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“Their ability to see themselves in literature is empowering…” – An Author Interview with David A. Robertson

David A. Robertson (he/him/his) is an award-winning author of more than 25 books including Governor General's Literary Award winners On the Trapline and When We Were Alone, as well as the popular middle-grade series The Misewa Saga. David's latest title, The Kodiaks: Home Ice Advantage released on April 9, 2024. He is also the writer and host of the podcast Kíwew. A sought-after speaker and educator, and winner of the Writers' Union of Canada's Freedom to Read Award, David is a member of Norway House Cree Nation. He lives in Winnipeg.


At Diverse BookFinder, we’re all about the importance of diverse, representative literature for children. What does representation mean for you? How has that changed over time, if at all?

A big part of my work is about representation. It means everything, especially to a child. Their ability to see themselves in literature is empowering, and it’s equally important that they learn about others through the books they read. I have seen, in the fifteen years I’ve been writing professionally, a big change in how many books are being written about and by marginalized writers. That’s encouraging to see. What we have to be careful of is that while the amount of books is rising, so too are the challenges to those books by people who are uncomfortable with change. Kids deserve to have books that educate them and inform them. If they don’t have books like this, we will continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I have seen, in the fifteen years I’ve been writing professionally, a big change in how many books are being written about and by marginalized writers.

When Alex visits his dad’s work at the First Nations Education Resource Centre, they talk about how things are slowly changing and improving, with more First Nations-led curriculums, and Alex browses a shelf full of books by Indigenous authors. As an educator and author, what are some of the challenges you face in your work? What is the most rewarding?

I think it’s very much related to the point I was just making. My books, and books from other marginalized writers — people of colour and the LGBTQIA2S+ community, are increasingly getting challenged, shadow banned, or banned outright. It’s a big obstacle, but one that is overcome with community. It’s also daunting to think about all the work we have left to do, and figure out how to do that work, where to start, what hasn’t been done yet and what needs to be done. But all you can do is keep working as hard as you can, for as long as you can, with whatever skills you have to offer. I think that, too, is a very rewarding thing. But the most rewarding is seeing youth in schools, talking to them, and hearing about everything they have learned, and everything they want to learn.

In "The Kodiaks," Alex faces intentional and unintentional racism, even from well-meaning people he likes, which made it harder for him to know how to react. What is most important to you when writing these conflicts? How do you make characters who can mess up without being defined by these moments or excused when they hurt others?

Well, to answer your last question, making mistakes is human. It is a part of the journey that were on to make mistakes. And if people don’t know any better, they don’t realize it. So, you have to be able to let people know when they have made a mistake, and to do so respectfully and bravely. But I hear people say or do things almost daily that can be offensive, and often times they don’t mean it, and I genuinely believe that. When I talk to them about it, they are almost always receptive. If they aren’t receptive, at least you tried to educate them in a good way. Change is really up to the individual. They either want to, or they don’t want to. To answer your first question, writing these conflicts that involve racism, requires authenticity. Everything about writing books requires authenticity. That makes it relatable and engaging. When you’re engaged, it’s the best environment to learn. I want kids to see the problem, and to know how to address it. That gives them agency and confidence to create change.

Everything about writing books requires authenticity. That makes it relatable and engaging. When you’re engaged, it’s the best environment to learn.

On and off the ice, Alex learns about being the bigger person and leading by example, even when it’s hard or unfair. What inspired you to explore racism and bullying through a story about hockey?

The simple answer to that, and maybe the only answer I can give, is that racism and bullying unfortunately exist in hockey. I love the sport, but there are changes that need to happen. It’s not right that kids quit playing a sport because they encounter discrimination. It’s an enriching sport and a wonderful way to make lasting friends and develop lifelong skills. And yes, I think that writing about the problems in hockey, can be extended to other situations. Because racism doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s pervasive, and it needs our attention. Stories are a good way to raise awareness.

Was this always going to be a hockey story, or did you consider other sports? Did you play yourself? What was your number, or what would you pick for yourself?

This was always going to be a hockey story. I had the idea about nine years ago, when my son was playing 9A1 in Winnipeg, and his team went on an improbably playoff run where they won many games in a row, each one of them a thriller. I thought that I needed to write about it in a book, but I couldn’t think of an angle. When I decided to combine that story with a story about racism in hockey, to have a story that showed the good and bad side of a sport that I have always loved, that’s when the novel came together. I did play hockey but I was never very good at it. I don’t even remember my number. My primary experience with hockey was loving the Jets when I was a kid, and watching my kids play for so long. I am a certifiable hockey dad.

When I decided to combine that story with a story about racism in hockey, to have a story that showed the good and bad side of a sport that I have always loved, that’s when the novel came together.

You’ve written both picture books and middle grade novels all focused on Indigenous Representation. Is there a format you like best? Are there any challenges or obstacles to writing for either format? How do you overcome them?

The challenges are just that you need to learn how to write in different forms and genres. But learning and growing as a writer is fun, as much as it’s hard work. I love all forms of writing, but my favorite is probably picture books. I think they are the most challenging, too, which is probably why I like them so much. I love a challenge.

Have you received any memorable feedback or responses from readers that particularly touched you or surprised you?

I love getting letters or artwork from kids that have read my books. They mean the most to me, and whether I am able to respond or not (I sometimes can’t), I keep all of them. It would be impossible for me to choose a few out of many, so I’ll just mention that all of them mean a lot to me. Although, seeing playing cards made out the characters in my book was a pretty cool project I saw in a school I visited recently.

What was your favorite childhood book? What was it about it that you loved?

Tom’s Midnight Garden [by Philippa Pearce] was, and still is, my favorite book. It’s a brilliant and touching novel, that at once is relatable, but at the same time, somehow blends fantasy and time travel and coming of age perfectly.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Diverse BookFinder audience?

Keep reading diverse books!

Diverse BookFinder would like to thank David A. Robertson for his time and input.


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