A grandmother and her young grandson go blueberry picking in the woods in this gentle tale by Cree-Métis author, illlustrator and artist Julie Flett.
Some illustrators have an instantly recognisable style and Julie Flett is definitely one of them. When I was browsing the Indigenous Picture Book Collection ‘From Sea to Sea to Sea’* compiled by IBBY Canada, I found myself drawn to her work again and again. There is something so appealing about the clean lines, simple forms, sense of space and muted palette enlivened by pops of colour. Julie Flett has illustrated a number of picture books in collaboration with various authors. She is both author and illustrator of Wild Berries, the multi-award-winning tale I eventually selected for review.
Wild Berries features two characters, Clarence and his grandmother, who are heading to the woods to pick blueberries. The opening page shows Clarence as a young boy carried on his grandma’s back; when he’s a little older he walks behind grandma carrying his own bucket. I have the impression that this excursion may be a regular occurrence, perhaps a special family tradition. Grandma and grandson pick the ripe berries, eat so many that their lips turn purple, and in a beautiful gesture, leave a handful of fruit on a leaf for the woodland animals. There’s even a recipe for wild blueberry jam in back matter! Although the blueberry theme dominates, Flett includes gorgeous additional observations: an ant crawls up Clarence’s leg, a fox sneaks by, the birds sing.
The language throughout is simple and rhythmic, comprising a couple of short sentences on the left-hand page paired with a full-page illustration on the right and some lovely onomatopoeia. ‘Tup, tup’ go the berries as they are dropped into the buckets! Readers are also introduced to the Swampy Cree dialect, which is spoken by scattered Indigenous communities in Canada. One or two key words are italicised and translated on each page, such as wild berries (pikaci-mīnisa), bears (maskwak), and sing (nikamo). A handy pronunciation guide is provided at the back together with an explanation of the various Cree dialects spoken in Canada.
And let’s come back to the illustrations, the utterly enchanting artwork that first attracted me to this title. Bold lines and dark earthy tones create a striking forest backdrop on the white pages. The main characters, sometimes shown together, sometimes apart, exude a gentle warmth. The dog that accompanies them and other woodland creatures are shown in silhouette, and birds and butterflies flutter through the pages. Rich red accents, including a beautiful bright sun provide glorious colour and contrast. Magnificent!
Wild Berries is a timeless and beautiful celebration of family, tradition and nature – and a lovely introduction to the Swampy Cree dialect.
* Do check out the Indigenous Picture Book Collection compiled by IBBY Canada. It comprises 100 titles by First Nations, Métis and Inuit authors (with many illustrated by Indigenous artists, too) – a great place to start if you are looking for Indigenous picture books from Canada.
Wild Berries by Julie Flett. Select words translated into Swampy Cree by Earl N. Cook (Simply Read Books, 2013)
Julie Flett is a Cree-Métis author, illustrator and artist. She has received many awards for her work including the 2017 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Earl N. Cook translated the words in Wild Berries into Swampy Cree and provided a pronunciation guide for readers. Simply Read Books has also published a version of Wild Berries translated by Jennifer Thomas into the n-dialect from the Cross Lake, Norway House area.