Earlier this month, author Cheryl Minnema (Johnny’s Pheasant) was awarded the 2020 Charlotte Zolotow Award for outstanding writing in a picture book. This annual award is given by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), a library of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Minnema’s book, which features illustrations by Julie Flett, has been one of our most popular of the year, with praise from School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Shelf Awareness. We took the occasion to have a brief chat with Minnema for the blog.
Your brother was the main character in your book Hungry Johnny. Can we assume the same with Johnny’s Pheasant?
Yes, my little brother is the main character in Johnny’s Pheasant. My stories are based on a memory of my grandmother and Johnny. My grandmother did a lot of cooking for ceremonial feasts and we couldn’t taste the food until after prayer. For a five-year-old waiting to eat, this process appeared to take forever. I have memories of Johnny walking into the kitchen wanting the sweet rolls that our grandma had on the counter and she would tell him to wait. In the story of Johnny’s Pheasant, it was actually our mom who was driving when they found an owl on the roadside. My mom didn’t think it was alive and was going to use the feathers for her craftwork. The owl awoke and landed on top of grandma’s head. I switched out the owl with a pheasant to be respectful to those who see owls as a bad omen. In Johnny’s Pheasant, grandma’s character is a combination of both my mother and grandmother.
Can you tell us about your writing past and foray into publishing?
I started writing poetry and personal essays at the age of twelve. My English teacher encouraged me to submit an essay for a student writing contest. I wrote about my grandmother and her children. This essay won first place and was published in a Native American newspaper. This experience encouraged me to continue writing and submitting my work for publication. I mainly wrote poetry for adults and had several poems published in anthologies. I have attended workshops taught by Heid Erdrich and have been mentored through the process of a poetry manuscript. I started writing children’s picture books in 2012. The process was much like writing poetry and I actually took pieces of poems about my grandmother and little brother to create a children’s story.
Cheryl Minnema (Waabaanakwadookwe) is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. She was born in Minneapolis and raised on the Mille Lacs Reservation. Along with writing children’s literature and poetry, she creates Ojibwe floral beadwork and nature photography. She is author of Hungry Johnny, which was a 2015 Native America Calling book club selection.