Culture 4: Native American Lit

The Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story by Joseph Bruchac, Illustrated by Susan L. Roth
Bruchac, Joseph. 1994. The Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story Book Cover. Illustrated by Susan L. Roth.. From

Bruchac, Joseph. 1994. THE GREAT BALL GAME: A MUSKOGEE STORY. Ill. Susan L. Roth. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0803715390

Based on a Muskogee pourquoi tale, this story explains why birds migrate south in the winter and why bats are nocturnal and considered mammals. The Birds and the Animals disagree over who is better. Is it the Birds because they can fly or is it the Animals because they have teeth? It is decided that the argument should be settled by a ball game. The team that scores the first goal will be allowed to choose the penalty for the losing team. But when the teams are divided up there is one creature that is unsure which team he belongs to, Bat. Should he join the Animals because he has teeth or the Birds because he has wings?  Bat is rejected by the Bird team and so the Animals take pity on him. The game continues into the night, when it becomes so dark it is difficult for everyone to see the ball, everyone except for Bat who is able to swoop down, steal the ball, and fly through the goal. The Animals accepted Bat as one of their own and also allowed him to set the penalty for the Birds. Bat decreed that the Birds must leave this land for half of each year and that the reason Birds fly south each winter and Bat, a mammal despite his wings, comes out at dusk to see if the Animals are playing ball.

As cited in the author’s note , this is a porquoi tale based on a version told to Bruchac by Louis Littlecoon Oliver, an Oklahoma Muskogee elder. The note also informs the reader that although versions of this folktale can be found in many Native American cultures, this one is specifically based on the version told by the Muskogee, also known as Creek, Indian Nation who lived in present day Georgia.

The story is set “long ago” in a natural area populated with trees and plants, birds and animals. Beyond the ball game equipment, there are no other signs of humans or civilization of any kind. Themes covered in this story include the concept that “bigger isn’t better,” as well as the value of good sportsmanship.

The text in third person past tense is written in equal parts dialogue and description. Bruchac’s gift for storytelling is evident in his writing style. The text, although succinct and spare, includes movement and suspense. The conflict and tension lies in which team will win the game and this will keep young readers and listeners focused. The ending is satisfying and explains three elements of the natural world – the yearly migration of birds and the nocturnal habits of bats, and their classification as mammals instead of birds.

Roth uses papers from all over the world to create colorful torn paper collages. The torn papers give the illustrations texture and depth. Sadly, Roth’s illustrations can be busy and confusing, such as the illustration that introduces Bat. Bat’s face is not visible, but it is difficult to tell if this is because Bat is flying backward or if it is an artistic choice to render him faceless. Another confusing image occurs after night falls; Roth’s illustrations show the characters in silhouette, making the sticks used for the ball game look like giant wooden spoons.

The color palate covers a wide range, from light pink to forest green, mustard yellow to a variety of browns. Marbled papers add visual spice. However, there are so many colors that the illustrations lack unity. The animals and birds look slightly crazed with vacant eyes. Additionally, the animals have jagged, scary fang-like teeth. Although the visibility of teeth is necessary to the story, readers may find it difficult to connect visually to such crudely depicted characters.

The major cultural marker is the use of stickball to resolve the argument. Not only was this method used by the Muskogee Indian Nation to determine the outcome of disagreement, but stickball and games like it were frequently played. Bruchac outlines the basic rules of stickball, a lacrosse-like game that uses two sticks or rackets per player in the author’s note. He also writes that Lacrosse and stickball games originated from many Native nations in North America.

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Review in HORN BOOK: "The story is enhanced by Roth's artful cut- and torn-paper collages, which include handmade paper as well as paper collected from various parts of the world. Her compositions feature carefully posed birds and animals juxtaposed against brilliantly colored or patterned backgrounds. Bruchac provides a page of detailed and illuminating source notes for his version of the Muskogee story."

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "This porquoi tale is told in clean, spare sentences with the emphasis on action and character. In a foreword, Bruchac briefly discusses ball games in traditional Native American life, including the role of sports in conflict management. He mentions two other written versions of the story, as well as Louis Littlecoon Oliver's, which he cites as his source. 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."

Review in PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "With clear, minimal language, Bruchac…wisely lets the myth carry itself. While the three-dimensional effect of Roth's…textured paper collages is striking and initially intriguing, the illustrations do not much embellish the sparely told story. But in its call for an athletic game to settle a dispute-and thereby avoid fighting-the book handily inverts the Greco-Roman tradition of sport as training for war."

The specific tribe/nation or culture of each tale is noted in parentheses after the citation.

*Compare this book with other folktales of migration:
Arneach, Lloyd. 1992. THE ANIMAL’S BALLGAME: A CHEROKEE STORY FROM THE EASTERN BAND OF THE CHEROKEE NATION. Ill. Lydia Halverson. ISBN 978-0516051390 (Cherokee)
Duvall, Deborah L. 2002. THE GREAT BALL GAME OF THE BIRDS AND ANIMALS. Ill. Murv Jacobs. ISBN 978-0826329134 (Cherokee)

*Learn more about Native American games. If possible, play a few of the games. Check out one of the following books for more information on traditions and rules:
Bruchac, Joseph & James Bruchac. 2000. NATIVE AMERICAN GAMES AND STORIES. Ill. Kayeri Akweks. ISBN 978-1555919795
Miller, Jay. 1997. AMERICAN INDIAN GAMES. ISBN 978-0516260921

*Other fiction picture books about bats:
Berk, Ari. 2012. NIGHTSONG. Ill. by Loren Long. ISBN 978-1416978862
Cannon, Janell. 1993. STELLALUNA.  ISBN 978-0152802172
Davies, Nicola. 2004. BAT LOVES THE NIGHT. Ill. by Sarah Fox-Davies. ISBN 978-0756965617

*Non-Fiction books about bats:
Carson, Mary Kay. 2010. THE BAT SCIENTISTS. Photos by Tom Uhlman. ISBN 978-0-547-19956-6
Gibbons, Gail. 2000. BATS. ISBN 978-0823416370
Pringle, Laurence. 2009. BATS! STRANGE AND WONDERFUL. Ill. Meryl Henderson. ISBN 978-1590787816

*More picture books written by Joseph Bruchac:
Bruchac, Joseph & Jonathan London. 1997. THIRTEEN MOONS ON TURTLE’S BACK. Ill. Thomas Locker. ISBN 978-0698115842 (Abenaki)
Bruchac, Joseph. 1998. A BOY CALLED SLOW. Ill. Rocco Haviera. ISBN 978-0698116160 (Lakota Sioux)
Bruchac, Joseph. 1998. THE EARTH UNDER SKY BEAR’S FEET. Ill. Thomas Locker. ISBN 978-0698116474 (Multiple tribes)
Bruchac, Joseph. 1998. THE FIRST STRAWBERRIES. Ill. Anna Vojtech. ISBN 978-0140564099 (Cherokee)
Bruchac, Joseph. 1999. BETWEEN EARTH & SKY: LEGENDS OF NATIVE AMERICAN SACRED PLACES. Ill. Thomas Locker. ISBN 978-0152020620 (Multiple tribes)
Bruchac, Joseph & James Bruchac. 2003. HOW CHIPMUNK GOT HIS STRIPES. Ill. Jose Aruego & Ariane Dewey. ISBN 978-0142500217 (Multiple tribes)
Bruchac, Joseph & James Bruchac. 2005. TURTLE’S RACE WITH BEAVER. Ill. Jose Aruego & Ariane Dewey. ISBN 978-0142404669 (Seneca)

When Turtle Grew Feathers: A Folktale From The Choctaw Nation by Tim Tingle, Illustrated by Stacey Schuett

Tingle, Tim. 2007. When Turtle Grew Feathers: A Folktale From The Choctaw Nation Book Cover. Illustrated by Stacey Schuett. From

Tingle, Tim. 2007. WHEN TURTLE GREW FEATHERS: A FOLKTALE FROM THE CHOCTAW NATION. Ill. Stacey Schuett. Atlanta: August House LittleFolk. ISBN 978-0874837773

Most people know the story of the race between the tortoise and the hare, but in this version of the story based on a Choctaw folktale the race plays out a differently. In this trickster tale Rabbit loses the race but not because Turtle is slow and steady, but because Turtle grows feathers. The story begins on the day that Turkey stepped on Turtle and shattered his shell. Luckily, a parade of ants is able to restore the shell. Turtle is so impressed by the work that he offers to let Turkey try the shell on. Just then bold and proud Rabbit hops by and challenges Turkey-in-Turtle’s-shell to a race. From his hiding place in the tall grass the real Turtle shouts, “Get it on!” Rabbit thinks he is the certain winner of the race, but when he hollers, “Go!” he is stunned into a statue as he watches Turtle grow long, skinny legs and feathered wings! Before Rabbit even leaves the starting line Turkey has crossed the finish line.

This variant of the traditional Aesop fable focuses on themes of friendship and pride. The plot begins by drawing a connection between this story and the familiar tortoise and hare story. This provides an easy way for readers outside the Choctaw culture to gain access to the story. Although the book does not include an author’s note, sources, including oral interviews, are cited at the end of the book. In addition, Tingle is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

The story can be broken up into three sections. First, Turkey breaks Turtle’s shell and the two quarrel. Next, Turkey and Turtle decide it is better to be friends than enemies and Turtle’s shiny shell is fixed. Finally, Rabbit appears and the race brings the story to its conclusion. Although these three distinct parts can be easily identified, it does not detract from the overall plot or the pacing, which is vigorous and upbeat. There is satisfaction in the comeuppance that arrogant and overconfident Rabbit receives at the conclusion of the story.

The text is written in third person past tense, which is appropriate for a folktale. Tingle uses a contemporary style of writing, most notable in Turtle’s response to Rabbit’s challenge to race, “Get it on!” Most, although not all, of the text is rhyming and onomatopoeic sounds are used throughout the story, such as the “Currrr-rack!” when Turkey steps on Turtle’s shell.

Although the text does not mention the specific setting, Schuett’s illustrations depict animals and plants of the Plains, such as grasshoppers, apple trees, and cattails. The acrylic illustrations depict billowing clouds, vast skies, and the brown-green grasslands of the High Plains. Schuett uses a wide variety of facial expressions to great effect, which adds depth to the story. Low to the ground angles are used, which makes the visual perspective that of the animals, rather than a human looking down on the animals.

Some illustrations are framed within patterned borders, although the many of the illustrations seem to spill over the edges of the borders as if the life cannot be contained. The borders are merely decorative; the patterns do not seem to include any Choctaw symbolism.

The book features an all animal cast and therefore there are not many cultural markers present in the text or the illustrations. One phrase of Choctaw is used at the end of the book, “Chata haptia hoke!” This is translated in the text as, “Now the story is yours,” which encourages readers to read the book or tell the story to others.

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Review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: "The bold and colorful illustrations are a good match for this lively telling that, with Rabbit's breezy rap-like dialogue, is a joy to read aloud. Based on a traditional Choctaw story, this telling wins the race. Includes notes on sources. "

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Variations of the race between the tortoise and the hare crop up regularly, but this version, retold as a trickster tale, stands out for its humor and expressive illustrations…The prose alternates between rhyming and nonrhyming text and for the most part it bounces along without stumbling…Bright cartoon illustrations capture the tale’s humor and energy. Turkey explodes off the page as he emerges from Turtle’s shell, ready to run. The animals’ various emotions are well rendered, including Turtle’s chagrin, Rabbit’s aggression and later humiliation, and the budding friendship between Turtle and Turkey. Use this book as a variation to a common folktale, an introduction to Native American lore, or as a fine read-aloud all on its own."

*Read one of the following versions of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare before or after reading WHEN TURTLE GREW FEATHERS. Compare and contrast character traits and the outcomes of the race:
Morrison, Toni & Morrison, Slade. 2010. THE TORTOISE OR THE HARE. Ill. Joe Cepeda. ISBN 978-1416983347
Stevens, Janet. 1985. THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE: AN AESOP FABLE. ISBN 978-0823405640
Wildsmith, Brian. 1982. HARE AND THE TORTOISE. ISBN 978-0833507013

*Other stories based on Choctaw folktales (see also other books by Tim Tingle below):
Harrell, Beatrice O. 1995. HOW THUNDER AND LIGHTNING CAME TO BE: A CHOCTAW TALE. Ill. Susan L. Roth. ISBN 978-0803717497

*More children’s books by Tim Tingle:
Tingle, Tim. 2006. CROSSING BOK CHITTO: A CHOCTAW TALE OF FRIENDSHIP AND FREEDOM. Ill. Jeanne Rorex Bridges. ISBN 978-0938317777
Tingle, Tim. 2010. SALTYPIE: A CHOCTAW JOURNEY FROM DARKNESS INTO LIGHT. Ill. Karen Clarkson. ISBN 978-1933693675
Tingle, Tim, & Silva, Michelle. 2010. “Rabbit’s Choctaw Tail Tale.” In TRICKSTER: NATIVE AMERICAN TALES: A GRAPHIC COLLECTION, edited by Matt Dembicki.  ISBN 978-1555917241

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Illustrated by Ellen Forney

Alexie, Sherman. 2007. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Book Cover. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. Book cover designed by Kirk Benshoff. From

Alexie, Sherman. 2007. THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. Ill. by Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0316013680

Fourteen year old Arnold Spirit, Jr, an aspiring cartoonist, is a Spokane Indian living with his family on the reservation in Eastern Washington State. In a voice that is humorous, vulnerable, and brutally honest Junior tells the story of his life. Born with several medical problems, as well as better-than-average intelligence, Junior knows he’s probably the geekest Indian on “the rez.” Just before he begins his sophomore year, Junior decides that he has to get away from the rez or he’ll lose hope, just as his sister did. That fall Junior goes to high school in Reardan, an all-white, affluent town 22 miles from the rez. Throughout the school year Junior, called Arnold at his new school, feels the pressure of being seen as “half-White” by his fellow tribal members and “half-Indian” by his classmates. In addition, Junior deals with the death of family members, a White girlfriend, playing on the basketball team, an angry and violent best friend, and his father’s alcoholism. Although he is constantly bombarded by traumatic events, Junior ultimately decides to continue to hope, because it without hope all is lost.

This coming of age story is written in first person past tense is formatted like a diary format, which allows Junior’s internal thoughts and emotions to be fully displayed and dissected. The book is written in an easy to read style and divided into short chapters, making this an attractive book for older teens who read below grade level.

The events of the story are harshly realistic, such as the deaths of Junior’s family members and his father’s alcoholism. The topics covered in Junior’s essay-like diary entries are not censored or toned down. Junior candidly discusses girls, masturbation, violence, alcoholism, poverty, and death in a teenage vernacular that includes slang, curse words, and profanity.

Alexie does not ease the reader into the story. Instead we are hit with the reality of Junior’s life immediately as he relates the long list of his medical problems. Junior is brutally candid, even emotionally shocking, when writing in his diary. In everyday life he keeps his emotional life guarded, but we are allowed to see his vulnerability in his writing. This becomes apparent very early in the story when Junior writes about his father shooting his beloved dog, Oscar, because the family is too poor to take the sick dog to the vet, “I wanted to run faster than the speed of sound, but nobody, no matter how much pain they’re in, can run that fast. So I heard the boom of my father’s rifle when he shot my best friend. A bullet only costs about two cents, and anybody can afford that” (p. 14).

Forney’s illustrations illuminate Junior’s attitude on his culture and provide humorous, often ironic, commentary to the story. This is all the more effective when the black and white cartoons address serious and traumatic events. The cartoons provide a visual window into Junior’s soul. Junior says it best, “I draw because words are too unpredictable. / I draw because words are too limited. / If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning. / But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it” (p. 5).

“The rez” is an important element and cultural markers are revealed as Junior compares and contrasts his life in Wellpinit and Reardan. The two settings illustrate and magnify Junior’s feeling of being caught between two cultures. Junior struggles to be himself in a world of stereotypes and prejudices. Forney captures this struggle in her cartoon of half-White, half-Indian Junior (p. 57). Other cultural markers in the story include the Spokane Powwow and Junior’s grandmother’s wake.

Throughout the book Junior shines a spotlight on White and Indian stereotypes. He acknowledges them, examines them, and then he shatters them. Junior does not live in a vacuum, he recognizes that at times there is a factual basis for stereotypes, but he shows the reader that stereotypes do not convey the scope of variety within any culture.

The story of Billionaire Ted is an example of how stereotypes are addressed in this book, “We’d expected this white guy to be original. But he was yet another white guy who showed up on the rez because he loved Indian people SOOOOOOOO much” (p. 162). Forney furthers the impact of this story with her satirical cartoon of Ted that is punctuated with humorous, yet insightful comments such as, “Why do these balding guys always have ponytails?”

The themes in this book include hope, love, poverty, stereotypes, and desire to fulfill your potential. Although Junior’s culture is a major element of the story, his basic desires are universal. He wants to be liked, have good friends, a girlfriend, loving and supportive parents, and be praised for his accomplishments.

Throughout the book Junior questions if he should assimilate in order to survive in a White dominant world or if should he hang on to the traditional culture of his family. By the end of the story, Junior realizes that he does not have to choose when culture over the other, but he also knows he has not chosen an easy path to walk. The story is not a happy one, but it ends on a hopeful note as Junior and Rowdy repair their friendship. Readers will want Junior to succeed in his goals, but there is the understanding that he will have to keep fighting long after the book ends.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of reading this book, the only element I would add to the book would be an author’s note that would give reader’s insight into the autobiographical nature of the story.

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Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: " Forney's simple pencil cartoons fit perfectly within the story and reflect the burgeoning artist within Junior. Reluctant readers can even skim the pictures and construct their own story based exclusively on Forney's illustrations. The teen's determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message in a low-key manner."

Review in PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "Unlike protagonists in many YA novels who reclaim or retain ethnic ties in order to find their true selves, Junior must separate from his tribe in order to preserve his identity. Jazzy syntax and Forney’s witty cartoons examining Indian versus White attire and behavior transmute despair into dark humor; Alexie’s no-holds-barred jokes have the effect of throwing the seriousness of his themes into high relief. "

Review in BOOKLIST: "Alexie’s humor and prose are easygoing and well suited to his young audience, and he doesn’t pull many punches as he levels his eye at stereotypes both warranted and inapt.  A few of the plotlines fade to gray by the end, but this ultimately affirms the incredible power of best friends to hurt and heal in equal measure."

Review in DEMOCRACY AND EDUCATION: "From a literary standpoint, the character of Arnold fills a gap in young adult literature, especially among works with Native American protagonists. Within children's and young adult literature, there are far too few representations of contemporary Native American people that stretch readers' conceptions of what it means to exist in the spaces within and between' tradition and modernity. "

Review in BULLETIN FOR THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "The grief in this narrative is enough to leave a reader gasping, with both the humor and the hope always deepened by sadness and the ever-present niggling of undeserved and impotent guilt. Nevertheless, what emerges most strongly is Junior's uncompromising determination to press on while leaving nothing important behind."

*In the book, Junior writes that he belongs to the Spokane Indian tribe, but also to a lot of other tribes from the tribe of cartoonists to the tribe of Pacific Northwesters (p. 217). Ask teens if they would add anymore tribes to Juniors list. Ask them to make a list of the tribes they belong to themselves. Does being a part of one tribe mean you can’t be apart of another?

*Other books by Sherman Alexie:
Alexie, Sherman. 1994. THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN. ISBN 978-0436201905
Alexie, Sherman. 2010. WAR DANCES. ISBN 978-0802144898

*Other YA books that feature protagonists who are conflicted by the tensions between two cultures:
Desai Hidier, Tanuja. 2003. BORN CONFUSED. ISBN 978-0439510110
Headley, Justina Chen. 2006. NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (AND A FEW WHITE LIES). ISBN 978-0316011280
Yang, Gene Luen. 2008. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE. ISBN 978-0312384487

*This book is described as semi-autobiographical. Encourage teens to read more about Sherman Alexie’s life to find out what parts of the story were true and what parts were fabricated. Helpful resources include:

Alexie’s official website:
Krupat, Arnold, & Swann, Brian (eds). 2000. HERE FIRST: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAYS BY NATIVE AMERICAN WRITERS. ISBN 978-0375751387
Peterson, Nancy J. 2009. CONVERSATIONS WITH SHERMAN ALEXIE. ISBN 978-1604732795

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