Teachers are always looking for books to pair with required units of study. Most students in the 3rd or 4th grade study the indigenous cultures of their region. Quality picture books by indigenous creators are few and far between so I was thrilled to find Peace Dancer and Orca Chief by Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd.
Both books are traditional stories from the village of Kitkatla in British Columbia. This is the home town of the authors. Roy Henry Vickers is an artist and writer and Robert Budd is a historian. Roy holds a leadership position within his tribe. They belong to the Gitxaala Nation which is part of the larger language group known as the Tsimshian. Kitkatla is on the coast of British Columbia just east of the Islands of Haida Gwaii.
Peace Dancer is a traditional tale about the fate that befalls the people when children fail to respect a crow. It’s a flood narrative, which is interesting because so many ancient cultures have some kind of flood story. It gives the explanation for why a peace dancer is so important in a potlatch ceremony. In the author note, Roy Henry Vickers explains that he is the peace dancer for his community.
Orca Chief is also a story about the importance of respect for the natural world. In this story a group of disrespectful fishermen are taken under the sea to visit the Chief of the Orcas. After the fishermen apologize the Orca Chief forgives them and shows them ways to find many good things to eat–herrings, oolichan, and crabs.
Both books have stunning illustrations, combining a mainstream modern painting style with traditional formline art to represent the fish, birds and animals. They are vividly colored and brilliantly produced on the highest quality paper. If Vickers and Budd were Americans and therefore eligible, they would be contenders for the Caldecott with each of these books.
This week is small press week and it’s worth noting that these books are published by Harbour Publishing, a small independent publisher in British Columbia. They have been publishing the work of Vickers and Budd for many years. The pair has a new board book out this year called Hello Humpback.
When you are looking for diverse titles–especially by indigenous writers and artists–don’t forget the small presses.
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.
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.