With her children’s book series Little Wolf, Teoni Spathelfer has found a new medium to express contemporary and traditional Indigenous themes.
Spathelfer, a Victoria-based author of the Heiltsuk Nation, created the series after years of “having them on the backburner.”
The debut book Little Wolf was released in May, while White Raven was put out in late September.
“It's really interesting to have two books come out within four months of each other right in the middle of the pandemic,” Spathelfer said in an interview with Windspeaker.com.
Abalone Woman, the third in the series, will come out in May 2022.
“Those stories have always been part of who I am as far back as I can remember,” Spathelfer said.
Little Wolf follows the title character around as the young Indigenous girl moves to a larger city and deals with feelings of isolation following her parents’ separation. White Raven continues the story of Little Wolf, and focuses on her grandmother’s experience in the residential school system.
Spathelfer has had a varied career. She has worked as a publicist, a radio journalist, host, and producer, an arts and music writer, and her expansion into the children’s book sphere “feels like an extension of the media work that I've been doing in my life,” she says.
“The only thing that's different now is, before I was helping other people to bring their stories out. But these stories are actually based on three generations of women in my family: my mom, myself and my daughters. So they’re a little more personal this time.”
Spathelfer’s family members, including her mother, spent time in the residential school system.
“The main thing for me when I was writing this story, and then wanting to share it with the world, is that people would hear her story,” Spathelfer said.
She recruited Natassia Davies, a Coast Salish artist, to work on the book’s illustrations after her daughter found one of Davies’ murals and was impressed by her artwork.
“It was important for me to offer the opportunity to a First Nations artist to work together on this project,” Spathelfer said.
Attention to detail for Spathelfer and Davies in the book’s illustrations was paramount.
“There's a particular sunset you see on [the Little Wolf] cover, that here in coastal BC we might only get six times a year,” Spathelfer said. “And so that was really important to me. I wanted that cover to be noticed when someone was in the bookstore. So I wanted — through the colour — for people to be drawn to that book, and then find out what it's about by reading the back page.”
One of the most important benefits in publishing a book has been the opportunity to share her work through classroom appearances, and talk about “age-appropriate residential school information.”
Though these interactions have been virtual, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Spathelfer is embracing them all the same.
“I love the interaction with the kids because their questions are brilliant,” she said. “I like to leave a bit of time at the end for questions and answers, to have that interaction with the kids.”
Spathelfer thinks there’s a need for adults to be as engaged with educational material as the youth it is targeted to.
“I feel we all have a responsibility, not only to our own children, but our community children to do our best for them,” she added.
Spathelfer shared the story of a family with young children in Ontario who contacted her about how they'd spent a night together learning about the residential school system after reading White Raven.
While they started reading the book around their bedtime at seven p.m., both the discussion and questions about residential schools kept the conversation going for more than two-and-a-half hours.
“What an opportunity for them to be on that journey together and to learn and to welcome the information,” she said. “I don't want to judge someone because they didn't know about residential school. I want to take the opportunity to share our family history around that to help them learn more so we can all move forward together.”
Spathelfer thinks that anecdote is just one example of how stories have a special healing ability.
“I strongly believe that when we share stories in life, we learn so much from each other,” Spathelfer said. “I strongly believe that stories are medicine and I’m just very happy to be able to share these stories.”
The books are distributed by Heritage House Publishing at https://www.heritagehouse.ca/books/
By Adam Laskaris, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com