Michael Redhead Champagne is an award-winning community organizer, public speaker, writer, volunteer and advocate — and now, the Ininew multi-hyphenate can add children’s book author to the list.
Champagne, 34, has written a children’s book called We Need Everyone, which will be out in September via HighWater Press, an imprint of Portage & Main Press. Illustrated by Tiff Bartel, the book invites children to identify their unique gifts and empowers them to share those gifts. It’s as the title says: a strong, healthy, vibrant community needs everyone.
Champagne has motivated and inspired youth throughout his career, and he’s wanted to write a children’s book ever since he penned his first story, Mr. Big Face, in kindergarten. But the book is more than a personal goal realized; it’s also a logical extension of his previous work focused on youth suicide prevention, including serving on the Kids Help Phone Indigenous Advisory Council and the Kids Help Phone texting advisory council.
Growing up in Winnipeg’s North End and as a member of Shamattawa First Nation, he’s seen the challenges facing Indigenous kids and their families, as well as a suicide epidemic that has claimed the lives of far too many children. But he’s also seen their gifts.
"The motivation of this is how can we reach out and speak to those young people that are in need of encouragement, in need of somebody who looks like them, or somebody who has experienced the things that they’ve experienced, to tell them it’s going to be OK and that they have something within them already that will make it better," he says. "I want to celebrate, affirm and encourage children’s gifts, so that they never get to that place, because the average age that an Indigenous kid in Canada contemplates suicide is 10 years old.
"And so, I need to speak to these children before they get to that age, to say that they’re gifted, and also speak to the adults and mentors that take care of those children as well and say, ‘You have a responsibility as somebody who loves and cares for this kid to make sure they know that they have a gift, and to essentially water the seed’."
Champagne is gregarious and animated — even over Zoom he’s infectiously enthusiastic — and wanted to write a book perfect for reading aloud. But when it came to sitting down and writing We Need Everyone, he found it was coming out stilted and robotic — nothing like his high-energy talks. And so, he imagined he was in front of an audience full of kids and recorded himself speaking.
It’s no surprise, then, that We Need Everyone borrows an exercise he’s done at speaking events with school children: how to identify your gift in three steps. Step 1: identify three things you like to do. Step 2: pick one of those things. Step 3: what are some ways you can practice and share your gift?
The word "gift" can come with pressure, which is why Step 1 intentionally makes no mention of gifts. "The first step is just listing things you like doing," he says. "I’m not asking them to think about what they’re good at."
But invariably, he says, kids will write down one or two things that they not only like doing, but that they are good at, too. "And sometimes they look at the list, and they’re like ‘Well, actually, I’m good at many things’," he says, and then smiles. " ‘Oh darn, you happen to have many gifts. Lucky you’."
We Need Everyone is populated by kids of all different shapes, sizes and skin tones, with different abilities and, of course, different interests and gifts. Champagne tapped Bartel, an award-winning, Viet-Canadian multimedia artist based in Winnipeg, to bring his vision to the page.
As a mom to a 16-month-old daughter, Bartel, 35, has been reading her share of children’s books these days. "I find that representation has gotten a lot better in the past couple years," she says. "When I was growing up, I never saw anybody who looked like me in anything, basically.
"It’s really important for kids to be able to see themselves in books and feel like they’re seen and included," she continues. "And that wasn’t very common when I grew up — it was a lot of only white kids represented in books and not people of all abilities, or people across the gender spectrum. It’s cool to be able to contribute to making kids lit more inclusive."
Champagne says working with Bartel was a joyful experience. "She really was able to, I think, take my energetic personality, and infuse it into the illustrations," he says. (Both Champagne and his cat, Sushi, appear in the book.)
"Her and I both believe in the importance of representation. And I think part of what drew me to her artwork in the first place is that all her artwork has always been very diverse and represented many different communities that weren’t often represented."
Champagne hopes kids see themselves reflected in the pages of We Need Everyone, and they find comfort and inspiration in its central message.
"I hope that every page that gets turned in that book, more light bulbs go off in the hearts and minds of children to know that they actually already have inside of them, in their interests, a beautiful gift that the world needs."
We Need Everyone is available for pre-order at portageandmainpress.com.