Really excited about the reviews that are starting to come in for When We Were Alone. Don’t usually put reviews in a blog post, but since I’ve been lazy about blogging, surprise surprise, this will allow me to fill the old blog void for a period of time. Check the reviews out after the jump!
In this illustrated book for children ages 4 to 8, a curious girl learns about how her grandmother held on to cultural touchstones when she was a child at a Native American residential school.
The young girl who narrates this book notices one day, while helping her grandmother in the garden, that her Nókom (Cree for “grandmother”) always does certain things. She dons colorful clothes; wears her hair long; speaks in Cree; and spends time with her brother, talking and laughing. But why? The book explains in the rhythm of a poem or song, repeating the structure of question and answer. For example, the girl asks, “Nókom, why do you wear so many colours?” and the grandmother replies, “Well, Nósisim…” and begins her story. She explains that as a girl, she once liked to wear many colors, but at her far-away school, all the children were dressed the same. Why? “ ‘They didn’t like that we wore such beautiful colours,’ Nókom said. ‘They wanted us to look like everybody else.’ ” But in autumn, the girls would pile kaleidoscopic fallen leaves on themselves and found happiness that way. Now, Nókom always wears the most beautiful hues. Similar explanations follow: the school cut the girls’ hair, wouldn’t let them speak Cree, and separated family members, all to enforce conformity. Today, though, Nókom can flaunt her culture openly. Robertson (The Chief: Mistahimaskwa , 2016, etc.) handles a delicate task here admirably well: explaining residential schools, that shameful legacy, and making them understandable to small children. It’s a dark history, and the author doesn’t disguise that, but he wisely focuses the grandmother’s tale on how, season by season, the students use creativity, imagination, and patience to retain their sense of identity. A beautifully quiet, bold strength arises from the continued refrain “When we were alone” and in how the children insisted on being themselves. Flett’s (We Sang You Home , 2016, etc.) gorgeous, skillful illustrations have a flattened, faux naïve feel to them, like construction paper collage, a style that works perfectly with the story. She nicely contrasts the school’s dull browns and grays with the riotous colors surrounding Nókom and gets much expression from her simple silhouettes.
Spare, poetic, and moving, this Cree heritage story makes a powerful impression.
And from respected website American Indians in Children’s Literature, by the equally respected Debbie Reese:
WHEN WE WERE ALONE by David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett
When We Were Alone is one of those books that brought forth a lot of emotion as I read it. There were sighs of sadness for what Native people experienced at boarding schools, and sighs of–I don’t know, love, maybe–for our perseverance through it all.
Written by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett, When We Were Alone will be released in January of 2017 from Highwater Press. I read the ARC and can’t wait to hold the final copy of this story, of a young children asking her grandmother a series of questions, in my hands.
The story is meant for young children, though of course, readers of any age can–and should–read it.
It opens with the little girl saying:
“Today I helped my kókom in her flower garden. She always wears colourful clothes. It’s like she dresses in rainbows. When she bent down to prune some of the flowers, I couldn’t even see her because she blended in with them. She was like a chameleon. “Nókom, why do you wear so many colours?” I asked.”
That child, wondering about something and then asking that “why” question is the format for the story. To this first question, her grandmother says that she had to go to school, far away, and that all the children had to wear the same colors. They couldn’t wear the colourful clothes they did before they went to that school…There’s a page about why she wears her hair so long, now, and why she speaks Cree, now. And, a page about being with family. Each one evokes the same thing. Tenderness. And a quiet joy at the power of the human spirit, to survive and persevere in the face of horrific treatment–in this case–by the Canadian government. Stories of life at residential or boarding school are ones that Native people in the US and Canada tell each other. In Canada, because of the Truth and Reconciliation project, there’s an effort to get these stories into print. I’m glad of that. We haven’t seen anything like the Truth and Reconciliation project in the U.S., but teachers and libraries need not wait for something similar to start putting these books into schools, and into lesson plans.
When We Were Alone is rare. It is exquisite and stunning, for the power conveyed by the words Robertson wrote, and for the illustrations that Flett created. I highly recommend it.