In Conversation: Buffy Sainte-Marie and Angela Misri

The two writers on pet adoption, children’s literature, and Sainte-Marie’s new picture book

A photograph of Buffy Sainte-Marie holding up her new picture book and smiling. The background is bright green with stripes radiating out from behind Buffy.
The Walrus/Photo courtesy of Buffy Sainte-Marie

There seems to be nothing that Buffy Sainte-Marie can’t do. She’s a singer-songwriter, an educator, a composer, an artist, and an activist, and her award-winning career has spanned decades. Her latest creation is a picture book called Hey Little Rockabye: A Lullaby for Pet Adoption. Published by Greystone Books and told from the point of view of an adopted pet, the book is a gorgeous fusion of her love of music, her adoration of animals, and the commitment to social good that pervades all of her work.

As someone who has written many full-length novels for young readers and has struggled in vain to condense a story down to picture-book length, I wanted to hear Buffy’s story: the one that led to Hey Little Rockabye. The responsibility of writing a children’s book is one that no writer takes lightly, including Sainte-Marie. Making sure that an important message is accessible without being condescending is something all of us in children’s literature work on every single day.

On my porch, in Toronto, I sat down across from Sainte-Marie (who was on her farm, in Hawaii) via Zoom. We talked about animals, the visual nature of music, and the story she is always finding new ways to tell.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Angela Misri: When I was doing my research on you, I kept being surprised by the variety of things you have created. So, I have to ask, why a picture book? Why now?

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Well, songs pop into my head all the time. And I’ve had lots and lots of pets. I’ve had goats and horses and cats and dogs and rabbits and you name it. Whenever I’d bring a pet home, I’d sing them this little song. I don’t know if the pet enjoys it, but I do. This song was in my heart because of the pets. With everybody isolating, I think some of the most fortunate people are those of us who have animals, and lots of animals are being adopted these days. I had this song in my head called “Hey Little Rockabye,” which is about pet adoption, kind of from the point of view of the pet. And the song has eventuated into the little picture book.

AM: It’s such a fabulous picture book. Is that the way you imagine all picture books? Are they all music in your head?

BS-M: You know, when I’m singing onstage, I’m actually very visual in my head. I’m looking out at you as an audience, but in a song that’s about something, it’s like there’s a movie going on for me in my own head. And I think a lot of natural musicians are that way. I’m also kind of a natural storyteller, as many, many children are. And one of the things that I wish that more parents and teachers understood is how much talent is really natural talent. When I went to school, they didn’t allow me to be in band [class] because I couldn’t read music, and it turned out that I was actually dyslexic in music. But there are many ways that we communicate.

Some kinds of storytelling have to do with books, and some are just coming from your heart, and you’re just telling somebody what’s going on. So I guess what I’m trying to do is praise our natural love not only for animals but also for storytelling and music. The story really came out of the song, and the song came out of real experiences. I really do sing to my pets and talk to my pets.

If you look on the final page [of Hey Little Rockabye], there is something for people who know how to read music. We put [the sheet music] in here, too, because it’s real good. And it’s real nice if you can sing along with it.

Cat on a motor bike outdoors
Photo courtesy of Buffy Sainte-Marie

AM: So, let me ask you this. I’m South Asian. My family comes from India, and growing up, when we read picture books, I wasn’t in the pages at all. There were no people of colour in my picture books. Is that something that’s important when you look at picture books or as you now think about making picture books?

BS-M: It is now that I think about making picture books, yes. One of the things I kept having to pound away at was that I not only wanted the people in the picture book to look diverse, as though they were human beings from all parts of the world—maybe you’ll see somebody who looks like you in there—but I also wanted the pets to be diverse, because many illustrators just [draw the] round face, two dots for eyes, and a V for a nose.

So we wound up not only with diverse-looking people but also with more than just dogs or cats. I insisted, because I’ve had so many different kinds of wonderful relationships with different kinds of pets, like pigs and dogs and horses. So the book shows some of the many kinds of pets that you can find at a pet shelter. A lot of pets need a forever home, guinea pigs and rabbits and birds and all kinds of animals. So Hey Little Rockabye wound up being a real diverse book.

AM: And can you tell us about the illustrator?

BS-M: Ben Hodson is an artist who I believe is living in Peterborough, Ontario. He came to me after some concert out on the road, and he said, “I’d like to illustrate your song, ‘Farm in the Middle of Nowhere.’” That’s where I am right now. I live in Hawaii on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing around but mountains.

Ben also illustrated this other song of mine, which has not come out yet. “Farm in the Middle of Nowhere” has a line that says, “The one I love, he loves me. He love, love, loves me.” And Ben, as an illustrator, he made [this character], the one who really loves me, a cat.

Meanwhile, Greystone Books was already doing the biography of me that was written by Andrea Warner, so when I mentioned Ben’s name [for this picture book], that’s why Ben has illustrated Hey Little Rockabye.

Ben’s illustrations are just darling. I want to show you one page that I like a lot. As you can see, the little girl is walking through the park with her parents, and she sees some dogs with all of these people, but if you look right here, that’s not a dog that the character is walking on a leash, that’s her cat. My drummer, Muniidobenese, he takes his kitty out on a leash because there are eagles and hawks and they’ll swoop down and they’ll pick up a little cat. People are quite surprised to know that you can take your cat out on a leash.

A few goats in the grass
Photo courtesy of Buffy Sainte-Marie

AM: Fantastic. So, in terms of advocacy, you are talking about people adopting animals out of these places where they’re not loved and into places where they can be loved. And you talked a little bit about how we’re all in a pandemic phase and people are adopting more. Are you worried at all that people are adopting now because they have more time, and when we go back to normal busy lives, who knows what will happen?

BS-M: I’m glad you asked the question. I’ve adopted many pets from shelters, and I’m very much in favour of the forms that you have to fill out. For instance, they [might] want to know if you have enough money because they don’t want you to just come and take a pet and then realize, “Oh my gosh, what am I going to feed my pet?” Or, “What if my pet needs a veterinarian?” So some of the forms that the good shelters have are really for informing the potential pet adopter about some of the things they might not be thinking of when they just plain want. Maybe some people should go buy a teddy bear.

But, for people who do intend to adopt a new little friend into their forever home, they’re encouraged to take it seriously. It really is, especially for me. It’s like adopting a child. You’re adopting a baby, no matter how old your pet is, and it’s a new relationship. I was raised in one of those families where we were dog people and that was it. I found out much later in life that I’m not only a dog person but I’m also a cat person and a goat person. I have room in my heart for lots of different kinds of animals.

I had a lot to learn when I started raising goats. There’s nothing in the world as cute as a baby goat, but I’m an entertainer and I go on the road, so I had to learn to not be breeding baby goats so that they’d be born while I was away, because that’s too much responsibility to put on someone else who’s less into it.

So, to answer your question about the timing of a pet adoption, I think now is a very good time, because you will have the time to get to know your own pet and to not only teach your pet and train your pet but to let your pet train and teach you.

AM: I know so many adults who have picture books, like it’s not just about kids. What do you think it is about picture books as an art form that retains interest even for adults?

BS-M: I don’t know any more than you do, but I’ll tell you, I love classic children’s illustrations, like the ones that were done in Victorian times. I can just get lost online looking at those illustrations; they’re so beautiful. And, when I was a little girl, I loved the pictures in the Mother Goose book that I had. And I always loved the Uncle Wiggily stories, they were funny.

But there’s just something about them, you’re right.

AM: At the end of Hey Little Rockabye, there are photos of your pets . . .

BS-M: Yes! There’s a picture of all my pets—well, a whole bunch of my pets. Here’s my kitty, Anderson Cooper. He just kind of looks like Anderson Cooper to me. And my horse, Poor Nanny. This is Anderson Cooper’s brother. And that’s me. That’s my dog, Blue. And here’s me holding a koala. You can’t have a koala as a pet, but you might be able to meet a koala when you go to Australia.

AM: I love that. Where does this all come from, this love for animals?

BS-M: I had a hard time as a kid. There were bullies in the house and bullies and pedophiles in the neighbourhood. So I was a kid who liked to stay by myself and keep myself company with the piano. My family got a piano when I was about three, and it became my toy. Like, some kids will really want to play ball and other kids will really want to play Barbies. I didn’t want to do any of that. I just wanted to play the piano and make pictures and do art. And the other thing that just kept me a lot more than sane, kept me real happy, was animals.

There was a kitty cat in the house. There was the dog. I had some rabbits when I was in grade school. And my biggest treat in my whole life was when I would get to go and visit my uncle and his family, my cousins, because they lived on a farm. They had pigs and goats, and up the street was somebody who had a horse, and I would just lose myself in the animals. I would talk to them and I would sing to them and they kind of just became my friends. And I’m not the only one who feels that way, although everybody’s story is different. It’s just one of the most wonderful things in my whole life. My cat, Fifi, she lived to be nineteen. So for nineteen years she was my best friend, and I have many good friends whom I haven’t known for that long. And my horse lived to be forty-six—that’s very old.

So, if you are close to your animals, sometimes they can have very long and happy lives. I mean, we all live only as long as we live, but when there’s an animal by our side, everything’s better.

Angela Misri
Angela Misri is an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s school of journalism and a former digital director of The Walrus. She is also the author of the Portia Adams Adventures and Pickles vs. the Zombies series. She writes about digital journalism, technology, politics, and pop culture for many media outlets.