For a few days in late February, children living in Prince Rupert were able to hear an acclaimed, award-winning author recite renowned stories of his life growing up in Repulse Bay, Nunavut.
“The Storyteller” Michael Kusugak and his wife, Geraldine (or “Gerry”), arrived to the North Coast for a reading session at the Prince Rupert Public Library’s multi-purpose room on Feb. 23 and again at Rupert Square Mall for its Eighth Annual Celebrating Literacy Event on Feb. 25 – not to mention the myriad of schools in the area that the duo brought their storytelling talents to.
Kusugak’s stories are well-known in the children’s literature world, but his own story is equally as fascinating as those he takes pen to paper.
Working as a helicopter pilot with Okanagan Helicopters, the second-largest helicopter company in North America at the time, smaller than only the American Army he says, Michael’s ability to tell traditional Inuit legends was a dormant skill that lay in wait until he had his own kids.
“It was almost 30 years ago, I’d have these growing boys and when I put them to bed at night, they always wanted to be read to. I was thinking my grandmother used to tell me all these incredible stories. Why am I reading One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish?” he said.
“All those stories were absolutely fascinating and they took you to another world. So one night I told my boys a story and they said ‘Dad, why don’t you write it down.’ So I wrote it down and it became the book A Promise is A Promise.
That book has gone on to be one of the most well-read picture books to children all over North America. It tells the story of qallupilluit, scary creatures that lurk beneath the ice in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, that main character Allashuaencounters.
The monsters, who live under the ice and grab kids when their parents aren’t looking, is a theme meant to reinforce the lesson for kids to avoid cracks in the ice and to avoid getting lost out in the tundra and freezing to death.
It was co-written by Kusugak’s good friend and fellow author Robert Munsch, who stayed with him when flying through Rankin Inlet.
Kusugak gained even more fame when the late CBC Radio host Peter Gzowski asked the author to read Baseball Bats for Christmas on his show ‘Morningside’ every year after the book came out either on the radio or at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall and other large venues.
The two became good friends.
“I hadn’t really planned to quit my job when I started this. I had a job flying around helicopters all over my part of the world. There was a lot of exploration going on and I was working for the federal government inspecting all these exploration camps and issuing licences for the exploration companies and I ended up in my hometown one summer in Repulse Bay,” Kusugak said.
School wasn’t in session at the time and so a large group of kids had arrived at the airport to see Kusugak’s helicopter touch down. So, the author brought them to his uncle’s home and told them one of his grandmother’s stories.
“A couple of the kids actually fell asleep, so I thought I must be pretty good at this because every night when I was going to bed, I’d ask my grandmother to tell me a story and I always fell asleep to those stories … I thought ‘This is great, I’ve got the knack for this,’” he said.
Geraldine brought a number of special items for Michael to show off during his storytelling, such as a seal oil lamp, weaving string, a drum and other items from his Inuit heritage.
Many listeners were even able to take home some of his books as door prizes.
North Coast Literacy Now and Prince Rupert Early Years made it possible for Michael and Gerry to come to Prince Rupert, and Kate Toye, Prince Rupert Early Years coordinator, said she knew young Rupertites would instantly fall in love with the way Michael tells his stories.
“After I met the Kusugaks last summer and heard Michael’s storytelling, I knew I would love for all the children in our community to be able to hear Michael tell his stories, and have Gerry come and share all of the wonderful items that they have that support Michael’s stories – from pictures of Nunavut to regalia, to items that are used each and everyday,” Toye said.