Hello, and thanks for joining us at Tundra Telegram, the column where we talk about the subjects on readers’ minds and recommend some good books for young readers to approach those topics.
This Friday (September 30) is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. This is a federal holiday day meant to honour the Indigenous children who never returned home and survivors of Canada’s residential school system, as well as their families and communities. The holiday is closely connected to Orange Shirt Day, an earlier-established Indigenous-led grassroots commemorative day meant to increase public awareness of the individual, family and community intergenerational impacts of residential schools. (The orange shirt is used as a symbol of the erasure of of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations.)
No puns this week, just lots of great picture books, middle-grade novels, and YA from Indigenous authors – some of which deal directly with residential schools, while others do not. And stay tuned for more great titles as Cree author David A. Robertson’s new imprint with Tundra starts acquiring books soon!
David A. Robertson and Julie Flett’s Governor General’s Award-winning On the Trapline is a story that looks at residential schools, if obliquely. A boy takes a trip with his Moshom, his grandpa, to visit his trapline, where his family hunted and lived off the land. As they continue on their northern journey, the boy finds himself imagining what life was like two generations ago and asks questions of his Moshom, including what it was like going to school after living on the trapline. The book also contains a number of Cree terms, which were forbidden from residential schools.
Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes, illustrated by Joe Morse, is a picture book that was written by Wab Kinew, who – among many other things (broadcaster, rapper, politician) – served as an Honorary Witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. His picture book, inspired by inspired by former President Barack Obama’s Of Thee I Sing, is a moving and musical tribute to both historic and modern-day Indigenous heroes of Wab’s – everyone from Tecumseh and Sacagawea to NASA astronaut John Herrington and NHL goalie Carey Price.
The events dramatized in Encounter by Brittany Luby and Michaela Goade take place decades before residential schools, but the book is a good reminder of an alternate historic path European explorers could have taken. The book imagines the first encounter between a European sailor and a Stadaconan fisher. As the two navigate their differences (language, dress, food) with curiosity, the natural world around them notes their similarities. The book also features an author’s note to place the encounter within the context of Canadian history, and prompts for further discussion.
Though the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is explicitly about Canadian residential schools, the United States ran similar “Indian boarding schools,” which leads us to recommend We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell and Frane Lessac. We Are Grateful looks at a modern-day Cherokee community throughout the year, who express gratitude for all the elements of daily life. Scenes of celebration for the Great New Moon Ceremony are chronicled, as are difficult memories, like a remembrance of the Trail of Tears. (And it features a chock-full of Cherokee vocabulary, the kind that was outlawed at boarding schools.)
In Navajo families, the first person to make a new baby laugh hosts the child’s First Laugh Ceremony. This forms the story of First Laugh: Welcome Baby! by Roe Ann Tahe, Nancy Bo Flood, and Jonathan Nelson. And so, every relation (from big sister to grandma) try to get Baby to laugh, and readers are introduced (or reintroduced) to details of Navajo culture, and a number of Navajo words – especially those for family members, like nima (mother) and cheii (grandfather).
CHAPTER BOOKS & MIDDLE GRADE
Storytelling is central to teaching and remembering the residential school system – and an important component of truth and reconciliation – but for decades most people were largely ignorant of their history. Author David A. Robertson’s work has often been motivated by this, including his fantastical middle-grade adventures, The Misewa Saga. Morgan and Eli are Indigenous children in Winnipeg who discover a portal at their foster home to another world, Askī, where they discover talking animal beings who connect them to traditional ways, as well as help them deal with the challenges in the real world. The Barren Grounds opens the portal, while The Great Bear throws a great time-travel story into the mix, and The Stone Child brings Morgan and her allies to the northern woods, where they encounter new horrors. And in addition to being influenced by Cree sky stories, they examine the foster care system, which many have criticized as being a modern-day version of residential schools.
Rez Dogs (not to be confused with the incredible – and similarly named – TV series) is the latest middle grade novel from one of America’s foremost Indigenous children’s authors, Joseph Bruchac. Set during the Covid-19 pandemic, it follows Wabanaki girl Malian, whose visit to her grandparents’ reservation gets extended by a Covid-19 quarantine. But Malian rises to the challenge, and helps her community mange during the pandemic (be it through distancing or teaching elders to use Zoom) and makes a new friend in a local rez dog.
Enter (or re-enter) a dystopian world explicitly informed by the residential school system in Cherie Dimaline’s Hunting by Stars. The follow-up to the acclaimed The Marrow Thieves, in which Indigenous people across North America are being hunted for their bone marrow (which is rumored to contain the ability to dream) and housed in reopened residential school systems, the book follows French heading north with his newfound family as they dodge school Recruiters, a blood cult, and more.
Two Roads, also by Joseph Bruchac, is a Depression-era story that explicitly revolves around the Indian boarding schools in the United States. Cal Black learns from his Pop that he’s a Creek Indian and he’s being sent to a government boarding school in Oklahoma (the Challagi School). Though Cal faces harsh and miserable conditions at the school, the one bright spot is the other Creek boys he befriends and through which he learns about his culture.
Walking in Two Worlds by Wab Kinew tells the story of Bugz, a girl caught between her real-life shyness on the Rez, and her overwhelming dominance in the massive multiplayer video game, The Floraverse. The assimilation metaphors appear throughout the book, as readers follow Bugz and her struggle to reconcile the parallel aspects (and wildly divergent portions) of her life, in a not dissimilar way that survivors of the residential schools have.
Winner of the American Indian Youth Literature Award Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith also looks at a contemporary Indigenous teen trying to navigate the challenges of high school (but without as much gaming). Louise Wolfe’s first boyfriend turns out to be a bigot (one of the dangers of “dating while Native”), so she focuses on her work at the school paper. She and Joey Kairouz, photojournalist, follow a story about the school’s inclusive casting of The Wizard of Oz in their mostly white Kansas town. While uncovering the closemindedness of their town, they may find a little romance, too.