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We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

As we watch the news and scroll through social media, it seems like everyone has an opinion on what it means to be indigenous, but the voices shouting loudest and being heard the clearest are not indigenous voices.

How do we share with children what it means to be a contemporary indigenous person? How can we help indigenous children feel pride in their cultures and reassure them that they are not invisible? One way is by embracing Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac’s wonderful picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. A celebration of contemporary Cherokee culture, it is one of the finest picture books this year. At an impressive size of 9.8 x 10.8 inches, its large, wide spreads showcase Lessac’s folk-esque art. The cover illustration depicts Cherokee people stomp-dancing on dark, rich earth while surrounded by a warm, orange sunset. I love that the cover’s embossed title includes Cherokee syllabary. Readers can literally feel the words under their fingertips before they begin the story. For many readers, this book will be their first introduction to Cherokee syllabary (which is over two hundred years old!).

Debut author Traci Sorell is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and her writing is informed by her lived experience as a Cherokee woman and storyteller. She wrote We Are Grateful because children’s literature often ignores contemporary indigenous life in favor of depicting indigenous peoples as only of the past. On the very first page of the picture book, readers are introduced to a Cherokee family walking under a tree that represents all four seasons. In the story, we follow this contemporary family as they travel through the year, sharing what they are grateful for (expressing gratitude is important to Cherokee people). We also see how important the family’s relationship is with extended family, elders, and their entire community and how crucial their connection to their land is to their way of being.

The spare text guides the illustrations and allows them to speak. Each season is broken into three main spreads, where Sorell introduces the season in Cherokee and then English and, finally, shares what Cherokee families do together — in gratitude. Lessac’s gouache illustrations are homey and vibrant. She takes time to put in the tiniest details of falling orange, brown, and red leaves against dark green grass. She also pays great attention to diversity in skin tone of the Cherokee people. The double-page spread of the Great New Moon Ceremony is one of my favorites; Cherokees of all ages and relation gather together to stomp-dance around the fire. The scene hums with energy and with an undercurrent of reflection, happiness, and kinship. Lessac is excellent at creating scenes of nature that feel lush and alive. Her fall scenes feel crisp, and her winter scenes feel bitingly cold. She does not shy away from color and detail in her work; each flower, tree, and plant is lovingly rendered. If you pay careful attention to each spread, you’ll find a pileated woodpecker-friend, which adds an enjoyable seek-and-find element to the book.

Part of the beauty of We Are Grateful is in how cozy it feels. Sorell’s writing flows off the tongue in an unhurried, descriptive manner, while Lessac’s illustrations are playful and familiar. The family and community in this book love and support one another in times of celebration and sadness. If we look at the Caldecott Medal definitions and criteria, two that stand out in relation to this picture book are that “the book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities and appreciations” and that we see “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme or concept.” This book was created with children in mind, to help them reflect on the meaning of being grateful, of being considerate, and of being part of something bigger than themselves. It’s also meant to be unapologetically Cherokee.

I’m so grateful for this book and the fact that Sorell put this story into the world. I’m also grateful that Lessac took time to visit Cherokee Nation to experience Cherokee culture and get all the little details right; that type of care and responsibility is crucial when creating a culturally grounded picture book for children.

Wado, Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac, for this gorgeous book!

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of We Are Grateful here.]

Alia Jones About Alia Jones

Alia Jones is a senior library services assistant with The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. She reviews for Kirkus and blogs about diverse children's literature at readitrealgood.com.

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Comments

  1. “Part of the beauty of We Are Grateful is in how cozy it feels. Sorell’s writing flows off the tongue in an unhurried, descriptive manner, while Lessac’s illustrations are playful and familiar. The family and community in this book love and support one another in times of celebration and sadness..”

    It is a very great book, and I’m very proud of Frane Lessac, who graduated the same year as I did in the same norther New Jersey high school. There is so much I want to say about this book and I will very soon, but I can’t imagine a more thorough, attuned, passionate and informed essay than the one you have written here Alia. You make an excellent point when you say “children’s literature often ignores contemporary indigenous life in favor of depicting indigenous peoples as only of the past” and that Ms. Sorrell brings to this work that lived in experience. Indeed she is a perfect storyteller to present such a story, and in Ms. Lessac she has found the ideal artistic collaborator, one who you rightly assert are lush, homey and vibrant.” There are some striking illustrative similarities in the best sense with her previous “The Mayflower” from a few years back, with the Pilgrims/Native Americans Thanksgiving canvas recalled in the “Green Corn Ceremony” first harvest depiction in “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga.”

    The book includes some ravishing spreads, with “Uligohvsdi: Fall” with its leafy human immersion.,” “Gogeyi: Spring” with its pastoral resplendence and the final glowing “Every day, every season” of Cherokee appreciation my absolute favorites. But the book is an illustrative feast on every turn of the page and one that gloriously envisions Sorell’s understanding and embrace of Cherokee Nation’s love of natural resources and also for their adopted country. Lessac has created some picture book masterpieces, and this book may well be her piece de resistance.

    So fabulous that such an impassioned and masterful qualification essay/review has been written on it, and that this book is receiving some seriously deserved Caldecott attention. I’d also like to add that Sorrell’s additions – “The Cherokee Syllabary,” Definitions” and “Cherokee Syllabary” are buffo, and that mention was made in the text and again in the Definition section of “The Trail of Tears” one of the great injustices in the history of Native American people living in the US, as we of course well know from the brilliant, deeply moving volume “Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation” by John Ehle.

    Bravo, Traci Sorell, Frane Lessac and Alia Jones!

  2. Karen MacPherson says:

    Thanks so much, Alia, for this excellent review. We had the privilege of having Traci speak at our library last month, and you have done a wonderful job of detailing the many terrific qualities of this book, and why it is important. It’s definitely one of my favorites of the year!

  3. Brenda Martin says:

    I hope not to sound like the voice of sour grapes on this one, but despite all the accolades I’m reading here and elsewhere, I’m simply not seeing this book as one of the most distinguished picture books of the year. It’s definitely an above average title for any collection serving young people, but if it didn’t have the content of the Cherokee year, would it truly stand above many others? I understand that art is subjective, but the folk art here just doesn’t seem terribly notable, and more importantly, particularly novel to me. It’s well done, admittedly. But it seems to me like a 7 or 8 among the 10s that receive the medal and honors.

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