monthly author 2015
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A powerful novel of the Revolutionary WarTo fourteen-year-old Samuel Russell, called “coward” for his peace-loving Quaker beliefs, the summer of 1777 is a time of fear. The British and the Patriots will soon meet in battle near his home in Saratoga, New York. The Quakers are in danger from roaming Indians and raiders — yet to fight back is not the Friends’ way.
To Stands Straight, a young Abenaki Indian on a scouting mission for the British, all Americans are enemies, for they killed his mother and brother. But in a Quaker Meetinghouse he will come upon Americans unlike any he has ever seen. What will the encounter bring? Based on a real historical incident, this fast-paced and moving story is a powerful reminder that “the way of peace…can be walked by all human beings”.
This was an interesting book. I really enjoyed the story as it was a story about history, friendship, and people coming together in peace, but it was so simply and beautifully told. Bruchac has a wonderful way of telling stories that builds tension and excitement without killing you with suspense. For me, who gets so nervous I flip ahead to be sure everything will be okay, this style helps keep me in the story. I think it can work really well for younger readers too.
Where the book really shines is in sharing a very different perspective on the familiar history of the Revolutionary War. We are told, especially in elementary school when history tends to be simplified, that a bunch of plucky colonists stood up to big, bad King George and established our own country on principles of freedom and equality. We all know as adults that this isn’t quite the whole truth and that it was a lot more complicated than that. The Arrow Over the Door presents the Native perspective in which they are sucked into a war that is not their own with two sides they are not fond of. This isn’t to say that the book bashes the colonists and the British. It simply offers a very different narrative from what we normally hear.
The story also reveals that, at least for a number of tribes, they were not wild people living in the forests. They were settled in villages with churches (introduced here by the French) often wearing Western clothing and had been for two generations or more. There is also the exposure to the Quakers, a religious movement that is not often seen in elementary history books. All around an interesting bit of history couched in an exciting story.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When Ohkwa’ri overhears a group of older boys planning a raid on a neighboring village, he immediately tells his Mohawk elders. He has done the right thing, but he has also made enemies. Grabber and his friends will do anything they can to hurt him, especially during the village-wide game of Tekwaarathon (lacrosse). Ohkwa’ri believes in the path of peace, but can peaceful ways work against Grabber’s wrath?
Children of the Longhouse is a lovely, quiet story. While there is some drama most of the action and plot focus around everyday life in the Mohawk village. Ohkwa’ri is struggling with some older boys that he overheard plotting a raid, which is where the drama comes from, but he is also working on being more cautious and is building a lodge to stay in by himself as preparation for coming of age. The story also follow Ohkwa’ri’s twin sister, Otsi:stia, a bit as she worries and frets over her brother and thinks about her future.
The book is full of small details about everyday life, which would be a big draw for outdoorsy kids and kids interested in historical life. Bruchac also weaves in stories within stories, sharing some folklore of the tribe. If you read his picture book The Great Ball Game (or my review of it the other day) you might be, you’ll recognize one of the stories told by Ohkwa’ri’s uncle. The narrative meanders with the thoughts of Ohkwa’ri and Otsi:stia, but in a pleasant way, not in an unfocused or boring manner. The language is beautiful and Bruchac does a great job conjuring the picture of where they live as well as how they live.
There is plenty of excitement with the Tekwaarathon game, which is played on an enormous “field”. The goal posts are so far apart that to reach them you have to run through the forest and a couple meadows. Ohkwa’ri is honored to be asked to play for an older man, but he is also worried that Grabber and his cronies will try to harm him. This makes for some excellent tension during the game. Sports fans will like the small details about the strategy of the game and the actual plays.
This would make a fabulous bedtime read aloud. Certainly the right fifth or sixth grader could read it, it just has that feel of a book you could read at bedtime. It’s a quiet story with enough action that your kids will be disappointed that you have to put it down and will want to hear more the next night. The chapters vary in length so you might have do a little planning and make breaks where there aren’t chapters.
If I had one complaint about the book, it’s a minor one. There is a glossary with pronunciation guide that was incredibly helpful. However, it’s tucked at the back of the book so I didn’t realize it was there until about half way through the book when I came across a word and wondered if there was a pronunciation guide. It would have been better to put it up front so the reader knows it’s there and so you first see how to pronounce the names Ohkwar’ri (Oh-gwah’-li) and Otsi:stia (Oh-dzee-dzyah).
In terms of length and difficulty it straddles upper elementary and middle school, although Ohkwa’ri is on the young side which might turn middle schoolers off. It’s also a good place for fans of The Birchbark House to come when they are bit older.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story retold by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Anna Vojtech
From GoodReads: A captivating re-telling of a Cherokee legend, which explains how strawberries came to be. Long ago, the first man and woman quarreled The woman left in anger, but the Sun sent tempting berries to Earth to slow the wife’s retreat.
This is a picture book that’s been in my personal collection for years. I first found it when teaching in second grade and it’s a great book for that age. Bruchac’s story telling is really superb here and paired with the luminous illustrations The First Strawberries in a wonderful book. I especially like the wordless two-page spreads that add a little more depth to the story.
At first blush this may seem like an odd story to share with children, it is about a marital spat, but I actually think kids will recognize the snippy argument. Kids often expect things done on their timeline without thinking about what others may be doing at the time. Here the woman didn’t have dinner prepared because she was picking flowers to share with her husband. When he arrives home he is upset because he is hungry and doesn’t appreciate the small gesture of the flower bouquet. I think the story draws their attention to the fact that others may have a different, but no less important, agenda than the child. Plus it never hurts to emphasize being apologetic, especially if you have been hurtful to some one you love.
The book never feels preachy despite it’s didactic nature, which is a relief. Kids can smell that this-will-teach-you-something stuff a mile away and they usually don’t connect with it. While second grade is a good age for this book even my daughter, who is three, enjoyed it. It has a fairly low reading level so it would be a great early reader too. And it makes a fantastic read aloud.
From GoodReads: In 1620 an English ship called the Mayflower landed on the shores inhabited by the Pokanoket people, and it was Squanto who welcomed the newcomers and taught them how to survive in the rugged land they called Plymouth. He showed them how to plant corn, beans, and squash, and how to hunt and fish. And when a good harvest was gathered in the fall, the two peoples feasted together in the spirit of peace and brotherhood.
Almost four hundred years later, the tradition continues. . . .
Finally a Thanksgiving story I feel comfortable reading to my daughter! As Bruchac points out in the author’s note the Native American side of this story is rarely told and a good deal of the first Thanksgiving story told from a European perspective is inaccurate or wrong (from foods eaten to clothing worn).
The text is longer in this so it’s probably better suited to older readers, but personally I would read it aloud to my daughter. There are some hard pieces to this story, like the fact that Squanto is kidnapped and sold into slavery or that the majority of his people are wiped out by illness, but Bruchac handles these parts of the story beautifully. He mentions them matter of factly and never dwells on it. He also doesn’t stoop to painting all Europeans with the villain’s brush nor does he fall back on Native American stereotypes of the nobel savage or the naive, gentle Indian (I would have been appalled if he had!).
The story itself is quite interesting. Despite the unfortunate circumstances Squanto lived a well-traveled and interesting life. He also must have been incredibly intelligent as he spoke several languages. He was also able to move between cultures with some ease, although I’m sure there was great prejudice.
I have yet to find a good Thanksgiving book that gives the European side of the story, which is not covered here. I’m sure there is one out there, but I will have to do more research. Instead pair this with The Perfect Thanksgiving which celebrates families that aren’t perfect and Molly’s Pilgrim, a great take on what it means to be a pilgrim and immigrant.
From GoodReads: With characteristic action and wit, renowned Native American storyteller Bruchac retells the amusing and rousing folktale of an epic ball game between the Birds and the Animals, which offers the explanation as to why birds fly south every winter.
Children in the kindergarten through second grade age range love folk and fairy tales and stories that explain why something is they way it is (a type of folktale). This is one of those stories. Bruchac is clearly a masterful story teller. With fairly simple language he really captures the excitement of the ball game.
The birds and animals are fighting over who is better and they decide to have a lacrosse game to decide. When the birds and the animals divide up their teams, they use wings and teeth as criteria for determining if something is a bird or animal. However bat has both and he has to ask to join both sides. The birds don’t want him because he is so small and the animals rather grudgingly accept him. I know this is all part of the story, but this is exactly the kind of exception a child would come up with. Having it become such an integral part of the story is perfect.
I really loved the art in this one because it has the feel of something a child could recreate. It would make a great project to have kids illustrate other myths, legends or folktales using the cut/torn paper technique seen here. The birds are a little zany looking which makes them really appealing and the teeth on the animals really jump out as little white paper zigzags. The rumpled paper backgrounds are used to great effect showing the waning light of the day and how it makes things hard to see at the end of the ball game.
From GoodReads: Anxious to be given a name as strong and brave as that of his father, a proud Lakota Sioux grows into manhood, acting with careful deliberation, determination, and bravery, which eventually earned him his proud new name: Sitting Bull. Being named Slow and growing up in the shadow of a great warrior hardly dwarfed the prospects of this protagonist.
I really wish there had been more pictures with this story. It was pretty text heavy, which considering the interesting biography of Sitting Bull wasn’t a bad thing, I just think more pictures would have given readers more entry points into the story. The chalk pastels (?) used in the illustrations were really great for showing shadow and light and made the story pop off the page in a magical way. In terms of interest, telling the story of childhoods is always a good way to help kids make a connection with historical figures.
As you might be able to tell by my lack of commentary on this one I connected the least with this book. It’s a good picture book biography though and would make a great classroom resource.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Jan 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
Welcome to the first post in my 2015 monthly author series. For January I chose to read several works by Joseph Bruchac. He’s someone I have been wanting to read because of his Abenaki heritage and the fact that he writes about native protagonists. But more pressingly, he’s coming to speak in Sacramento at the beginning of February! I’m really excited to go to that event as he’ll be talking about diversity in children’s literature.
Bruchac is quite the Renaissance man when it comes to storytelling. He’s published a bajillion books (that’s an exact number), he sings and writes songs, and he does traditional oral storytelling. He is also involved with working to preserve Abenaki culture and language and traditional native skills. According to his biography, in addition Abenaki heritage he is also Slovokian and English. On a personal note this interested me because my husband, and therefore my daughter, are also part Slovak.
The schedule for this week will be reviews of several of his books. Bruchac has an extensive backlist that spans many genres and reading levels, which is fabulous for librarians. It also meant I couldn’t possibly tackle all his books. I think rather appropriately Multicultural Children’s Book Day falls on Tuesday (January 27th) and what better way to celebrate. Here’s the schedule for the week:
- Monday: Reviews of the picture books The First Strawberries, The Great Ball Game, Squanto’s Journey, and A Boy Called Slow
- Tuesday: Multicultural Children’s Book Day, Review of the kidlit novel The Children of the Longhouse
- Wednesday: Review of the kidlit novel The Arrow Over the Door
- Thursday: Review of middle grade novels Dragon Castle and Skeleton Man
- Friday: Review of the YA novel The Killer of Enemies
I will link to the posts once they are live.
Also here are a few links of note that you may be interested in:
- Joseph Bruchac’s official website
- An Interview with Multicultural Children’s Author Joseph Bruchac on the Multicultural Children’s Book Day blog from December 2014
- Second Annual Diversity Month Day 26: Author Interview with Joseph Bruchac on Twinja Book Reviews blog (awesome blog, btw) from December 2014
- Update 2/5/2015: Our local interest radio show interviewed Bruchac yesterday because he’ll be in town on Monday. It’s an interesting, short interview and worth a listen. Joseph Bruchac on Insight. When asked about diversity in children’s literature he said he now writes the stories he wished he had. Interestingly he notes that he heard a lot of stories from his native heritage, but they were oral stories not books, which he wanted. I was struck though, but the question, how many authors do we have to hear say they write the books they wished they had before publishers quite claiming that there is no market for diverse books?