What inspired you to write Birdsong?
I used to take long walks in one of the neighborhoods I lived in, and I’d stop at one house that was almost like a cabin with an ungroomed but beautiful yard and big trees. In the spring the yard was covered in snowdrops. On one occasion, a woman came out to the front balcony and I looked up and said, “I love the snowdrops,” and she said, “I know.” She’d seen me over the last few weeks. We had a chat and slowly got to know each other over the next year and I learned that she was a ceramics artist. About a year before we moved away from that neighborhood, she dropped a little baggie of snowdrops on my doorstep—no note, just the snowdrops. I kept them for a while in my studio before planting them.
That story kept coming up for me, and I knew that I wanted to do a story for children about the connections we have with the people in our communities. I also found myself thinking of the snowdrops after I lost someone close to me. Everything came together, along with some of my own childhood experiences, to inspire Birdsong.
For me, Birdsong is about meaning-making and connection and relationship. For Katherena and Agnes, their artwork is one of the ways they explore the world, and it’s something they can share. Birdsong is about how the little girl explores her new community and friends and, of course, about Agnes getting older, the loss of that friendship, and what we hold close and dear to us as those relationships come to an end.
Katherena loves to draw, Agnes works on sculpting a pot, and they talk about making things together. How did art and creativity come to be a part of your story about two friends from different generations?
I think partly because it’s what I do, and it’s what most of the people in my community do, where we collaborate in all sorts of new and unique ways. And how I was raised, surrounded by and with artists and makers of all ages. I often think about American artist Ruth Asawa and what she said about art making: “Art is doing, art deals directly with life.”
Tell us about your decision to highlight the Cree language in Birdsong.
It came organically to the story, where it was natural to Katherena in relationship to Agnes, their connection and what they shared with each other.
You both wrote and illustrated Birdsong. What is that process like for you–does one come before the other?
Conceptually,Birdsong started out as a wordless picture book. I had been working on it for about 4-5 months and one day the words just started to come together. I sat down one morning and wrote it all out. For this one, the story came first, and then some of the illustrations, and then the words.
What do you hope young readers will take away from Katherena and Agnes’ story?
Hopefully a celebration of friendship, intergenerational friendships, and relationships. It reminds me of my childhood, and my son’s, where family and extended family come together to care for one another. As well as support for those going through loss, or transition.
I’m also surprised by what children take away from story, often something that I hadn’t expected and I find that one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of sharing story.
Anything else we should know?
Working on this story was unusual in that it started with story, and illustrations, and then words. The story existed, it just needed to be uncovered. I worked closely with Rob Sanders, our publisher, Kallie George, our editor, and Sara Gillingham, the designer of the book, who were all tremendously supportive of the process. Their trust in this process helped immensely. I’m so grateful to everyone at Greystone Kids.And I should also say that the character Katherena is an homage to the author Katherena Vermette, who I’d just worked with on The Girl and the Wolf.