Critical Literacy and the Portrayal of the Inuit in Children’s Picture Books

What began in my classroom as an inquiry about Arctic animals slowly evolved into a deeper conversation about the Inuit – their relationship with, reliance on and spiritual connection to the animals with whom they share the land. A window opened to try to speak to children in meaningful ways about Indigenous peoples. Selecting age appropriate books that portrayed the Inuit in respectful ways made me think very carefully about critical literacy and how what children see in books influences their thoughts, perceptions, opinions and ability to make connections (e.g., text to text, text to self and text to the world). I have attempted to choose a cross section of picture books with images and words that are beautiful, that have stories and information to which children can relate, and that together promote an understanding of traditional and modern lifeways of the Inuit, including current concerns about climate change, and about reconciliation. I have been fortunate to include a Canadian book by an Inuit author and artist, written both in English and Inuktitut. I encourage you to recommend other books I may have missed, in the spirit of sharing ideas and resources, and of supporting young children’s growing understanding of and respect for Indigenous peoples.

George, Jean Craighead and Wendell Minor. The Last Polar Bear. New York: Laura Geringer Books, 2009

the-last-polar-bearWith Minor’s stunning paintings rendered in acrylic, this thought-provoking picture book tells the story of an Inuit boy’s quest to rescue a stranded polar bear cub. The spirit of a mother polar bear visits Tigluq’s town, guiding him and his grandmother over Arctic waters to the ice floe where they find cub alone. During their journey, Tigluq sees birds that are nesting farther north than they normally do, because of warming temperatures. He notices that there are fewer ice floes that are so vital to the survival of polar bears. When they find the cub, they name him Pilluk (which means ‘to survive’) and they resolve to care for him and show him how to survive climate change. In a very simple way, the story addresses the serious issue of climate change and how this impacts the living creatures and peoples of the Arctic.  The book provides a window into Inuit life (both traditional and modern aspects) including housing, tasks performed by men and women, respect for our elders, or the spiritual connection between the Inuit and nature. George’s book provides a lovely launching point for an inquiry about Indigenous peoples, what affects them and what matters to them.

Joosse, Barbara M. and Barbara Lavallee. Mama Do You Love Me? San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1991

In this story about a mother’s love for her child, readers are introduced to traditionalmama-do-you-love-me aspects of Inuit life. For example, in the illustrations we see various animals that have spiritual significance, such as the raven, whale, musk-ox, walrus and polar bear. The mother and child wear garments such as parka and mukluks, and dresses with rich patterns on them. Readers can search in the pictures for items such as dolls, masks, oil lamps and umiaks. Joosse worked with the McCord Museum of Canadian History to ensure the accuracy of her portrayal of Inuit culture. A glossary is provided which explains many of the images and terms in this story (e.g., igloo, ptarmigan, umiak). Many resources can be found on-line for educators wanting to include Indigenous content in their curriculum. Lavallee’s beautiful and whimsical watercolour illustrations, and the question and answer format of the story capture the tenderness of the relationship between a mother and daughter, while introducing young children the way the Inuit lived long ago.

Kroll, Virginia and Tatsuro Kiuchi. The Seasons and Someone. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1994

the-seasons-and-someoneKroll’s poetic text, paired with the soft imagery of Kiuchi’s luminous oil paintings, portrays the lives of an Inuit girl and her family.  The story focuses on how they experience the seasons and the changes that come with each one. Readers are introduced to the habits of different creatures such as musk-ox, wolf, caribou, walrus and polar bear, and all they provide such as oil, wool and food (including fish, blubber and collected eggs). The family lives in an igloo, they use a soap stone lamp and oil for light, and they sew seal skin boots, chewing the leather to soften it.  Throughout each season the girl speaks of berries, waiting for them to grow, picking them, eating them and saving the seeds to plant them for the next time. The realistic paintings give readers a window into the landscape of and life in the Arctic, and the respect that the Inuit have for the land and the animals with whom they share it. Like Joosse’s book this story portrays traditional lifeways of the Inuit, though Kroll captures the reverence of the people for their world and their spiritual connection to the animals and the land.

Lynch, Wayne. Arctic Alphabet: Exploring the North from A to Z. Canada: Firefly Books Ltd., 1999

Filled with remarkable images by wildlife photographer Wayne Lynch, this bookarctic-alphabet chronicles the time he has spent in the Arctic over the years. He has spent considerable time observing, learning about and photographing the flora and fauna of this part of the world. Beginning with A for aurora borealis and ending with Z for zooplankton, Lynch provides readers with a way to see how much life there is in a place generally imagined as too dark and cold to support life. Lynch provides a lot of information that could prompt inquiries about familiar creatures like ducks, polar bears and walruses, or less familiar creatures such as qiviut, kittiwake and narwhals. Lynch also dispels certain misconceptions that some may have about the Inuit.  He describes how their resourcefulness and intelligence enabled them to survive in a climate that can be very harsh. He points out that while the Inuit continue to hunt and fish, maintain important traditions, and honour their spiritual connection to their world, they live very much in the present, incorporating modern jobs, tools and technologies as part of their lifeway.

Teevee, Ningeokuluk. Alego. Toronto: Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2009

alegoThis is a book written and illustrated by a respected Inuit artist. With playful illustrations rendered in graphite and colour pencil, Teevee’s story is about a grandmother and child who walk along the beach near their home, collecting clams for their evening meal. As they search, they also find such creatures as aggaujaq, ugjunnak and kinguk; the meaning of each of these words is explained both through the child’s descriptions, and a glossary at the end of the book. This lovely and simple story introduces young readers to the work of a Cape Dorset artist as it invites children to explore the world of an Inuit child. This is a story written in both English and Inuktitut (translated by Nina Manning-Toonoo). Readers can explore a very unique and different alphabet and language, and imagine how the text might sound. It is important to note that the story is set in the Canadian Arctic; the community portrayed is Kinngait, on Baffin Island, in the Inuit-governed territory of Nunavut.

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