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.