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.
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’ve been working on a series for younger readers all summer long and part of my work was reading a bunch of books in early middle grade fiction that are already available. This one was recommended to me by a friend. I got it from my local library. I was eager to read this one because it was very well reviewed, garnering 5 starred reviews.
1. This is spot on for the tender-hearted reader. There’s enough tension but not too much. If Lulu brings another animal to school they will have to give up the beloved class guinea pig and have stick insects for a class pet instead–dreadful! And yet not dire or night mare producing.
2. Lulu is very appealing in her genuine and unabashed affection for all creatures great and small. She has a true blue best friend and a teacher who is stern enough to provide a formidable obstacle, but not so stern that she can’t also be part of the resolution.
3. I hear plenty of call for books with a non-white protagonist in which race is not the issue of the book. Well here you go! Lulu is a brown skinned girl with brown eyes and curly hair. Her best friend is of her same complexion, yet race and the usual class issues that surround such books is not an issue at all. I hope when people are making their lists of books with non-white characters that this one comes to mind.
Something to think about as a writer
So here is a “multicultural book” where the main character is clearly not white and yet in the text there is nothing at all to indicate her race, ethnicity, class, or cultural heritage. So is this cheating? Should a non-white character have something in her voice, or dress or manner of interacting with others the indicates an different point of view? I’m really not sure. I love it that Lulu is a little “every girl” and yet I wonder, is that really serving the non-white reader of the book well. I wish I had a good answer for that, but I’m not sure.
What do you think readers? Is it enough to just illustrate a character as non-white or is it important to say something about a characters background as well? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.