It is said one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. That’s the approach Bronwyn Preece wants people to take to her new literary work, featuring illustrations by Kate Zessel: Sea to Sky Alphabet.
You and I might assume alphabet books are very simplistic tools designed to help young children develop basic language skills. Preece diverged from that classic model when penning Sea to Sky Alphabet, a poetic and culturally rich book readers of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy. It’s not the first time she’s been down this road: in 2012, her previous title Gulf Islands Alphabet found its way into stores.
What does Preece find so compelling about this particular sub-genre?
“I’m a lover of alliteration. I always have been, and so this is not a traditional alphabet book,” she says. “It’s not, ‘A is for avalanche,’ period. It is more a mechanism for weaving stories, and I think through alliteration, I find a way to roll with the landscape. I find that it’s an entryway to learning the nuance of a place. It’s not as simple as it looks, by any stretch of the imagination.”
Both of Preece’s alphabet books are homages to places dear to her heart. The Victoria native spent years off the grid in a Lasqueti Island house powered by water wheels and solar panels, an experience that inspired Gulf Islands Alphabet. She moved to Whistler about six years ago and immediately began absorbing the culture of her new home.
“Part of me arriving in a new place is to actively learn its story and its history from all sorts of different angles and all sorts of different communities,” Preece explains. “This book is, in many ways … a love letter to place, an acknowledgement of my deep appreciation for having the privilege to live here.
“I learn something new every day about this place. For the past six years, I say I’ve been learning the language of the mountain, and I think what this book encompasses for me is just to share that learning process and a deep appreciation for the multi-dimensional character of the Sea to Sky corridor.”
Appreciation and responsibility
The Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations represent an integral part of the Sea to Sky’s character. Preece affirms this fact by including words from both languages in her book, thanking the Squamish Nation Language and Cultural Affairs Department (Sk_wx_wú7mes Úxwumixw Ta na wa
Ns7éyx_nitm ta Snew’íyelh) and the Lil’wat Culture, Heritage and Language Authority (LCHLA) for their support. The book also includes a QR code and a glossary so readers can learn how to pronounce the words within.
Preece acknowledges neither nation historically used a written or orthographic language system, thus the phonetics within her book do not directly represent the Squamish and Lil’wat languages.
“The impact of colonization was, and continues to be, devastating. Holding this awareness, I seek ways to move forward responsibly, with humbleness and transparency, inviting collaborative possibilities,” Preece writes in the preface to Sea to Sky Alphabet.
“Truth and reconciliation to me is not a fixed set of ways or procedures. It’s an open space for engaged, respectful dialogues and the possibility of collaborative opportunities,” she adds in an interview with Pique. “It’s about staying open and actively participating in positive changes, because positive changes are needed.”
Preece can’t remember a time when she didn’t write. She churned out her fair share of fiction as a youngster and jokes that she independently keeps Canada Post afloat with her passion for letters. She deals in a variety of genres, from children’s literature to poetry, and seeks to explore social and ecological issues in a non-didactic manner.
“I’m not trying to hammer home a message,” says Preece. “My work is underscored by strong ethics of appreciation and responsibility. I feel a need, a welcome need, to learn about the history of the Lil’wat and the Squamish beyond tokenism. I couldn’t write a book about this place I’m so loving without including a very integral part of its history, both past and living.”
Sea to Sky Alphabet was officially released on Oct. 10, but Preece will be signing autographs Oct. 28 at Whistler’s Armchair Books and reading from her new work on Nov. 5 at Little Bookshop in Squamish (the latter being part of the Canada Council National Public Readings Program.