When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

When We Were Alone CoverFirst Published: 1st March, 2017
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren’t allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children’s hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it’s not all in the past. The girl doesn’t face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There’s that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn’t be raised if the girl’s family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl’s kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don’t already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn’t make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables – Rose Lemberg (editor)

Alphabet of Embers CoverFirst Published: 6th July, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Emily Stoddard; JY Yang; Sara Norja; Nin Harris; Greer Gilman; Kari Sperring; Mari Ness; Nisi Shawl; Zen Cho; Yoon Ha Lee; M. David Blake; Celeste Rita Baker; Alvaro Zinos-Amaro; Nolan Liebert; Mina Li; Shweta Narayan; Ian Muneshwar; Sheree Renée Thomas; Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali; Tlotlo Tsamaase; Sonya Taaffe; Emily Jiang; Ching-In Chen; Arkady Martine; Vajra Chandrasekera; Amal El-Mohtar; M Sereno
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Gumroad

This anthology focuses on short work with a poetic feel to the writing. A few of my favourite short pieces were included as reprints. There are interior illustrations by M Sereno, which are a good match for the feel of the language, with intricate patterns and flowing lines.

The first of my reprint favourites was “Absinthe Fish” (M. David Blake), about fish who swim in absinthe and dream. It’s as surreal as that premise sounds. “Single Entry” (Celeste Rita Baker) is more of a traditional narrative, as it follows someone with a unique carnival costume. “The Binding of Ming-tian” (Emily Jiang) is a rather chilling piece that deals with foot binding. All three have unusual imagery and went to places I hadn’t quite expected, but in a way that is accessible for me.

In the new stories, I did particularly like “The City Beneath the Sea” (Sara Norja). It combined the mysteries of the sea with folklore passed down through generations.

Generally though, I struggled with the stories. I can’t say what happened in all of them. The ones with very long paragraphs were hard for me to follow, as it meant I skipped lines and reread lines, before giving up on the paragraphs entirely. The language choices in some of the stories also meant I didn’t understand what I was reading. I started out fine with the first few stories, but by the time I got to the end, I felt I was constantly behind. I got very confused about what went with which story. It was all a bit of a blur.

This doesn’t mean that the anthology is bad, as I have language processing issues. Someone who has studied English to a higher level, or has more of a talent for language, will likely find this a far easier read and be able to enjoy the imagery. I am not that person, so I didn’t get as much out of this as I’d hoped.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]