‘Children can see themselves in the story:’ northern Sask. Family book program grows

Rochelle Browett, Health Promotion Coordinator, with her shelves of books for distribution to families in northern Saskatchewan. -- Saskatchewan Health Authority.

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

At their regular clinic and health centre visits, young children in northern Saskatchewan can get their shots, a check-up — and a brand new book to take home and read with their family. 

The Babies, Books and Bonding program, which launched in 2007 to support early literacy and family bonding, has given more than 16,000 books to northern children from birth to age four over the last seven years. 

Six-month-olds might get a book designed to be touched and played with, while four-year-olds might get a book with more of a storyline. 

The books are chosen by a team of professionals to be interesting and age-appropriate for young readers, so they can build all sorts of different reading skills before they start going to school. 

“Having any books in the home is helpful for improving literacy outcomes for children and families,” said Literacy Saskatchewan executive director Phaedra Hitchings. “It is helpful for any family — regardless of the literacy level of the adults in the family, too.”

The books are rotated out every few years, so families with more than one child will get a different set to bring home after their check-ups.

As the program continues, organizers are working on increasing the number of children’s books offered that were written by Indigenous authors and relate to Indigenous cultures.

“We felt that it was important that we do represent Indigenous stories, because the majority of the population that we serve up here is Indigenous,” said Rochelle Browett, co-coordinator of the Northern Healthy Communities Partnership. “And it’s important that children can see themselves in the story. 

“It’s important that they can relate to the story that they’re reading.” 

Browett said it was harder to find board books by Indigenous authors in the past, so Indigenous-focused books for the youngest children were “underrepresented in our program,” but parents have been asking for more books with Indigenous stories and languages for a long time.

In 2018, Babies, Books and Bonding found sponsorship to publish its own board book celebrating northern Indigenous culture and languages.

“Are You Hungry?” written by dietician Calyn Strange and illustrated by Crystal Seegerts, tells the story of a northern Saskatchewan family preparing a traditional meal — hunting, picking berries, harvesting mushrooms and frying bannock.

The book is available in Cree, Dene and Michif as well as English. Browett said families are asking for translations into more languages and dialects, too.

“It’s a good storyline, and it’s good for healthy eating as well as showing traditional ways of getting food in the north,” Browett said.

Babies, Books and Bonding is now also finding more options published outside its own program.

In the last few months, some of the new books by Indigenous authors the program sends home to families have included “Little You” and “May We Have Enough to Share” by Richard Van Kamp, “My Heart Fills with Happiness” by Monique Gray Smith and “We All Count” by Julie Flett. 

Browett said these new additions have already proved popular. 

“People have enjoyed seeing these stories, and I know that the public health nurses have also enjoyed seeing these incorporated into the program,” she said. “It better serves the clientele they see.”

Literacy experts say that when a book directly relates to a child’s everyday life, it can help them get excited about everything on the page — from pictures to the story and the languages.

“Having books that are age-appropriate and culturally relevant make it so that people can see themselves in the stories, and they can identify with them and have a great time together as a family,” Hitchings said. 

“It gives families and children a sense of who they are and where they fit with their community.”