Q&A with Otter Doesn’t Know author Andrea Fritz

Q&A with Otter Doesn’t Know author Andrea Fritz

“Fritz has crafted a heartwarming tale that encourages readers to persevere despite uncertainty…A gem of Coast Salish storytelling.”

– Kirkus Reviews

In an original story set in Coast Salish Traditional Territory, author and artist Andrea Fritz uses Indigenous storytelling techniques and art to share the culture and language of the Hul’q’umi’num’-speaking Peoples. In this Q&A, learn what inspired Andrea to create Otter Doesn’t Know and what she hopes young readers will take away from it.

Your new picture book, Otter Doesn’t Know, tells the heartwarming story of a young salmon named Thuqi’ who is trying to find her way to the Sta’lo’, the river, to spawn. It highlights the importance of admitting when we don’t know something and asking for help. What inspired you to tell this story? 

The idea of helping even when you don’t know all the answers came from experiences with my children at the time. I always try to be as honest as possible with my children. If I don’t know something then I admit that and we try to find the answers together. I find this makes them more willing to try new things in life even though they aren’t experts right away. 

What was it like to illustrate a children’s book? 

It’s a dream come true. I started Illustrating my stories because Storytelling is such an important part of Coast Salish culture that I had to tell stories while teaching about the art in the classrooms. But I’m an artist, so creating art to go along with the stories is 100% my niche and exactly what I wanted to do with my time. When we’re kids, we all hear stories that have no pictures and create pictures in our minds of what is happening. To be able to create those pictures for others to enjoy is a privilege. 

Why did you choose a salmon and sea otter to be the main characters of this story? 

I created this story starting with the idea that many important events take place in our territory of Lyackson (Valdez) Island, which is surrounded by water. Pre-contact, our people spent most of their time on or near the water. Thus, I wanted to have my story take place in the water. I used the idea that salmon is the most important food source for our people and so I often use their motif in my art. When I was a teenager, I helped to care for sea otters at the Vancouver Aquarium and ever since they have been close to my heart. When I heard that sea otters have been reintroduced to the Northwest Coast from California after their extinction from the fur trade, I knew that I wanted to include them in my art and stories. These three drivers lead to the setting and character choices for my story. 

Language plays a significant role in preserving Indigenous culture and history. How did you decide on the specific words and phrases from the Hul’q’umi’num language to incorporate into the book?  

Vocabulary is very important to grow when learning a language. With this in mind I decided to increase my vocabulary of Hul’q’umi’num by naming my pieces using the language and to name all the creatures and places in my stories using the language. I would increase my noun vocabulary by making them a part of my everyday life, in my everyday work. I also find that nouns are a wonderful place for children to start learning a language as they are curious about how to name creatures and places anyway. 

What was the process like ensuring the accurate representation and pronunciation of the Hul’q’umi’num’ language throughout the book? 

This was a hard one. I grew up learning the language sporadically from my aunties. The language is endangered and only spoken fluently by a select few elders. Another barrier to accurate representation of the Hul’q’umi’num language is that it is a regional language, with each nation having their own specific way of using the language. Slight variations between the nations as well as the language being oral and not written for so many years added layers of complication to using the language. In the end, I decided to follow a few online dictionaries for spelling plus my recollection of my teachings with my aunties to guide me for what words to use and how to pronounce them. If my pronunciation is that of a neighbouring nation then I don’t worry too much as it helps them spread their use of the language and the overall public becomes more familiar with Hul’q’umi’num as a whole, which is a main goal for me. 

Thuqi’ and Tumus both face challenges and uncertainty in the story. What do you hope young readers will take away from the characters’ experiences and growth?

I hope that young readers will remember that it is okay not to know everything right away. So many of us are held back by the idea that we have to do everything perfectly to be doing it at all. Sometimes just showing up and trying is enough to make the world a better place or someone’s day better. As with learning a new language, you don’t need to know it all right away, just use what you know so far and help each other. 

What is next for you? Do you have other books in the works? 

I am a full-time artist and create many new pieces each year that you can see on my website: andreafritzart.com or my Facebook page: @andreafritzart9. For writing, this is the first book in a four-book series with Orca Book Publishers called Coast Salish Tales. Each book will focus on a different part of the Coast Salish culture, including language, art, plank houses and weaving. Each story will feature two or more characters with names in the Hul’q’umi’inum language and stories that help remind us of some of the important lessons to learn in life.

The next book is due out in April 2024 titled, Crow Helps a Friend. Huy ch q’u (thank you) to all those who choose to learn about the Coast Salish culture and language. The feeling of belonging that it can create is invaluable. 

Andrea Fritz is a Coast Salish artist and storyteller from the Lyackson First Nation of the Hul’q’umi’num’-speaking Peoples on the West Coast of Canada. She studied West Coast Native art with Victor Newman, a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw master artist. Andrea strives to express her People’s history and all our futures using her art. She focuses on animals and places of the West Coast and our intricate relationships with them. Andrea works in the mediums of acrylic on canvas and wood, serigraph, vector art and multimedia. She has had numerous gallery shows and participates in community-based art pieces. Andrea lives in Victoria, British Columbia.