep to his mother’s bedtime stories. As his mother tells him of the giant Raven who created the world, Sukaq closes his eyes and is whisked away on the back of the Raven. With its use of even blocks of text on each page but a more challenging vocabulary, this book would make an ideal read-aloud for primary ages. McCluskey’s clear prose brings the legend to life, but it is Soyeon Kim’s charming dioramas that make this a book that other children, just like Sukaq, will also want to find in their dreams.

Jon’s Tricky Journey is also an Inuit story, but one with a different purpose. Written by Patricia McCarthy, a pediatric nurse practitioner, the book serves as a guide for Inuit children with cancer and their families. The text-heavy picture book follows Jon’s journey south from his home in Nunavut to a hospital in a big city for cancer treatments. Jon is frightened and lonely, but kind hospital staff and new friends help him to cope with the “tricky” parts of having cancer. McCarthy gently introduces readers to what young patients will encounter during cancer treatments: doctors, nurses, big beeping machines, child life specialists, oncology pharmacists, bad-tasting medicine, and extended hospital stays away from family. The book is written first in Inuktitut, and then in English, and the story of Jon’s journey comprises only its first thirty-four pages. The remaining pages consist of a resource guide for family caregivers, including: a list of children’s hospital and cancer treatment facilities; a map of Inuit Nunangat, with flight paths to coordinating treatment sites across Canada; a glossary of oncology team members; a list of suggested questions to ask the oncology team; a Northern pain scale; and a glossary of helpful terms, among other resources. Jon’s Tricky Journey serves as an immensely useful guide and a conversation starter for young Inuit children and their families who are facing a battle with cancer.

David A. Robertson’s When We Were Alone similarly deals with a challenging topic. A young girl helps her Kokum (grandmother) tend the garden and notices some interesting things about her. She asks her Kokum about her colourful clothing, about her long braided hair, about speaking in Cree, and about why she spends so much time with family. Words spoken in the story’s present appear in black font, while Kokum’s reflections on her time in residential school—when all those things her granddaughter asks about were taken away—appear in red. Robertson demonstrates not only the tragedy Kokum experienced being separated from her culture, but also her resistance and resilience. The book has clear, simple illustrations by Julie Flett and larger blocks of text on each page. It handles the topic of residential schools with sensitivity, and is an appropriate introduction for younger audiences.

Monique Gray Smith’s You Hold Me Up likewise introduces the theme of resilience to young readers and encourages kindness, empathy, and respect for other peoples and cultures. With only a handful of easy-to-read words in large font on each pastel page, and with many word repetitions, this book is ideal for early readers by themselves, for lap-sitting, or as a read-aloud. Bright watercolour illustrations by Danielle Daniel reflect the lives of contemporary Indigenous peoples and further Smith’s goal of healing
and reconciliation, which she describes briefly in her author’s note.

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