Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
Today we’re chatting with David A. Robertson, the author of
THE BARREN GROUNDS
Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home — until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom.
A portal opens to another reality, Askí, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything — including them.
Let’s talk talk to this amazing author about his fantastic book!
This is David. Everyone say, “Hi, David!”
Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, David! Why don’t we start with some introductions – tell us about yourself!
This is always such a loaded question! I’m a Cree/Sottish/English/Irish writer and I live in Winnipeg with my family. I have a wife and five children, with two dogs and one cat. I’ve written about 25 books in my ten-year professional writing career, from graphic novels to picture books to young adult novels to middle grade novels to memoir to literary fiction.
All of my books have been about Indigenous people—their histories, communities, cultures, contemporary struggles, resiliencies, strengths, and more. I chose to write about Indigenous people because I didn’t have books when I was a kid, certainly not like kids have now. I feel so lucky to be writing books in a time when so many Indigenous artists are sharing their stories through literature, music, dance, art. It’s exciting to be a part of the Indigenous arts scene in Canada.
Where did the idea for THE BARREN GROUNDS come from?
From a lot of different places. I’ve wanted to tell a story about the foster care system in Canada for a long time, and have been waiting for the right time and the right idea. This felt like all of that. I wanted kids to learn about how the foster care system treats Indigenous children, and what cultural disconnect can do to a kid, their family, their community, their identity. And also, what reconnection can do, how empowering it is.
A focus I’ve had, as well, is to take classic literature and reimagine it through an Indigenous lens. So, this series (The Barren Grounds is the first in a series called The Misewa Saga) is influenced by Narnia. I think it walks a delicate line of honouring that story, which I love, and becoming something all its own. I’m proud of the book in this way.
Finally, I wanted to incorporate Cree stories of the sky, to retell them through my own voice, and to see what messages I could send to kids through that retelling. The Barren Grounds takes the legend of Ochek, fisher, and how he became the constellation western society calls The Big Dipper. It becomes a story that not only addresses the foster care system, but also land protection and stewardship. About how colonialism has impacted people and the environment.
It sounds like a truly incredible story. Looking forward to reading it!
What were three interesting things you discovered while working on the book?
1. That writing middle grade fantasy is really hard, but really rewarding.
2. That it was extremely important to focus the story on Morgan, a female Cree protagonist. I want kids to feel seen and empowered when reading her. I want to offer a new kind of hero that can exist outside the pages of a book.
3. That legends never die. That sounds cliched. But a legend like Ochek and the summer birds remains relevant today, and has messages in its story that people need to hear.
In THE BARREN GROUNDS, your two main characters travel to another reality called Askí. For our aspiring writers reading this – how did you approach creating a new reality? Were there certain world-building elements that were key to having the rest fall into place?
I think you just have to be able to imagine the entire world. Where everything is. The logic of the world. The people who populate it. Its history. Its struggles. Everything that makes up what it is. If you understand that world, you can write within it in an authentic way. So if you follow the logic and description of the world you’ve created, even if it’s a fantasy story, it rings true. It’s a place that people can imagine themselves in. That they want to live in. Or at least visit.
This is the first book in The Misewa Saga series which is very exciting! How do you plan out your plots when you’re working on a series? Do you like a visual system with post-it notes and charts or something else?
No, nothing like that. What I did was write a detailed synopsis for the first book, so I knew exactly what would happen and when. I used that as a road map, to guide my writing all the way to the end. And for the entire series, I wrote summaries for books 2 and 3 initially, so I knew where it all ended before I even started writing The Barren Grounds. And when it came time to start writing book 2, which I’m done now, I wrote a detailed synopsis for it, too, to create another roadmap. So it’s all a document that I follow; I wish it was more exciting!
It doesn’t have to be exciting when it works! 😀
What is your favourite thing (or things if you can’t pick just one) about writing middle grade?
Well, I like imagining kids reading the book and getting lost in it. I love thinking that maybe one kid will find their favourite book ever, and it will stay with them all their life. I have books like that, and it’s such a special thing. In writing middle grade itself, I think it was just creating real characters, making them say real things, and having fun with their quirks and personalities and how they moved through the world I created for them.
Any hints about your next project?
I have so many coming up, that it’s hard to hint at any one thing. I have two picture books coming out in the next two years, two more instalment in The Misewa Saga, three graphic novels, a memoir, another non-fiction book, and a lot of anthology projects. So, it’s more like: I have a lot coming, so please look out for my books!
What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?
Winning the governor general’s award was surprising and shocking, and what it did for my career was incredible. I never expected to win anything as a writer, I just wanted to write good stories. So it’s surprising to me when your work gets recognized by awards, or award nominations (because you lose more than you win!).
What are you reading right now?
What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?
Read. A lot.
Thank you so much for joining us, David!
Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE BARREN GROUNDS! It’s on shelves now!
Click here to enter to win a copy of THE BARREN GROUNDS!
Contest closes Friday, September 18th at 11:59 pm EST
Thanks for reading!