When We Were Alone

David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett have come together to create a brilliant and important picture book that introduces to children an important part of First Nation history, which must be understood to put U.S. history in context.

Picture book, First Nation history, fiction
Interest level: Pre-K through grade 3; reading level: 3.6
5 out of 5 stars


Much of the history of First Nation people in North America is never presented in the history books that children encounter in schools. In the late 1800s First Nation boarding schools were established in the United States. The idea behind the boarding schools was to eradicate First Nation culture. Forcefully removed from homes and separated from their family members, First Nation students were forced to give up their culture and were made to dress the same, cut their hair, speak only English, and convert to Christianity.

In When We Were Alone Robertson has managed to deftly present the bleak and horrifying story of First Nation children without overwhelming young readers. He has presented the realities of the situation in a general way and paired it with hope and perseverance.

The story focuses on a young child having a conversation with her grandmother. The girl asks “why” questions and the grandmother’s answer focuses on how her time in the boarding school shaped her life as an adult.

“Nokom, why do you wear so many colours?’ I asked.
Nokom said, “Well, Nosisim…”

The grandmother responds that when she was a child and went away to school, all the children were forced to dress the same because “they wanted us to look like everybody else.”
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Flett’s monochromatic illustration of the children all dressed the same is a powerful image that illustrates how something as seemingly simple as having the authority to tell people what clothes they can wear can begin to erase an entire culture.

Robertson then follows up the bleak idea of the children’s identity being erased by boarding school rules with a message of inner strength and hope. The grandmother has a story about how each season, when the children found themselves alone together, they would remember their culture and heritage and secretly work to maintain their identity.

But sometimes in the fall, when we were alone, and the leaves had turned to their warm autumn hues, we would roll around on the ground. We would pile the leaves over the clothes they had given us, and we would be colourful again.

And this made us happy.

Both Robertson and Flett are Cree descendants, so the voice of the story is authentic. My only wish is that the book contained some type of author’s note or bibliography so that parents, teachers, or children would have further information about this topic. Some readers could believe this is a made up story, not realizing that it wasn’t until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 that First Nation parents had the right to determine if their child was placed in a boarding school.

This is an incredibly powerful and important book that sensitively introduces a difficult, and little known part of U.S. history to young children.

Parent/teacher guide: There is a free parent/teacher guide available at http://www.portageandmainpress.com/product/parentteacher-guide-for-when-we-were-alone/. The guide includes some talking points, prepping ideas, and follow-up discussions.


When We Were Alone
by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett
Highwater Press, 2016
ISBN 978

Juana & Lucas

This is a shorter chapter book that is perfect for independent readers who are transitioning into longer reads than picture books. Juana is a young girl who lives in Bogota, Colombia and loves drawing, Astroman, brussel sprouts, reading books, and especially her dog Lucas.

Beginning chapter book
Interest Level: 1-3; Reading Level: 3.6
Pura Belpre author award winner, 2017
5 out of 5 stars


On the first day of school, Juana’s isn’t having a great day, but things go positively downhill for her when her teacher announces, “Today you are going to begin learning the English.” Juana struggles to learn all the strange words and figure out the weird sounds made by English letters. Juana dislikes learning this new language and can’t figure out why she even has to.

Juana & Lucas is a winner of the Pura Belpre award which is given to a work of children’s literature that best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience. Set in Bogota, Colombia, readers are given a glimpse of life in another country. What makes this story so exceptional is that young readers see a character who is not that different from themselves–struggles to learn in school, riding a school bus, playing soccer at recess…these are all experiences that children in Indiana go through as well.

Juana’s struggles to learn a second language will be familiar to anyone who has learned a foreign language. It doesn’t come easily and Juana sees no use for a second language. When Juana is told that she needs to get her grades up in order to go to Spaceland in the USA and see her favorite hero, Astroman, she suddenly has a reason to learn English. For many children (and adults) motivation to learn increases when learning is given a real-world context and meaning. Juana suddenly lives and breathes learning English and begins to excel.
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Juana is a spunky main character who young readers will easily relate to and enjoy. Juana Medina’s illustrations are fun and engaging and the text contains many features that capture the eye and add visual interest to the page. Spanish words are interspersed throughout the text, but are easily translated through the context of the sentence.

Juana & Lucas introduces a main character who is from a different culture but doesn’t focus on the differences, and instead shows the commonalities among people. Juana is an energetic young lady who will appeal to a wide variety of children.


Juana & Lucas
Candlewick Press, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7636-7208-9

Let’s Talk About Race

This book is a great way to begin talking to children about the subject of race and prejudice. It encourages everyone to look beyond the outside of a person to discover who they really are.

Picture book, non-fiction, empathy
Interest Level: K-5; Reading Level: 3.0
5 out of 5 stars


Julius Lester does a great job presenting the idea of race and how sometimes people form opinions about others before getting to know them. The narrator begins with:

I am a story.
So are you. So is everyone.
My story begins the same way yours does:
“I was born on ——.”

After sharing favorite color and hobbies and other tidbits, the narrator mentions that he is black. He mentions that sometimes people think they are better than someone because of how much money their parents make or the size of their house…or the color of their skin…but those stories aren’t true. The true story is what you can feel if you press your cheekbone or arm. You feel bones underneath. If everyone took off their skin, underneath we are all the same.
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“Do I look at you and think I know your story when I don’t even know your name? Or do I look at you and wonder…” This is a powerful and very important question for everyone to ponder, but especially children. If we ever want to make the world a place where everyone is valued, young people must ask themselves these questions and develop empathy for those who are different.

Julius Lester has written a very powerful book that is meant to get children thinking about the topic of race and prejudice. His words are powerful but do not condemn the reader for not thinking about this issue. He merely invites the reader to explore and consider. I believe that every school and public library should have a copy of this book. The interactive nature of the text would make for a very good read-aloud experience.


Let’s Talk About Race
by Julius Lester; illustrated by Karen Barbour
HarperCollins Publishers, 2005
ISBN 0-06-028598-2

The Journey

Children see and hear stories on the news about immigrants, refugees, and border walls. This book is a great way to open up a candid conversation without scaring children.

Picture book, fiction, refugees
Interest Level: grades 1-4; Reading Level: 3.7
5 out of 5 stars


In the author’s note at the back of the book, Francesca Sanna states:

Almost every day on the news we hear the terms ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ but we rarely ever speak to or hear the personal journeys that they have had to take. This book is a collage of all those personal stories and the incredible strength of the people within them.”

Sanna’s story begins with a family of four creating sandcastles on the beach. Upon turning the page, the beach scene has been transformed by the words, “The war began.” A dark shadow that appears to have menacing hands is sweeping across the the beach scene, shattering buildings, and causing the family to flee off of the page. The image is powerful, yet not overwhelming to younger readers.
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The father is killed in the war and the mother and two children end up having to flee their home to search for safety. The following images show the small family traveling by car, hiding in delivery trucks, and finally traveling by bicycle until they reach the border. The narrator, who is one of the two children, delivers an important message by stating that “the further we go…the more we leave behind.” This is another instance where adults will understand the multiple meanings and deep implications behind the words and images, but young children will not be overwhelmed.

Guards try to keep the family from climbing the border wall and overly large figures chase the family through a dark, fairy-tale like forest. An unknown man takes money to help them over the wall and then the dark images disappear and is replaced with sunlight and feelings of hope. The journey is not over and the family travels by boat and then train hoping to find a new home “where we can be safe and begin our story again.”

Children see and hear stories on the news about immigrants, refugees, and border walls. This book is a great way to open up a candid conversation without scaring children. Parents or teachers can talk about why people must flee their homes and then present some general information about the difficulties of this journey for families. This is a great book for building empathy for the plight of refugees by allowing children to connect with the voice of the young narrator.


The Journey
by Francesca Sanna
Flying Eye Books, 2016
ISBN 978-1-909263-99-4

This house, once

This book takes the concrete idea of looking at what materials go into the making of a house and turns the experience into something dreamy and magical. This book is meant to read aloud to children.

Picture book, fiction
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 4.1
4 out of 5 stars


The story begins with a simple image of a door on a white background. The poetic style of the text reads “This door was once a colossal oak tree about three hugs around and as high as the blue.” When the reader turns the page a beautiful watercolor, wordless spread shows the door in place on a large oak tree that reaches through the clouds into the sky.

This alternate style of images, juxtaposing different parts of a house and their location of origin in nature continues for most of the story. Once a slate roof is added to the home and the structure is complete, we see how the different parts have come together to form a home that provides refuge and warmth to the people and animals inside.

At the end of the book in a Note to Readers, Deborah Freedman lets us know that the home in the story is made of the same materials as her real home, and then she asks, “Where do you live? What was your home, once?”

This book is meant to appeal to younger children, but the independent reading level is around 4th grade. For young children, this book will be best if read aloud to them, and then together, an adult and child can ponder how and with what materials their place of residence was made.

Freeman’s illustrations are incredibly beautiful, bringing a dreamy and magical quality that matches the poetic style of the text. This is an quiet story with a cozy feel.


This house, once
by Deborah Freedman
Antheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4814-4284-8

That’s Me Loving You

Picture book, motivational
Interest level: Pre-K through grade 1, graduates; Reading level: 1.3
4 out of 5 stars


This book would make a great gift for kids about to go off to college, or for a child going to daycare or school for the first time. The story reassures a child that a parent’s love is always with them, even if they are apart. Reminders from nature will help them feel this connection…

That drifting cloud?
That’s me thinking of you.

That persistent mosquito?
That’s me bugging you.

This book was published not long before Amy passed away. Reading it was like reading a love letter to her family; that reminder that even after she is no longer on this earth, they will still feel her in the world around them.


That’s Me Loving You
by Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illustrations by Teagan White
Random House, 2016
ISBN 978-1-101-93238-4

Plant a Kiss

Picture book, motivational
Interest level: Pre-K through grade 1; graduation gifts; Reading level: 1.0
4 out of 5 stars


Sometimes we all need to be reminded that there is good in the world. Two children’s authors that work to spread positivity through their books as well as in their lives are Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Peter H. Reynolds. They teamed up to write Plant a Kiss.

The story focuses on a young child who plants a kiss. The child nurtures the kiss with “Sunshine. Water. Greet.” until one day a fountain of sparkly love pops out of the earth. The child decides to share the love, but is warned that it’s too rare to share, and she will run out. “She didn’t care” and gathers the love in a bowl and spreads it far and wide, until the bowl is empty. As she returns to where she planted the original kiss, she discovers that “from one little kiss…endless bliss!”
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This book is a great reminder that the world is a better place when we unselfishly share joy and love with others.


Plant a Kiss
written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal; illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Harper, 2012
ISBN 978-0-06-198675-8