One of the cooler things—and I mean this with absolutely no pun intended—to emerge on the horizon of the children's-literature world of late is a small publisher called Inhabit Media, out of Nunavut. Nunavut, for my American compatriots, is Canada's newest province. Established in 1999, it comprises 808,185 square miles, much of which is water—most of the Arctic Archipelago is within its boundaries. It holds the northernmost permanently inhabited community in North America, a town called Alert, on Ellesmere Island. Most of its inhabitants (some 31,906, according to a 2011 count) are Inuit; there are more Inuktitut speakers in Nunavut than English speakers.
Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned publisher, takes its unique cultural position very seriously. According to its website,
Our mandate is to promote research in Inuit mythology and the traditional Inuit knowledge of Nunavummiut (residents of Nunavut). Our authors, storytellers and artists bring this knowledge to life in a way that is accessible to readers in both northern and southern Canada.
As the first independent publishing company in Nunavut, we hope to bring Arctic stories and wisdom to the world.
Since more than one third of the population of Nunavut is under 15, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that much of Inhabit’s output is children's books is entirely appropriate. Apparently pursuant to their stated mission of bringing "Arctic stories and wisdom to the world," they started to send books to Kirkus to review in 2013.
From the moment I unpacked the first submissions, I knew they would test American readers, who bring a certain set of assumptions and a particular aesthetic to the books that they encounter. Of Ava and the Little Folk, the story of a rejected orphan who finds a home among a magical race of tiny people, we wrote: "The story is long for the picture-book format, but children who enjoy fairy and folk tales will find [it] an unusual and compelling one." We found The Giant Bear, the tale of a showdown between a hunter and a giant, mystical polar bear, “more violent than much picture-book fare, [but] this streamlined story effectively conveys the way in which the Inuit people historically understood their environment and acts as a valuable window into the culture." The Legend of Lightning and Thunder, another tale of rejected orphans, in which the two protagonists steal some basic necessities of life and then flee into the sky when they realize they will be pursued, was summed up as "An unusual tale with obvious curriculum applications in weather units or projects about the region [that] serves to bring the far north a little bit closer."
Folktales have been a staple of literature for centuries and children’s literature from the time it became recognized as a separate sphere, but much of what's found on library and classroom shelves today has been adapted or rewritten with an audience that's not of a tale's original culture in mind. Librarian-reviewers demand source notes, glossaries, author’s notes that indicate how the storyteller or adapter worked with the original material. Much of this interpretive work is absent from the books from Inhabit; these are primarily books by and for Nunavummiut, not outsiders to the culture.
Our reviewer of the graphic novel Country of Wolves, about a pair of brothers lost in a mystical Otherworld trying to get back home, felt this disconnect keenly: “While intriguing, this richly drawn offering treads a bit too lightly over some aspects of Inuit culture for those who do not share it. There is no glossary of Inuit words, for instance, to help non-Inuit readers understand and contextualize their meanings….additional material explaining this tale’s particular significance may help modern audiences, particularly those not of the culture, relate.”
We had a similar reaction to a very different book, the eminently practical How to Build an Iglu and a Qamutiik. (A qamutiik is a type of sled.) "This intriguing title provides step-by-step directions using customary methods and modern tools and materials. These directions are illustrated with drawings for each step," we wrote, but although the "color photographs will help readers visualize the process and imagine the product,…some additional background is probably still necessary. The author and illustrator take for granted that readers understand the spiral construction of an iglu, for instance, and it is not clear whether the final block is set in place from inside or out."
So at least from the perspective of Kirkus’ reviewers, Inhabit still has a little ways to go in making their books entirely "accessible to readers in both northern and southern Canada"—if one can assume that American readers and southern Canadian readers are operating from similarly disadvantaged positions, culturally speaking. But I have to say that I like the cultural insularity that makes these books from Nunavut a bit of a stretch for non-Inuit readers.
For one thing, nobody ever said that cross-cultural communication was easy. One of the reasons librarian-reviewers are so ferocious about author’s notes in books of folklore is that we know critical nuances are lost when a tale is taken from one culture and interpreted for another. The absence of author’s notes in Inhabit's books, counterintuitively, attests to their authenticity, not the other way around.
But mostly, I appreciate this effort by Nunavummiut to celebrate their culture without apology. So what if non-Inuits don't quite get the nuances and have to guess at exactly what certain terms mean? I'm guessing that Inuits, along with all the other indigenous peoples in the Americas, have spent plenty of time consuming media as cultural outsiders. What a blessing it must be to be able to read a book without having to "translate" it from somebody else's worldview.
So although I really hope that Inhabit manages to get a foothold in American bookstores and libraries, I pray that they can do it without a whole lot of cultural compromise. I think what they're doing is spectacular, even if it takes a little bit of extra work on my part to understand it.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.