The book is subtitled "Memories of my Sioux Childhood" and that's Virginia on the cover. These are her memories. Perhaps the subtitle signals that there may be other books in the works. I hope so!
In The Christmas Coat, we come to know a young Virginia and her family in South Dakota in the 1940s or thereabouts. That's "a long time ago" to any young child, but in this "long time ago" story, we have Native children who, like other children of that time period, wear things like... green sweaters rather than the popular stereotype that suggests that "real" Indians wear buckskin and feathers. Like people of any culture or nation, we have clothing that we wear at specific times for specific purposes. Virginia wore that green sweater, but doing so did not--and does not--make her "less" Native.
On the cover, we see three children in buckskin and feathered headdresses. The reason they're dressed that way is because they are playing the part of the Wise Men at a Nativity pageant. The accompanying text says "They wore headdresses that only the wise leaders and elders of the tribe could wear."
You see, Virginia's dad is an Episcopal priest in their village. That plays a major role in the story. People from church congregations in the eastern part of the United States would send boxes of clothing to churches on reservations. The winter boxes include coats. Virginia needs, and wants, a new coat... How she gets one is the plot of the story. With Christmas 2011 a few days away, children all over the US are filled with wants, and needs, too. As such, the story will resonate with children and their parents, too.
Beneath that plot, however, is a wealth of information that children can pick up. As I said last week, Christmas at my mom's is a mix of traditional Pueblo ways, and, mainstream things like Christmas trees and Santa Claus (I played the part of Santa last year):
The Santa in Virginia's story brings a bag of gifts. Inside that bag is a mix of traditional and mainstream items. Virginia's present from Santa is one of the dolls you see in his bag (image from illustrator, Ellen Beier's website):
Beier's illustrations are terrific. See more of them here. She did a lot of research and work that helped her create the images that beautifully capture Virginia's story.
I hope Holiday House has more of Virginia's stories in the works. If you're still looking for a gift for someone, consider getting a copy of The Christmas Coat right away. Get two! One to give this year, and another copy for next year, too, for another child.
The Christmas Coat was featured on NPR earlier this week.
The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood
Written by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Beier
Published in 2011 by Holiday House
Support independent, Native-owned bookstores! Order it from Birchbark Books.
The Christmas Coat won the 2011 Youth Literature Award from the American Indian Library Association.