Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
East Coast artist Alan Syliboy takes on a sensitive topic in his newest children’s book When the Owl Calls Your Name. It’s a delicately told story about death and passing into the spirit world.
“Everyone has to make that journey,” said Syliboy.
The 71-year-old Syliboy was born at Millbrook First Nation in Truro, N.S. He honours his Mi’kmaw heritage through his many talents.
He is an artist, author, and musician with the band Thundermakers. He’s a filmmaker, book illustrator and the recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal, bestowed in 2002.
Syliboy has created bestselling children’s books, including the Mi’kmaw Daily Drum: Mi'kmaw Culture For Every Day of the Week and Wolverine and Little Thunder.
When the Owl Calls Your Name combines many of his artistic talents. He has been performing the words of the book during Thundermakers’ concerts for the past six years.
“(It’s) a beautiful new book exploring spirituality, mortality and grieving.” It’s an “illustrated extended version of his popular song, ‘The Owl Song’,” a press release from Nimbus Publishing states.
They say when the Owl calls your name
that the Creator is calling you home.
And when the owl comes to you,
he sits and waits until your final breath.
Then your journey begins.
“I made it into a performance piece for our band the Thundermakers. We performed this piece in almost every show and it’s one of the more popular numbers,” Syliboy explained, adding the lyrics were changed slightly during each performance.
As part of the live performance, the band projected animation created by Syliboy and Robert Denton. The book is dedicated to Denton, who passed away in 2022.
“I did a lot of the drawings initially, but Robert Denton was a friend of mine and he was the animator so we did that as a collaboration,” Syliboy said, adding that in the process of making the book he had to create a few new images.
When evolving the live animation and performance into a children’s book, there was a slight concern about how to simplify its meaning to be relatable to young readers without being too harsh.
“My whole purpose of having this story is to help people, you know, deal with this subject,” he said.
“There are children that have experienced some sort of a death in the family, or they will eventually. It is based more on young people, but I think everybody gets, everyone can relate to the story and … I think it crosses all ages.”
The books come from stories of the Mi’kmaw people and their traditions and it’s written in English and the Mi’kmaw language.
“I’ve done children’s books for the last few years now, quite a few years, and they’re quite successful,” Syliboy said. “They start from legends and they’ve all been made into contemporary legends or the continuation of the story. All of our books are in English and Mi’kmaw, so we are promoting the language also with all these stories, and they’re really a great success in the schools and (with) young people. I’m very happy about that.”
For each of the books a translator is used, because as Syliboy explains “I’ve lost my language.” When he started school he wasn’t allowed to speak it. This is part of the reason he said it was important to include his Indigenous language in his books.
“We have to reclaim our language. It was taken from us,” he said. “So, we are reclaiming it, bringing it back and the language is very available now. That was not always the case.”
“Everything we do, language is a part of it,” he said.
When the Owl Calls Your Name is available for pre-purchase at Amazon. The book will be generally available Nov. 7.
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