Sunday, September 28, 2014

Owls See Clearly At Night and Wild Berries

I have a funny relationship in my mind with other children's literature bloggers (I know they have no idea about it!) and children's literature reviews on the Internet in general.  I love reading and supporting other bloggers.  But if I am already considering reviewing a title on my own blog, I try to avoid any other reviews of that title until I'm done.  I think most reviewers probably do something similar.  I want to record my own thoughts about it, not inadvertently let someone else's thoughts affect my own.  So I mostly use brief summaries or mentions on other blogs to spur my interest in new titles, but don't read longer reviews until I'm done.  With so many titles coming out each year, bloggers have to call each other's attention to the best ones.  But then we each have our own spin on what we love about that  title - what works for us and what doesn't.  I found Julie Flett's titles, Owls See Clearly at Night and Wild Berries, mentioned on a listserv that I follow for Montana librarians.  I am so glad I did.

The first book I requested through ILL was Owls See Clearly at Night.  It is a Michif alphabet book.  In the introduction to this book, Flett explains that "languages are precious; they capture the very essence of a culture."  The Michif language is a mixture of Cree, French and some Ojibwe as well.  It is distinct, and yet Métis are transitioning to become solely English-speaking and losing the Michif language.  They are losing this link to their heritage.  This language is spoken in Montana, which is why it was especially of interest to me.  One of the unique hallmarks of Michif is that one word can often express something that takes a whole sentence in English.

So this alphabet book is just as unique as the culture it depicts.  Some of the Michif words Flett has selected include commands ("Tell a story") and descriptions ("Red Willow") as well as the more standard vocabulary words ("jig", "canoe").  On each page, the letter featured is in a large font.  Then the word is written in Michif, in the same colored font as the large letter, like "La Niizh".  Then finally below this is the word written in English, "snow".

This book is gorgeous for many reasons.  One of them is the way the book is laid out.  The letter/Michif/English text is isolated on one side of the page, floating in white space.  The letter and Michif words are in a muted red or green-blue, colors that echo those in the illustrations.  The white space around the text give the words weight, but they also seem ethereal there on the page - a marvelous juxtaposition.

And then there are the illustrations.  Unfortunately, there isn't a description of Flett's illustrative process, so I can only make an educated guess.  It looks like collages of painted papers.  All of the illustrations, taken together, are a celebration of nature and the people around us.  One of my favorite illustrations is J for "La jig/jig".  On a background of snowy gray-white are darker gray stars.  Two girls stand, arm in arm, clearly dancing.  They wear matching dresses and tan moccasins.  Their hair blows lightly, and their faces are serious, concentrating.  It is a gorgeous page, and you feel included in the moment between sisters.

This book is extremely functional as well as being gorgeous.  Besides the introduction explaining the importance of keeping the Michif language alive, there are also vowel and consonant pronunciation guides at the back of the book.  There are also Michif language resources as well as several books.  I think you know by now that I love the sort of "picture books" that can be expanded to be used by many students or even adults.  This one is no exception.

Wild Berries was published last year, and just like Flett's first book, as soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to write about it.  This differs from Flett's previous book in several ways.  Firstly, the language emphasized in this text is Cree, not Michif.  The jacket flap tells us that Flett is Cree-Métis, so this possibly comes from another branch of her family than Owls See Clearly at Night.  Wild Berries also is an actual story, instead of teaching concepts through the Michif language.

It is the story of Clarence, who goes with his grandmother to pick wild berries.  As Clarence grows older, he participates, singing as they walk through the forest.  Grandma keeps an eye out for bears; Clarence eats the blueberries that he picks.  They like very different kinds of blueberries - Grandma loves the juicy, almost overripe ones.  Clarence picks the blueberries that are tart and almost underripe.  What matters in this story isn't their differences.  What matters is their shared experience, and the gratitude they also share.  As they leave the clearing, Clarence sets out blueberries for the animals and birds, to say thank you to them for sharing their berries.

While there are some things that are very different between Flett's two books, there are some things that unite the two beautifully.  One of these is a feeling of simplicity and serenity.  The tone of both books is calm, simple, but the language is chosen carefully for full impact.  For example, "Clarence likes big blueberries, sour blueberries, blueberries that go POP in his mouth."  The words give you a tangible feeling along your teeth as you read (don't they?).  We can sense exactly how those blueberries POP.  The words are strung together like poetry, where every word counts.

There is also the theme of family.  Much like the dancing sisters in Owls See Clearly at Night, there is a closeness between Clarence and his Grandma that doesn't require conversation.  They are content to pick together, not talking.  It is truly a moment to celebrate the nature around them.  This is a ritual to both of them, with the song as they approach the clearing and the thank you as they leave.  And just because it is a familiar ritual doesn't mean the time together isn't still appreciated.  It is a sweet time, and not just because the blueberries.

Finally, the illustrations are similar, yet not the same.  She uses many of the same earthy colors here that she did in Owls, and the same stark backgrounds.  There are very simple shapes and lines here.  But what I love most is the pop of a tomato red in each picture.  Grandma's skirt is red, and at some points a fox or birds appear and highlight the rich colors.  It brings almost an autumnal feel to this title, but it has the same ethereal feeling as Owls See Clearly at Night.

There is a pronunciation guide at the back of Wild Berries too, which helps explain to readers the dialect in which this book was created.  There is also a recipe for wild blueberry jam, which is mouth-watering.  Both of these books are gorgeously created books, but they also have a gorgeous meaning as well.  I highly recommend them, and can't wait for her next book.

Owls See Clearly at Night.  Julie Flett.  Simply Read Books, 2010.
Wild Berries.  Julie Flett.  Simply Read Books, 2013.

both titles borrowed via ILL

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