Transforming the Self and Society: Reading Tiktala for a UNESCO Event

14 Apr
Cover of My All Ages Fairy Tale, Tiktala, illustrated by Laszlo Gal

Cover of My All Ages Fairy Tale, Tiktala, illustrated by Laszlo Gal

In February 2013, I was invited Vincent Massey High School in Winnipeg, MB, Canada, by teacher-librarian Mona-Lynne Ayotte, to read from my all-ages fairy tale, Tiktala. My reading was a featured event in a school-wide celebration of both “I Love to Read” month and Vincent Massey’s ongoing participation in UNESCO.

UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO is “a specialized agency of the United Nations whose goal is to add to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights along with fundamental freedom proclaimed in the UN Charter.” UNESCO named “Four Pillars of Education”: “Learning to Know,” “Learning to Do,” “Learning to Live Together,” and “Learning to Be”—to which the addition of a fifth pillar was suggested, namely “Learning to Transform.”

I had been brought in through our Manitoba Arts Council’s Artists in the Schools program (Arts Smart) to teach creative writing at Vincent Massey, when it occurred to my kind and enthusiastic host teacher, Mona-Lynne Ayotte, that Tiktala is an ideal book to share at a UNESCO event, given that one of its central themes is that of transformation.

Vincent Massey Newsletter

Vincent Massey Newsletter

Prior to the event, Mona-Lynne created a superb newsletter that offered thoughtful write-ups on “Life changing books,” my anti-bullying novel, The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach, “If you could Change the World,” “The Making of Tiktala,” “Protecting Mother Earth,” and more.

I share here the full version of the speech I made (in condensed form) to the wonderfully attentive group of six hundred Grade 11 and 12 Vincent Massey students.

It began as a dream!

It began as a dream!


The making of Tiktala

On Podium with Mona-Lynne Ayotte

On Podium with Mona-Lynne Ayotte

Presentation for Unesco Event at Vincent Massey

I am delighted to partake in your valuable, admirable UNESCO event. Thank you to Mona-Lynne Ayotte for her tremendous organizational work to bring this reading about, and to Vincent Massey teachers for making such an event happen.

Tiktala, my all-ages fairy tale, illustrated by the famous Canadian illustrator, László Gál, was a real heart’s project.

The story started as a dream and took five years from the beginning dream to the finished, published book. The original manuscript went from fifteen pages up to forty-two and back down to twelve and went through at least ten to fifteen rough drafts.

Along the way, a few people asked, “Are you still working on that story? Give it up!” But I persevered and kept going until I truly understood and had given form to the dream.

In the end, after all the challenges I’d faced, Tiktala was published in Toronto and New York. Tiktala was recipient of the McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award, the Parents’ Choice Honor in the U.S., and was placed on a list of Notable Books in the Area of Social Studies. Now, the book is sold in paperback by Fitzhenry and Whiteside and has been translated to French with Scholastic.

The story strikes many chords with the UNESCO Pillars of Education. In regard to the “Learning to Live Together” pillar, the idea that children should be taught to understand other people’s reactions by looking at things from other points of view is central. In Tiktala, the central protagonist, an Inuit girl named Tiktala, is transformed into a seal specifically so that she will learn to view the world as a seal—the animal she wants to carve. Another central aspect of the “Learning to Live Together” pillar is the spirit of empathy, teaching youth to look at the world through the eyes of other ethnic groups as a way of avoiding violence or hatred.

In Tiktala, Tiktala’s spirit guide, a seal named Tulimak, hates all humans because her first pup was clubbed to death. When she is put in the position of guiding Tiktala—a human girl who has been transformed into a seal—she learns that not all humans are destructive. Because she sees through Tiktala’s eyes, she is able to drop her hatred of all humans. When she does so, she frees Tiktala to act with tremendous empathy, so that Tikala saves Tulimak’s second pup from a sealer.

Attentive Student Audience At Vincent Massey High School

Attentive Student Audience At Vincent Massey High School

UNESCO’s “Learning to Be” pillar places emphasis on the importance of imagination and creativity, and on giving art and poetry a greater place in education. That Vincent Massey High School would invite a writer to participate in their UNESCO event gives validation to the importance of artists and art in education. Tiktala is a book about the development of the artist through a journey that promotes empathy and understanding. The Inuit elder, Iguptak, who sends Tiktala on her journey, places high value indeed on the place of art in Tiktala’s education.

UNESCO’s “Learning to Know” pillar emphasizes concentration, memory skills, and the ability to think, all of which are part of listening to and analyzing stories. When we come together as a group, to listen to stories and to discuss them, we enhance our ability to know.

“Learning to Do” is another UNESCO theme that applies directly to Tiktala’s journey, in that she must “acquire necessary skills” in order to survive as a seal. She must learn how to fish, how to eat as a seal eats, how to sleep in the ocean, how to escape predators, and more. She acquires these skills, learning to do as a seal does, so that she can move on to her next level of creation—learning to create beautiful soapstone carvings of the seals she has come to know so well.

More Students Listening to Tiktala at Vincent Massey

More Students Listening to Tiktala at Vincent Massey

The Fifth Pillar, UNESCO’s “Learning to Transform” permeates Tiktala. Tiktala is not only transformed into a seal, in an outer transformation, but she is also undergoes an inner transformation—to care about the animal she wants to carve. In the UNESCO view, we transform ourselves and then can transform our society. Tiktala does precisely that—she transforms herself into a caring, spiritual, and creative carver whose journey has enriched her immeasurably, and then she shares her journey with her father, who has been depressed and adrift, and now the light comes into his eyes.

There are at least seven themes in Tiktala: The Hero Journey; The Development of the Artist; Revenge and Forgiveness; Environmental Awareness; Parent/Child Relationship; Transformation; and, Human Creativity vs. Destructiveness.

The book celebrates the indigenous spirituality and world view, with Iguptak, the wisest woman of the village as a shaman who sends Tiktala on a vision quest in which she is transformed into a seal by a spirit and is led forth on her journey by a seal spirit guide. Tiktala further celebrates the human connection to animals.

In Tiktala, we find the hero journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In the hero journey, the people of a realm are suffering in some way. The hero leaves home and enters the Otherworld where he or she faces a series of tests which he or she successfully completes. The hero returns home with the treasure that restores balance and saves the world. Hero stories, myths, and some fairy tales from all around the world have this pattern. Tiktala leaves home, faces test upon test as a seal, and returns home as a changed girl who brings with her transformative light.

Words Create Change

Words Create Change

Tiktala is a story of the development of the artist and of learning to care about the thing you create. At the beginning of her journey, Tiktala doesn’t really care about seals. She has many reasons for wanting to be a great carver—fame, money to buy things, a wish for her father’s attention. This is often true when we set out on any career path! Only the experience of becoming an artist, a teacher, a carpenter, a parent, tells us what that career is all about. As Tiktala learns to care about her subject, the seals, she becomes a deeper artist capable of making great carvings. She no longer wants her father’s attention, but she wants to give something to him—the carving that reveals the beauty and meaning of her journey; she wants to represent the beauty of Tulimak and Aputi, her seal friends. In becoming empathetic and selfless, Tikala attains her dream of becoming a great carver.

Tiktala is available for purchase from numerous online booksellers, including McNally Robinson Booksellers, Amazon, and Chapters.

As well, I created a richly rewarding Teacher’s Guide to Tiktala, available through my Teachers Pay Teachers site, a great value for under four dollars.


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