Political correctness might be a tired concept to many, but it's done wonders for the world of children's books. Now, young readers can learn all about the customs and cultures of people of color, including those who lived on North American soil long before Columbus, the Pilgrims or the Vikings arrived.
Verla Kay's simple, rhyming text in Broken Feather (Putnam, $15.99, 32 pages, ISBN 0399235507) gently informs the youngest reader about the life of a young Nez PercÅ½ boy. Broken Feather loves his home and life a life filled with hunting, harvesting, dancing and time spent with family. But this existence is jeopardized by the arrival of white settlers.
Early in the narrative, the reader sees white men and their long guns, hunting the land. Later, the wagons start arriving, and the territory becomes crowded with new settlers "bringing wagons/Cutting trees/Building houses/Where they please." The words of Broken Feather's father cut to the heart of the story, just as the settlers cut to the heart of the forests surrounding the Nez PercÅ½ land. Stephen Alcorn's stylized block prints add a wonderful extra dimension to the story. The author's note and final map of the Northwestern states add details that older readers and parents might want to know about the history of the Nez PercÅ½ people.
With her newest volume We Are the Many: A Picture Book of American Indians (HarperCollins, $15.99, 32 pages, ISBN 0688165591), Doreen Rappaport has written a beautiful nonfiction book about notable Native Americans. The artistic team of Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu illustrates each chapter with their signature watercolors, filled with detail, emotion and life.
Young readers will love the book's brief biographies, which employ both native and familiar terms (did you know that "Asiyahola" is the Seminole name for Osceola?). They'll marvel at the number of different tribes that live on our continent. Some familiar characters are included in the book (Sacajawea, Squanto and Jim Thorpe), but readers will also learn of William McCabe (one of the Navajo code talkers) and the Conley sisters (who argued the Wyandot Indians' land ownership case before the U.S. Supreme Court). Readable and accessible, this lovely volume fills in many of the blanks left by textbooks.
Paintings by Oneida artist Lisa Fifield and stories by Ojibway writer Lise Erdrich comprise Bears Make Rock Soup (Children's Book Press, $16.95, 32 pages, ISBN 0892391723). Each brief tale is based on a principle of Native American lore. Both animals and people play the role of helper, and the earth is revered and respected.
Erdrich's gentle language is natural and has a cadence that makes it perfect for reading aloud. In hues as varied as the earth they celebrate, Fifield's pictures spill across the page. Though these are new stories rather than fresh interpretations of old narratives, each has the feel of a familiar and much-loved tale. "The nest is our home, our Earth. We share it with all creatures. Because of this there is always hope and life continues," Erdrich writes. Her book is a true treasure.
While the previous stories will be of greater interest to younger readers and listeners, Joseph Bruchac's The Winter People is historical fiction aimed at an older audience. Set in 1759 during a global conflict between France and England, the story opens in a little village in Quebec, one of the arenas of the war. Based on historical fact, Bruchac's novel is a retelling of true events through the life of Saxso, a young Abenaki boy who fights against the British and their Stockbridge Indian scouts.
After the battle, which left much of their village destroyed, the surviving Abenaki people attacked the retreating Bostoniak (as they called the British) and followed them to rescue family members who had been kidnapped. All the help he receives along the way shores up Saxso's bravery. His family sustains him with their gentle teachings, and a Southbridge warrior admires his courage all part of the young warrior's coming-of-age.
Bruchac, who is of Abenaki descent, is known for his dedication to retelling the stories of his people, which are often forgotten or left out of history books. This novel is one of his best.