Empowering children through storytelling

Champagne’s new book teaches kids about their gifts

Michael Redhead Champagne’s upcoming children’s book, We Need Everyone, launches in September with illustrations by Tiff Bartel. (Photo by Keeley Braunstein-Black)

Public speaker, community organizer and writer – is there anything Michael Redhead Champagne can’t do? After penning several articles, books and reports, he can now add “children’s book author” to his long list of accomplishments.

We Need Everyone is a children’s book written by Champagne, illustrated by Tiff Bartel and published by HighWater Press, an imprint of Portage & Main Press in Winnipeg. It will be released in September 2022.

The book, written for children ages two to six, seeks to empower children and help them identify what makes them truly special, talented and gifted.

“I think we always hear young people and kids saying, ‘I’m not good at anything,’” Champagne says. “We hear that from kids all the time, and when we hear that, that’s an invitation for us as adults who love them to remind them of their gifts.”

Champagne says the idea for the book came from the disheartening truth of Canada’s suicide rates among Indigenous youth. He hopes We Need Everyone will not only empower children, but also help their parents understand and engage in dialogue with them.

“I know that amongst Indigenous children, the average age that a child will first contemplate suicide in Canada is age 10. And so this book is for ages two to six. And that’s on purpose, because I want to speak to children at that age range,” Champagne says.

Champagne explains that he took a lot of his own experiences in life and incorporated them into the book, making sure to include his furry feline friend, Sushi.

“Our pets have gifts, too. And so it was important for me to have my cat with me on the cover of the kids’ book. And so it’s nice to be able to, you know, celebrate, celebrate Sushi, my cat,” Champagne says. “But there’s also a celebration of ‘Michael the child’ in the book ... a character that wears blue rubber boots.”

Champagne goes on to say that, as a child, he refused to take off his blue rubber boots – even to sleep. He says it was amazing to have a character in the book honour his childhood.

From looking at the front cover, it is obvious that stars play a prominent role in the book. However, Champagne delves a little deeper into the significance of these stars and talks about why they are truly important to him.

“For me as a person from Northern Manitoba and Shamattawa First Nation, we have teachings about how we are the star people and that our people come from the stars. And so it’s really personally significant to me that gifts are represented by stars in the book,” Champagne says.

While this was a big project for Champagne over the last two years, illustrator Bartel worked on the first sketches in April 2021 and handed in her final artwork a couple of months ago.

“I was working on a few other things, but this was kind of my big project while I’m on maternity leave. This has kind of been my big pandemic project,” Bartel says.

“The first illustrations I ever had published were actually for The Uniter. I have been doing illustrations for a long time, but I have only started drawing for children’s books in the last few years,” Bartel says. “This is the third kids’ book I have done.”

One of the great things about working on the book while on leave is that communications were done over email and Twitter DMs. However, it also meant she worked with minimal in-person contact.

“You email your stuff, and you get some feedback, and then you fix it. You send it back – but ... I haven’t seen anyone in person,” Bartel says. “Michael is very nice, and he gives really nice feedback.”

Bartel was excited for the opportunity to work with Champagne, and it all happened because he happened to like her work.

“He saw my art online, and we have some mutual friends. But I was approached by the publisher after they saw some of my artwork, and I was requested to work on this book,” Bartel says.

Champagne was impressed with Bartel’s final product, saying she “did an amazing job of being able to capture energy on a flat page.”

“Every step of the way, they wanted the book to be a reflection of my personality and the energy that I bring, and so I feel like this is an authentic representation of who I am,” Champagne says.

Champagne’s personality and energy are on full display in whatever he does, and it feeds into his storytelling and public speaking. The first time he practiced his love of storytelling was in kindergarten when he created a story about someone named “Mr. Big Face.”

“‘The Adventures of Mr. Big Face’ gave me a venue to practice storytelling for the very first time under the watchful eye of my kindergarten teacher,” Champagne says. “That, I think, just showed me that it was possible for a little kid to write a story – and if I learned that in kindergarten, that really opened the doors for every kind of subsequent story that I told. Because if I can tell a story as a kindergartener, there’s nothing stopping me.”

Champagne explains that he was bullied as a child, and he hid in the library to escape. This experience and “Mr. Big Face” helped him realize how important stories are, especially to young children.

“I learned at a young age that stories can transport us away from our current realities and help us to imagine different possibilities,” Champagne says.

We Need Everyone is currently available for pre-order at portageandmainpress.com and will be released in September 2022.

For the month of February, Champagne is launching a Buy a Book, Give a Book program. Participants can pre-order a book, and it will be sent to a child who needs it in an inner-city, isolated, rural, remote or northern community

Published in Volume 76, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 10, 2022)