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 (http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/), 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