Reading the Indigenous North: Baby Raven Reads and Inhabit Media

Today we welcome Ann Dixon who introduces two small North American publishers who are creating beautifully crafted, culturally authentic picture books in both English and the indigenous languages of their regions...

By Ann Dixon

Cover image of  Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska, illustrated by Crystal Kaakeeyáa Worl

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), a Native corporation in Southeast Alaska, has produced 25 titles since 2016 through their Baby Raven Reads program. Ten are written in an indigenous language of their region: Lingít (Tlingit), X̱aad Kíl (Haida), and Sm’algya̱x (Tsimshian). Their board book Cradle Songs of Southeast Alaska, illustrated by Crystal Kaakeeyáa Worl, is trilingual, incorporating all three languages, as well as English translations, and comes with a CD. Additional activity and audio resources are available on their website. For a closer look, check out my earlier reviews of their board books and several picture books.

Baby Raven Reads’ primary mission is to promote “early literacy, language development and school readiness for Alaska Native families with children up to age 5.” Besides books, SHI offers literacy events for Alaska Native families and training and professional development for care providers and educators in Southeast Alaska communities.Their books also inform non-Native readers about the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of the Northwest Coast.

Cover image of Shanyaak'utlaax: Salmon Boy, illustrated by Michaela Goade

Their publishing program is also creating opportunities for Alaska Native writers and illustrators. In 2021, one of their artists, Michaela Goade (Lingít name Sheit.een), became the first Native American to receive the prestigious Caldecott Award for children’s picture books. While the book, We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, was published elsewhere, Goade’s career in children’s books began with SHI. In 2018 Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy, illustrated by Goade, received the American Indian Youth Literature (AIYL) Best Picture Book award and in 2020, Raven Makes the Aleutians, illustrated by Janine Gibbons, was an AIYL Picture Book Honor title. Sealaska Heritage Institute was recognized nationally for its good work in 2017, when the United States Library of Congress commended SHI as a Best Practice Honoree.

Farther north and east in Iqaluit, Canada, located in the province of Nunavut, Inhabit Media is creating books that “preserve the stories, knowledge, and talent of the Arctic.” The first independent publishing house in the Canadian Arctic, as well as the first Inuit-owned, Inhabit Media has been collaborating with elders, storytellers, authors, and artists across the region since 2006 to bring culturally accurate, accessible books to children.

I first came across Inhabit Media through their “Animals Illustrated” series, a collection of 24-page books for young readers about animals of the Arctic, beautifully illustrated and factually correct (no penguins! — see my grateful review). From there I explored their wide-ranging and eclectic mix of traditional tales, nonfiction, oral histories, and fiction. Landscapes range from the Northwest Territories in The Dancing Trees to Greenland with The Man of the Moon. Dozens of titles come in varying lengths, for everyone from preschoolers to adults.

Cover image of  I Am Loved by Mary and Kevin Qamaniq-Mason

Several languages are represented, including English, Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, and French. Some books are solely in English but most are either bilingual or offered in one or more language editions, often English and Inuktitut. Occasionally, as in I Am Loved by Mary and Kevin Qamaniq-Mason, a picture book about foster families, we find three editions, in English, Inuktitut, and French. A few popular stories originally in English and published elsewhere have been translated into Inuktitut, such as Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo and A Promise is a Promise by Michael Kusugak and Robert Munsch.

Accurate, well-crafted books for children about Alaska and northern Canada, especially those that authentically reflect the lives, cultures, and languages of indigenous people, have historically been in short supply. Sealaska Heritage and Inhabit Media are making valuable contributions toward filling that gap. Their books are a gift not only to the children of the regions and cultures they serve, but to all of us. I say “thank you!”

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Photo of Ann Dixon

Ann Dixon is the author of nine books for children. After many years as a public and school librarian in Alaska, she now writes, reads, gardens, and volunteers as a driver and occasional story time reader with the Friends of the Homer Library bookmobile. She has a particular interest in northern children’s lit, particularly Swedish, in which she is moderately fluent. Visit her online at kidlitnorth.blogspot.com and anndixon.net.