Thursday, October 23, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Jingle Dancer"

There are certain books that sing, that are perfect for reading aloud.  And I just found a new (to me) book to add to my collection!

In Cynthia Leitich Smith’s debut picture book, Jingle Dancer, young Jenna wants to be like her Grandma Wolfe and dance at the powwow.  She is learning the steps, but does not have time to order the tin to make her jingles.  Rather than go without, Jenna has an idea.  While visiting friends and family, Jenna asks three women if she may borrow a line of jingles for her dress.  Finally, she borrows the last required line from Grandma Wolfe herself.  At the powwow, Jenna jingle danced for her friends and family who helped her.

One of my first criterions for selecting a picture book is, “How does it read?”  Reading a book silently to yourself is very different from performing a book for an audience, no matter how large or small.  A good picture book must have rhythm.  Jingle Dancer has rhythm.  A good picture book must come to life.  Jingle Dancer is lively.  Smith’s use of language is musical.  She repeats onomatopoeic words like “Tink, tink, tink, tink” for the sound of the jingles on the dresses and “Brum, brum, brum, brum” for the sound of the drums at the powwow.  Jingle Dancer is also written like an oral story.  Transitional phrases like “As Moon kissed Sun good night” give the reader or listening a feeling they are experiencing a story that has been told many times before.

Jingle Dancer is also a valuable book.  It features native characters, of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Ojibway, in a positive, non-stereotypical fashion.  In short, they are regular people, not cultural stand-ins.  They are a grandmother who loves her granddaughter (“Grandma Wolfe, who warmed like Sun.”), a neighbor selling food at a gathering (“Once again, Jenna rolled dough, and Mrs. Scott fried it.”) and a family member, a lawyer, preparing for a big case (“Once again, Jenna helped Elizabeth carry in her files.”).  The characters in Smith’s book are all female, relatable and affirmative representations.

A short, but detailed Author’s Note with accompanying glossary rounds out the book.  In it, Smith describes origins of the jingle dancer, and the significance of the dance, the materials and the number four (the story mentions that Jenna’s dress “needed four rows of jingles.”).  Illustrations throughout by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu bring to life these cultural details in vibrant watercolors.

Publishers Weekly noted Smith’s use of language, saying Smith “consciously evokes legend”.  The review also credits the illustrators with the “easy integration of Native and standard furnishings and clothing gracefully complement Smith's heartening portrait of a harmonious meshing of old and new.”  Jingle Dancer was a recommended book for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Texas Reading Club.

The first thing I wanted to do after reading Jingle Dancer, was to see a jingle dance for myself.  Thank internet for YouTube!  A quick search yielded several good results.  When the time comes that I will be able to share this book with my patrons, I would love to show them a video of a real jingle dance as well.  Cynthia Leitich Smith thankfully has one of the best author sites on the internet (, so interested readers, listeners or educations have plenty to find and explore.  Smith offers teaching guides, reader’s theater scripts and more for a variety of her books.  Her website is a veritable playground!

For readers looking for more books in which to dive, they couldn’t look in a better direction than towards the work of Cree-Metis author/illustrator Julie Flett.  This time of year is especially ripe for her picture books Wild Berries (no pun intended) and Owls See Clearly at Night.  Both books incorporate native languages (Cree and Michif) and are beautiful to look at.  Wonderful books for bedtime.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich.  Jingle Dancer.  Illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu.  New York: Morrow Junior Books, 2000.  ISBN: 9780688162412

Class Post - Review - "How I Became a Ghost"

It can be hard, nowadays, to find a book title that actually tells you something.  Often, I imagine authors (or much more likely, publishers) simply playing the Dictionary game, flipping the pages at random and pointing out words to string together into something that sounds moderately interesting.  This is definitely not the case with Tim Tingle’s book How I Became a Ghost.  It’s hard to argue with that.

The narrator of How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story is ten-year-old Isaac, who is not, we are informed, a ghost yet.  But, we are assured, he will be by the book’s ending.  Isaac lives with his parents, his older brother Luke and his dog Jumper.  His family lives on Choctaw land.  One night, after scuttle has been heard of “treaty talk”, men come to burn down the houses in the town.  Some people became ghosts that night.  Later, men come bearing blankets for the cold and the homeless.  The blankets were infected with small pox.  Many more people became ghosts.  From here, Isaac’s family begins their forced march off of their lands to be relocated by the U.S. Government.  Along the way, Isaac finds a new friend, learns of someone in trouble and wants to help and yes, becomes a ghost.

The story of the removal of native peoples from their homes by the government is still one classrooms teach with kid gloves, if it is taught at all.  Tingle’s book, while written at an elementary level, features mature subject matter, handled in a sophisticated way.  Horrible details, such as the deaths of people around Isaac, and even his own death, are not easy to read, or glossed over.  In the midst of Tingle’s magical realism (Isaac, before becoming a ghost, can see, speak to and hear other ghosts and has premonitions of how people will die and another character is a shapeshifter, changing into a panther) is a hard reality.  At the same time, the violence or death is not at all gratuitous.  I think the book is deceptively simple.  Sentence syntax and vocabulary are perhaps deliberately artless in order to make way for the more complex ideas the readers must face.  Tingle definitely has a lot of faith in his reading audience that they can process and absorb the material.

How I Became a Ghost does not contain a glossary of terms, but all Choctaw language used throughout is well defined, and well placed.  Readers quickly become accustomed to substituting “hoke” or “okay”.  Isaac’s first person narration reveals much about what the character sees, thinks and feels about native customs.  After seeing men and women harming themselves and asking why, Isaac’s mother tells him they are saying goodbye to their home.  Isaac replies, “Their homes are in town.”  Isaac’s mother responds with a sobering idea: “No…[t]heir houses are in town.  This river, this dirt, this is their home.  This is our home…It is time to say good-bye to our home.”

How I Became a Ghost received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, emphasizing Tingle’s skill as a storyteller.   “Tingle's tale unfolds in Isaac's conversational voice; readers "hear" his story with comforting clarity and are plunged into the Choctaw belief system, so they can begin to understand it from the inside out.”  Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices calls out Isaac’s “remarkable, compelling voice” and lauds the way Tingle “reveals that horror in a way that won't overwhelm readers the same age as his protagonist.” How I Became a Ghost was also the American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award (AIYLA) for middle school literature for 2014. 

For readers interested in finding more from Tim Tingle, thankfully How I Became a Ghost promises to be the first in a series, with more books to follows.  He has also written several other books, including Danny Blackgoat, Navajo Prisoner, for young adult readers, Walking the Choctaw Road: Stories from Red People Memory for middle graders and Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness Into Light for picture book readers and listeners.  Readers wanting to know more about the Choctaw Trail of Tears or of Native American Removal in general could read Night of the Cruel Moon: Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears by Stanley Hoig, Longwalker’s Journey by Beatrice O. Harrell or The Long Walk by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick.

Tingle, Tim.  How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story.  Oklahoma City: The Roadrunner Press, 2013.  ISBN: 9781937054533

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Pocahontas"

It’s hard to imagine in today’s technology infused world of recording and oversharing every little thing, that history, even up to a few generations ago, is subjective.  “History is written by the winners”, people say.  Which is true.  History is written by the survivors.  This is also true.  Author Joseph Bruchac plays with these certainties with his book of historical fiction, Pocahontas.

Pocahontas features alternating chapters telling the first person points of view of Pocahontas, then eleven years old, and Captain John Smith, leading up to the seminal moment of the famous story.  From Pocahontas, we learn about her family, her town and her father, Mamanatowic, “the Great Chief of all the Powhatan towns” and her endless curiosity, especially about the “swan canoes,” and the “Coatmen.”  John Smith, in 17th century English, tells his story of a man unjustly accused of treason, imprisoned and distrusted in the New World.  These two stories intersect and eventually come to a head, with Pocahontas’ hopeful words, “We shall live together in peace” (emphasis by the author).

History, as I said, is subjective.  Both Pocahontas and John Smith have different versions of their stories, and each reveals his or her own prejudices as they tell it.  Smith speaks with the wounded, puffed up pride of someone who finds themselves constantly harassed by others.  He admits to telling baldface lies.  Pocahontas, for her part, is young, and in her youth is the forgiveness for little exaggerations and stretches of the truth.  By her own admission, she is her father’s favorite child, and this status affords her great freedom and leeway.  By allowing both his protagonists to be relatable, but unreliable narrators, Bruchac allows for historical wiggle room, so to speak.  Virtually every version of the Pocahontas/John Smith story you will find asserts that the young girl throws herself on John Smith, the prisoner, in order to save his life.  In Pocahontas’ version of events, this is not the case.  Smith’s life is never in danger, and in fact, Pocahontas’ father is welcoming him, and Pocahontas is greeting his as a new brother.  Which is the truth?  Likely, we will never know (until such time as time travel is invented).  The value of the Pocahontas myth, however, is in the girl’s desire for peace and understanding, something that Bruchac maintains in his afterword, writring, “[t]hrough it all Pocahontas appears to have remained an influential voice for peace.”

In his notes, Bruchac admits that “seeing things from the Native American side” of the story came mostly from “the last four decades I have spent deepening my knowledge of my own American Indian heritage by listening to and spending time with the many friends, fellow storytellers, and elders in the Native American community” who have helped him along the way.  Under Bruchac’s careful eye, the Powhatan nation is well represented.  Each of Pocahontas’ chapters begins with snippets of por quio folklore, telling stories of creation, nature and the people.  “Great Hare lives in his home in the sunrise.  There he made the first women and men.  He kept them at first in a great bag,” begins one portion of the story which precedes a chapter in which Pocahontas is full of questions about the nature of things, and the origin of man.  Pocahontas is also peppered with words in both the Powhatan language and 17th century English, for which Bruchac provides two glossaries in the backmatter.

Pocahontas received mixed reviews upon publication.  Kirkus Reviews writes that “[b]oth characters come to life instantly, and the daily accounts are rich with details of everyday life” and “[h]is writing is masterfully stylized to suit all characters in their time and culture, and makes for dense but satisfying reading.”  Publishers Weekly, on the other hand, calls Pocahontas “uneven” and says “Smith's words, meant to echo the cadences of the actual diaries and records that introduce each of his chapters, sound stiff and passive” and “readers may be frustrated” with the style and the resolution of the story.

As I have said, the story of Pocahontas is as varied as it is plentiful.  Standout editions include Kathleen Krull’s Pocahontas: Princess of the New World, featuring beautiful illustrations by David Diaz and Jean Fritz’s The Double Life of Pocahontas.  For readers of Bruchac’s book interested in further reading, Bruchac offers a selected bibliography in his backmatter.  Also, many of the works quoted in the beginnings of John Smiths’ chapters are still available for modern readers, electronically preserved, including The Generall Historie written by John Smith himself.  The Scholastic paperback edition of Pocahontas features a variety of discussion questions, and the book lends itself to interpretation and debate.  Classrooms or reading groups could easily start a conversation about the variations in the story, and what they might represent, or reveal.

The story of Pocahontas is one of the most oft told tales of American history, and one that seems different with every telling.  Whether Bruchac’s story holds more truth than others may never be known (ok, we know it’s better than the Disney version), but Pocahontas is an interesting book nonetheless.  It gives a valuable glimpse into the daily lives the Powhatan people, and yes, flies a flag of peace, understanding and tolerance, one that could, and should, be heeded still today.

Bruchac, Joseph.  Pocahontas.  Orlando: Silver Whistle Books, 2003.  ISBN: 9780152167370