For Winnipeg Cree and Trinidadian author Tasha Spillett-Sumner, successfully navigating the COVID-19 pandemic with her husband, Anishinaabe singer-songwriter-rapper Leonard Sumner, and their young daughter, Isabella, has meant taking a day-by-day approach to life.
The pair couldn’t have anticipated the state of the world into which their daughter would arrive in March 2020 — a week before the COVID-19 pandemic took full force on a global scale.
"It’s more manageable for me to just think about today," says the 32-year-old Spillett-Sumner, who is also working on a PhD in education through the University of Saskatchewan. "What do we need to have a good day today? When I think about those longer-term things it becomes so overwhelming and gives me such anxiety."
Spillett-Sumner began writing what would become the picture book I Sang You Down from the Stars, with lush, flowing illustrations by Alaska-based Tlingit illustrator Michaela Goade and published in April by Owlkids Books, during her pre-pandemic pregnancy.
Her tender, heartfelt prose follows a mother-to-be as she anticipates the arrival of her baby, sewing the child her first star blanket and gathering items from nature such as cedar, sage, a stone, a feather and more for the child’s sacred medicine bundle. When the baby arrives, mother and child begin their journey together as family and friends welcome the new arrival, who in her own way proves to be a sacred bundle of her own.
Spillett-Sumner hopes the book can provide some solace to the many mothers struggling through the pandemic. "New moms are without the community of care that we so desperately need and deserve, but cannot have physically because of the world we’re in now," she says. "I feel the book is a reminder to new parents, new moms, that even though our children have arrived in a difficult time, that there’s still beauty and hope that comes with the arrival of our children."
The book has clearly resonated with readers. It quickly found its way to local and national bestseller lists, in addition to the impressive feat of debuting in the No. 3 spot on the New York Times bestseller list for children’s picture books.
Spillett-Sumner credits the book’s appearance on the Times bestseller list to what she calls a "golden trifecta" of her writing, Goade’s illustrations and the work of editor Susan Rich. In January, Goade won a prestigious Caldecott Medal for children’s illustration for her previous work, We Are Water Protectors, becoming the first Native American to win the prize. "I Sang You Down from the Stars is riding the wave of (Michaela’s) huge accomplishment," says Spillett-Sumner, while also referring to editor Rich, fittingly, as the book’s "doula."
"I was raised to believe that we never accomplish anything great on our own — it’s always a collective effort," Spillett-Sumner says. "Debuting on the New York Times bestseller list is truly a reflection of the contributions of the three women who created this book."
Traditional Indigenous practices and teachings such as those found in I Sang You Down from the Stars are at the core of Spillett-Sumner and Sumner’s lives as they raise Isabella. "This is how we live our daily lives — in accordance with our traditional teachings," Spillett-Sumner says. "I feel like it’s important for Indigenous families that our traditions and teachings are something we can rely upon to help us navigate the world we’re in, and also for non-Indigenous people and families to know we are living, breathing, creating people, multidimensional people, and that our traditions still thrive and exist."
I Sang You Down from the Stars is just the latest book by Spillett-Sumner to highlight the important relationship between Indigenous traditions and young people. Her first two graphic novels, 2018’s Surviving the City and 2020’s Surviving the City Vol. 2: From the Roots Up (both illustrated by Natasha Donovan and published by Highwater Press), follow a pair of Indigenous teens, Miikwan and Dez, as they navigate life in modern-day Winnipeg.
The first volume highlights issues surrounding murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, while the follow-up delves deeper into Dez’s acceptance and embracing of her own identity as a two-spirit person. From the Roots Up has been nominated for four prizes at this year’s Manitoba Book Awards, as well as an Indigenous Voices Award; Spillett-Sumner plans to tackle issues surrounding police violence in the third volume.
Writing graphic novels set in present-day Winnipeg offers Spillett-Sumner a chance to reach out directly to today’s Indigenous young people. "As a former classroom teacher, I know that youth are having to contend with so much in their daily lives… it’s important Indigenous youth know we come from strong, amazing, incredible, brilliant people, and that those characteristics live within us."
The urban setting of the Surviving the City books acts as one of the book’s ever-present characters — one that’s beloved but with many flaws. "I love Winnipeg. Sometimes I think it’s like a dysfunctional family — like you might not agree with everything going on, but there’s still a deep love there. You see all the scars laid out, but also all the beauty that comes from this city, from the palpable resistance that exists in this city."
In addition to her next graphic novel, Spillett-Sumner has two picture books she’s currently working on — when she’s not busy with her daughter. When asked about the reaction to her books to date, Spillett-Sumner is genuinely moved. "I’m just so grateful and humble at how Manitobans have brought my stories into their homes. For me that’s such a sacred relationship — that they trust my writing enough to share it with their children — and I’m so thankful for that."
Through it all, Spillett-Sumner has worked to find the modest bright spots to emerge from the pandemic. "People are being encouraged to remember how important our relationship with the natural world is," she says. "While things are closing down all around us, what is opening up is the possibilities of having a more equitable relationship with the land, and the natural world. I’m grateful."
Spillett-Sumner is also optimistic about the children, such as Isabella, who have come into the world in its current, confusing condition. "I believe the children born in this time are particularly destined for healing, for creativity," she says. "I’m so humbled by the gifts they’ve brought forward. They’ll be shaped by this time in history.
"I’m hopeful they’ll be shaped to push for a world that is more in unison, is healthier, that cares a lot more for the collective rather than the individual."
Tasha Spillett-Sumner will officially launch I Sang You Down from the Stars (virtually) with Michaela Goade on Thursday, May 27, an event which will be moderated by Swampy Cree author David A. Robertson. To register, visit wfp.to/spillett.
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.