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Book Reviews

Native American Literature


Joseph Bruchac        Cynthia Leitich Smith    Paul Goble   


  Joseph Bruchac

Bibliographic Citation:
Bruchac, Joseph.  1994.  The great ball game.  Illustrated by Susan L. Roth.  New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.  ISBN 0803715404.

The Birds and the Animals argue over it is better to have wings or teeth.  To settle the disagreement, they decided to play a ball game and whoever scored a goal first was the winner.  However, when the teams are formed, the Bat, who has both wings and teeth, begged each side to let him join them.  He proves that the smallest animal can make a difference and win the game for the side that chooses to take a chance on him.


    In The Great Ball Game, Joseph Bruchac tells a Muskogee pourquoi tale about a game between those with wings and those with teeth.  “This adaptation of a popular Native American story pits Animals against Birds in a contest to settle an all-too-human question: Who's better?” (Publishers Weekly)  When their arguing threatens to turn to war, the Crane and Bear decide to play a ball game (Bruchac 6).  Whoever scores the first goal will win the argument and decide on a penalty for the losers.  “With clear, minimal language, Bruchac wisely lets the myth carry itself.” (Publishers Weekly)  

    They quickly divide up into two teams: those with wings and those with teeth.  However, Bat has both wings and teeth.  He begs each side to take him until Bear takes pity on him (Bruchac 16).  Bear allows him to join the Animals.  He tells Bat, "You are not very big, but sometimes even the small ones can help.  We will accept you as an Animal, but you must hold back and let the bigger Animals play first." (Bruchac 16)  When the sun sets and night begins to fall, the Birds and Animals cannot see in the dark.  Bat, however, was able to fly onto the field and win the game (Bruchac 21-24).  “And, according to Muskogee legend, this resolution explains why bats are categorized as animals and why birds fly south for the winter.” (Publishers Weekly)

    Susan L. Roth has illustrated the story with paper collages.  She uses earth tones in bold splashes of red, orange, brown, and green.  She also adds texture by using crinkled paper for the backgrounds and feathers for the Birds creating a natural effect.  However, I agree with one critic who said, “Unfortunately, the cut-and-torn paper illustrations are too crudely done to convey character or provide details that would have enriched the book. The helter-skelter compositions distract readers from what is otherwise an entertaining tale.” (Polese)  At times the illustration can be jarring and even frightening for young readers.  Bat is shown baring razor-sharp teeth and Bear has long claws.

    Basing his picture book on folktales and oral stories, Bruchac has created an authentic Native American tale.  In the foreword, he explains that ball games have been played for centuries throughout the Americas and often one would be played to settle an argument instead of going to war.  "This story, from the Muskogee (also known as the Creek) Indian Nation that lived in the area we now call Georgia, tells how the animal people once settled a disagreement through such a game." (Foreword)  Though many versions of this story exist, Bruchac has based his version on a story told to him by Louis Littlecoon Oliver, an Oklahoma Muskogee elder.  He chose stickball for the animals' game because "lacrosse and this southern form of the game originated among the Native nations of North America." (Foreword) 

    I agree with one reviewer who said, “Short and well told, this appealing ‘pourquoi’ tale lends itself to reading aloud.” (Phelan)  I think young readers will enjoy the story and its eventual outcome.  Though the pictures may discourage some readers, they will delight in discovering why birds must fly south for the winter.  Also, this is a great story for reinforcing the idea that everyone is important and can contribute to the team, no matter his or her size.

Reference List:
Phelan, Carolyn.  n.d.  Booklist: The great ball game review. (Accessed July 12, 2006).

Polese, Carolyn.  n.d.  School library journal: The great ball game review. (Accessed July 12, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  n.d.  The great ball game review. (Accessed July 12, 2006).


  Cynthia Leitich Smith

Bibliographic Citation:
Smith, Cynthia Leitich.  2001.  Rain is not my Indian name.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers.  ISBN 0688173977.

Six months after the death of her best friend Galen, Rain finds herself slowly reentering the world when her aunt Georgia's Indian Camp causes controversy.  Galen's mother protests spending the city's money on a program that supports such a small minority of the population.  Rain shares her journey to rediscover her Native heritage and recover from her grief over her mother and Galen's deaths.   


    In Cynthia Leitich Smith's novel, Rain is Not My Indian Name, she tells the heartbreaking story of fourteen-year-old Rain.  At average height and weight with bottle-cap boobs, dishwater hair, and hazel eyes, Rain's only Native American feature is her sun-kissed skin (Smith 22).  As for her name, she says, "Rain is not my Indian name, not the way people think of Indian names.  But I am an Indian, and it is the name my parents gave me." (Smith 20)      

    After losing her mother, Rain suffers another loss when her best friend (and crush) is killed on his way home on New Years' Eve.  Smith sets the stage for Galen's death, and then skips ahead six months as Rain begins to confront her grief.  “What follows is a summer of turmoil and realization, in which Rain is forced to come to terms with the tragic events she has lived through, the world in which she lives and her sense of self.” (Krishnaswami 2001)  Using journal entries to set up each chapter, Smith gives readers a more personal glimpse into her main character's past and thoughts.  One critic claimed, “Some of Smith's devices such as opening each chapter with a snippet from Rain's journal add depth and clarify Rain's relationships for readers.” (Publishers Weekly 2001)

    Though Smith expertly develops her main characters, her attempts to include multiple plot lines muddle the narrative and often make it hard to follow along.  She does not elaborate on Fynn and Natalie's postponed wedding, Natalie's trip to the hospital, Dmitri's crush on Rain, and the city council's decision about supporting the Indian Camp.  She leaves the reader with many loose ends and questions at the end of the narrative.  One book reviewer acknowledged this flaw, but was able to look past it and see the merit in the novel's premise.  “Multiple plot lines and nonlinear storytelling may make it difficult to enter Smith's complex novel, but the warmth and texture of the writing eventually serve as ample reward for readers.” (Publishers Weekly 2001)

    Smith addresses the issue of Native American stereotypes.  Part of Rain's objections to the Indian Camp was because "it sounded like the kind of thing where a bunch of probably suburban, probably rich, probably white kids tromped around a woodsy park, calling themselves 'princesses,' 'braves,' or 'guides.' " (Smith 12)  She admits, however, that "it had something to do with the way Hannesburg schools taught about Indians and, because of that, the way it sometimes felt to be an Indian in Hannesburg schools." (Smith 12-13)  Rain explains that the subject usually only arises around Thanksgiving with the Indians being stereotypically portrayed.  Smith combats these images by replacing them with those of a modern Indian.  "Aunt Georgia's red hair, Grampa's notes from Las Vegas, pasta bridges and all, this rendering of a contemporary family of Native American heritage is wonderfully far from stereotypical.” (Krishnaswami 2001) 

    When Mrs. Owen writes a letter to the editor listing her concerns about the Native American summer camp, she argues, "But is it the place of our city to finance a special program that serves only one small ethnic group?" (Smith 33)  Galen's mother perpetuates the idea that it is not worthwhile to serve minorities.  Because of the schools and residents' attitudes toward Native Americans, it is no wonder that Rain has become so distanced from her Native heritage.  She says, "I'd grown up so far away from it.  I felt ashamed by how much I didn't know." (Smith 73)  Smith uses her narrative to allow Rain the chance to further explore her family's cultural background.  Dubbed as a "patchwork tribe" by her mother, Rain is Muscogee Creek-Cherokee and Scots-Irish on her mom's side, Irish-German-Ojibway on her dad's side (Smith 20).  One critic commented, “Readers will feel the affection of Rain's loose-knit family and admire the way that they, like the author with the audience, allow Rain to draw her own conclusions about who she is and what her heritage means to her.” (Publishers Weekly 2001)   

    Smith utilizes her unique Native voice to create a genuine protagonist.  “The author brings many of her own life experiences to this multifaceted, coming-of-age novel.” (Wysocki 2001)  She addresses the stereotypes that face different cultures.  When the Flash informs Rain that he is Jewish, she has to catch herself before she says, "But you don't seem Jewish." (Smith 114)  I love how Smith explores the notion of Rain's ignorance not only about her own culture, but Flash's as well.  She does not exclude anyone from making generalizations.     

    Many critics have attacked the literary merit of the novel.  One said, “Except for Rain, who deals with racial and emotional issues, character development and plot are superficial."  (Woodruff 2001)  Together with the multiple and confusing plot lines, readers may have trouble keeping all the details straight.  However, "the story's focus on death and grief recovery is a popular subject with young teens, and the open-ended conclusion is well suited for a sequel.” (Woodruff 2001)  I believe that Rain's attempts to confront her grief and rediscover her Native heritage make this a worthwhile and fast-paced read for even the most reluctant readers.

Reference List:
Krishnaswami, Uma.  2001.  Children's literature: Rain is not my Indian name review. (Accessed July 12, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  2001.  Rain is not my Indian name review. (Accessed July 12, 2006).

Woodruff, Laura.  2001.  VOYA: Rain is not my Indian name review. (Accessed July 12, 2006).

Wysocki, Barbara.  2001.  School library journal: Rain is not my Indian name review. (Accessed July 12, 2006).


  Paul Goble

Bibliographic Citation:
Goble, Paul.  2001.  The girl who loved wild horses.  New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.  ISBN 0689845049. 

A girl in the village loves horses and understands them.  Frightened by a thunderstorm one day, the girl climbs onto the back of a horse and the herd stampedes away from the noise.  Rather than being terrified, the young girl is joyous to be able to live among the wild horses who take her in.  When found by her tribe, she must decide between her parents and the horses she loves.


    Winner of the 1979 Caldecott Award, Paul Goble's The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses tells the story of a young girl understands the horses in a special way.  "She knew which grass they liked best and where to find them shelter from winter blizzards.  If a horse was hurt she looked after it." (Goble 4)  One hot day the girl lay down in the meadow with the horses.  A loud crash and rumbling in the sky shake her awake. 

    "Everything was awake.  Horses were rearing up on their hind legs and snorting in terror." (Goble 8)  Grabbing hold of a horse's mane and jumping on his back, the little girl is carried off until "stars came out and the moon shone over hills the girl had never seen before." (Goble 12)  “For most people, being swept away in a horse stampede during a raging thunderstorm would be a terrifying disaster.  For the young Native American girl . . . it is a blessing.” (   Using his poetic language and flowing narrative, Goble conveys the girl's joy and happiness from being with the wild horses (13).  “Although she loves her people, this girl has a much deeper, almost sacred connection to her equine friends. The storm gives her the opportunity to fulfill her dream--to live in a beautiful land among the wild horses she loves.” (   

    Almost a year later, hunters find her among the horses and take her home.  Though she was happy to see her parents, she longed to be back with the horses.  She says, "I love to run with the wild horses.  They are my relatives.  If you let me go back to them I shall be happy for evermore." (Goble 20)  To show their respect and appreciation of the horses, the girl's people gave the horses colorful blankets and decorated saddles, painted designs on their bodies, and tied eagle feathers and ribbons in their manes and tails (Goble 21).  One reviewer commented that, “Considering how difficult it is for some communities to allow friendships to grow between people of different cultures, this village's support for the girl's companions of choice is admirable. Goble's bold paintings reflect this noble open-mindedness.” (   

    “With brilliant, stylized illustrations and simple text, Paul Goble tells the story of a young woman who follows her heart, and the family that respects and accepts her uniqueness.” (  Goble has utilized full-color ink and watercolor drawings to depict the young girl and her wild horses.  Though he chooses to never reveal her face, he incorporates intricate details to illustrate the rest of her.  He clothes are in rich hues of vibrant blues and reds.  Goble uses geometric designs and shapes to fill in the details of her dress and shoes.  Before the storm, the girl is shown with her hair plaited in braids with beads and feathers.  However, as the girl swings onto the horse's back, her hair loosens into a long mane of jet black hair, much like the manes of the horses (Goble 8). 

    Goble also uses bold colors and details to illustrate the young girl's surroundings and her tribe.  The sun shifts from a deep red to rich oranges to buttery yellows.  Pale blue butterflies fly among lush plants and flowers.  Tall mountains and hills stand as colorful shadows in the background.  Rows of tepees are shown with brightly decorated fabric with animal and geometric designs.  The girl's people are also shown in a somewhat stereotypical fashion with long, feathered headdresses and bows and arrows slung on their backs.  All of the tribe's members have the same warm, brown skin and long, black hair.  There is no distinction between the men, women, and children of the tribe.  Because Goble does not specify whether the story is based on a particular tribe or Native nation, it is difficult to determine if the illustrations are historically accurate or stereotypically offensive.     

    Based on Goble's highly-praised reputation, I would hope that much of what he includes in his illustrations is accurate, rather than stereotypical.  Either way, his simple and eloquent story will captivate young readers.  Goble follows up the story with two songs: one by a Navaho, and the other by Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux (27).  These words give readers a deeper glimpse into the Native cultures.  They demonstrate the similarities and differences between the two tribes.  I think that readers will be drawn in by the richly colored illustrations.  However, there should be some discussion after reading the book to identify what might be misconstrued as negative stereotypes.  

Reference List:  n.d.  The girl who loved wild horses review. (Accessed July 13, 2006).


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