Local writer fills gap she grew up with: books for Indigenous kids

·3 min read

Growing up in a predominantly white and rural community, Kristi White says there was virtually no access to books, let alone ones she found relatable.

“I grew up in a rural community where we were the only Indigenous family,” said White, who is Haudenosaunee from Oneida Nation of the Thames, southwest of London.

“I was not an avid reader until I got to high school and was given my first book.”

But after questioning why the same was true for many others, and learning Indigenous children, particularly boys, have some of the lowest literacy rates in Canada, White decided she’d bring awareness to the issue through something she had grown to love - writing.

A mother of four, White has self-published four children’s books in a new series aimed at educating boys on topics that include everything from friendship and hoop dancing to braids and powwows.

“Every single book in the series has a little piece of Indigenous culture, so that way children have relatable content,” she said.

The Adventures of Jay and Gizmo series centers on the main characters Jay, an Indigenous boy, and his beloved cat, Gizmo. In the latest book, the pair learn about Indigenous powwows and different dance styles, White said.

Many characters are based on real-life people. Jay, for instance, is based on White’s cousin, while another character is inspired by her son, River Christie-White, a disability advocate.

“Children really relate to characters they can see outside of the books,” White said.

Since launching the series in 2018, her books have been read in countries around the globe — from Guatemala as far as the Philippines — to help teach English to children. One of them is now available in a bilingual, English and Anishinaabemowin, version.

Closer to home, White raises money and earmarks a portion of her profits to get free copies of her books into schools, camps, communities and agencies in Ontario and across Turtle Island, otherwise known as North America.

Until the end of September, donations to the Gift of Literacy project will help distribute free copies of Jay and Gizmo Learn About Boys With Braids, to raise awareness about bullying Indigenous boys with long hair and braids.

“In the last month, it has been heartbreaking the amount of little boys that have come up and wanted to speak to me about being bullied in school around their hair,” White said.

Now, she’s using that as momentum to educate people about the cultural significance of the braid and long hair.

“No matter which nation or tribe it is, one of the main beliefs around our hair teaching is that we only cut our hair at specific times,” like when people are grieving the loss of someone close to them, explained White.

She said the long hair symbolizes a connection to the Earth and her people’s ancestors. “It’s very much a huge piece of our culture.”

Through her work, White hopes to shed light on the need for accessible reading material, especially that by Indigenous authors, in First Nations communities.

She cited her great aunt, a teacher and the first woman to be elected Chief of the Oneida Nation of the Thames in 1966. One of her goals was to establish a library in the community.

“I am her great niece in 2022, and we don’t have a library in Oneida,” White said.

Less than 50 of Ontario’s 133 First Nations communities have public libraries, according to the Ontario Library Association.

Long-term, White hopes to see her books shared widely.

“I would like to see even one of each series in every space you would find an Indigenous child, which to me, is everywhere. We have Dora and Diego, and they’re amazing representations for Spanish children,” she said, referring to the popular children’s television and book series.

“We need the same sort of thing to uplift our Indigenous children.”

To learn more about The Adventures of Jay and Gizmo, visit www.jayandgizmo.ca.

cleon@postmedia.com

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Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press