Second Story Press has announced the two winners of its Aboriginal Writing Contest for Canadian Aboriginal writers of children’s stories: Stolen Words, a picture book manuscript by Melanie Florence, a single mom and author of Plains Cree and Scottish descent who lives in Toronto; and The Mask Who Sang, a middle-grade novel by Susan Currie, a primary school teacher and writer of Cayuga descent who lives in Brampton, ON. The contest’s jury consisted of Second Story Press publisher Margie Wolfe, Aboriginal educator and researcher Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis and Métis author Cherie Dimaline.
Stolen Words is a powerfully affecting picture book for older readers about the intergenerational impact of residential schools. When a man’s granddaughter asks him how to say ‘grandfather’ in Cree, it unleashes a river of emotion when he admits that he doesn’t know his language anymore. Seeing her grandfather upset, she helps him to find his words again. “Melanie Florence uses slender language to deliver lush imagery in Stolen Words,” said Dimaline. “Addressing intergenerational colonization with poetic cadence and a strong storyline, Stolen Words is an honour song from our youth to the Elders.” Florence is the granddaughter of a residential school survivor and experienced first -hand the impact it had on survivors and their families.
The Mask Who Sang tells the story of twelve-year-old Cass, who lives with her single mother. When Cass finds an Iroquois mask hidden in the bedroom of her estranged grandmother’s house, she is inexplicably drawn to it. The mask seems to sing to Cass, showing her dreams of past traumas but also encouraging her to be brave when facing bullies. With the help of her friend Degan, the mask will lead Cass to uncover her and her mother’s lost Cayuga heritage. The story also draws from Currie’s own experiences, as she was adopted and discovered her Cayuga heritage later in life. “It is rare to find a manuscript that manages to entertain and charm while addressing such issues as racism and bullying in a positive and revealing way,” said Dimaline. “I was pulled into the story by the courage and depth of [Currie’s] characters and left both eager to effect change and enormously proud of my heritage at the end. This coming-home narrative is a unique find in literature and tremendously important to our story as Aboriginal nations.”
“We were able to sense what the characters were experiencing based on their ability to connect with modern Aboriginal life experiences and use of culturally authentic, vibrant details that were weaved throughout the storylines,” said Dupuis. “With limited literature about urban Aboriginal experiences, it is important as an educator to support opportunities to advance the field of Aboriginal children’s literature in order to infuse cross-curricular approaches to Aboriginal issues and how they still impact us today.”
The jury was so impressed by the quality of several of the manuscripts that the press intends to publish more than just the two winning submissions in the future. “I now see that this competition should not be a one-off,” said Publisher Margie Wolfe. “There are many wonderful stories and voices that need to be heard, so we will be looking to release titles from Aboriginal communities on a regular basis. We at Second Story Press are very excited, but the real winners will be Canadian children and young people.”
In December 2014, Second Story Press announced its Aboriginal Writing Contest to celebrate its 25th anniversary and to build on its already strong list of diverse children’s books. The announcement gained lots of social media attention, receiving almost 1100 likes and over 2800 shares.