A La Ronge-area author is receiving acclaim from some of the toughest critics — children.
Last month, Miriam Koerner was named the winner of the Snow Willow Award for her book Yellow Dog. The award is chosen by Grade 7 and 8 students from across Saskatchewan. The other winners were Laura Monster Crusher by Wesley King of BC and Underneath the Sidewalks from Claire Eamer, another BC author.
The winning authors had their books celebrated at St. Angela’s school in Saskatoon, where students performed skits of their favourite books.
Korner also had a second book shortlisted for one of the Willow Awards, When the Trees Crackle with Cold: A Cree Calendar – pīsimwasinahikan, a picture book collaboration between herself and Cree elder Bernice Johnson-Laxdal.
“It was a really big honour because it was voted on by students in Saskatchewan,” Koerner said.
“WhenI wrote the book, I wrote it for many kids in the north because there weren’t many books they could find themselves in. It was very nice to be recognized across the province, and that kids in the south were interested in reading about stories from up here.”
Yellow Dog is about a boy named Jeremy who gets pressured into pulling a dog’s tail and goes back to make amends. He learns about sled dogs and stories from an old man about what life was like when he was young. Jeremy gathers his own stray dogs and starts training his own team.
The awards aren’t the first wins for the pair of books by Koerner. Yellow Dog was also nominated for the Silver Birch, Red Cedar, Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice and Rocky Mountain Book Awards. When the Trees Crackle with Cold won Koerner a Saskatchewan Book Award and a Moonbeam Gold Medal.
Koerner raises sled dogs herself. Her books come from a mix of her own experiences running sled dogs and by meeting people along the way.
“It’s not very common to see a dog team n the north anymore,” she said, “so people will stop along the trail and say ‘nice looking dogs you’ve got. I used to have a dog team’ and then they would start telling stories about what life was like growing up with sled dogs.”
Those stories, she said, inspired the tales told to Jeremy by the old man. The stories about going out with the dogs are based on her own experiences.
The awards come just as Koerner is launching her latest novel, titled Qaqavii (pronounced Kakavee).
The book is set in Churchill, Man., and Nunavut, where Koerner spent four years racing with “some of the finest Inuit mushers and learning from the elders there.
“I went back to the community several times. I had a lot of help in that book from people in the community of Arviat.”
That includes a character in the book who only speaks Inuktituk. She used stories she learned from the people of Arviat that were later translated for the book.
Unlike Yellow Dog, which tells the story of sled dogs from the Northern Saskatchewan perspective, Qaqavii is an Arctic story. It was just released in March.
It tells the story of 15-year-old Emmylou. When she arrives in Churchill, all she can think about is leaving before she becomes polar bear food. But her outlook changes when she meets Barnabus, a young Inuk training sled dogs for the Arctic Quest. Her real adventure begins when she falls for a spirited puppy by the name of Qawavii.
So far, Koerner said, the feedback has been positive, including from Arviat residents.
Koerner’s books about sled dogs have been inspired by her own experiences with dog teams.
When she came to Canada about 17 years ago, she became fascinated by the history of sled dogs in the north.
“It wasn’t all that long ago that sled dogs were used for transportation. I was really curious about those times when sled dogs and snowshoes and canoes were the only ways of travelling in the north, because that’s how I like to travel, “ she said.
“That inspired me. Then, I wrote a book I would have liked to read when I was young.”
She said the recent novel explores important themes.
“It’s not just my own adventure story,” she said.
“It also touches on some of the things that have been done to Indigenous people, like colonization and the relocation of arctic people.”
The process of writing these books has allowed Koerner to learn more about different peoples’ histories and their connections with sled dogs.
“After hearing stories from the trap line here, going to the Arctic, there is a whole different connection to sled dogs in the north. I think the Inuit have a very strong connection that’s til there today when it comes to sled dogs,” she said.
“I think I found that really interesting and fascination. That’s what inspired me.”
Qaqavii can be ordered through Red Deer Press, local bookstores or Amazon.