oakThe oak tree is the main character in this book. We see it sprouting as an acorn and continuing to grow while the landscape around it transforms dramatically. At the end of the book, a terrific thunderstorm topples the tree, but a tiny sprout pops up next to the stump.

The illustrations are beautiful and carry much of the weight of the story. It’s fun to pore over them, looking for tiny details. The copy I checked out from the library had a pocket inside the back cover with a folded poster in it. The poster featured one of the most innovative timelines I’ve seen: it showed the cross-cut section of the tree’s stump, and with arrows, showed what was happening the year that tree-ring grew.

The book has excited some comment among Native American readers who feel it unfairly characterizes Native Americans and both how the used the land and how they were evicted from their homelands. I think their concerns could prompt an important discussion with young readers.

As an Oak Tree Grows, by B. Brian Karas. Nancy Paulsen Books: 2014

Red Bird Sings  It’s only 32 pages long, but this biography of a Native American artist and activist is dense and wordy, coming in at over 3500 words. It’s obviously not targeted at the youngest readers. I hope older readers won’t dismiss it out of hand, though, because it uses its primary sources in really innovative ways. As the “Author’s Note” explains:

We have adapted three serialized semiautobiographical stories she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in the early 1900s…we have woven additional primary and secondary sources into the text. We have reworked her language.

The book isn’t an autobiography, but the first person narrative voice has authority, coming from Zitkala-Ša’s own writings, that usually is missing from first person nonfiction picture books. I love the innovative ways the authors used the primary sources (and that they turst us enough as readers to tell us about what they’ve done!).

Each spread of the book, each with a new title and date, tells a different incident from Zitkala-Sa’s life, almost as if each spread is a new chapter. The book opens with the dramatic story of how she lost her braids. The final spread tells about her work as a lobbyist in DC, working to improve the lot of Native Americans.

This little-known hero deserves to be better known.

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Ša, Native American, Author, Musician, and Activist, by Gina Capaldi and Q. L. Pearce. Carolrhoda Books: 2014.