Yukon illustrator with lifelong commitment to First Nations languages wins literacy award

Yukon illustrator Susan McCallum is the recipient of the Council of the Federation Literacy award.

A picture is worth a thousand words to illustrator Susan McCallum – especially when it comes to language.

With a career spanning more than 40 years, McCallum is perhaps best known for her work illustrating dozens of children’s books focused on language learning.

Her passion for language dates back to the 1970s when she first travelled to Yukon and began engaging with its First Nations people.

“I met many Indigenous people, Elders took me under their wing,” she said. “That’s when I started illustrating Indigenous languages and learning so much on how to respect the land and the Indigenous point of view.”

Her work has not gone unnoticed.

On Sept. 5, McCallum received the Council of the Federation Literacy award from Deputy Premier and Education Minister Jeanie McLean.

The annual award is presented in each province and territory by the Council of the Federation, whose members are the premiers of Canada. It recognizes those who have made significant strides in promoting literacy.

“My heart is full, it’s wonderful,” McCallum said during her award ceremony.

With language at the forefront, McCallum wanted to share the limelight with young language speakers.

All spoke of how her work helped them on their language journey.

“I’m grateful for all those illustrations that you drew. It’s beautiful artwork and it helps me understand Dän k’e (Southern Tutchone),” said language learner Äyįzhìa Cory Holway.

Much of McCallum’s work is focused on children’s books. Photo: Sara Connors

Daughter Sho Sho Esquiro credits her mother as an inspiration when it comes to her own art.

The Kaska-Dene fashion designer, whose work has been featured on runways and museums across North America, nominated her mother for the award.

“I wouldn’t even be here where I am with what I accomplished,” she said. “When I was five I knew I really wanted to do fashion and she really nurtured that and encouraged me.”

Language and connection

In addition to illustrations, McCallum is the creator behind literacy board games, flashcards and curriculum. Her work has been featured in productions for Sesame Street and the National Film Board of Canada.

More recently, her illustrations were included in the Hän language book Shëtsey – My Grandpa, which was selected for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

Author Georgette McLeod said it’s important for young readers to see themselves in the artwork.

“You can pull images from people’s lives at fish camps, at hunting camps, in school, in the communities. I think people really feel they can connect in that way, and not only just little ones, adults as well,” she said.

As this year’s winner, McCallum received a certificate signed by the premier, as well as a Council of the Federation Literacy award medallion.

She’s hopeful her work will help promote language and literacy for young readers across the territory.

“You have to implant that in them, there are going to be speakers, there are speakers right now, and the more you speak and your friends speak, it’s just going to grow and grow and grow. It’s so important.”

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