When We Were Alone

illus. by Julie Flett. 24p. HighWater. Dec. 2016. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781553796732.
RedReviewStarK-Gr 3—A young girl learns about family and heritage in this gentle picture book about the legacy of Native American boarding schools. Working in the garden with her grandmother, a pigtailed girl asks why her "Nókom" wears colorful clothing and her hair in a long braid. Her grandmother explains that as a child, she was sent far away from her family to a school where she was forced to wear plain clothing and chop off her hair. "They wanted us to be like everyone else," she explains. But when they were alone, the children would cover themselves in the fall leaves and braid grasses into their hair in order to recapture the identities they left behind. As her grandmother speaks Cree to a passing bird and sits laughing with her brother, she shares how it feels to be forbidden to speak the only language you know and how stolen moments with a sibling can feel like a lifeline to home. "Now, I am always with my family," the grandmother says. Flett's spring palette of warm blues and browns punctuated with splashes of red contrasts the loving moments between grandmother and granddaughter with stark winter whites and grays depicting boarding school life. The repetitive structure creates a predictable narrative; together the illustrations and Robertson's child-centered text make the boarding school experience accessible to a young audience without glossing over its harshness.
VERDICT A poignant family story covering a part of history too often missing from library collections. A first purchase.

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