“Yayah, what are they called in our language?” asks the children on the first page of A Day with Yayah, pointing to trees and plants while on a family gathering excursion. This radiant picture book, from Nicola I. Campbell and Julie Flett, is a story of Indigenous language reclamation. There’s also an emphasis on how the characters connect to the healing power of the earth, the wisdom of their elders, and pride in their heritage to guide them.
Campbell, the 2009 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award winner for Shin-chi’s Canoe, sets this book in her own territory, the Nicola Valley, home to the Thompson River Salish people, who speak Nłeʔkepmxcín. Yayah is a grandmother, who’s taking her grandchildren and some relations out for a day of foraging in the valley. Yayah’s knowledge of plant-life and the nutritional, medicinal properties of those plants is rooted as deep as the trees she honours during the gathering. Campbell captures the matter-of-fact cadence that wise Indigenous elders emanate with charm and subtle authenticity as Yayah calls the plants by their Nłeʔkepmxcín names, passing on a nearly lost language to a new generation. The children are proudly familiar with the ritual, and are eager to mirror Yayah – while playfully correcting each other’s pronunciation.
A Day with Yayah is the first collaboration for Campbell and illustrator Julie Flett (who won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary award for When We Were Alone). Flett adds to the rich themes of resilience and resurgence with her enchanting, folk-like paintings. Together, Campbell and Flett transport readers on a bilingual learning journey with the intergenerational characters as they savour the pronunciation of each syllable of Nłeʔkepmxcín words slowly, together. The book offers a phonetic breakdown and each Nłeʔkepmxcín word is elegantly illustrated by Flett.
Campbell and Flett present the power of practicing Indigenous traditions and family values – for shaping strong, patient, smart, and loving characteristics in children. And while this story may appear to be a quiet account of a family harvesting out in the bush, messages of historical and familial reconciliation are found in Flett’s artwork. One spread shows a family at peace, children and elders stretched out on a rich expanse of land reading on blankets, sitting in the grass with big grins on their faces, warm cups of tea in hand.
The exchanges between Nikki (the eldest granddaughter) and Yayah run deep parallels of reclamation, as they perform once-forbidden activities and customs: foraging for food and medicine, ceremony, speaking one’s language and wearing long braided hair in colourful scarves – juxtaposed by tender images of Yayah touching the wispy end of Nikki’s dark glossy hair in vivid contrast to her own thick silver plaits. All the while, Yayah engages her granddaughter in acknowledging the pleasure that can come from the hard work of harvesting from the land. The distinct and unbreakable resiliency of Indigenous people is affirmed in this loving portrait of generational courage and fortitude.