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.”
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