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Cree author reads to children for Family Literacy Day

For Family Literacy Day, Bernice Johnson-Laxdal and Miriam Körner read their book to several children while sitting around a campfire.
Miriam Korner on the left and Bernice Johnson-Laxdal on the right
(L-R) Miriam Korner, co-author and illustrator "When the Trees Crackle with Cold"; Bernice Johnson-Laxdal, author

For Family Literacy Day on Jan. 26, Bernice Johnson-Laxdal and Miriam Körner read their book to several children while sitting around a campfire, with the reading live-streamed over YouTube.

It looks cold on the video, but a well-laid, crackling campfire helps fend off the chill. Johnson-Laxdal, the author of “When the Trees Crackle with Cold: A Cree Calendar – Pisimwasinahikan”, and Körner, the illustrator and co-author, are bundled in winter clothing. So are the children sitting on the other side of the fire, listening quietly.

Johnson-Laxdal begins by introducing herself in Cree. She has taught Cree language and culture for 20 years. Her book is about the seasons of the Cree year, their connections to the moon, and the significance of each season. As she reads, Johnson-Laxdal tells stories from her childhood in Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan.

Île-à-la-Crosse is a northern village and a National Historic Site of Canada. It is significant for its history as a trading post, and is the second-oldest community in Saskatchewan after the Red River Colony.

They start with January, and the children join in, attempting to pronounce the Cree word for that first season as best they can.

“Being small kids in the family, it would be our job to help bring in wood,” Johnson-Laxdal says. She talks about how necessary fire was for many parts of life: melting snow to drink, cooking their food, and washing and doing laundry.

The book is written in both English and Plains Cree. As Körner reads, she says each chapter’s title first in Cree, then in English, with the kids following along. Johnson-Laxdal helps occasionally.

Körner is originally from Germany. After earning a master's in clinical psychology, she came to Canada to explore the vast wilderness of the Canadian North. She and her husband built their log cabin. She had to learn how to use a chainsaw — then, she built a dog shed and learned to train sled dogs.

Körner is a writer, photographer, and artist. She has taken long journeys into the north, including Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Travelling by canoe and with her 12 sled dogs, she has taken personal trips as well as acting as a wilderness guide for groups. She lives in Potato Lake, just down the road from Johnson-Laxdal.

“When the young birds break their fragile shells,” Körner reads, “we go on a picnic.”

The month is June. There was still ice on the shore of the lake, Johnson-Laxdal says, but the days were getting longer, and the weather was warming. She smiles as she recalls how fun their picnics were, and how her parents cooked fish on a line over the fire.

The recorded live stream is now available on YouTube to watch as a family. The stories are expressive, and help illustrate what life was like for a young Cree child in northern Saskatchewan.

The recording can be watched at https://youtu.be/G5wvd91Q56E and “When the Trees Crackle with Cold: A Cree Calendar – Pisimwasinahikan” can be purchased wherever books are sold.