Children’s Books: Indigenous Voices

By Cyrisse Jaffee

Carole Lindstrom, We Are Water Protectors. Illustrated by Michaela Goade. Roaring Brook Press, 2020.

Michaela Goade, Berry Song. Hachette Book, 2022.

Monique Gray Smith, I Hope/nipakosêyimon. Illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard. Translated into Plains Cree by Dolores Greyeyes Sand. Orca Book Publishers, 2022.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, Still This Love Goes On. Illustrated by Julie Flett. Greystone Kids, 2022.

Authentic books by Indigenous people have been too scarce in children’s literature. Thankfully, four gorgeous new books are helping to fill the gap.

Two books illustrated by Caldecott medalist Michaela Goade are treasures indeed. We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom, won the 2021 Caldecott Medal, an award given each year to the “most distinguished picture book for children published in the United States.” “Water is the first medicine, Nokomis [grandmother] told me,” a young girl says. But a “black snake” threatens to destroy the land. It will “Spoil the water. Poison plants and animals. Wreck everything in its path.” The young girl decides she must rally her people together to fight back because, she says, “We are stewards of the Earth. Our spirits have not been broken.” Told simply but eloquently, this tale was inspired by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s 2016 protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (and other resistance movements against pipelines). The author — a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Bank of Ojibwe — encourages readers to join in the fight as Water Protectors in a detailed afterword.

The illustrator Michaela Goade, of Tlingit descent and globally “enrolled with the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska,” has infused Lindstrom’s inspiring text with stunning, sweeping, undulating seascapes and landscapes. Using deep and vibrant colors, patterns, and designs, the pictures beautifully capture the splendors of nature that will be lost or damaged by the dangerous “snake,” and the implicit power of defiance. They also evoke the people’s connection to nature and their ancestors.

Berry Song, with text and pictures by Michaela Goade, is a 2023 Caldecott Honor Book. Set in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, where Goade and her family live, this is a lyrical and tender story of a young girl and her grandmother as they pick berries in the forest, a time-honored tradition. They are surrounded by the beauties of nature, expressed visually by lovely watercolor pictures and in the text as a kind of song. “The berries sing to us, glowing like little jewels,” the girl says, “We sing too, so berry — and bear — know we are here.” A delicious array of berries beckon: salmonberry, cranberry, huckleberry, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, nagoonberry, and more. Arriving home, they make syrup, marmalade, pie, and scones. Throughout the story they give thanks — gunalchéesh. The pictures are awash with tones of green, red, and blue, using an appealing combination of realism and mythology. A note from Goade gives more information about berries and their importance in Tlingit life, as well as the close connection between nature and Tlingit culture. In the note and within the end papers, each berry is named in Tlingit with its English translation.

What makes I Hope/ nipakosêyimon by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard, special is that it is told in English and Cree (translated into Plains Cree by Dolores Greyeyes Sand). A narrator — an elder — offers a variety of comforting wishes for children and their future: “I hope that you and those you love know joy/I hope that you are kind/I hope you have belly laughs” and so on. The sentiments expressed are lovely and warm and the illustrations show diverse children and elders. The dual language text is important not only for those who speak Cree, but for all those who read it. It helps to remind children that Indigenous people are “still here” (as Carole Lindstrom says in We Are Water Protectors) and retain their language and culture.

Another book celebrating Cree culture is Still This Love Goes On by the singer-songwriter, artist, educator, and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, illustrated by Julie Flett. Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, Sainte-Marie was taken from her parents at a young age and placed with an American family in New England. Years later she was welcomed back into the tribe she was born in. The book — written first as a song — celebrates Sainte-Marie’s enduring love for her Cree heritage. “In every dream, I can smell the sweetgrass burning/And in my heart, always hear the drum,” she says. The rich but muted pictures and — not surprisingly — lyrical words are evocative and expressive, illuminating the land and the seasons, along with cultural touchstones. “Beaded girls and painted ponies/turn your life around/ And now you’re singing kisâkihitin [I love you]…” Saint-Marie was recently the subject of an excellent American Masters documentary on PBS, Buffy Saint-Marie: Carry It On. You don’t need to watch the film to appreciate this book, but both convey powerful statements by this singular American artist.

Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.

No Comments

  1. Susan Calkins on March 25, 2023 at 2:53 pm

    This is the 2nd time I’ve had the pleasure of reading a review of children’s literature by Cyrisse Jaffee. I am a music education specialist, composer and author who believes in the power of storytelling. I’m always on the lookout for new and compelling literature from to use in creating original lessons for the general music classroom.

    Having a personal connection to the Cree culture, I was especially drawn to this review. (My father, an avid outdoorsman, adventurer and naturalist, spent a good deal of time in Cree villages in Ontario and Quebec. He developed long friendships with a few members of Cree society and shared stories of his adventures with me. At one point, my father arranged for a young Cree with whom he’d developed a friendship, Zebedee Nungak, to spend a winter holiday at our family home in Michigan. Zebedee had been sent off from his village on Hudson’s Bay with a scholarship to attend school in Montreal. His visit was a truly remarkable experience for the entire family!)

    Thank you for your excellent reviews and for introducing me to these exciting new books!

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts