Emily Johnson works full-time with her dad’s construction business, she’s an artist who specializes in beading, and on the side, she’s a doula for expectant parents at Sitansisk, also known as St. Mary’s First Nation.

Now, the 24-year-old has added another title to her list — published children’s book author and illustrator.

Johnson, originally from Listuguj but who grew up in Fredericton, wrote and illustrated a book in a class for the two-year Wabanaki visual arts program at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, and now that book is in stores across the country.

“When I finally got the book in my hand, I was like, ‘holy, I’m publishing a book,'” she said.

A book with a cat on the cover on top of a white pedestal, with a braid of sweetgrass in front of it.
Mitzy’s First Time Picking Sweetgrass follows Mitzy the cat as she learns about the traditional practice of picking sweetgrass at New River Beach. (Aniekan Etuhube/CBC)

The book, Mitzy’s First Time Picking Sweetgrass, shows Johnson’s cat Mitzy doing the traditional Wabanaki practice of picking sweetgrass for the first time at New River Beach.

Pages of watercolour paintings show the grey and white cat adventuring outside with her mom, Johnson, rolling in the vanilla- and chestnut-scented grass, and learning how to pick it properly to leave behind the plant’s roots for regrowth.

“It was just three weeks of painting, drawing, hairdryer up to the paper for like all night,” she said.

WATCH | Page by page, Mitzy discovers how to pick sweetgrass: 

From a love of cats and picking sweetgrass comes a new children’s book

Emily Johnson, a graduate of the Wabanaki visual arts program, wrote and illustrated a book about her cat Mitzy taking up the traditional Wabanaki practice of sweetgrass picking.

Johnson tries to go sweetgrass picking every year, and she also takes her cat on outdoor adventures frequently, so the pairing of the two made sense. 

Sweetgrass, said Johnson, is used for a variety of purposes, including art, healing and smudging. 

Johnson said that during the class where students were tasked with creating a book, her studio co-ordinator Judy Acquin brought in the publisher for Fredericton-based Monster House Publishing to explain the publishing process.

The program recently formed a partnership with the publisher to bring more Indigenous stories to light — and Johnson was the first to have her book published through this partnership.

Acquin said the oral tradition course is about storytelling and gathering information from community members.

A grey and white cat looking head on.
Mitzy’s First Time Picking Sweetgrass features watercolour paintings of Johnson’s cat, Mitzy, seen here. Johnson says Mitzy likes going for walks and she hopes to take her sweetgrass picking in the fall. (Submitted by Emily Johnson)

But Acquin said it was important to allow students to have the opportunity to release culturally relevant material to Indigenous communities and kids, as well as non-Indigenous readers “as a way of learning and understanding.”

Acquin said a few years ago, a student in the class went to Monster House with the book she wrote to see about getting it published — and it was. But the partnership will make it easier to release books from the course every two years.

“It’s a way of creating almost … their own legacy, their own … tidbit of who they are as Indigenous people,” she said. 

“There’s a lot of Indigenous books out there that are, you know, Indigenous authors, Indigenous illustrators, Indigenous content. For me, I really want to take advantage of putting out, as much as possible, content that is relevant to who we are in the Wabanaki region.”

An open sketchbook with a three-panel painting showing a cat in three different positions.
Johnson’s original sketchbook filled with watercolour paintings was on display at the launch of her book. Johnson says she spent three weeks painting, drawing and hairdrying her pages. (Aniekan Etuhube/CBC)

“Wolastoqiyik, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy — you know, we don’t have a lot of that kind of content that is coming from our communities.”

Johnson said she hopes to see her book end up in the province’s Indigenous schools, including where she went to elementary, Chief Harold Sappier Memorial Elementary School.

She said she thinks putting traditional Indigenous stories into a children’s book format provides an easier way for kids to feel connected.

A young woman holding open a book, with a little girl on her left and a little boy on her right.
Johnson was joined by two of her three siblings, Sophie and Jase, as she read the final copy of her book aloud to an audience for the first time. (Aniekan Etuhube/CBC)

“I feel like they’ll have more of an understanding, feel more connected to themselves and to everything around them.”

And Johnson already has her next idea for a children’s book, this time featuring her most shy cat (she has three) — Meelo. 

Meelo is mentioned in Johnson’s first book near the end, when Mitzy is excited to bring her sweetgrass back home and share what she’s learned with her brother.

Her next book will be a natural continuation of the first, with Meelo helping to prepare the sweetgrass to be braided, she said. 

A beaded emblem of a white cat wearing bat wings
Meelo, one of Johnson’s other cats, was still represented at the launch of her book around two weeks ago in the form of a beaded art piece depicting him in his Halloween bat wings. Meelo is set to be the main character in Johnson’s next book. (Aniekan Etuhube/CBC)

As for Mitzy, although she’s never actually been sweetgrass picking , Johnson hopes to bring her when the grass is in season next fall. 

“I want to do an adaptation …  a real-life Mitzy goes sweetgrass picking,” said Johnson.

“When I bring some home, she goes crazy. Like I hang it up and she jumps and jumps trying to eat at the sweetgrass.

“I wonder what she would do if she saw a field of them.”

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