Birdsong

Illustrated by Julie Flett

“Our new home sits on a hill overlooking a field … The field is covered in snowdrops.”

It’s spring. Young Cree girl Katherena and her mother leave their beloved home by the sea and move to an old house in the countryside. Finding herself lonely and out of place, Katherena befriends Agnes, the elderly woman artist next door. Over the summer, Agnes’ passion for gardening and clay sculpting reminds Katherena of her love of art. Katherena begins to draw the birds and nature she sees around her. By the fall, Katherena’s ability to capture and experience the natural world is amplified when she helps Agnes in the garden. Agnes teaches Katherena about the moon phases while Katherena shares about Cree seasons. In winter Agnes’ health begins to fail. Katherena and her Mom visit Agnes and her just-arrived daughter to keep them company. When spring arrives, Katherena realizes that bed-ridden Agnes is unable to see blossoming snowdrops, so she brings the outside world to Agnes through her drawings. Together with Agnes’s daughter, they decorate the walls of Agnes’ bedroom with dozens of pictures of birds and plants. “When we’re done, Agnes says it’s like a poem for her heart.” Katherena leaves that afternoon, “glad to know my friend Agnes” and appreciative of learning and support friends offer each other.

Written and illustrated by a Cree-Métis artist, Birdsong offers insights into several aspects of the Indigenous or Kinship worldview, whose precepts are central to climate literacy education. Organized by the changing seasons throughout the year, the book offers a representation of human embeddedness in circular time, whose ecocentric flow is measured by the seasons, phases of the moon, plant cycles, and the migration of birds—all of which are intertwined with the stages of human life too, such as Katherena’s move to a new house or Agnes’ old age and illness. Katherena’s attention to birds and their songs helps trace the progression of the story through the six Cree seasons: mithoskāmin (spring), nīpin (summer), tākwākin (fall), mikiskaw (freeze-up), pipon (winter), and sikwan (break-up)—all of which are also marked by the growth of plants and garden work. Kincentrism, gratitude, intergenerational friendships, the transformative power of art, and the value of experiencing nature are important themes too. When Katherena is about to leave her old house, she knows she will miss the larger community: “I’m going to miss my friends and cousins, and aunties and uncles.” Yet with Agnes she builds another community. Katherena’s drawings and Agnes’ sculptures, which “look like the branches and birds and flowers,” are all forms of experiencing nature through art, which fosters both human and human-nonhuman connections (see interspecies kinship, kinship care). Gratitude, receptive attention to nature’s laws and responsibility to one’s environment are showcased through Agnes’ garden work and Katherine’s help in preparing the garden for winter. “I help by gathering extra leaves that’ll get mixed in the soil. The works love this.” The same attitude of land stewardship, long view, Earth care, and being good ancestors is likewise evident in other small instances, such as when Agnes sends Katherine back home “with a cup full of bulbs—snowdrop bulbs to plant in the field next autumn.” The second part of the book, with Agnes getting weaker with no improvement in sight, may also communicate other notions from Indigenous ontology, such as the interconnectedness of life and death. Winner of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature and finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, Birdsong includes several Cree words—also explained in the Glossary—and offers an intimate window into Indigenous ways of being (see ecocentrism). This story could be used to learn about different ways to name seasons. Students could also make a seasonal cycle book of their own lives and the changes they see around them.

©2024 ClimateLit (Genesis Garcia Newinski)

Other recommended stories that focus on seasons of the year and cycles:

Publisher: Greystone Kids, 2019

Pages: 48

ISBN: 978-1771644730

Audience: Little People (4-7), Questers (8-13)

Format: Picturebooks

Topics: Ancestral Knowledge, Birds, Circular Time, Earth Care, Ecocentrism, Gratitude, Indigenous Land Care, Indigenous Ontology, Indigenous Worldview, Intergenerational Friendships, Interspecies Kinship, Kinship Care, Kinship Worldview, Land Stewardship, Long View, Moon, Nature, Nature’s Laws, Plant Life Cycle, Seasons, Visual Art

Contributor(s):