Michael Kusugak | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Michael Kusugak

Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak, Inuk children's writer, storyteller in English and Inuktitut (born 27 April 1948 in Qatiktalik [Cape Fullerton, NT], now NU). Kusugak is known for his picture books, almost all of which are illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka. Kusugak’s children’s stories all feature Inuit life and traditions. His books demonstrate how stories can be used to teach history and culture. Kusugak’s books have reached international audiences, with some translated into Japanese, Korean, French and Braille.

Early Life and Education

Michael Kusugak spent his early childhood in Naujaat (Repulse Bay, Northwest Territories), now Nunavut. His family lived a traditional Inuit life, which included travelling by dogsled, hunting, fishing and building igloos. In the fall of 1954, he was taken to attend residential school in Chesterfield Inlet. Kusugak later attended the University of Saskatchewan. He worked for the government for 15 years before becoming a writer.

Writing Career

Michael Kusugak’s sons encouraged him to write down a story he had once told them about the creatures that live beneath the sea ice. Canadian children’s author Robert Munsch also encouraged Kusugak to write down his stories. In 1988, Kusugak and Munsch co-authored A Promise is a Promise, Kusugak’s first book. It is about Qallupilluit, Inuit creatures who live in the ocean. It is based on traditional stories used to warn Inuit children about the dangers of falling through the ice.

The story has been retold as a play for schoolchildren. Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre in Ottawa has performed the play, as have other theatre companies, including the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg and the Young People’s Theatre in Toronto. At the opening night of the play at the Young People's Theatre, Kusugak’s friend Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup) saw his granddaughter play a role.

Authored Works

Since the publication of A Promise is a Promise, Kusugak has written several other children’s books, all of which incorporate Inuit culture. In Baseball Bats for Christmas (1990), children are bewildered when a bush pilot brings Christmas trees to a remote village, but make practical use of his gift. Hide and Sneak (1992) describes a little girl's successful escapes from spirit beings. Northern Lights: The Soccer Trails (1993) is about a child who learns that the spirit of her dead mother is playing soccer in the sky. It won the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award for best picture book in 1994.

Although most of Kusugak's work is aimed at children aged 4–7, My Arctic 1, 2, 3 (1996), a counting book of Arctic animals, is suitable for children and youth. The three tales in Arctic Stories (1998) draw on Kusugak's own childhood to evoke life in the Northwest Territories in the 1950s. They describe everyday events, such as going to school, and an extraordinary event, when a black monster appeared in the sky. In Who Wants Rocks? (1999), Old Joe, a gold prospector in the Western Arctic, realizes that rocks can be more valuable than gold.

The Curse of the Shaman, A Marble Island Story (2006) tells the story of Wolverine, who is cursed at birth by a grumpy shaman; everyone forgets about the curse until Wolverine grows up and wants to marry the shaman's daughter. The shaman in this book, Paaliaq, was the inspiration behind NASA’s naming of one of Saturn's moons. Kusugak’s stories also inspired the names of three more of the planet’s moons: Kiviuq, Siarnaq, and Ijiraq. The Littlest Dog Sled, a story about a small dog with big dreams, was published in 2008, the same year that Kusugak won the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People. The designers of the book, Teresa Bubela and Vladyana Krykorka, also won first prize in the children's category for the Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada.

In 2013, Kusugak published T is for Territories. It introduces children to the alphabet by using terms that describe Northern Canada. The Strong Readers Series (2014) tells stories about Inuit life for young readers. Kusugak provides throat singing tutorials in his 2015 CD, Inuit Songs & Stories, Learn How to Throat Sing. He wrote Celebrate Canada: Bush Pilots Student Edition in 2017 as part of Pearson’s Celebrate Canada Series. The Most Amazing Bird (2020) tells a tale of a young girl discovering nature’s beauty.

Did You Know?
Michael Kusugak met Queen Elizabeth II in 1994, when she visited Rankin Inlet after the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Victoria. He gave her a copy of Northern Lights, The Soccer Trails. Kusugak said he “was so proud” when the Queen carried the copy with her as she walked about Rankin Inlet.

Personal Life

Michael Kusugak is a father and grandfather. He moved to Manitoba from Sooke, British Columbia, so he is more central for travel in the country. It’s also closer to home, where Kusugak spends most summers in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. Kusugak is a speaker for the National Speakers Bureau.

In a 2009 interview with APTN, Kusugak said that “the most wonderful thing” is to sit down in front of an audience and tell them stories. In so doing, he helps keep the practice of traditional Inuit storytelling alive.

Honours and Awards

Kusugak won the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award for Northern Lights: The Soccer Trails (1994). This book was also the first non-American book to be placed on the accolade list for the Aesop Prize in the United States.

The Curse of the Shaman was shortlisted for the Anskohk Award (2006) and the Hackmatack Award (2008).

Kusugak received the Vicky Metcalf Award for a body of work in Children’s Literature (2008).