Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
When author Samantha Benyon was growing up in Prince Rupert, B.C., she had a strong interest in her Nisga'a culture, with a particular affinity towards the traditional cooking styles and foods associated with her heritage.
But it wasn’t easy to find books to read about the cuisine of her people.
“My elementary schools didn't really have any books for Indigenous children. And we didn't really have a lot of books in general that related to our foods,” Beynon told Windspeaker.com.
“So I just kind of wanted to create something to make Indigenous children — especially in northern B.C. — feel safe with their traditional foods.”
Benyon has created a 32-page children’s book called Oolichan Moon. It hits shelves this Oct. 15, published by Highwater Press.
The book centres around the Oolichan, a fatty smelt-species of fish that is extremely important in Indigenous communities along the Pacific coast. Its oil is prized and it’s been traded for centuries along the Oolichan Trail.
Oolichan has historic, economic and cultural significance to peoples, including the Nisga'a. Oolichan Moon tells this tale, through the main characters Little Sister and Big Sister, as well as their grandmother.
Benyon didn’t have to search too far for an appropriate illustrator for the book. Lucy Trimble, a cousin by biology, who is considered a sister in Indigenous ways of relations, produced the book’s artwork.
“We grew up really, really close,” Benyon said. “Our moms were sisters. So, it wasn't too hard when trying to find an illustrator. I come from a big family of artists. And (Lucy and I) were both kind of navigating a lot of big life changes.
“So I just kind of called her up and I said ‘Hey, I have this idea. Would you want to illustrate for me?’… We were just excited.”
Benyon found inspiration for the book from her own two young daughters.
“They give me a lot of motivation to write. And I did use two sisters, said Benyon of the book’s characters. “And so when I do write my books, they're not specifically dedicated to them, but they have a little bit of an idea. I think they're kind of coming from a little bit of my background, a little bit of the northern B.C. culture, and then I take a little bit of pieces from my own life with my own girls and I kind of put them all together like a puzzle piece.”
Benyon hopes that young children will take away something meaningful from reading Oolichan Moon.
“There's a little bit of humour that relates to Indigenous culture,” Benyon said. “There's a little bit of cheekiness from the sisters. And in terms of educating, it's just all about making the children feel safe when reading something.”
Benyon said the challenge of writing for young children is the inherent restraint on how long the book can be.
“I don't think you can really fit (everything) in unless you're writing like a really thick novel,” she said. “With children's literature you're just simplifying it because children get bored right away.”
While it’s still a few months out from its release to the general public, it’s clear that Oolichan Moon has already had an impact on readers who got it early.
“I had a little tear welling up in my eye as I thought how cool it will be for kids to be reading about part of their culture. This kind of story is long overdue and badly needed. I hope it is the first of many,” said Edward Desson, fisheries manager, Nisga’a Fisheries and Wildlife, Nisga’a Lisims Government in a testimonial for the book.
Outside of her work as an author, Benyon is in the last year of a five-year program at Vancouver Island University, finishing a Bachelor of Education while specializing in Indigenous Studies. She also works as an Indigenous Strategy Lead with Moms Stop the Harm, an organization dedicated to supporting families affected by substance use and related harms and deaths.
“My role is basically finding strategies to help our Indigenous communities cope with those losses, and just kind of supporting them along the way,” Benyon said.
“In my spare time, I'm just kind of constantly reading, wanting to learn and just kind of wanting to write more,” Benyon added. “My big thing is that my brain is constantly going; it never shuts off ideas.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.