Katherena Vermette’s work has always been a synthesis of the various aspects of her identity as a poet, writer, activist, and educator. In The Girl and the Wolf (Theytus Books, Feb. 5), Vermette offers an extended exploration of the Indigenous mythology and folklore she set out to introduce to young readers in a series of picture books called the Seven Teachings Stories.
Vermette says she has always been fascinated by the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” —and how at odds it was with the teachings of her own Métis people. “Indigenous teachings,” she explains, “have a very different take on the wolf and what it does.” 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.
The Girl and the Wolf is beautifully illustrated by Cree-Métis artist Julie Flett. (Flett’s own picture book, Birdsong, is also on our Best Books of 2019 list—see page TK.) A young girl gets lost in the woods 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. But the animal tries to help, not eat, her. His advice: “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 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.”
Vermette is part of 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. “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 New York-born, Scottish-educated writer in Tel Aviv.