What are board books?
In The Essential Guide to Children's Books and their Creators, Anita Silvey tells us that Rosemary Wells's board books featuring a rabbit named Max sparked the publication of what we call board books. The Max books came out in 1979. Remember them? Max's Breakfast was a favorite in our house.
Rather than pages made of paper, the pages in a board book are thick cardboard pages. The thickness makes them relatively indestructible (they don't tear or rip or bend like paper does) and because the pages are stiff, a toddler is able to more easily turn from one page to the next.
We had many board books in our home, but there weren't any that I knew of that featured Native children or stories. So, I made a lot of books for my daughter. I glued photographs of her family and cousins onto cardboard, covered the cardboard with clear vinyl shelfpaper, and then bound several of those pages together with tape or string. They are treasures and played a role in my daughter's love of books. I wish I had a photograph of us with one of our homemade books, but I don't. Here, though, are three photos of our reading life. Top right is me reading to Liz. I think its Blueberries for Sal. Bottom right is Brooke, Liz's cousin, reading Dear Zoo to Liz. And on the left is a photo of Liz in the "chair and a half" that belonged to her grandmother, Betty (my husband's mother). It is the right size for a parent and child to sit, side-by-side, as they read.
As far as I know, there aren't any board books that reflect Pueblo life. I'll turn now, to the subject of this essay, the board books by Beverly Blacksheep. Here's the cover of Baby Learns about Colors:
I find Blacksheep's books absolutely gorgeous, from the colors she uses to the design of the books, they are wonderful. The colors range from soft pastels to brilliant purples that leap out from the crisp white background used throughout the books.
With the exception of the covers, each page has two languages: Navajo and English as seen in this page from Baby's First Laugh:
The people in the books are all shown wearing traditional clothing that is also worn today by some people as everyday attire.
In all there are eight books, published in 2003 and 2005 as follows:
Baby's First Laugh
Baby Learns about Colors
Baby Learns to Count
Baby Learns about Animals
Baby Learns about Seasons
Baby Learns about Senses
Baby Learns about Time
Baby Learns about Weather
To write my review, I've ordered the books---not by year of publication---but by a chronological ordering of the age of the Navajo baby featured in the series. (FYI: The Navajo Nation spans Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. They maintain an extensive website where you can learn about tribal government and history.)
Blacksheep has a website where you can see some of her art. The books, however, are available from Salina Bookshelf. Let's begin!
The book opens with baby, sleeping in her cradleboard. (If you want to learn a bit about a Navajo cradleboard, go here and view a slide show.) Her parents are nearby, wondering "Who will make baby laugh?" It won't be her dad or her mom or her sister or her brother or her grandfather, either. All of them make her cry while trying to elicit that laugh. Then we get to grandma, who, of course, makes baby laugh.
Native families, particularly those on reservations, live near each other, with grandparents figuring prominently in a child's life and are there for many of the "firsts" that a child experiences. My mom, for example, was with me when my daughter, Liz, took her first steps. She spent many hours playing with Liz and singing to her. Here's a photo that captures both, play and singing:
In Baby Learns About Seasons, the baby's mom takes her out of the cradleboard. She's old enough to sit by herself.
In the spring she laughs as she watches her sister give a bottle to newborn lambs. She watches her dad prepare the fields and in the summer she sees the plants growing. She goes with her grandmother to gather corn pollen and is with her mom when she is picking peaches. In the fall she sits amongst pumpkins and leaves and she gathers pinon nuts. And in the winter, she is with her family as they gather and tell winter stories:
In Baby Learns to Count, Baby counts the familiar things in her life: her kitten, shoes, birds, rabbits, fingers, toys, butterflies, letters, marbles, and buttons.
Here's the page about her shoes, or, to use a common word, "moccasins." You don't see "moccasins" in the Navajo text because moccasins is not a Navajo word. It's not a Tewa (at Nambe our language is Tewa) word, either. There is no glossary that tells us which of the words in the Navajo text is their word for shoes. Navajo speakers will know which one it is, though, which points to an interesting aspect of the series. Readers who know and speak and read Navajo can read the Navajo text. The book isn't meant to teach the Navajo language. Instead, it works beautifully for readers for whom Navajo is their first language. Blacksheep's book, then, is unique because of what it does for Navajo families who use their language as their first language. (For a reader-friendly research article on bilingual books, see Bilingual Books: Promoting Literacy and Biliteracy in the Second-Language and Mainstream Classroom, by Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Margaret Mulhern, published in 2003 by the International Reading Association.)
Baby turns two years old in Baby Learns About Time.
The book opens with Baby in her bed on the morning of her birthday. She watches the sun rise and at noon, she helps her sister make lunch and serves everyone the mutton stew they made. In the afternoon her older brother plays with her outside. At sunset she's back inside, blowing out the candles on her birthday cake and in the evening she opens her present and gets a new pony (rocking horse) that she wanted.
Then its bedtime, and her mom sings her to sleep. In Baby Learns About Time, we see elements of mainstream American culture (big bows on wrapped gifts), and, elements of Navajo ways of being (learning to prepare traditional foods) as Baby goes through a day marked, not by the clock, but, by the natural progression of any given day.
A lot of people think that New Mexico and Arizona are deserts with intense heat, but there are four seasons in the northern parts of each state, as shown in Baby Learns About Weather.
Baby is shown on sunny days, but also on rainy days (where she sees a rainbow) and on snowy days where she tries to catch snowflakes. In this and the last three books, you can see that Baby is older.
In Baby Learns About Colors, she plays catch with a red ball and builds a tiny hogan with brown twigs. To do that she needs the dexterity of a slightly older child, and to feed green grass to rabbits and give bread crumbs to blue birds, she needs to know how to be still and quiet.
In Baby Learns About Senses, she helps her grandmother prepare a meal.
To do that, all her senses come into play. She tastes the goats milk they will use, she smells the mutton cooking over the fire, and she listens for the bubbling of the stew. And, she uses her sense of touch when she helps make the frybread:
The last book in my presentation of the series is Baby Learns About Animals.
Thus far, Baby has learned to help her family, and she's learned how to be around wild animals. In Baby Learns About Animals, she learns to take care of the domestic animals that are significant to her and to the Navajo people. She feeds oats to the horse, gives grain to the sheep, and teaches the sheepdog how to sit. She gives water to the colt:
and after all her work is done, she goes to sleep. In this series, readers can learn a lot about a Navajo family, and readers who are Navajo have a terrific set of books that reflect their lives, or, the lives of a Navajo family living a life infused with Navajo ways of being. I love the books and recommend them to everyone. They have something to offer all of us. They're available from booksellers like Amazon, but if you can, order them from Salina Bookshelf. Its a small press, and I much prefer to send my dollars to a small press. Or, order them from Oyate and support the work that Oyate does.
And if you know of other board books by Native writers, let me know! Here's some that I've written about already:
Boozhoo: Come Play With Us, by Deanna Himanga
I See Me, by Margaret Manuel
Welcome Song for Baby, by Richard Van Camp