Review of the Day – Waa’aka’: The Bird Who Fell in Love with the Sun by Cindi M. Alvitre, ill. Carly Lake
There was a time when children’s librarians collected picture book retellings of Native American stories without thought or consideration. Once, the picture book industry was dominated by publications of “folktales” and fairytales. Librarians, being the primary purchasers of children’s books, held inordinate sway over what was published, and what they wanted were books to place in their 398.2 sections. They created a need and publishers sought to fill it, but little thought was put into WHO was telling these stories. As a result, the shelves filled with books by white people like Paul Goble or Gerald McDermott, who would take stories without permission from the tribes that originated them, or make up their own. As for most librarians, they really didn’t have a problem with this. To them, the important thing was that someone was telling the story. What did it matter its origins (or lack thereof)? In time, however, the publishing industry began to change. Big box stores selling books began to appear, and suddenly the public had unfettered access to children’s books like never before. That meant the needs and wants of children’s librarians took a dip and a dive and next thing you know there aren’t as many fairytales and folktales coming out. And, more importantly, there weren’t as many white people going out, taking stories, appropriating them, and never crediting their sources. Now, in the last decade or so, we’ve seen an uptick in stories by specific tribes here in America. The difference? Most of these are being told and illustrated by members of those same tribes. This year alone we’ve seen books like Chia and the Fox Man: An Alaskan Dena’ina Fable, The First Fire: A Cherokee Story, and Sacred Song of the Hermit Thrush: A Mohawk Story, all written and/or illustrated by the tribes they represent. Yet out of all of these, the loveliest may have to be Cindi M. Alvitre’s Waa’aka’: The Bird Who Fell in Love with the Sun. Artfully rendered and magnificently produced, this creation tale is by turns beautiful and clever. A story told with plenty of thought and consideration. More than enough to share.
In this Tongva creation story, Wiyot, the creator, sat in our empty world and felt a need to fill the space. Thus we had plants, like the oak and sage and willow trees. Next came the birds, like the owl and the kingfisher and the raven. But the loveliest out of all these birds was Waa’aka’, with her bright white feathers. Soon Tamet, the sun, was born and he befriended Waa’aka’. That is, until the day she happened to see her own reflection in the water and realized how lovely she was. Now she wanted Tamet around only because he could light up her pretty looks. When the sun became larger and rounder and hotter, the birds decided to help him travel up to the heavens where he would not harm any of them. Unwilling to give Tamet up, Waa’aka’ conspired to travel with the sun to the sky. But when she carried out her plan, she did not realize that in the heavens he would grow even hotter. Her feathers singed, Waa’aka’ plummeted back to earth. That is why, now, she comes out only at night and is known as the Black Crowned Nigh Heron. Never to look at the sun again.
Cindi Alvitre is a professor of American Indian Studies at Cal State University, Long Beach. She was also the first female chair of the Gabrieleno/Tongva Tribal Council. A Tongva descendant and someone who has worked tirelessly doing everything from cofounding the Moher Earth Clan (“a collective of Indian women who created a model for cultural and environmental education”) to cofounding the Ti’at Society, I was curious whether or not Alvitre had tried her hand at picture books before. Insofar as I have been able to discover, about ten years ago she did co-write a cookbook for adults called Cooking the Native Way but hadn’t really done anything on the literary side since. Part of the reason I wanted to double check is that when it comes to telling the story of Waa’aka’, she has a good ear for the material. Repetition is used sparingly and well. The voice of the narration proves to be steady and calm. This book would read aloud to large groups nicely, I’m sure. And with its bright art and pictures that occasionally stun, even kids in the back of the room won’t have trouble seeing.
The artist that chooses watercolors as their medium is, to my mind, amongst the bravest out there. In an early section before the title page called “About This Book”, Alvitre writes that “Illustrator Carly Lake was inspired after hearing the narrative, and she created a series of watercolor images that, together with the text, resulted in this book.” It was Lake’s choices with the art that caught my eye initially. Take, for example, the first page. It says that Wiyot, the creator, felt lonely and needed to “fill this place”. To bring this notion to life, Lake keeps the pages a dark, deep blue, with a black hand pinching something between its thumb and forefinger. It’s pinching a tiny bit of light that, as we watch, escapes and grows brighter. On the next page we see the pieces of a world, but they’re not coming together yet. Just floating there, intersecting and interacting. Everything is beautiful and almost abstract until the creation of the birds. You turn a page and to the reader’s shock, there are four birds pictured there. Each is rendered with incredible realism compared to the previous pages. Lake’s choice then is to overlay what is real with what is beautiful and intangible. There is a moment after Waa’aka’ falls to earth that is just a two page spread of objects and faces, plants, stars, and perhaps Winot as well. It is a moment when the artist has decided to put everything on pause, if only for a page turn, in order to show how this moment should feel. It’s the kind of thing that elevates a book from simply following a rote path of complementing a story to creating its own distinct look.
If I were to go about making changes to this book willy-nilly, one thing I might do is add more context and backmatter. As I mentioned before, there’s a nice “About This Book” section at the beginning, but it concentrates primarily on the origins of the tale and the author’s family members that inspired it. In the back is the About the Author and About the Illustrator sections. What I’d really love to know is twofold. First, I’d love to know more about this particular story. Maybe some words on how it fits into other Tongva tales. Notes on the animals listed in the text, like the kingfisher and the raven, could be nice too. Second, I’d like to know more about some of the choices Carly Lake made when illustrating this book. There are patterns on display here that are beautiful, but do they have any connections to the Tongva specifically or are they there just to look lovely? I found myself nursing more questions than answers.
Should you wish to find Native stories told by members of those tribes, they exist on your children’s room’s shelves. Unfortunately, they tend to be called “folktales”. One would think that this book, a creation story, might be called something different. Genesis, after all, tends to end up in the religious section of the library. We cannot solve all the systemic problems with libraries in the course of a single book review, though, so let me leave you with some parting thoughts instead. Should you wish to find a book that matches the intensity of its text with exquisite watercolors of great skill, AND you would like the book to be an #ownvoices Indigenous title, I can think of few better that I’ve ever seen. A book that deserves attention far and wide. A beauty. Discover it.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed copy from consortium library.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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