A celebrated poet, writer, activist, and educator, Katherena Vermette’s work has always been a synthesis of those various aspects of her identity. In The Girl and the Wolf, Vermette returns to offer an extended exploration of the Indigenous mythology and folklore she set out to introduce young readers to in a series of picture books called the Seven Teachings Stories. This time however, the traditional themes are posited against those of the more widely known Western European variety in a very intentional—and illuminating—way.
“I was always fascinated by the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ” Vermette says, “but by the earlier versions, where this little girl overcomes adversity and escapes the wolf through her wit. It’s only in later versions,” she adds, “that the woodcutter, this man, comes along to save the day.” What Vermette found particularly interesting about the story, and her own attraction to it, was how at odds it was with the teachings of her own Métis people.
“Indigenous teachings, Anishnaabe teachings, have a very different take on the wolf and what it does,” she explains. Rather than something threatening and dangerous, wolves, like many other animals in these traditional stories, are helpful and wise creatures. “I liked the idea of offering a kind of Indigenous version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ” she says.
In The Girl and the Wolf, beautifully illustrated by Cree-Métis artist Julie Flett, a young girl is out in the woods with her mother when her penchant for exploring winds up getting her lost just as night is beginning to fall. When she sees a wolf approach, the girl, like the reader, is struck with a pang of fear before the animal reveals himself to be interested in helping, not eating, her. His advice is simple, yet effective: “Take a deep breath.” You know the answers to your questions, he tells her—how to get back to camp, what berries are safe to eat, what water is fresh to drink—you just need to calm down and listen to yourself.
That message, while filtered through an Indigenous lens, comes from Vermette’s own experience as a kindergarten teacher. “So many kids, young kids, have so much anxiety,” she says. “So much of my work as a teacher was helping kids calm down and trust themselves.” Like those early versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” to which Vermette was so attracted, the girl in her book has everything she needs to extricate herself from the crisis she faces; she just needs to trust herself.
Vermette began teaching when her own daughter was in kindergarten, and her children continue to inspire and guide her work. Born and raised in a city, she has taken part in a wider movement to reclaim Indigenous practices and relearn teachings as a way to ensure her own daughters have a greater understanding of their culture than she did. Even in 21st-century urban settings, those teachings remain important.
“So often, Indigenous people in stories are set in the past, but especially with a children’s book, I wanted it to be set in modern times,” Vermette explains. “We function as contemporary beings. I want Indigenous readers to see themselves in these stories,” she says, “and I want every child to have something here to connect to.”
James Feder is a writer based in Tel Aviv.