INTERVIEW: author Tomson Highway

We speak to the legendary Cree writer about his new musical children's book, Grand Chief Salamoo Cook Is Coming To Town!
Tomson Highway is laughing in this photo, which he does a lot in real life, too! (Sean Howard)

Tomson Highway is a Cree-Canadian legend.

Across a nearly fifty-year-career, he has done it all. Though he is most known for writing award-winning plays and novels, he has also recorded albums, worked on musicals and operas, delivered lectures, and more. No wonder he was named to the Order of Canada!

His newest work, which came out last week, is a book for kids. Called Grand Chief Salamoo Cook Is Coming To Town!, it is a musical picture book.

It is all about the day when a powerful rabbit chief comes to visit the town of Kisoos. As the young rabbit Weeskits spreads the news, no one can believe it. He's never visited before! Why now? And what is this mysterious contest he's planning on holding?

Weeskits and all of the other rabbits are so excited ... and when you read this funny story, you will be, too!

So much to read, see, and hear!

(The Secret Mountain)

Not only can you read the book, you can also scan a QR code and listen to it! That includes full narration by Cree actor Jimmy Blais and performances of nine songs written by Tomson himself.

Mixing English, Cree, and French (Tomson speaks all three languages, plus Spanish!), Grand Chief Salamoo Cook is so much fun to read and experience. And Tomson is no different in person!

We found that out for ourselves when we got to interview him recently. Let's learn about this amazing artist together!

OWLconnected: You do so many different things. How did this journey start for you?

Tomson Highway: My first ambition, my first dream, was that I wanted to be a concert pianist.

OC: Amazing! How did you first get excited about music?

TH: I'm from the Arctic, one of the most isolated places on Earth. I was born in a place called the four corners, where Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories all meet. It's fantastically beautiful, but there was no real human settlement up there. There was just land, just nature. [Wanting to play music] was rather an impractical dream.

OC: But you still managed to do it!

TH: I honestly believe it's magic. I believe that a musician does not choose their musical instrument. The musical instrument chooses the musician.
I started up with accordion because there's no pianos where I come from. And then I tried the double bass. I tried the guitar. It didn't work for me. I tried the flute, I tried this, I tried that, and nothing worked for me.

It was only the piano that worked for me. I don't know what happened, but I just fell madly in love with it. I came very close to a music career when I was in my early twenties.

OC: What changed?

TH: I was interested in too many other things! And the main one was writing.

OC: And you've done very well, too! But a lot of your books are for adults. What led to writing this book for young people?

TH: I was offered a contract by a producer in Montreal. He knew I was interested in both writing and music. So he approached me one day out of the blue, and asked me if I was interested in writing a children's musical.

Music comes so naturally to me. And he was very kind, just a nice man. I love being with kind people! So I said yes.

OC: Your story takes place in a world of rabbits. Why rabbits?

TH: I live in a beautiful part of the world (near Gatineau, Quebec), right near the Ottawa River. There's a maple forest and grassland. And they are wild animals that come around. At one point, a rabbit started haunting our place—kept coming back, coming back.

Finally, she burrowed at the base of a beech tree in our backyard. And as it turns out, she was nesting to give birth!

As time went on, we noticed the crows were starting to gather on the roof of our garage, right across from the beech tree. They're very intelligent birds. They were waiting for the birth so they could eat the babies!

OC: Oh no!

TH: That's the way it works!

Anyway, during that time, the offer to write a musical for children arrived. I could choose whatever subject I wanted. So I was looking for inspiration. And it wouldn't come!

But then the rabbit gave birth to two little rabbits. And the mother succeeded in protecting her babies from the crows. It helped that we were there, too [to protect the rabbits].

OC: Yay!

TH: Then after two days, they were gone. The little rabbits had moved away with their mother. It was a miracle. And so I "picked" one of those baby rabbits and turned it into the principal character in my story.

OC: Amazing.

TH: That's where I got the inspiration to write about rabbits. It was a piece of magic. Like with music, the story chose me—I didn't choose it!

OC: We love how you blended Cree with English and even French in this book. Can you talk about mixing these languages together?

TH: Cree is my mother tongue. It is the language I grew up with. But like so many languages the whole world over, it's in danger of dying. So something has to be done. I wanted to teach children who read the book to use [a little Cree]. (There is a Cree glossary in the back of the book, and it's great!)

Hopefully the book will be used in schools. And the children who listen to the songs, they can learn to create with Cree that way.

OC: You also create some fun blends of Cree and English, like with the "waaskee-choos juice" that the rabbits are trying to win in the story. Those language blends are so fun to say out loud!

TH: Well, all languages are unique. They each have their own special strength. Their own genius.

The English language is the ultimate intellectual language. It comes from the head.

But the jewel in the Cree language is its sense of humor. It is hysterically funny. With the first word you say in Cree, you start laughing already.

OC: I found that reading the book sometimes.

TH: You're from OWL magazine. In Cree, owl is one of the cutest words: Oohoo. Just the word by itself makes you smile!

OC: Right! And that is the name of a character in the book!

TH: Yes! Say that word while looking in the mirror! Your lips look so funny!

OC: Haha! Yes!

TH: The joke that we tell about "oohoo" is this. Knock, knock ...

OC: Who's there?

TH: Oohoo.

OC: Oohoo, who? [both laugh]

TH: There's the joke! Dumb jokes are dumb for reason!

OC: We love it! Thank you so much, Thompson.

TH: Thank you. Have a wonderful day!

Grand Chief Salamoo Cook Is Coming To Town! is out now in book stores everywhere! Watch a trailer for this great new book below.

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