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Friday, May 12, 2017

When We Were Alone, written by David A Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett. Highwater Press, 2017. $18.95 ages 5 and up

"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 colorful again. And this made us happy. "Now," Nolom said, "I always were the most beautiful colors."

I was in Winnipeg last week for a visit with Bret and to take my friend Carolyn to the airport for her return to Toronto. We stopped at McNally Robinson for a delicious lunch, and for a bit of a book look. My purchase was this beautiful book, and I want to share it with you.

Thankfully, one of the recommendations from The Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggested the history of the residential school system needed to be taught in our schools, as early as kindergarten. There is not much literature for teachers to use when making that introduction for young children. For David A. Robertson, it was just the push he needed to write a book that will add to their choices.

It is a quiet; a beautifully designed and executed story of a child and her beloved kokum. At the onset, the two are working together in the flower garden. The child admires the beautiful colors that her grandmother always wears. Her question is honest and forthright:

"Nokom, why do you wear so many colours?" I asked.
Nokom said, "Well, Nosisim ... "

Nokom's explanation is equally honest, allowing her granddaughter a chance to begin to understand a time in the grandmother's life that was not happy for the most part. However, the answers she gives are gentle and repetitive always ending with a memory of a time 'when we were alone'. In those alone times, away from the eyes of teachers and others, Nokom could be happy again.

"But sometimes in the winter, when we were alone, and we were sure that nobody could see us, we would find each other. We would take off our mitts, and in the crisp, cold are we would hold hands so we could be with each other.
And this made us happy."

Through questioning, the child learns how Nokom celebrates the important things in her life - her colors, her hair, her Cree language, and her much loved family. Young children will begin to understand the loneliness felt, the resilience of the grandmother, and her pride in her culture. The question and answer format is perfect for the age group; it is how they learn about their world. It is also a book to be shared with older students for the emotions it evokes and the discussion it will spark.

Julie Flett's beautiful collage artwork is simple, yet telling. I love the earth tones, the gentle smiles, the natural settings, the contrast between colour-filled and bare bones images. They impact the telling and give context to the feelings.


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