Writing about the ravages of colonial control over First Nations in the United States and Canada is difficult enough when addressing adults. It’s even more challenging when presenting material to the youngest readers. How to convey the seriousness and depth of pain without crushing the spirit of the child reader–it’s a huge challenge, and I admire any author who even attempts to take it on. Few come out with such a successful result as author Melanie Florence in her picture book Stolen Words about her grandfather’s forced enrollment in boarding school and the loss of his mother tongue. Ms. Florence tells the story of a young girl who innocently asks her grandfather how to say grandpa in Cree. He tells her about being taken away from home and punished at the boarding school for speaking his Cree language. Illustrator Gabrielle Grimard captures this beautifully representing the Cree language as a blackbird captured in a cage and locked away. It’s an image that conveys the sadness and brutality of the Canadian boarding school without presenting images too heart-breaking for young readers. The girl finds a Cree dictionary in her own school and brings it to her grandfather and the words on the page, again symbolically, take the form of blackbirds and fly free. It’s a simple tale–too simple for older readers certainly who need much more substance and a less tidy resolution. But for the youngest readers this is an important story of native language denied and ultimately regained, and a book well worth celebrating.
Stolen Words is published by Second Story Press out of Toronto, Ontario. It will be available in September of 2017. I wrote this review from an Advanced Reader Copy which I obtained at the independent bookstore where I work. If you are looking for more context as an adult reader I highly recommend They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars, and acclaimed author from British Columbia. She is a chief of the Xat’sull and her book is about her own experiences in boarding school. It’s not a read for the tenderhearted but it is very useful in understanding the depth of wrong that was done in Indian boarding schools across the Unites States and Canada.
I read a book this spring that was timely in a hundred ways I wish it wasn’t. In the months that have followed it has become all the more relevant. If there is one book I’d give to every family to read this fall it would be Russell Freeman’s newest non-fiction book for readers as young as 10 and as old as 100.
We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler is the story of Austrian teenagers Hans and Sophie Scholl who at the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power were glad to join the Hitler youth which they saw as a patriotic organization. But as the Hilter Youth moved from scout-like campouts to militia training and racist indoctrination, the Scholl siblings knew they had to resist at any cost. They put together The White Rose, a society devoted to making Hitler’s war crimes known and turning the tide ofGerman popular opinion against the Nazis. They succeeded, although it cost their lives. Freemen’s book is well researched and includes many historical photographs and yet it handles this very dark subject matter in such a way that most elementary school students can understand without being emotionally overwhelmed.
When I was teaching grade school full time, both on the reservation and off, this is exactly the sort of picture book I wanted–a contemporary slice-of-life story about a First Nations family celebrating something important to their culture. I’m particularly exited because this story comes from the salmon fishing peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Author Willie Sellers spins a lively tale of a boy’s first salmon catch using a playful and breezy tone but still conveying many important cultural details, such as preparing for the salmon fishing trip by praying in the sweat lodge and offering tobacco to the Creator. He captures the boy’s nervousness about the steep trail and swift waters of the river. He demonstrates the many steps in preparing dried salmon, with clarity and good humor. Willie Sellars is a T’exelc–a member of the Williams Lake Indian Band. He is a life long fisherman and perhaps what I love the most about this book is the way he conveys the warmth and humor of this family in his story.
The illustrator Kevin Easthope is also from Williams Lake, BC. His illustrations are fresh and fun and colorful. They do a great job of putting the reader in the thick of the action whether it’s climbing the steep riverbanks, reaching over the water with a dipnet or running way from Grandma.
I would heartily recommend this book to any one working with grade school students or anyone interested in the culture of the Pacific Northwest. There is a teachers guide for this book and a free coloring page from the publisher. If you’d like to hear the author and illustrator talking about the collaboration, here’s a you tube of them with some great footage of actual dipnet fishing. This book’s Canadian publisher is Caitlin Press. It has been endorsed by the Tk’emlúps Chief Shane Gottfriedson and noted author and Xat’sull Chief Bev Sellers.
The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA) has just launched GREAT READS, a new project aimed at connecting kids with great books. A GREAT READ can be a page turner, a funny-bone tickler, a wild adventure ride, a slow drift down the river, a snuggle-under-the-covers. A GREAT READ may, or may not, be great literature, but sharing GREAT READS is the best way to turn kids into lifelong readers.
I was very honored this year to be asked to participate in this literacy project. I had no trouble at all picking a book I wanted to share. It’s Echo by Pam Munóz Ryan. I reviewed the book on the blog earlier this year.
Here is my contribution to the book recommendations of the NCBLA Great Reads program. It was great fun to see several Portland authors also in this group. Susan Blackaby, Heather Vogel Frederick, Eric Kimmel, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Graham Salisbury.
You can see all the other Great Reads posters at thencbla.org. There’s a ton of great literacy resources on the website, so whether you’re a teacher wanting to promote reading in your classroom or just a family looking for the next great read aloud, I hope you’ll give it a look.
I’m going to try to read all the books that are on the 2015-16 OBOB list with me and I’m so happy to start with a wonderful book by my friend and fellow Portlander, Deborah Hopkinson. This is a story after my heart because epidemiology was my mother’s field. It’s an account of how the enterprising Dr. Snow and a couple of street urchins proved that a cholera epidemic that a broke out in Victorian London was caused not by the heavily polluted air but by the contaminated water in the Broad Street pump.
Three things for a kid reader to love:
1. Any kid who lives Bones or CSI or other tv crime scene procedurals will love this. It’s full of real nitty gritty details of how to prove that disease is water-borne when the water tastes fine and the air stinks. Great fun, and not “teach-y”
2. Cool historical maps of the epidemic are in the back matter. Love Maps!
3. The narrator, a kid who goes by the name Eel, is appealing and keeps the events on a very human scale. In finding and answer to the riddle of the Broad Street pump, Eel finds a home and protection and education for his beloved little brother.
Something for the writer to think about:
Any story about an epidemic is going to be tragic and this one doesn’t shrink from death. However, and this is the important distinction to me, it doesn’t revel in death or glamorize suffering. It’s a fine line to walk and I think it’s handled beautifully. Well worth a read just to see how Deborah gets the balance just right.
Also I’m going to tag this as a diverse book in terms of class. It addresses very directly the injustices Eel faces because of his economic status. It’s easy to over-look or romanticize the poor. Here’s a book that in my opinion does them justice. The low-income characters are a mix of good and bad actors and the upper-income characters are an equally mixed bag in terms of personal virtue. Bravo!