Creative Team Deirdre Havrelock & Aly McKnight on Their Creative Processes & New Picture Book, Why We Dance

Cynsations is celebrating its 20th anniversary by switching to a quarterly publishing schedule, featuring in-depth interviews and articles. Thank you for your ongoing support and enthusiasm!

By AJ Eversole

I am excited to introduce the creative team behind the picture book, Why We Dance (Abrams, 2024) author, Deidre Havrelock (Saddle Lake Cree Nation) and illustrator, Aly McKnight (Shoshone-Bannock).

Deidre Havrelock Interview:

What is the heart of Why We Dance?

This book is ultimately about caring for others. The young girls in the book want to dance for the well-being of someone who can’t dance (in this case due to an injury).

How many drafts do you typically go through for a picture book?

It depends on the book. Some picture books go through 10 or more drafts. Other books require research and so the drafts are slow and methodical. Whereas other books like Buffalo Wild! illustrated by Azby Whitecalf (Cree) (Annick Press, 2021) may float through my head for a good long while before I write.

Then, by the time I put the words down on my computer screen, the book is near complete. That being said, editing is always going to happen. I’ve never written something without numerous drafts getting me to the finished creation.

It doesn’t matter how many drafts I write because each draft gets me closer to a better book. At some point, however, you know you’re finished because everything hits the right note.

Is there anything you wish librarians/educators could know or do when choosing books and lessons on Native American and Indigenous history and cultures today? 

When I was in grade school there were absolutely no books available about Indigenous kids or our diverse cultures.

Not seeing yourself represented in school literature messes with your head. It makes you feel invisible. You start to question your value and importance. And you begin to believe that you have no significant history, no background, no worth to the overall development of the world. I mean, as a child I knew I was Cree, but to be Cree was something that belonged only to my immediate family and seemingly the past. I had the impression that my culture was something that was meant to be forgotten. Being Cree back then was like living in a shadow.

Today, thankfully, things are changing. The lights are on and the shadows are retreating thanks to countless Indigenous voices who simply wouldn’t let their histories and stories be forgotten. Native American books are worth everyone’s time. They’re about this land’s Indigenous history, but they’re also about American history.  We’re in this together, after all.

Illustration by Aly McKnight, used with permission.

What is your personal experience with the Jingle Dance?

As a child, when I attended powwows with my mom I (of course) wanted to dance the Fancy Dance because it’s such a beautiful dance, but I was too shy to ask my mom. So, I never learned to dance. I never saw any Jingle Dress dancers back then.

When Covid hit, I was stuck at home mostly alone and I began spending hours watching the Jingle Dress dancers, dancing for healing on the internet. I thought, Wow, this is really something. I wanted to learn where the dance came from and why exactly they were dancing. Soon I was searching “where did the Jingle Dress come from” and I learned that 2019 marked the 100-year anniversary of the Jingle Dress and its dance.

I then learned that the dress and its dance came through a dream most likely during the global influenza pandemic of 1918-19 and the dance was initially performed for the healing of a sick child. And here we were 100 years later and now all these women and girls were dancing for the healing of people sick with Covid. At this point, I thought this historic moment really should be captured in a book.

I approached the book as a student, as someone who wanted to learn about this particular dance and its roots. And I prayed throughout the writing of this book. I was praying for understanding. I wanted to know how this dance represented prayer. Thankfully, I was given a dream, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering this dance started with a dream. I won’t go into the details of the dream, but I can share with you the beautiful message I received.

In the dream Creator said to me “Deidre, the dance is the prayer and I fully understand the language.” It seems I had gotten myself caught up in the established idea of prayer — using words. I think this is why I was so drawn to the dance in the first place. Creator wanted to teach me something about my culture that I had lost.

What do you want readers to take away from Why We Dance?

Oh, so many things! I want Indigenous kids to be proud of their powwow culture. I want non-Indigenous kids to experience not only an aspect of North American Indigenous culture, but I also want children who have never attended a powwow to experience the dance itself, so I immersed the reader into the dance. I want kids to feel a real sense of joy in helping and caring for others – especially when that help comes through dance.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a book about how bison helped to engineer the ecology of the Great Plains. It’s part of the Ecosystem Guardians series with Kids Can Press.

I also just finished a pilot for a new television series based on my newest book co-written with Edward Kay called Indigenous Ingenuity (Christy Ottaviano Books, 2023) This will be an adventure series where kids will be introduced to all sorts of Indigenous cultures and their innovations – including inventions that we still use today! [Indigenous Ingenuity won an Orbis Pictus Honor Award from NCTE and appeared on the Best Book of the Year lists from School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness, the National Education Society and the Canadian Children’s Book Center.]

Aly McKnight Interview

What drew you to watercolor as your primary medium? 

The first time I actually remember working with watercolors was a complete accident. I was probably 15 or 16 years old and had purchased a pack of what I thought were just unique coloring pencils and filled a big old sketchbook of portraits with them.

At some point I accidentally spilled a water bottle on the sketchbook and colors just started seeping from the pages. I had no idea watercolor pencils existed until that point and ended up falling in love with how the water transformed my realistic renderings into organic interpretations. After that experience I continued experimenting with various watercolors and techniques and haven’t stopped since.

In-progress illustration by Aly McKnight, used with permission.

Tell us about your journey to children’s book illustration. How did that come about? 

I’ve been illustrating since I could hold a crayon but professionally I started illustrating different types of content around 2015 for small brands and then eventually found my way to the world of children’s books, magazines, and even children’s clothing!

Honest History children’s magazine, illustrated by Aly.

And to be honest, the realm of children’s books actually found me…through Instagram of all places which at the time I thought was pretty ludicrous. Even when I mentioned it to my sisters back then I was super hesitant but of course everyone in my life was so supportive and excited for me. It still took a lot of convincing but after receiving multiple emails from some truly amazing publishing teams and after leaving my fashion retail job of 5+ years I took the leap and haven’t looked back.

I like to think I manifested this since I was a child because my answer to that question we always were asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was always (and will always be) “an artist”.

What are you working on next? 

Why We Dance is my first published children’s book and I have one other that is currently available It’s Her Story Sacajawea A Graphic Novel (Sunbird Books, 2024) written by Randy’L Teton.

My book with Carole Lindstrom “The Gift of The Great Buffalo” is in the works and I have two others that are underway as well but I can’t share too much about those two for now. I’ll get to post more details about them on my social media account over the next few weeks though!! If you want to follow me on IG my handle is @alymcknight.

What is your creative routine/process? How do you get the magic flowing? 

Anytime I need to make art I carve out entire weeks and sometimes months in my calendar to ensure I have nothing to distract myself from my creative flow. I have to do this because I know myself, I allow distractions like movies, tv shows, shopping, etc. to consume my energy and time so for the sake of my mental health and my art I have to put those things on pause so I can focus on specific goals.

With that said, I find I’m most inspired and motivated to create when I’ve been in the mountains or near bodies of water with my family. This stems from childhood because my family is big into hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping and looking back on my sketchbooks from then I can remember where we were and what I was thinking simply by looking through those old, messy, and colorful pages. And it feels much the same now, especially now that I’m a mother.

After my daughter was born she and I naturally fell into this rhythm of being together in nature and then using art in all of its forms (painting, dancing, singing, beading, pottery, etc) to express ourselves with each other and with the world around us.

What is your personal experience with the Jingle Dance? 

This story is incredibly dear to me for so many reasons! I grew up in the powwow circle so I got to capture small moments of my childhood within the pages of this book. Also my daughter is now a jingle dress dancer and her love for the dance inspired me every step of the way while sketching and painting so in a way she was my biggest and favorite collaborator.

What advice do you have for other Natives who want to turn their art into a business? 

I would say…put your fears aside, fear is impotent and paralyzing. Nothing truly powerful or beautiful comes from fear.

And what’s the worst thing that can happen when we do things that scare us? We are here on Mother Earth to learn and do what we didn’t know and haven’t done before. We are learning along the way so if you don’t make mistakes then you’re not going to learn from them and where will your journey/story take you then? And if you don’t know your story then go out and find it. Once you’ve found it, share your story with the world.

Cynsational Notes

Deidre Havrelock is a member of Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, Canada. She was raised in Edmonton, Alberta, and is the author of the picture book Buffalo Wild!, hailed as an “exuberant celebration,” and Indigenous Ingenuity: A Celebration of Traditional North American Knowledge, coauthored with Edward Kay. She lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis, with her family.

Aly McKnight is a self-taught watercolor artist and illustrator whose art features vibrant colors and Indigenous stories. Aly is an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and grew up in a small farming community in northern Nevada, She is the second-youngest of eight children and is now based out of Utah, where she lives with her partner, Brockton, of Hawaiian/Samoan descent, and their daughter, Paoakalani.

AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing, and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. AJ currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas; with her family. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole.