Category Archives: diversity

First Nations Picture Books–Stolen Words by Melanie Florence

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.

First Nations Picture Books–Dipnetting with Dad by Willie Sellars

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.

American Indian Cultural Festival

A lot of the work of being an author is the dull and dry sitting at a desk (even when that desk is in a tree) and writing day after day. But every now and then an event comes along that you know you’ll remember forever. The American Indian Cultural Festival in The Dalles last week was just such a moment. It was a celebration of literature and poetry and music and dance. It involved a group of books that I admire and authors I feel honored to share the stage with: Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Craig Lesley, acclaimed author of contemporary western literature, and National Book Award winning writer Sherman Alexie.

I was lucky enough to spend time with an adult book club and share a poetry reading with some truly outstanding young poets. I got to hear the culture club from Lyle school in Washington give their very first performance in the Sahaptian language with traditional dancing. They were simply amazing. I’m so proud of all they’ve accomplished in a year. I meet with some avid writers in the North Oregon Juvenal Detention Facility, and best of all I got to dance with the Taholah drum group from the Quinault Reservation. My favorite part of the whole thing was the series of classrooms who came to hear me and the Taholah drum group speak. They had all kinds of great questions about the culture and art of the Quinault and Makah and the practice of tribal whaling. It was the sort of mind-opening conversation that cultural festivals are made for. I am very grateful to Julian Peterson and Marko Black and all the tribal dancers from Taholah who shared their songs and prayers and dances so generously, and who invited the students to dance and drum along so whole-heartedly. I know those are memories the students will always cherish.

Thank you to Jim Tindale the librarian at The Dalles School District who made this all happen in conjunction with the great booksellers at Oregon’s oldest bookstore Klindt’s who sold all the books and hosted many of the events. Tina Ontiveros is the manager at Klindt’s and Joaquin Perez is the owner. The fundraising for this event was truly a community affair with donations coming from area schools and libraries, educational foundations, local congregations, Oregon’s poet laureate program, the Wasco County Cultural Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. It’s inspiring to see so many community members come together in support of literacy and the cultural understanding of our local American Indian communities. Thank you!

American Indian Cultural Festival

I am beyond thrilled to be included in the American Indian Cultural Festival held this week in The Dalles. I will be appearing alongside Sherman Alexie, Elizabeth Woody, the poet laureate of Oregon, and adult writer, Craig Leslie. We will be doing a poetry reading which is free and open to the public on Thursday April 13th at 4:00 in The Dalles Middle School Commons. There will be live music and a drum and dance group from the Quinault Nation. Each of the authors will read a new poem. If you happen to be in the area, I’d love to see you there.

Klindt’s bookstore will host a book signing party at 7:00 that same evening. Klindt’s has the distinction of being the oldest bookstore in the state. I am particularly grateful to the owners of the bookstore who purchased hundreds of copies of my book, Written in Stone to give away to the students I will visit the day following these events. I am also very grateful to Jim Tindale, Librarian extraordinaire who did the lion’s share of the work in coordinating this festival which includes coordinating readings and author visits in 7 locations over the course of two days. He also spearheaded all the fundraising that made this celebration possible.

In addition to the poetry event I will be attending a talk by Sherman Alexie at The Dalles High School. Hundreds of children will come in on busses from all over the county to hear him read from Thunder Boy Jr.  which was illustrated by the amazing Yuyi Morales. This event will include drummers and dancers from the Quinault nation.

Ringing in the New Year

What an interesting year to work in a book store! Annie Blooms is in a neighborhood with the largest Jewish community in Oregon and also a sizable immigrant African population. Here’s what I’ve found uplifting in a year full of ugly politics. Time and again, readers came in looking for a book that would help them make sense of their opponent’s point of view.

The conservative who just doesn’t understand what black people are so upset about, was willing to walk out of the shop with Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Willing to look into it. Eager, in fact, to understand better.

The talk of several local, and generally liberal, book clubs has been Hillbilly Elegy by S.A. Vance. “How can a bunch of white men feel so discriminated against,” say the bookclub ladies. “Where on earth can all these Trump supporters be coming from?” I don’t know either but these earnest bookclub members are searching for insight and talking about what they find.

Nearly everybody who comes into the shop talking about some crisis or other, the Standing Rock Sioux and the oil pipeline or the tide of refugees fleeing into Europe, has an opinion to start with. But here’s the cool part; they know they need to know more. They know that what is online masquerading as news is often not reliable. They already know what they think, but they want to know what the other guy thinks. They want to know the context, the history, the back story, the supporting science. And very often they want to know how to talk about these issues with their children. And yes, there are books for that! 

Although we need more than a few good books and people reading them to solve the mountain of issues we will need to address in the coming years, I do believe that books are a good beginning. A jumping-off place. An invitation to conversation. I’m grateful to have a shop full of good books to share, and a community open to new ideas.

My hope for the new year is that I will continue to listen and to and learn what I can, not to erase our differences or compromise on values I hold too dear to let go. But that I can see opponants more clearly and understand issues more fully, and rededicate myself to doing as much good in the world as possible–and maybe even a few good things that are impossible.