Interview with author& literacy advocate David Bouchard
Canadian Métis author and literacy advocate David Bouchard has produced more than thirty five picture-books for readers of all ages, as well as two guides on reading for parents and educators. An erstwhile teacher and school principal, he is particularly concerned with Aboriginal-related issues and is a sought-after speaker for school presentations and on topics of reading and literacy.
David Bouchard's books have won numerous awards, including a Special Mention for Non-Fiction in the 2010 BolognaRagazzi Awards for The Drum Calls Softly, a Gold Medal in the 2008 Moonbeam Award for I am Raven, the 2004 Governor General's Award for The Song Within My Heart, the 1999 Red Cedar Award for The Great Race and the 1997 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for Voices from the Wild. An Aboriginal Carol was included in the 2008 White Ravens Catalogue.
In December 2008, Bouchard was appointed as a Member to the Order of Canada "for his contributions as an author of children’s books and an advocate who has championed the cause of reading and writing, and who has shared his pride as a member of the Métis community through his stories."
David lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, with his wife Vicky and their daughter Victoria.
Do you divide your life between before and after finding out that you are Métis?
Absolutely. I’m a different person: and for me that’s easier to handle than for the woman who married me! My wife married a white francophone (French Canadian), a school principal who was a writer – and one day she woke up to find a man of mixed blood whose fiery passion and new direction was entirely driven by genetic memories.
Everything in my life has changed since that day, including my writing. I have a new book that just came out called My Papa Lost his Lucky, which is, I think, the only non-cultural book that I’ve written since I discovered my roots. It’s about how in Canadian institutions, seniors who move into elderly complexes are asked to give up their pets. That was the case for my Dad, so I wrote this and it’s a beautiful book.
Was that a natural progression for you or was it a conscious decision?
It’s been both conscious and natural. I live and dream based on instinct; I’m a very emotional and spiritual person. I go where my instinct – or what we call inherited memories in human beings – takes me. When I first discovered this connection, I perhaps tried to force it. I think we tend to forget those more instinctive, fundamental realities of who we are as human beings. We all have genetic memories: memories of things, of places, and people. We don’t only inherit the color of our eyes or our hair, we also inherit through our genes – memories of people and of places that our ancestors, that our grandparents lived. When you can tap into that, as I have, it just makes the whole world more vibrant and more colorful.
In what way has it affected you as a writer, knowing that your affinity with Aboriginal culture comes through your own ancestry?
My discovery of my roots has also affected the physical nature of what I’m doing. In our country, a lot of our First Nations people have lost their languages, going back to the Residential School movement, when they were not allowed to speak their own language. They’ve also lost a lot of their stories, much of their culture and some pride. In our Aboriginal culture, language and stories are often inter-related. Stories come about through language - and when you don’t have that language, it’s very difficult to share your culture and your stories.
It’s been my dream, therefore, and my push, to give the languages back to the people from whom we took them. I’m European as well as Aboriginal, and I owe it to the First Nations and Métis side of my family to give some of those languages back: so my last several books have been both in English and in indigenous languages.
My book, Seven Sacred Teachings, is written in five of our languages, and then Long Powwow Nights is in Mi'kmaq: that’s the language of the East Coast Native people in our country. My favourite book, The Secret of Your Name, that I wrote to honour my grandmothers, is in Michif, the language of the Métis Nation of Canada - it’s spectacular! Then The Drum Calls Softly is in Cree, and An Aboriginal Carol is in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit Nation. My list is very quickly expanding and it’s my dream to go from coast to coast to present as many languages as I can to help First Nations children find their languages and their stories.
Your recent books are a wonderful synthesis of poetic language, visual art and music. What do you wish to convey through this added dimension of music, and indeed the recorded word?
Most of my books now come with a CD, and Seven Sacred Teachings comes with a DVD. The purpose of the CD/DVD is first and foremost to let people learn their language – and if you can’t read it, you can listen to it. To give an example, Long Powwow Nights is, as I said, in English and Mi’kmaq: but most of the Mi’kmaq people have lost their language, with only a handful of native speakers. The CD, alongside the book, is a way to give them back their language.
On the CDs you hear the book read in English (by the way, most of my books appear in French as well because I’m a francophone, like a lot of Métis) and then in the native language. So the CD was initially conceived to allow the language to be heard: then, since I’ve got a CD anyway, why not include some music as well, since music and dance are hugely important to us.
In my last dozen or so books I have partnered up with musicians – some of the world’s best in our world. For example, for Long Powwow Nights my partner is Buffy Sainte-Marie, who has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation in Canada - she’s the biggest in our country! She sings a song, which adds that important third element, music. For The Drum Calls Softly, I used Northern Cree, a Powwow group in Alberta, who have had five Grammy Award nominations.
The CD is a form of invitation to my readers. The fact is that we are struggling as a people to succeed in the school systems and in our society. Part of the reason that we struggle is that everything in our culture has been handed down orally – we’ve only been writing for two or three hundred years. To become a reader, you need somebody to give you that gift of books that are relevant to you as a person. In cultures where history and stories have been written down for generations, it’s so easy, with mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers going back hundreds of years as readers, and with so many of the books their descendents have access to, speaking directly to them – but for us, as Aboriginal people, our ancestors didn’t and our elders don’t read. We don’t have books that are relevant to us, so we have really struggled as readers.
My books are about us, in our language and they’re accessible to us because they’re not that hard to read; they’re not that long. A lot of novels are challenging and somewhat intimidating if you’re not a strong reader: and as a people, we’re not strong readers. My books are accessible, inviting; and they’re culturally rich: and that’s the aim of what I’m doing here.
I’ve read that you often start school presentations with an honor song dedicated to your grandmother. Why is this?
Always – and not just school presentations: I start all of my presentations in this way. My rationale behind it is that for many years Métis people went undercover. Maybe 80% of Métis people in our country are just coming out of the closet, so to speak, saying, “My Grandma was Native.” The Métis, along with First Nations and Inuit, make up the Aboriginal people in Canada – we have our own flag; our own National Council; our own language, Michif; dances, stories… In the Winter Olympics opening ceremonies in Vancouver, you saw the three groups, and you saw our flag and Métis people represented. What a lot of people don’t know, is that for years we went undercover.
In Canada in the mid 1880s, we were abused and persecuted and we went into hiding. Our leaders ran to the US and those that could, very quickly played the white card. We hung on to European lines and said, “We’re French,” or “We’re Scottish,” – because a lot of Métis are Scottish – and we played that line for ever.
For me, it’s just like in my book The Secret of Your Name, where I say, “Grandma, the secret of your name is out. I finally know my heritage.” The first thing I do when I stand before my audiences is I tell them: “My mum and dad and a lot of people just like us could not speak their names, and so let me say it: Louise died in 1704 and she was my first grandmother. There were others who followed, whose names have been hidden, buried; the Church burned records so that I could be lucky enough to be white and not have to bear the embarrassment of having a Chippewa grandfather.” So I stand before my audience, I take out my flute and I say, “For all of your grandmothers, I won’t start a day without recognising you, and celebrating you and honoring you, and I’d like to play a song,” and I play an honor song.
Can you tell us some more about your flute-paying and your special collection of flutes?
When I speak to children, I always bring along a series of flutes I call my story flutes. I tell them stories around my flutes and they love that. When I speak with adults, I always make them accessible, for anyone who wants to come and look – and I have links on my website to flute makers so they’re a fairly big part of what I do. My first music CD is just about to come out – it’s called Seven Sacred Songs.
There’s also one particular flute that I play a lot in my recordings. It’s in the key of B and that’s my key! It’s just such a deep, clear flute to play and I like it a ton. But I’m a little fickle with flutes, you know. I bring several with me and I fall in love with one and then another and then another…!
However, I would say my favourite flute is one I call my Dream Flute. I dreamed a story in Edmonton, Alberta, Raven’s Greatest Creation. I wrote it down and then I shared it with a Cherokee woman, Brigitte Lopez, in California, and she made me the flute. It’s got a raven’s head on it and carvings all over the sides so when I tell the story I use my flute. Brigitte is also illustrating the book, due out this coming Fall. She’s amazing!
Your picture books resonate hugely with adults as well as young people. Do you write with a particular audience in mind?
Absolutely. I try to make sure that my writings can be enjoyed by people of all ages. I’m very specific and clear that I do not want my books to appear solely as children’s books because I want their elders to feel welcome and open to experiencing them too. My goal is certainly to entice grandparents to pick up one of my books and say, “What the heck? Hey, Robert, come on over here. I’ve got this book here: it’s in our language… and the pictures are really good too!”
My dream is to have elders share my books with their grandchildren and their children because that’s how you get people to read. If you don’t have a hero that reads, you’re not going to read – so I know that my battle isn’t with little ones, my battle is with their parents and grandparents. Thus, I want to make sure that those little ones can read my books and teachers can share them in schools: but I also want to make sure that an adult will pick my books off a bookshelf and say, “That’s beautiful. I want that.” All my new books are a little smaller than most picture books because I want to invite people in through the art. I work with countless wonderful artists. The art is to entice, the music is to draw, the text is written with a sincere maturity that is focused on all age groups. I’m very, very focused on creating books that will be appealing to all ages.
In recent years you have collaborated with some highly respected Aboriginal artists whose work is not usually associated with book illustration. Do you go out and find them and create the contact? Do you collaborate closely in the process of creating these picture-books?
I want every one of my books to be a work of art and I’ve gone out and sought none but the best artists. Here in Victoria in mid-April, the Winchester Galleries are having an exhibition, An Author and His Collection, in which they’re going to highlight my books with originals by some of the artists who have created paintings for them. These are all very prominent, first-class artists.
Initially I think I might have actively sought them out but no longer. It’s amazing how often people have contacted me and said, “Well you’ve seen my work. Does this interest you?” Sometimes just when I need someone, I happen across people and I look up towards the ceiling of my library and I say, “Oh Grandma!” I’ve had two or three artists who’ve just bumped straight into my life for no apparent reason and I’ve gone on to collaborate with them. A good example is Brigitte, whom I just mentioned. After I’d written Raven’s Greatest Creation, I knew I wanted to use a flute around this story so I went looking and I found this wood carver. I sent her the story and she carved me a flute. And then I was sitting there looking at the artwork on her website and it dawned on me… so away we go, Brigitte is now collaborating with me on this book!
Can you share some of your vision in creating this series of testimonies to Aboriginal art, and some of your experiences of working with these renowned artists?
Initially my thought was that if I’m going to do a book in Mi’kmaq, I should go and find a Mi’kmaq artist; and if the book is in Ojibwe, I’d better find an Ojibwe artist. Now I let that guide me a little less than just looking at some of the gifted Aboriginal people around me. But yes, there’s been a direct correlation between the artist and the language in which the book has been written, and often the origins of the story too.
If you take an artist like Allan Sapp, with whom I’ve done two books: he’s an 84-year-old Elder, who, I think, in terms of formal education probably reached grade 3 or 4, but he’s got an honorary doctoral degree and he’s been named to the Order of Canada. He has won the Governor’s General Award for one of our books, The Song Within My Heart, and he spends his life painting the Reserve. His work is art, and my books illustrate his art. Now I don’t for a second ever think that I’ll make the contribution that Mr Sapp has made in his life – and it’s really not my goal – but to say that I can take his work and offer it to my readers is brilliant and a blessing. And that’s what I’ve done, not only with Alan Sapp but with many other artists. I’ve taken their work and I’ve offered it to children and to elders and to all Aboriginal people. And that for me is a real blessing. Not many people living on a Reserve in our country have paintings or even prints on their walls – but if they’ve got a book, and they can get a book, then all of a sudden, through that one book, they’ve got access to art and they can look at it and value it. So I thought it would be great to get art into the hands of kids and into the hands of people who don’t have that.
You were 27 years old when you discovered a love of reading. Was this a sudden conversion due to a single book or was it a process of change? What perspective has this given you when talking to young people, especially Aboriginal people for whom reading has never been a priority?
Well, I just plain and simply didn’t ever read for pleasure – I was a school principal and I still wasn’t reading for pleasure. I had the skills that would get me through a book but I didn’t bother with them. Like a lot of people, I would read the first and last paragraphs and just try to make sense of what was in between. Was it one particular book that got me reading? Well, usually it is. And funnily enough, I remember if not the first book I ever read, certainly one of the first. I was a junior high school principal and I was covering for a teacher who wasn’t there. I picked up a book called Skinny Bones by Barbara Park and I started reading it to a Grade 8 or 9 class. When I finished reading it, I remember thinking to myself, "Is this the first book that you’ve ever read from cover to cover?!" It was so good – and it was a children’s book! In a way, that's what got me started as an oral reader, as an entertainer – and it's grown from there.
However, because of my own personal limitations, there are many books that I can’t handle, that I just can’t read. I have a form of dyslexia that involves serious issues with numbers and names and sequencing – so I struggle; and I’ve come to realise I’ll never be a strong reader: but I am a voracious reader and I know how important it is. I say to kids all the time and I say to adults too, there’s no magic to becoming a reader. It doesn’t matter what colour your skin is; it doesn’t matter how much money you come from; nor does it matter how smart or intelligent you think you are, or you think you might not be: everyone can become a reader and the secret is to take it one book at a time – find one book you like, it might be 30 pages or 500 pages – just one book you like, and build on that. Then one more, then one more: and the more you read, the stronger you get; and the stronger you get, the more you’re going to want to read – and it’s one book at a time.
When you go to any one of our Reserves in Northern Canada, very few houses have books in them. As a result of their long oral tradition, reading is not yet considered a priority within Aboriginal cultures - and that's an issue. My being a late starter contributes to my understanding that one of the reasons that reading is so important both for communities and for children, is that it offers a person self-esteem. Non-readers run on empty and readers feel good about themselves. I learnt that because I was a non-reader and I lived a life of deception and envy – if somebody had asked me, if I were a child, “Hey, David, what did you think of Harry Potter?” I would have answered that it was great and I would have had a discussion about a book I didn’t read so I wouldn't feel left out. So I now can appreciate how people who are non-readers feel because I’ve felt that – and that’s helped me in my work. I don’t think that they understand the value of reading – or in many cases that they can read. A lot of people I speak to just think, “I’m not smart – you know, I’ve got gifts otherwheres – I’m good with my hands/ I’m an athlete - I just can’t read.” And I’ll say, “That’s nonsense! Anybody can become a reader! All you have to do is find one book you like and then build on it. And you have no option because in our world if you don’t read, doors are closed to you. My being a late reader, I think, has helped me to understand people who don’t read, and the reality that anybody can read. It’s just a matter of doing it and having the courage to make the right decisions.
Your book The Elders Are Watching is about a boy’s affinity with his heritage. He loves staying with his grandfather: not only because he loves hearing his stories, but also because it gets him away from school for a while. Both as an author and an advocate for literacy, what do you think are some of the tools at educators’ disposal, to ensure that young people do not become disaffected with their school education?
There are several parts to that. The first is that I talk to educators all the time, as I do with parents, about the three things a child needs to become a reader. The first thing they need is time – they’ll read when they’re ready. Don’t try to get them reading before they’re ready. We have a way of trying to force our kids to read while they simply want to be in the playground – “I want to play in the sandbox” – “No, you have to read”. Maria Montessori was very clear in saying that reading is as natural a process as walking and talking. A child will walk when they’re ready, talk when they’re ready and they’ll read when they’re ready.
The other thing I tell teachers is that kids need a role model: we have to get our seniors and our elders reading – and don’t think for a second your kids are going to read if it’s not a priority in your communities and in your schools. Teachers, you should have silent reading in your schools, not so your kids can read but so they can see you, their hero, reading. And kids need books that are accessible and also meaningful to them, books in which they can see themselves. For a long time, we didn’t have those books, but they’re now starting to appear – so I say to teachers, “Your job is to go find these books and make them accessible to your kids – and in the meantime, let me show you 25 of them!”
In The Elders are Watching, and also in others of my books, such as Nokum is my Teacher, and The Song Within My Heart, I speak to the fact that there’s a white world out there and there’s another world out there. And for the right reasons, we have to give our kids the gift of literacy. In the same way that we share our songs and our stories orally with our kids, we can do it through writing.
Most of your books are set in Canada but you have also written several books of Chinese legends, all illustrated by Zhong-Yang Huang. How different for you was the experience of writing these stories, compared with those rooted in your own heritage?
I’m a better writer than I was then! In life’s journey you tend to go where you go and at that time I had already taken up a passion for art and culture. I was just wandering around aimlessly and was writing what came into my life. Yang came into my life when I was a young teacher. We became good friends and I liked his work. I had started to write then and, subsequently, my five books about China were a reflection of my friendship with Yang and my understanding of his culture.
My other books back then were similar. I wrote a book, one of my favorites, called If Sarah Will Take Me with Robb Dunfield, a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, after he came to my school and spoke to my graduate class. When I heard Robbie speak, I thought I’d love to do work with him and we did the book together.
Before I came to know my ancestry, I would just bounce around without any clear vision or direction. Some of the things I did were fun and exciting – but I have more passion and understanding now.
You often emphasise how books can take readers all over the world. Can you share with us some of your favourite reads with your daughter, where she can either delve into her own heritage or travel to other cultures?
We read every night so we have such a long list; and we’re fickle – everything we read is a new forever favorite! Victoria’s favourite book ever, though, is The Legend of Holly Claus by Brittney Ryan. I read it to her when she was 6, again when she was 7, and she read it on her own at 8, 9, 10 and 11! We read a lot of books that pertain to Native American history so right now we’re reading Crazy Horse by Enid Lamonte Meadowcroft and before that, we read Geronimo by Joseph Bruchac.
Because her mother’s roots are British, we often read things that are British in nature. We read a book called The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston and on a trip to England in 2006 we went to Green Knowe. We bought all of her books and we just absorbed them. We devoured them there! To go there and look and listen and smell and taste and bring home the little character from it, was a goal for us.
While we were in Paris last year, we bought Le Petit Prince in French, and I read it to my wife and my daughter while sitting on our balcony. When we travel, we try to experience the world through its authors and artists; and when we come home, the books allow us to make those trips all over again.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I’m on a roll! I’ve got two books sitting with Red Deer Press: The First Flute, which I’ve done with an Ojibwe/ Cree artist called Keith Nolan (it’s absolutely beautiful); and Rainbow Crow with artist David Jean, a legend of how fire was given to the earth by our creator. I’ve also written a sequel to I Am Raven that is coming out this year, called Beneath Raven Moon and again, it’s illustrated by Kwakiutl artist Andy Everson. Then there’s Raven’s Greatest Creation, which is also coming out this year - Brigitte is half-way through painting it now and it’s going to be spectacular. Also, I recently met a wonderful, wonderful senior, a Métis man called Frank Lewis. Frank has done a series of paintings for a book I’ve written called Trickster Tales and Other True Legends. It doesn’t have a publisher yet but Frank is older than he is younger and he wants it out soon!
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers' Associate Editor.
Posted April 2010
|interviews | gallery | personal views | reviews | past issues | lists and links|