Winnipeg’s David A. Robertson is a very busy man. The Governor General’s Award winner has written best-selling graphic novels, memoirs and young adult fiction, and hosted a well-received podcast for the CBC.
Now, he’s potentially dipping his toes into the world of movies and television.
In a deal announced Wednesday, the worldwide production rights to Robertson’s ongoing epic young-adult Misewa Saga series of books were acquired by ABC Signature, a part of Disney Television Studios.
"I’m thrilled, I’m not going to lie," Robertson said Friday morning. "It’s quite crazy. A bit of a dream come true."
A deal had been in the works for the better part of a year, as the first entry into the saga, The Barren Grounds, saw its sales steadily increase not only in Canada, but in the U.S., and with the just-released second entry, The Great Bear, nearing publication. The third book, which Robertson reveals to the Free Press will be called The Stone Child, is set for release in the summer of 2022.
Robertson couldn’t say who was involved from the creative or production side, but did say they were "world renowned" and "very cool," which gave him confidence in the project’s potential. "That’s all I can really say," he said, laughing.
The Misewa Saga tells a story filled with personal importance to Robertson, who was raised in Winnipeg but has familial roots in Norway House Cree Nation. In the Swampy Cree language, Misewa translates roughly to "All there is," and the series is grounded in traditional legends surrounding constellations and stories of the sky.
The series follows two Indigenous children, Morgan and Eli, who are forced away from their families and come together in a Winnipeg foster home, where they find a portal to another reality, where they reconnect with what they’ve been taken from and in the process, escape their own trauma.
When Robertson pitched the series to Penguin Random House, he had clear inspiration from a touchstone of children’s fantasy literature, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, a saga in its own right centred around misfit children who find a new world by opening a dusty wardrobe.
"Having a literal escape from the world as a metaphor was interesting to me," Robertson said.
The pitch struck a chord, and Robertson netted a three-book deal, which has since expanded to at least five books, with the forthcoming entries focusing more on the character of Eli in what Robertson terms a "sort of superhero origin story."
Within the fantastic story come lessons about the foster care system, Cree folklore, land stewardship, climate change and more, using the characters and the action to do so in a way Robertson says avoids preachiness.
Throughout his career as a creator, which began in earnest in the medium of graphic novels before it exploded to other media, Robertson has been praised for the visual depth of his writing, sometimes described by critics and readers alike as "cinematic."
That makes sense to Robertson, who lives in Winnipeg with his family. The graphic novel medium has an inherently cinematic quality, and that has carried over into his prose. "I didn’t write the Misewa Saga for it to be adapted, but when I write books, I do imagine them as movies in my head," he said.
Robertson’s deal with ABC Signature comes at a moment when producers and viewers alike are responding to Indigenous storytelling in a momentous way, much like in the literary world.
Booknet Canada’s most recent list of overall bestsellers featured eight books by Indigenous authors in the top 15. Books from Michelle Good and Katherena Vermette top the fiction list. Twelve of 15 books on the non-fiction list are written by Indigenous authors. On the juvenile bestseller’s list, Robertson owns two of the top three spots, and contributed to two more of the top 10. Several top-selling books have scored production and rights deals, including Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves and Waubgeshig Rice’s apocalyptic noir Moon of the Crusted Snow.
On the small screen, the Taika Waititi-produced Reservation Dogs is making waves, and despite controversy over director Michelle Latimer, Trickster, a CBC adaptation of Eden Robinson’s novels, was well received by viewers and critics.
Meanwhile, Poplar River comic Paul Rabliauskas recently earned a series order from CTV Comedy for Acting Good. Set to shoot next year, the show is loosely based on Rabliauskas’ life and stand-up routines, which frequently dip into jokes and observations about his family and his experiences in the northern fly-in First Nation. Acting Good substitutes the fictional Grouse Lake in place of Poplar River.
"I think I would call what’s happening a renaissance," Robertson said. "There’s a very big appetite from the public for Indigenous storytelling, and that has crossed over into other mediums, like music, art and certainly film or TV.
"My brother just sent me the trailer for (director Danis Goulet’s) Night Raiders," Robertson said. "It looks incredible." (Read Randall King’s rave review).
"We’re in a really exciting time right now," said Robertson, who also has a new entry into his graphic novel Reckoner series, a few picture books, a middle years hockey book, and a literary fiction book for HarperCollins in the works.
As for an adaptation of the Misewa Saga, Robertson knows deals like this don’t always lead to productions, but he’s confident and excited by the parties involved and the palpable interest in the work that’s been shown by the brass at ABC Signature.
"I’m very excited to see what will happen," he said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.