Get to Know Monique Gray Smith and Julie Flett, creators of My Heart Fills With Happiness

This year’s TD Grade One Book Giveaway title is My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Julie Flett and published by Orca Book Publishers. We sat down with these award-winning creators to get to know them better before their book is given to every grade one in Canada.

The sun on your face. The smell of warm bannock baking in the oven. Holding the hand of someone you love. What fills your heart with happiness? This beautiful book reminds readers young and old to cherish the moments in life that bring us joy.

Since 2000, in cooperation with ministries of education, school boards and library organizations across Canada, the CCBC has given every grade one child a free Canadian children’s book.

Monique Gray Smith is a mixed heritage woman of Cree and Scottish descent and is a proud mom of 15-year-old twins. She is an award-winning, best-selling author and sought after consultant. Monique’s first published novel, Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience, won the 2014 Burt Award for First Nation,  Inuit and Métis Literature.

Since then, Monique has had five books come out, including Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation. Speaking Our Truth has won numerous awards, is a Canadian bestseller and was a finalist for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.

First, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get your start as an author? What is your writing process like?

I’ve always enjoyed telling and listening to stories. As a child, I’d share something with my dad and he’d often say to me, “Now did that really happen? Or is that just another one of your stories?” It wasn’t until I was 44, though, that I turned to writing down and capturing some of my lived experiences and the stories I was thinking about.

I am grateful to Diane Morriss of Sono Nis Press who took a risk on me in 2013 and published my first novel, Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience. Through that process, I had the privilege to work with editor extraordinaire Barbara Pulling and learned a huge amount from her that continues to influence everything I create!

I am trained as a Psychiatric Nurse and one of the key things I learned both as a student and then as a nurse, was the importance of paying attention. This has been a huge gift for me in life and in my writing. Everything I’ve written has been inspired through this teaching of paying attention.

My writing process is quite subversive and I don’t have a daily discipline. Instead, I feel like my discipline is to the story. When an idea strikes or a story emerges, I do my best to clear my calendar and work on what is asking to be told. I know this may not be an ideal way to write, but at this time with my family and my work schedule, it is the best way for me to create.

You have multiple picture books that now feature the text in Cree as well as in English. How did this come about?

One of my greatest joys came the day I saw both My Heart Fills With Happiness and You Hold Me Up in Cree. Tears slid down my cheeks and words don’t really do justice to how precious and important those books are to me and my family. Part of why I write is to make the invisible, visible. Having Cree on the pages for all children, their families and teachers to see is a significant step in this. I have to give credit to Orca Book Publishers and Richard Van Camp, they were the initial creators of our books being translated and to Mary Cardinal Collins for all her work in translating.

The resilience of Indigenous people is a recurring theme in your books. How does this resilience inspire you as a writer?

I write about resilience because I think it is important to read and be witness to the stories of challenge, pain and triumph. It is in the journey that teachings and life lessons are revealed that can help the reader sort through something that might be going on in their life or in the life of someone they love.

I am in awe of the power of the human spirit and our ability to be resilient. It is this awe that inspires all my writing and was especially emergent in my last novel, Tilly and the Crazy Eights (Second Story Press, 2018). In this story we witness the remarkable resilience, strength and humour of eight elders who Tilly accompanies on a road trip from Vancouver to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow.

What projects are you working on now? Can you tell us about any upcoming books?

As I write this, I am currently on Faculty at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in a new program called, Writing and Animating our Stories. I am privileged to be working with Julie Flett and Amanda Strong and we have an incredibly talented cohort of Indigenous creators!

In Fall 2020, I have a new children’s picture book coming out, When We Are Kind. It’s illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt and published by Orca Book Publishers. The book is a gentle reminder for children about what it feels like when we are kind to ourselves, our family, elders, pets and the earth as well as what it feels like when we are on the receiving end of kindness.

2021 will see the release of another children’s picture book called I Hope. This little book shares a few of my hopes for children, including such messages as:

I hope that you and those you love have healthy food, clean water and a safe place to sleep.
I hope that when sad tears leave your eyes, there is someone there to catch them.
I hope you are a caretaker of Mother Earth.

What does My Heart Fills With Happiness being this year’s TD Grade One Book Giveaway mean to you?

I am honoured that My Heart Fills With Happiness has been chosen as the TD Grade One Book Giveaway and especially thrilled that children will be receiving it in Plains Cree and English/French.

Find out more about Monique on her website at


Julie Flett is a Cree-Métis author, illustrator and artist. She has received many awards including the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for her work on When We Were Alone by David Robertson (HighWater Press, 2016), the 2016 American Indian Library Association Award for Best Picture Book for Little You by Richard Van Camp (Orca Book Publishers, 2013), and she is the three-time recipient of the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Award for Owls See Clearly at Night: A Michif Alphabet (Simply Read Books, 2010), Dolphin SOS, by Roy Miki and Slavia Miki (Tradewind Books, 2014), and My Heart Fills With Happiness, by Monique Gray Smith (Orca Book Publishers, 2016).

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get your start as an illustrator?

I’ve always loved to draw, and knew that I wanted to study fine art at some point and I eventually did. I studied at Concordia University and Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design. I started in film and then went on to finish in studio arts; textiles, painting and installation work.

I didn’t study illustration, though when I look back, I see that a lot of my work was narrative, even the more conceptual pieces. I find that while most of my book work is collage, a lot of my work is influenced by painting/painters of earlier generations, and the children’s books I was familiar with from the ‘60s and ‘70s — Eric Carle, Ezra Jack Keats.

It was my sister who got me started. She was working for Theytus Books; they needed an illustrator for a book they were working on: Zoe and the Fawn by Catherine Jameson. She asked me if I might like to work on the project and I thought I’d give it a try. I’m thankful to her and to everyone at Theytus for getting me started.

From Zoe and the Fawn


We have been long-time lovers of your art, with you having created the image for the TD Canadian Children’s Book Week poster in 2015. Tell us about your art style, how it came about and which artists have influenced you.

Thank you CCBC!

I think my style came about by trial and error. And I find that the style is mostly influenced by the story, it always starts with that sort of unspoken question ‘how can I best express this story in pictures?’

How does nature play a role in your art?

I think you get to know something in a more intimate way when you draw it, you’re looking at the details in so many ways. Even if the work is abstracted to some extent, not a literal translation, you’re getting to know it. Drawing a landscape is like writing a poem. And I find that often the landscapes are a starting point for the rest of the work.

What is next for you? What projects are you working on now?

I’m really enjoying writing these days, and working with Greystone Kids on a few projects. I just finished Birdsong with them, which will be out this September, and I’ve starting on a second. I’m also midway through another book project with David Robertson! And there are a few more that I’m excited about, as well as a potential animation.

What does My Heart Fills With Happiness being this year’s TD Grade One Book Giveaway mean to you?

I am honoured that My Heart Fills With Happiness has been chosen to be part of this year’s Grade One giveaway. While I was working on this book, I was inspired by Monique’s beautiful words, and many of my experiences as a child growing up in Ontario, as well as my experiences of working with children in Vancouver where I live now.

Art from My Heart Fills With Happiness

Find out more about Julie on her website at