Julie Flett (Cree-Metis) is a children’s illustrator and author of Canadian origin. She has written and/or illustrated over fourteen children’s books, and produced freelance illustration (Flett, 2019). All of her works focus on First Nations cultures and peoples, sometimes specifically those of Cree background like herself.
I was first introduced to Julie Flett’s work when I took an Indigenous Literature for Children course earlier at SJSU. I loved her warm, joyful art and how it made me feel. The text accompanying her art is also often lovely and evocative. When I learned about this assignment, I knew I wanted to choose her. While she is a Canadian author, I feel as if she is underrated in the U.S.,; I rarely see the books she’s worked on in libraries or programming near me. For example, out of some 80 libraries in my library consortium, only about 10 - 15 have any of her titles. Thus, one of my goals with this project is to help others become acquainted with her work. Another goal is to become more familiar with First Nations art, specifically Cree. Are any traditions reflected in her illustrations and technique, as well as the stories she chooses to tell? Finally, my last goal is to further my own knowledge of illustration aimed at children for my own professional development. As someone who works with children, I would like to help them find literature that encourages empathy, kindness, imagination, and learning, and I think this study can aid me in this endeavor.
Background & Influences
Julie Flett was born in Toronto, Ontario (Simply Read, n.d.). As a child, she loved to create, whether it was art or objects (Weisman, 2017). She chose to study at the Alberta College of Art and studied Textile Design, and moved on to the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design studying at the school’s studio (Simply Read, n.d.). She obtained a Fine Arts degree at Concordia University, where she worked on studio art, as well as “painting, sound, and film work” (Weisman, 2017). After graduating, she become involved in advocacy for women in Vancouver, British Columbia, and also worked in leading a visual communication program for a First Nations organization (Simply Read, n.d.). She became involved in illustration professionally when her sister, an employee of the First Nations Theytus Books, offered her a job (Weisman, 2017). Since then, she has illustrated more than a dozen books.
Flett’s illustrations almost exclusively deal with First Nations cultures and traditions, and her own Cree-Metis background. What inspires or influences Flett to do this work? After working on a book about a First Nations foster child in 2004, she heard from elders that it reflected their own lives, and she was moved (Weisman, 2017). Similarly, the impact the book was having on children touched her; foster children reading the book felt “cared for and represented” (Joyful Threads, 2016). As she began to work on additional children’s books, she thought about family and communal languages that were being lost (Joyful Threads, 2016). This led to Owls See Clearly at Night (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer): A Michif Alphabet (L’alfabet di Michif) (2010). Michif, the a Metis language that is part Cree and French, is a language that has been fading in the Metis community. By writing this book that taught Michif along with English, she hoped to be part of a revitalization effort (Joyful Threads, 2016). This job involved working with others to help create standardized spellings, and to consciously choose words that reflect the Cree heritage; she also worked with her father to help inform some of the illustrations (Joyful Threads, 2016). Rather than just another alphabet book, she asserts, this book is about an “endangered language” that “shouldn’t really work, but does because of necessity” (Joyful Threads, 2016). She would also illustrate a book told in English and Cree, Dragonfly Kites, Pimithaagansa (2016), and would write We All Count (2014), a book that teaches Cree numbers. Other editions of books that she has contributed to feature multiple language editions.
As far as her influences, she has said since that she did not study illustration in school, she relies on her own ideas and styles, and is inspired by the work of other artists, Inuit printmakers, and film and animation, as well as work by Julie Morstad and Leanne Simpson (Joyful Threads, 2016). Additionally, she has mentioned that she likes the work of Ezra Jack Keats, Eric Carle, Sonia Delauney, Pitseolak Ashoona, and Andrei Tarkovsky (Weisman, 2017). It is easy to see how Carle’s and Keat’s work influence hers, with similar technique and warmth.
Thus, for Flett, her work is both about the art, but also the community and the impact her work can have. It is not just a book made for a child to enjoy, but a book that reflects a community and serves a community. As with many other children’s authors and illustrators, she wishes to create books that resonate with children, but she also seems to be conscious of the parents and grandparents who will be reading these books and recalling their own childhoods. Creating work in these other languages helps to tie families and communities closer together, and expands the ways in which children and adults can see their experiences reflected in media.
2017 Governor General's Award for Children's Literature for her work on When We Were Alone by David Robertson
2016 American Indian Library Association Award for Best Picture Book for Little You by Richard Van Camp
Three-time recipient of the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Award for Owls See Clearly at Night; A Michif Alphabet, by Julie Flett, Dolphin SOS, by Roy Miki and Slavia Miki, and My Heart Fills with Happiness, by Monique Gray Smith
Wild Berries was also chosen as Canada’s First Nation Communities Read title selection for 2014–2015.
Information from Flett’s website (Flett, n.d.).
Art & Technique
Flett’s work can easily characterized by its warm tones, happy faces, and focus on landscapes. She also tends to use patterns and shapes, such as triangles and circles. One feels at ease when looking at her pictures; they are soft, even when depicting unhappy situations.
In the book featured below, for example, notice the warm tones — orange, burgundy, red, and brown, that help to evoke a comfortable, cozy mood, and create a cohesive look. In this board book that shows a beloved child with their family, such illustrations help to create a mood that complements the text, which includes lines like "You are us and so much more.” The love and joy that is shared between the family is palpable, with their smiling faces and body language.
Anetséleh/Little You (2013) by Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett. Click to see additional images. Images are screenshots from digital book.
Flett also shows family and communal activities, specifically intergenerational connections, which is tied to her desire to represent First Nations cultures and traditions. She also depicts storytelling with reverence and joy, even when the stories are not always happy, as in When We Were Alone. Perhaps to counter the broken families that resulted from colonization and the boarding school policies, Flett’s families are always touching or near to one another. Readers see that these families are strong and cannot be forced apart; they are resilient.
From My Heart Fills With Happiness (2016), a board book by Monique Gray-Smith (Cree, Lakota) and Julie Flett. Click through to see additional pages. Images taken from screenshots of digital book.
From When We Were Alone (2016) by David A. Robertson (Cree) and Julie Flett, a picture book for ages 4 - 8. Click through to see additional pages. Images taken from screenshots of digital book.
For When We Were Alone, Flett used “illustrations, using pencils and pastels, and computer-aided collage, to complement Robertson's words” (CBC Radio, 2017). We can see that the shading in the landscape helps to create depth; she uses texturing to make the images more captivating.
We also see how Flett complements the text by creating different colors to match the mood. When we read about the residential school in flashbacks, the colors are somber and we are meant to focus on the empty space in the pictures, quietly representing the solemn story. In the present day, when the family is reunited, we see bright pops of color and shapes meant to catch our attention throughout the page.
In other works, Flett uses pencil, watercolor, gouache, and digital collage. This helps to make that signature texture and color; we can see the shading of the moon in the first picture, and in the grass in the second. Her blended colors brings the people and animals to life without making the visuals chaotic.
Anetséleh/Little You. Click through for additional pages. Images taken from screenshots from digital book.
Difference in Techniques and Style
Although Flett has a distinctive style, it does differ among her books. In some books, she uses the color schemes to help tell the story, as described above. In others, when the story relies less on a plot, she makes her illustrations interesting by texture and shapes. Her works typically do not depict a lot of movement with her line work; instead, they are more calm and relaxed with soft lines.
In Wild Berries (2013), which she also wrote, we see the familiar orange/red sun and soft, shaded colors, but we see texture differently in the landscape, as compared to When We Were Alone. Note the vertical lines in Wild Berries — everything is about height, where the horizontal lines are featured in When We Were Alone, which fit in with the quiet mood of the book. In Wild Berries, we see Clarence and his grandmother moving and doing — collecting berries, eating berries, etc. In When We Were Alone, it’s more about the mood and memories, and feelings.
Compare the first picture to the rest. First picture, Wild Berries, the following, When We Were Alone. Images taken from screenshots of digital books.
Notice how in Dolphin SOS (2014), the horizontal, curved lines complement the somber, quiet mood. The white space makes the reader feel the cold weather. In Dragonfly Kites, the lines are more natural and are curved, in this case adding to the movement of the thread tied to the butterflies.
From Dolphin SOS by Roy Miki & Slavia Miki, and Julie Flett. Click through to see additional picture. Images taken from library book.
Most of her illustrations depict wide-lens scenes, with very few close-ups. We often see landscapes, people, and nature all in the same shot. In Black Bear, Red Fox (2017), however, we see only close-ups, as we do in some scenes of My Heart Fills with Happiness. In Black Bear, Red Fox, we also see her signature texture, but with color blocks with the words to the side. We also see summery, jewel-colored tones, as compared to her usual warm, autumnal color schemes.
Flett is a prolific illustrator, and it is easy to see why. Her art depicts the warmth and joy of family, the importance of connecting with others, and the value of spending time in nature. As shown, her work draws on and adds to Cree-Metis heritage and traditions, as well as broader First Nations values. Community and language, as well as history, inform her work; she does not divorce her own experiences from her work. By using warm tones and soft lines, she creates relaxing pieces that do not distract, but complement the text.
Gouache and watercolors give her pieces a dreamy feel that evokes childhood nostalgia, making the images perfect for adults, while remaining appropriate for children. With her experience in textiles, she brings in patterns and textures in her character’s clothing, making the visuals more eye-catching (Weisman, 2017). As she notes, her “collage imagery is often pared down, emphasizing simplicity, intensity, and direct expression” (Weisman, 2017).
From reading and studying her works, I have come to better appreciate the effort it takes to translate the author’s ideas into fruition, and to bring one’s artistic vision into life. By reading more of Flett’s works, I have been able to better recognize her style and what makes her unique. I also see how she connects her interests in First Nations history and languages into her creative work; for her, it is not just work, but a calling.
One of my goals of this project was to become better acquainted with children’s literature; I feel like reading Flett’s work has encouraged me to further explore artists like her. I realize that I like collage work and watercolors, and how they can create dreamy, soft atmosphere in a book. I feel like I can better recommend picture books to parents and children — do the illustrations match the text, enhance it? Or would the text be enough on its own, with the illustrations being unnecessary?
Another goal was to better connect children with books that would help them become empathetic, kind individuals. All of Flett’s books are warm and life-affirming; people are often smiling, with family, and relaxing in nature with animals. I feel comfortable using these in a storytime about grandparents, nature, or playing outside. With so much chaos in our world today, having books like these on hand can be a blessing.
From this project, I have gained a better understanding of illustration and children’s literature, and now have more insight into the creative process, and the importance of having a diverse collection.
Flett, J. (n.d.) About. Retrieved from https://www.julieflett.com/contact
Flett, J. (2019). Books. Retrieved from https://www.julieflett.com/books
Joyful Threads. (2016). Julie Flett. Vimeo. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/152384769
Simply Read (n.d.). Julie Flett. Simply Read. Retrieved from https://www.simplyreadbooks.com/biography.php?bio_id=90
CBC Radio (2017, December 17). Illustrator Julie Flett brings light to a dark period of history. CBC. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/from-dystopian-futures-to-secret-pasts-check-out-these-indigenous-storytellers-over-the-holidays-1.4443312/illustrator-julie-flett-brings-light-to-a-dark-period-of-history-1.4443316
Weisman, K. (2017, April). Books and authors: Talking with Julie Flett. Booklist Online. Retrieved from https://www.booklistonline.com/Books-and-Authors-Talking-with-Julie-Flett-Kay-Weisman/pid=8729259?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1