Karlene Harvey Celebrates Indigenous Joy in Their Brightly Illustrated Children’s Books

Harvey shares how she balances Indigenous history with dreams of a joyful future.

“I went through elementary school and high school without reading a single book by an Indigenous author,” says Karlene Harvey, the illustrator of Kaiah’s Garden by Melanie Florence and Every Child Matters by Phyllis Webstad. Harvey, who uses they/she pronouns, adds: “My confidence, self-esteem and sense of understanding of my identity would’ve been better if I had read at least a couple.”

As a queer Tŝilhqot’in and Syilx nations illustrator, Harvey now collaborates with many different Indigenous authors to bring their work to life and see their own communities celebrated on the page. “These stories are so close to people’s hearts and they are reflective of our histories. It’s so empowering to be able to tell your own story,” Harvey explains.

Every Child Matters, written by Phyllis Webstad and illustrated by Karlene Harvey.

Harvey says it can be difficult for Indigenous children find themselves—in the pages of picture books and in other forms of media. In Harvey’s work as a UBC academic advisor for Indigenous students, they found that many students were unsure of where they belonged, or how to navigate their own Indigenous identity. “If you don’t see yourself and your family in the content that you read, you kind of wonder, well, where am I? How do I fit in? Am I Indigenous enough?” she says.

Beyond expressive faces, bright rainbow pallets and detailed landscapes, the artist intentionally illustrates in a way that allows Indigenous kids—and adults—to see themselves as they are now (colonial media generally leans more on historical representations, which are outdated at best and inaccurate or offensive at worst). She depicts Indigenous families in modern clothing and spaces with small ‘easter eggs’ for the community to pick up on, like a meaningful patch or ribbon stripes on a jacket.

Harvey also works to imbue a message of hope fitting of her vibrant style. “Often we’re in this place where we’re constantly impacted by a number of issues —systemic racism and institutionalized harm—that continue to impact our communities. That’s important and deserves attention and time,” the artist says, “but we also deserve the time to dream of what could be, and what we can hope for, and what makes us happy.”

Kaiah’s Garden, written by Melanie Florence and illustrared by Karlene Harvey.

Her work in Every Child Matters is a great example of this balance between history and hope: a spread details a bus driving away from a closing residential school and towards the bright light of the mountains and a parting of clouds.

While Harvey has lots of work as an illustrator, they’re also looking to begin projects on the storytelling side. Their upcoming graphic novel features a non-binary Tŝilhqot’in and Syilx youth, looking to come back to their community and learn what it means to feel connected to a greater whole. “I get to work on a project that’s focused on my own home nation and my own culture, and there’s historical things that I don’t know about that I get to learn through the research process,” Harvey explains.

Harvey has three projects coming out in 2024 from Groundwood books, Orca books and Tundra books. To learn more about her work or catch announcements about upcoming projects, head over to her website.