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AUTHOR STUDY

Native American Literature

AUTHOR FOCUS:  Joseph Bruchac
 
 

Thumbnail credit given to Kidsreads.com

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Bruchac, Joseph. Skeleton Man. 2001.
     New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
     ISBN: 0-06-440888-4.
 
Plot Summary:
 
Are dreams really telling us something?  As young Molly is left with a strange so-called great-uncle at the disappearance of her parents, she cannot separate dreams from reality.  Molly doesn't know if the images of the "Skeleton Man" in her dreams are merely a result of her recollections of her father retelling an old Mohawk tale or her mind replaying the frightening events of each day as her "uncle" locks her away in a room.
 
Analysis & Literary Considerations:
 
Acclaimed author and poet of over 500 publications including the National Geographic and more than 70 books, Joseph Bruchac uses his incredible imagination to incorporate American Indian legends into a terrifying, suspenseful quick-read.  This book is a mix of traditional and contemporary American Indian literature.
 
With the author being of mixed Abenaki Tribe, Slovak, and English blood, the reader would expect that more obvious cultural markers would be evident in his piece.  Outside of the fact that Molly remembers the old Mohawk tales of her father, there is little cultural evidence to label this piece Native American other than the fact that the author originates from such a background.  In addition, Skeleton Man teeters on the uncertainty as to whether or not it is an urban fantasy or a realistic fiction of child abuse.
 
Skeleton Man, from the beginning, possesses descriptive language that provides the reader a vivid depiction of the characters that accompany the illustrations of illustrator Sally Wern Comport.  A great example of such writing is Bruchac's description of the frightening great-uncle.  Bruchac writes: "His fingers spread out so wide that they look like the talons of a giant bird... His eyes are twin blue flumes burning within his skull."
 
Responses:
 
Although lacking in more obvious cultural markers for American Indian literature, Skeleton Man would be an excellent addition to a classroom library as well as a great read-aloud with the lights dimmed and a flashlight used to enhance the "feel" of the spine-chilling story.  The book could be used in a discussion group, although my feeling is that it would need to be treaded lightly.
 
Additional reviews I found interesting follow:
 
"A natural for under-the blanket reading." (Kirkus Reviews) and "The legend is chilling--and the terror builds on every page.  This book gave ME nightmares!" from renowned author R.L. Stine.

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Smith, Cynthia Leitich. Jingle Dancer. 2000.
     New York: Morrow Junior Books.
     ISBN: 0-688-16241-X.
 
Plot Summary:
 
Young Jenna can't wait for the community's upcoming powwow and her chance to jingle dance like her Grandma Wolfe.  The only problem is the Jenna does not have the jingles for her dress.
 
She practices the bounce-steps for the traditional Creek Jingle Dance but needs some help with finding the tin cones for her special attire.  When there isn't enough time to order them, Jenna elicits the help of her cousin Elizabeth, Great-Aunt Sis, Mrs. Scott, and Grandma Wolfe.
 
Analysis & Literary Considerations:
 
Author Cynthia Leitich Smith, being of mixed-blood and a member of the Creek Nation growing up in Kansas and spending her childhood in Oklahoma where the Creek Nation is located, expertly pens a story of a contemporary American Indian child striving to hold tight to her heritage.  The story in Jingle Dancer, Smith's first book, is beautifully enhanced by the detailed watercolor illustrations of husband-wife team Cornelius Van Wright and Ying Hwa Hu.
 
The eyes of main character Jenna tell a story all themselves.  As the story begins and Smith writes, "Jenna daydreamed at the kitchen table...", Wright and Huh portray that image through the eyes of the child.  The story continues, as so with the eyes, as Jenna expresses her desire to dance the Jingle Dance.
 
The illustrators carefully maintain the contemporary look of the American Indian family through the depiction of each home Jenna visits while obtaining her jingles.  In addition, Smith respectfully places the characters in a variety of housing and backgrounds.  The reader will especially notice how Smith incorporates a professional, Jenna's cousin Elizabeth, as a lawyer.  What an excellent way for young American Indian children to see the success of their own culture --- not to mention aid in the tearing down of stereotypical views of students of other culturals and their thoughts about "Indians".
 
Smith's inclusion of Native American symbols related to the Earth as in "As Sun caught a glimpse of Moon", to demonstrate the passing of time, holds closely to the cultural authenticity of this piece.  In addition, she makes use of onemonopeia to give "feel" to her story when she includes "Tink, tink, tink, tink" and "Brum, brum, brum, brum.  Also included in this story are foods traditionally eaten in the homes of Creek families such as the fry bread Jenna enjoyed.
 
Responses:
 
Looking for a darling, respectfully authentic story of contemporary American Indian culture?  Jingle Dancer is a must-read and book to be included in every classroom library.
 
As a teacher desiring to dedicate the rest of my career to total inclusion of literature representative of all cultures, I have decided to use Jingle Dancer, the lessons available through http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/jingledancerlinks.htm
 as well as the suggested lesson from our lecture notes the first week of school.  Together these materials will provide for a solid foundation for building respect of others and their cultural differences.

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Dorris, Michael. Guests. 2000. New York:
     Hyperion Paperbacks for Children.
     ISBN: 0-7868-1356-3.
 
Plot Summary:
 
Moss' father has invited strangers to the harvest feast.  People Moss is certain will ruin the feast with their odd clothing and weird language.  Closed-minded, young Moss foolheartedly decides that the solution is to run away into the forest where he encounters a girl cleverly named --  T-R-O-U-B-L-E.  While away in the forest, however, Moss is transformed and returns to the feast (and the "strangers") more aware of himself and with an acceptance for the visitors.
 
Analysis & Literary Considerations:
 
Award-winning Native American author of other titles like Sees Behind Trees and Morning Girl, Michael Dorris voids portentous stereotypes while telling a story of a young boy's coming of age.  A quick-read that, at times, closely resembles a poetic piece, Guests is told in narrative form by the main character.
 
The characters in this book are well-developed by Dorris and the reader is provided with vivid metaphoric language that carries the story.  The story's plot, however, is not explicitly stated requiring young (maybe inexperienced) readers to rely heavily on Dorris' subtle hints that it takes place near the sea.
 
Dorris sprinkles American Indian legends and traditions in his story -- particularly nicely as an introduction to the story.  Dorris opens with Moss accidentally breaking a wampum, scattering its abalone shell beads all over the ground.  As with the tradition of the wampum, the beads tell a story.  The inclusion of this aspect of Guests solidifies the authentic nature of Dorris' book.
 
Responses:
 
Michael Dorris' Guests would be a wonderful piece to use as a short novel study with the students leading to a discussion of the frustration many young people encounter when trying to understand the ways (and decisions) of adults.
 
A quick-read, Guests will easily find its way into the hands of my young readers.  Dorris' use of simple sentence structure and vivid descriptive language will also aid the reader that may otherwise rely heavily on illustrations.

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