Review of When We Were Alone

robertson_when we were alonestar2 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.


Alia Jones
Alia Jones

Alia Jones is a Library Assistant at the University of Cincinnati Science and Engineering Libraries. She was a member of the 2020 Caldecott Award Committee and is currently on the 2022 Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Monica Edinger

Thanks for this. Will be ordering it. Also, adding Highwater Press to my post on independent presses (

Posted : Mar 14, 2017 11:37

Debbie Reese

This exquisite book has been on the best sellers list in Canada for several weeks. I'm glad to see its star, here, from Horn Book and hope that people get it for their classrooms and libraries.

Posted : Mar 14, 2017 10:21



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.