Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Highly Recommended: JOSIE DANCES, written by Denise Lajimodiere; illustrated by Angela Erdrich

Josie Dances 
written by Denise Lajimodiere (Citizen, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe)
illustrated by Dr. Angela Erdrich (Citizen, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Status: Highly Recommended
Reviewer: Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh)


I'll just say it: I love Josie Dances. That sense of love that readers experience with some books, is where I'll start. Why, I wonder, does this book give me that feeling? 

As I turn the pages to try to figure that out, I think it is the same things that I noted yesterday (May 3) in my review of Angeline Boulley's Firekeeper's Daughter. Those things: community, and women. Specifically, Native community, and Native women. To be precise: Ojibwe community, and Ojibwe women! 

Here's the description of Josie Dances from the publisher: 

Josie dreams of dancing at next summer’s powwow. But first she needs many special things: a dress, a shawl, a cape, leggings, moccasins, and, perhaps most important of all, her spirit name. To gather all these essential pieces, she calls on her mom, her aunty, her kookum, and Grandma Greatwalker. They have the skills to prepare Josie for her powwow debut.

As the months go by, Josie practices her dance steps while Mom stitches, Aunty and Kookum bead, and Grandma Greatwalker dreams Josie’s spirit name. Josie is nervous about her performance in the arena and about all the pieces falling into place, but she knows her family is there to support her.

The powwow circle is a welcoming space, and dancers and spectators alike celebrate Josie’s first dance. When she receives her name, she knows it’s just right. Wrapped in the love of her community, Josie dances to honor her ancestors.

In this Ojibwe girl’s coming-of-age story, Denise Lajimodiere highlights her own daughter’s experience at powwow. Elegant artwork by Angela Erdrich features not only Josie and her family but also the animals and seasons and heartbeat of Aki, Mother Earth, and the traditions that link Josie to generations past and yet to come.

As I sit here and read through the book again, I pause at what is (at the moment) my favorite page:

I carry memories of my grandmother sewing traditional clothes for us to wear for our dances at Nambé. She had an old sewing machine that was powered by her feet pushing a large pedal that made her machine work. Fascinated with the process, I asked her if I could try it. It isn't a clear memory but it seems she told me something like "this is not like your mom's sewing machine." She was right about that. My mom's sewing machine looked like the one in Josie Dances. She, too, sewed our traditional and everyday clothes. I sew them, too. And so does my daughter. She's made traditional dresses for her cousin's little girls. 

Josie and her family spend a year getting ready for her to dance. With each page turn, readers move through the seasons with them. Early in the book, we see the moccasins that Josie will wear--but without beads. On the page with the sewing machine, it is winter and we see the moccasins partially beaded. Turning the page we see Grandmother Greatwalker asleep (and covered with a beautiful quilt!), dreaming. Josie's name will come to her, in a dream. The next page shows us Josie and her mother picking spring berries. Then... it is time for the powwow and we shift from a seasonal framework to one that takes place over a day and night. First, we see people in t-shirts and shorts at the site where the powwow will be. Josie is wondering if she'll be dancing, after all. We see her in a night scene, lying down in a bedroll in her tent. Did all her clothing get finished? Did Grandmother Greatwalker dream of her name? She wakes the next day with messy hair. Glancing to the trees nearby, she sees an eagle. The answer to all her questions is yes, and it is conveyed quietly on this page:


With each year, I see more and more children's books with Native words in them. That's part of why I'm highly recommending Josie Dances. When Josie asks her mom to help her, her mom replies "Eya, nindaanis!" The glossary tells us that means "Yes, my daughter!" We have that same sentence structure several times. Josie asks her aunty if she will bead her cape; her aunty replies "Eya, ikwezens!" Josie asks her kookum (grandmother) if she'll make her moccasins and leggings, and she replies "Eya, noozhishenh!" And she asks a tribal elder (Grandmother Greatwalker) about her name, and hears "Eya, abinoojinh!" Lajimodiere's writing teaches us all a few Ojibwe words--and that's a terrific part of what we are offered in this picture book. 

I think what I'm trying to get at is this: the story given to us by Denise Lajimodiere and Angela Erdrich -- both, citizens of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe -- is so real, and so full of Native life and love. 

Denise Lajimodiere

Angela Erdrich

Josie Dances is published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. They've done several books that I highly recommend, including Marcie Rendon's Powwow Summer, Cheryl Minnema's Hungry Johnny, Thomas Peacock's The Forever Sky, Art Coulson's The Creator's Game, and Brenda Child's Bowwow Powwow. If you don't have those yet, get them when you order copies of Josie Dances. 

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