Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Highly Recommended: HEART BERRY BLING by Jenny Kay Dupuis; illustrated by Eva Campbell

Heart Berry Bling
Written by Jenny Kay Dupuis (Member of Nipissing First Nation)
Illustrated by Eva Campbell (Not Native)
Published in 2023
Publisher: Highwater Press
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended


A few weeks ago, I saw a photo of a person at a conference posing with a copy of Jenny Kay Dupuis's new picture book, Heart Berry Bling. Today, I read an advance sample copy and am here to give it a Highly Recommended rating! 

Here's the description from the publisher's website:

On a visit to her granny, Maggie is excited to begin her first-ever beading project: a pair of strawberry earrings. However, beading is much harder than she expected! As they work side by side, Granny shares how beading helped her persevere and stay connected to her Anishinaabe culture when she lost her Indian status, forcing her out of her home community—all because she married someone without status, something the men of her community could do freely. 

As she learns about patience and perseverance from her granny’s teachings, Maggie discovers that beading is a journey, and like every journey, it’s easier with a loved one at her side.

In this beautifully illustrated book, children learn about the tradition of Anishinaabe beadwork, strawberry teachings, and gender discrimination in the Indian Act.

I'll start by saying that I love stories where a kid is with a grandparent because like many children, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. When the book is about a Native family, however, the content of the story adds to my emotional response to what I see on the pages. 

The story opens with Maggie and her dad in the car. When they park, they walk a while to get to her granny's house. As they walk Maggie hears the sounds of a city. That's important! There is a tendency to think that Native people lived long ago (we're still here!) and that they all lived on reserves/reservations or in rural places. Some did and do, but not everyone does. Showing us granny, in the city, is great!

When Maggie and her dad arrive at her grandmother's house, Maggie can smell the fry bread her grandmother made. On the kitchen table are granny's beads. Granny is on the phone, speaking Anishinaabemowin with her sister. All of these are markers--in print and illustration--of a Native home.

As the two sit on the couch to look at photos that have inspired granny's beading designs, Maggie asks her about a person shown in an old photo. Granny tells her:
"That's me. Back when I lived on the reserve."
She goes on to say that she married a man who wasn't First Nations, and under the laws that existed then, 
"I was stripped of my Indian status and had to leave the community."
Right there is when I paused in my reading, thinking about Native people like Maggie's grandmother, whose identity is taken from them. 

There are many ways in which this happens. There's a long history of social workers deeming Native parents "unfit" to care for their children. Their infants and children end up in foster care and white adoptive homes. There's also a long history of non-Native people thinking they had an ancestor who was Native, so they decide to claim that identity as if it is one within their lived experience. Some trot out a story of tragic separation but that story undermines the realities of the lived experiences of people like Maggie's grandmother. 

On the next page, Maggie's grandmother tells us more about the Indian Act. Maggie asks for more information. It is an outstanding page that I hope readers will sit with. 

As the story moves back to beading, I hear -- in Granny's words -- how beading helped her heal some of the pain she experienced due to the Indian Act. On the book cover we see Maggie looking into a mirror. She's wearing the earrings she made with her grandmother. 

So many teachings are embodied in those earrings! So many memories are sewn into them! From the shiny beads to the tears Maggie shed when she accidentally poked her finger with the beading needle, to Granny's life story... this is quite a magnificent story from Jenny Kay Dupuis! 

As I've noted before, we're seeing more extensive author notes than was the case in the past. In Heart Berry Bling we have a two-page note that tells us Granny's story is the story of the author's own grandmother. There's more details on what was lost when her status was taken from her. We also learn about First Nations women who fought that Act and were eventually able to get some changes to it in 1985, but it wasn't until 2011 that changes were made that made it possible for Jenny Kay Dupuis to have her First Nations status. More changes took place in 2017 and 2019. 

We need books from writers like Jenny Kay Dupuis--people whose families hold these brutal realities in their memory as something they lived through--and people across North America have so much learning to do about Native life and history, and about authenticity of storyteller and storytelling. 

Thank you, Jenny, for sharing this story with us. It is a story with difficult parts, but also the joy in this Native child and her Native grandma, being together!