Wednesday, December 3, 2014

New to the P&PC Library: Little Herder in Spring, Little Herder in Summer, Little Herder in Autumn, and Little Herder in Winter

Check out the new addition to P&PC's library—a set of four paperback children's books (Little Herder in Spring, Little Herder in Summer, Little Herder in Autumn, and Little Herder in Winter) written by Ann Nolan Clark (1896-1995) and first published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1940. According to Wiki, Clark was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and in the early 1920s began teaching children to read at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

At the Tesuque School in New Mexico, Clark discovered that there weren't enough funds for sufficient instructional materials at the one-room schoolhouse she led—let alone materials that spoke to her Indian students' lives, experiences, and language—so she started writing her own. Thus, the Little Herder series. (The version of the series shown here is English-only, though bilingual versions were published too.) Clark would go on to write over thirty books including Secret of the Andes, which came out of a five-year stay training native teachers in South and Central America, and which would receive the 1935 Newbery Medal. For her work and her advocacy on behalf of Native American peoples, she received the Bureau of Indian Affairs Distinguished Service Award in 1962.

Each saddle-stitched, 64-page book in the Little Herder series pairs poems with black and white drawings by Navajo artist Hoke Denetsosie. (The University of Southern Mississippi reports that Clark regularly partnered with native peoples to do the translation, illustration, printing, and binding of these books.) The drawing pictured here—which I like for how it represents and records the textiles, architecture, and culinary aspects of daily life—accompanies "Supper." "Supper" is the last in a sequence of poems about hunger that begins with "Pawn," in which Little Herder's father and mother pawn a concho belt and turquoise ring:

Pawn to the trader
that we may eat.

Our hard goods
our possessions
we give them
for salt
and for flour.

They are for pawn.

Who knows when we can buy them back.

The snow water drops
from the smoke hole
like tears.

In "Morning," Little Herder's father leaves for the trading post. While he is gone, Little Herder and her mother shovel snow, and Little Herder's grandmother visits to play Cat's Cradle games while Little Herder thinks:

I look at my mother's finger.

One finger looks bare
without its turquoise ring.

I pull my sleeve down
over my bracelet.

I should have given it
to my father.

When Little Herder's father eventually returns with food, her mother goes to work, starting a fire, putting meat on to cook, and—in a passage that reads a little bit like a recipe for nut roll that my own Pennsylvania-Dutch grandmother once wrote out for me—making fry bread:

She mixes flour and water,
a little ball of lard,
a little pinch of salt,
in our round tin bowl.

She takes some out
and pats it flat,
and pats it round,
and pats it thin,
and throws it in
a kettle full of boiling fat.

The hunger pain inside me
is bigger now than I am.

Not all the poems in the Little Herder series are so dark, but the P&PC interns suggested this sequence stood out from the children's literature of their own youth for its refusal to look away from the realities of lived experience. No Horton Hears a Who!, Clark's books (that's Clark pictured here) don't distract the child from the lived experience of his or her life as a Navajo child but record and reflect and thus legitimize it. There are also joy, beauty, handcrafts, and even "sheep dipping" (a husbandry process meant to kill lice and ticks). These days, we oftentimes think of documentary poetics as a turn taking place in literary spheres, but Clark reminds us that its roots aren't just in the 1930s-era world of Muriel Rukeyser and Langston Hughes. They go much deeper in the curriculum as well.

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