Illustrator Jay Odjick Never Thought He’d Be Doing Children’s Books

Working with Munsch has been fantastic

[Audio interview below]

Illustrator Jay Odjick is from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Algonquin community, just outside of Maniwaki, Quebec, but he was born in Rochester, New York. That’s where his love of illustration was born, too. He grew up down the street from a comic book store and, not only did he learn to read from comic books, he was also inspired to draw. As a kid as young as 5, he was making his own comic books but admits they were very derivative like “instead of Spider Man it was Arachnid Man. So I wasn’t the most original cat, but I was trying!”

Odjick is the writer and illustrator of the graphic novel KAGAGI:The Raven, published by Arcana Comics, which was made into an animated series for APTN. He never intended to be illustrating children’s books. He tells me “When I was coming up in comics, in my mind, I was going to be The Underground. I was gonna be making comics that your mom didn’t want you to read and instead I ended up taking a slightly different path and doing books with Robert Munsch. And it’s fantastic! It’s just not where I saw myself going. ”

“You never know where you’re going to end up.”

Odjick had some big shoes to fill when he was asked to illustrate one of Robert Munsch’s new stories. As any parent who owns a lot of Munsch’s stories knows, Micheal Martchenko has illustrated the majority of the well-loved tales.

” I wasn’t sure how it would mesh but it seems to be going ok!”

Jay says, when he worked on Blackflies, his first collaboration with Munsch, he was really nervous. “My style is a real departure from what Micheal and some of the other Munsch artists have done because their work is really painterly and fantastic. My  stuff is very different because I draw digitally […] on my iPad. It’s kind of a departure and I was worried about how people would react to the stylistic change. My stuff really looks like  Saturday morning cartoons and American superhero comics. It’s a fun dynamic way to tell those stories. ”

“It’s really cool to be able to get a chance to add to the Munsch legacy.”  

I asked Jay Odjick how he ended up illustrating for Robert Munsch. Was there an audition process? He jokes “Maybe there’s an artistic version of The Voice that I completely bypassed!”  What happened was that, about 15 years ago, he drew 7 books by Munsch that were published in the Ojibway language through the Sault College in Ontario. Scholastic bought the rights to those translations but they didn’t have the original art files.  They asked Odjick for the files and he says, “luckily for me, I’m super NOT organized and I no longer have those art files either!” But he told them, “‘I got some time in my schedule. I can make time for a Robert Munsch book. Holla at your boy!’ So they decided to hire me for Blackflies.”

Blackflies was #2 last summer, beat out only by the classic Munsch story Love You Forever which got the Oprah-approval sales bump when she declared it her favourite children’s book.

Bear for Breakfast – A First Step

Odjick’s latest collaboration with Robert Munsch is the story Bear for Breakfast, which will be released in February 2019. This story was inspired by Donovan, a first-grader in in La Loche, Saskatchewan, a Chippewan community in northern Saskatchewan that Robert Munsch visited in January, 1990. When Robert asked what the kids liked to eat, Donovan said that he liked to eat BEAR!

What makes this so special is that Scholastic will print dual language versions. Along with just-English and just-French editions, they will print the books with the Algonquin language text alongside the English or French. Odjick sees this Scholastic dual-language edition as a first step to making it easier for Indigenous language translations.

Previous to this, it was on a community to make a translation in their language. While Munsch and Odjick have waived their royalty rights for any Indigenous language translations of Blackflies (and presumably Munsch and other illustrators did the same with other titles), there are still barriers to getting Indigenous language editions like finances and even just the know-how to get a book published.

Odjick is rightfully excited about this dual language edition. He tells me “It’s really cool not only for First Nations people to do something like this with such a huge name, provid[ing] educators with a resource to keep the language alive because we’re losing our language; but at the same time, for non-native Canadians, it can kind of help bring people together. It’s one of those like ‘live right next door to your neighbour all this time but you might not really know that much about them’.”

I told Jay that my daughter, who is in senior kindergarten, is fascinated by First Nations and their cultures and I can’t wait to see the dual language edition in our house and her classroom. He agrees.”I think most of the time, kids want to learn and it’s cool to see publishers on the scale of Scholastic giving them an inroad into learning about First Nation cultures.”

“In the past couple years there’s this word that pops up called ‘reconciliation’. And I’m not sure I really know what that means but I’m  pretty sure it’s something along these lines. And to be able to see it in action and people coming together over the love of  something that entrenched in Canadiana like Robert Munsch is really really cool to see.” 

I’m looking forward to hearing the story read in Algonquin and, while Jay doesn’t know what Scholastic’s plan is for an  audio version, keep your eye on YouTube after the book is released.

“It would be great if the English and Algonquin version outsell the English one. I think we have a very real chance of having an actual best seller in a First Nation language.”

Bear for Breakfast comes out February 11th, 2019. Pre-order it today!

LISTEN to our full interview and learn more about what Jay Odjick is working on now and his hopes for a school book-tour for Bear for Breakfast. Plus we discuss Love You Forever, Oprah, funerals and bomb threats.