From Sea to Sea to Sea: Celebrating Indigenous Picture Books

I began reading this newsletter from IBBY Canada with interest. I noted titles to pass along to students in the winter/spring 2019 VCFA picture book intensive. I read about authors and illustrators. And then, to my delight, I began to recognize names and titles and to find my own connections.

mancalledraven-233x300First, this passage on Tlicho First Nation writer Richard Van Camp‘s books. The story of Children’s Book Press and of Harriet Rohmer’s mission to give voice to many cultures and peoples is part of the history of children’s books in the United States. Two of my own picture books have remained in print thanks to Lee and Low’s acquisition of CBP’s list. But back to Richard Van Camp. Look at this account of what ensued when Harriet called Richard asking if he had anything to send her:

Richard said: “Yes, I do have something …” and pulled out the manuscript for The Man Called Raven, which he had written at a workshop. Richard sent it down to San Francisco page by page from the fax machine at Home Hardware in Fort Smith — at a cost of $4.20.

Page by page. A fax machine. Richard’s creative response to Harriet’s next invitation is well worth reading as well.  Laughter and inventiveness surely lead to the building of bridges.

In comments reported from Project Co-Chair & Author Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis (Nipissing First Nation) I found yet another connection:

One of the first children’s books that Jenny remembers liking in her early days as an educator was Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2000), published in the US. Jingle Dancer is about a young girl who wants to dance in the upcoming powwow, and how the strong women in her life — her aunt, her neighbour, her cousin and her grandmother — each contribute a row of jingles to her dress. Jenny says about the book: “The imagery and lessons of Jingle Dancer showed the dignity of the characters — and really portrayed a positive community experience. It was a story that I often shared with young people whose history was fractured due to acts of colonization. This story offered children an opportunity to reflect on history and begin their own journey to heal and reclaim their culture.”

It has been my delight over many years to cross writing and teaching paths with the multi-talented Cynthia Leitich Smith who has been my writing and teaching colleague for years and whose work has shaped our field in important ways.

From board books to picture books for older readers, From Sea to Sea to Sea is a catalogue of 100 of the best picture books created over the past 25 years by Indigenous authors. The full catalogue is available here. What an opportunity for young readers everywhere to find and make connections.

 

Power, Agency, and Life’s Big Questions in Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

cynthia_leitich_smith_editing-607x400.jpgMy friend and colleague Cynthia Leitich Smith has long been an articulate voice for change in the field of writing for young readers. Cyn is practically a publishing industry all by herself, with picture books, short stories, realistic novels, poetry, and an astonishingly comprehensive online archive of children’s and YA literature resources. Her Tantalize/Feral novels and graphic novels take a Bram Stoker inspired magical world and populate it with ghosts, vampires, were-creatures of all kinds, demon dogs, shapeshifters and fallen angels—in the process, they give power to female characters and reflect back upon the real world, raising questions of trust, betrayal, and community. Her chapter book of interlinked stories, Indian Shoes, presents a warm, funny relationship between the generations, while upending old tropes about Native peoples and Indian artifacts.

As Cynthia puts it: “the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color. We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.”

Hearts UnbrokenAnd she does. Hearts Unbroken is about Louise Wolfe, suburban Muscogee Creek girl, doing her best to make her way in a largely white high school. Lou has aspirations and talents, a loving family, and, above all, a mind of her own. The prejudice around her, both unthinking and intentional, awakens Lou’s inner activist. At the same time as she’s taking determined steps to achieve her journalistic ambitions, she is forced to question herself, and the answers aren’t always comfortable. Context is offered by a delightful younger brother, cousins and others in the extended family, a lively and contentious school community, and the whole, messy context of the real political world. A diverse array of secondary characters include irascible school paper editor, Karishma Sawkar, neglected best friend Shelby, journalism teacher Ms. Wilson, heedless ex-boyfriend Cam, and Lou’s current love interest, Joey Kairouz. It’s America in microcosm, with all the inherent contradictions you might expect. For an additional treat, readers of Rain is Not My Indian Name will be delighted to see Cassidy Rain Berghoff make a cameo appearance in this book.

Through Lou’s character, Hearts Unbroken articulates questions about representation and voice and the human tendency to pronounce judgment with limited information. Questions about history and privilege, about who has power and why. Questions that push back against the daily indignities, large and small, so often inflicted upon minorities in America, and push back as well on commonly held historical myths and emblems of public nostalgia. This novel left me, to quote Cyn herself, “heartened, optimistically Unbroken, and a believer in the power of Story.”