By Beth S. Pollak
“We sang you from a wish, We sang you from a prayer”
“pakoseyimowin ohcih ka nikamôstamȃtinan, kakisimowin ohcih ka nikamôstamȃtinan”
With these heartfelt words in English and Plains Cree, Richard Van Camp begins We Sang You Home/Ka Kîweh Nikâmôstamâtinân, a beautiful picture book tribute to parenting. The book is featured in the Caribu app as part of this week’s #CampCaribu Week 2 “Father Figures” summer reading.
The story uses simple, poetic language to give voice to the feelings of a couple who has been “singing” for the arrival of their child. The parents show profound joy and humility when their child “sang back,” and they welcome him with affection, music, and explorations outdoors. Julie Flett’s graceful illustrations mix magical small moments of family intimacy with large, awe-inspiring landscapes that create a feeling of connection with nature and universal life forces.
Van Camp is a Dogrib Tłı̨chǫ writer of the Dene nation from Northwest Canada. He is the author of nine children’s books and many other works, including the 1996 adult novel The Lesser Blessed. Van Camp recently won the 2020 Alberta Literary Award for his newest book, Moccasin Square Gardens, a collection of short stories.
He says that We Sang You Home echoes a vision that he had of the birth of his own son, Edzazii, whose name means “marrow” in Tłı̨chǫ Dene.
“My wife Keavy [Martin] was beside me one night,” he said. “I had a vision at 4 a.m. A little boy was standing outside [their new house] and he wanted to come in. He stood on his tippy toes. He was about three years old. He was fluttering his arms, like a mighty butterfly waiting to come home. He was wearing a brown sweater. It was our house, our hill in this vision. All he wanted to do was come home. I knew then that we would have a son.”
For Van Camp, becoming a father felt like a miracle. “I was the first person to hold him after my wife. For me, he is proof of kindness in the world. Children pull us all onto the dance floor of life.”
Illustrator Julie Flett’s drawings illuminate the book and echo the warmth of her own family experiences. “Before Richard and I began working together, I had been thinking about my grandma and the songs that she used to sing,” she said. “Those songs gave me a sense of belonging and home. There was beautiful synchronicity when Orca sent me the title to get to work on the book.”
Flett is an award-winning Cree-Metis author, illustrator, and artist. She has collaborated with writers on numerous children’s books, and she has authored six books of her own.
She says that when she begins illustrating a book, she starts with a location to ground the story.
“I look at a landscape and start drawing colors,” she said. “Colors schemes soon emerge from that.” From there, “Drawing a landscape is like drawing a poem.”
When thinking about Father’s Day, Flett says her father’s love resonates in the pages of We Sing You Home.
“I feel lucky to have had the warmest and most supportive dad,” she said. “He’s definitely in those images. Especially in the image when the family looks out upon the water. There were so many beautiful places he took me to—lakes and oceans all over Canada. I had wonderful times with both of my parents.”
Flett says she also thought about her experiences raising her own son when illustrating the book. “My son and I have been on an incredible journey together — and we’re still on it. He’s grown now, and we have the most wonderful friendship.”
Passing On Traditions
Van Camp says that he and his wife aim to teach Edzazii as much as they can about their family’s Tłı̨chǫ heritage. They encourage him to participate in singing and drumming, and in ceremonies that convey duty and responsibility.
“I’m trying to give our son everything I didn’t get until I was in my 40s: culture, language, and traditions,” he said.
Van Camp only learned recently the “heartbreaking” details of how his mother Rosah Wah-Shee was forced to attend two Residential Schools as a child. She and her brothers were taken by plane from their hometown of Fort Rae in Canada’s Northwest Territories to Forth Smith when she was only five years old. Like other children assigned to residential schools, she was given a number — hers was 12. As it happened, Wah-Shee was separated from her parents and extended family for most of the next 12 years, with only brief visits allowed home during summer vacation.
Because of this, some of Richard’s family’s linguistic heritage was erased.
“I learned why I was never taught our language as a child,” he said. “I grew up in the 1970s, and although I’ve been happy as a Canadian and happy as an indigenous person, now we have an opportunity to return what we can to people that we deeply respect. A child is your second chance to learn your culture.”
Flett added that working on a bilingual text that includes an indigenous language is an opportunity to restore a lost legacy.
“When you work with translators and speakers, it’s like coming home,’” she said. “Through the little phrases and expressions, you realize, ‘Oh, that’s why my grandparents were who they were,’ and you learn more about them. We Sang You Home brought this full circle for me, because I had just been remembering my grandmother’s song. This book was a chance for me to bring her words back to my community.”
Learning With The New Generation
Throughout the recent COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions, Van Camp says he has had lots of family time at his home in Edmonton with Keavy and Edzazii.
“We’re thriving because of our son. I’m enjoying snuggles, hugs and piggybacks. I enjoy playing Hide and Seek, and playing with the Supersoaker. I’m a big kid at heart. I want my son to remember me as a dad who was in it with his son, having the time of his life.”
He cites the influence of one of his first collaborators, illustrator George Littlechild, upon both his writing and parenting. “He taught me while we were on tour together that we all have a sacred dancing child within us; we have a duty to protect that child and nurture this sacred child every chance we get. I could not have written any of my board books, or books for little ones and their families, had I not honored the innocence and wonder in the sacred child within me.”
Van Camp encourages other parents to remember that being a parent is as much about learning as it is about leading. “In the words of [dancer] Geraldine Manossa: ‘Every little boy is his mother’s greatest teacher, every little girl is her father’s greatest teacher.’ Our children really are our teachers, and a second chance at our life wish. You can reclaim it. You can go out and get it for your children and for yourself.”
Beth S. Pollak is a writer and educator based in California. In addition to working with Caribu, she consults with educational organizations and EdTech companies. Beth has worked as a teacher and journalist in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. She holds degrees in journalism, bilingual education, and educational leadership. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, biking, picnics, and dance.