When We Were Alone
by David Alexander Robertson; illus. by Julie Flett
Primary HighWater Press 32 pp.
12/16 978-1-55379-673-2 $18.95 g
This quiet story is one of love and resistance during the decades-long era of oppressive residential schools for First Nations children in Canada. While spending the day with her grandmother, a contemporary girl has several questions, beginning with “Nókom, why do you wear so many colours?” Nókom answers by telling her granddaughter that at the residential school she was sent to as a child, students wore colorless uniforms. She goes on to say, “Sometimes in the fall, when we were alone…we would pile the leaves over the clothes they had given us, and we would be colourful again. And this made us happy.” As the title of the book suggests, Nókom and the other students found strength in quiet moments when they could be alone. Through descriptive language and an effective use of repetition, Robertson describes the seasons of Nókom’s resistance (“Sometimes in the spring, when we were alone… Sometimes in the summer, when we were alone…”). Flett’s collage illustrations, with their simplicity and earthy colors, are soulful and gentle; the double-page spreads of the children enjoying nature are particularly beautiful. This is an Indigenous story (the illustrations show a White person only once, and only from the back); the cover image of two Cree girls smiling out at us celebrates this. Readers unfamiliar with the history of residential schools may need some background in order to get the most out of this story, but all readers will connect with how Nókom lives in celebration of colors, her long hair, her language, and, most of all, her family.
From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.