Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith
Title: Jingle Dancer
Illustrator: Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
Publisher: Morrow Junior Books
Publication Date: 2000
ISBN: 0-688-16241-X

Jenna, a girl of Muscogee (Creek) and Ojibway (Chippewa/Anishinabe) descent, dreams of dancing the jingle dance in the next powwow, a family tradition. She practices by following every movement made by her grandmother on a video tape. Finally, she asks for her grandmother’s permission. When Jenna gets approval, she has to find enough jingles to make her dress sing. There is not enough time to order the jingles, so Jenna visits neighbors and relatives, asking each of them to lend her one row from their dress. She did not want the other dresses to “lose their voices.” Finally, she has enough jingles. Together, Jenna and her grandmother sew the jingles on Jenna’s dress, and she is able to perform in the powwow.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and writes fiction for children based on modern-day American Indians, a much needed area in children’s literature. Jingle Dancer is a beautifully illustrated and written portrayal of a modern-day Native American girl and her family, a rare treasure to include in your collection. An author’s note at the end provides information on the main character’s heritage (Muscogee and Ojibway, the same as the Smith’s heritage) and community (Oklahoma), the Creek Nation, the story of Bat told by ‘Great-aunt Sis’, the Ojibway people, the jingle dance and dress, the customs surrounding a new dancer, and the importance of the number four which is believed by some Native Americans to be a sacred number symbolizing “the four directions, four seasons, four stages of life, and four colors of man.” A glossary contains the four terms used in the story: fry bread, Indian taco, powwow, and regalia. The information provided combined with the author’s background establishes the authenticity of Jingle Dancer as written by someone who is part of the community.

Being a story about dancing, rhythm and voice are important elements to convey. Smith has successfully integrated these elements through imagery and repetition. “Tink, tink, tink, tink, sang cone-shaped jingles.” Jenna’s heart beat to the “brum, brum, brum, brum of the powwow drum.” The number four is used in the repetition of sounds and in the number of rows of jingles Jenna needs to give her dress a voice. “As Moon kissed Sun good night,” “As Sun fetched morning,” “As Sun arrived at midcircle,” “As Sun caught a glimpse of Moon,” and “As Moon glowed pale,” are phrases used to poetically illustrate the time of day, a link to the natural cycles of the earth. At every house Jenna visits in her quest to acquire enough jingles for her dress to sing, she asks to borrow enough jingles to make one row “not wanting to take so many that the dress would lose its voice.”

The life of a modern-day Native American is revealed through the characters’ occupations, home, and dress. The beautiful watercolor illustrations add details to the story, placing it in the here and now and demonstrate that not all Native Americans today live in poverty. Jenna watches Grandma Wolfe dance on a videotape. Modern-day furnishings, a sofa, a TV, a family room carpet, bookshelf, and lamp, surround Jenna as she practices her dancing. She dances down the street to Great-aunt Sis’s porch, passing middle-class suburban homes and cars. Mrs. Scott’s kitchen shines bright with sunlight on modern-day appliances as they prepare the dough for fry bread, the same type of food Mrs. Scott will be selling at the powwow. Cousin Elizabeth and Jenna carry files from the law firm into the apartment. Even with the modern-day setting, touches of their Native American heritage can be seen in the background including hand woven baskets and blankets, the pattern on the family room carpet, the pouch Jenna carries with the jingles inside, the barrette worn by Mrs. Scott, the dream catcher hanging in Cousin Elizabeth’s house, and, of course, the dresses and beaded moccasins.

A simple plot, to find enough jingles to make her dress sing, is used to demonstrate the love and respect each character feels for each other in the extended family and close-knit modern Native American community. The love and respect Jenna feels for Grandma Wolfe, her Great-aunt Sis, Mrs. Scott, and her Cousin Elizabeth is demonstrated through Jenna’s actions as she visits. Each of them is within walking distance. Jenna puts her head on Grandma Wolf’s shoulder and mimics her dance steps from the video. She listens to the traditional story told by her Great-aunt Sis and kisses her on the cheek. She helps Mrs. Scott make the dough for fry bread and gives her a high five, and she carries in her Cousin Elizabeth’s files and clasps her hands in thanks. In the end, Jenna dances, not for herself, but ...”for Great-aunt Sis, whose legs ached, for Mrs. Scott, who sold fry bread, for Elizabeth, who worked on her big case, and for Grandma Wolfe, who warmed like Sun. Tink, tink, tink, tink.”

Review excerpts:
Booklist (May 15, 2000) “The colorful, will-executed watercolor illustrations lend warmth to the story.” (Ages 4-7)

Horn Book (Fall 2000) “The author is deliberately showing us, it would seem, that all Native Americans are not poor or live on rundown reservations. A useful portrayal of an important cultural event in a Creek girl’s year.” (5-9)

Library Talk (September/October 2000) “This book would be a welcome addition to any elementary library.... Highly recommended.”

Publishers Weekly (May 15, 2000) “Smith, a mixed-blood member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, convincingly juxtaposes cherished Native American tradition and contemporary lifestyle in this smooth debut.” (Ages 4-10)

School Library Journal (July 2000) “Seeing Jenna as both a modern girl in the suburban homes of her intertribal community and as one of many traditionally costumed participants at the powwow will give some readers a new view of a contemporary Native American way of life.... This picture book will not only satisfy a need for materials on Native American customs, but will also be a welcome addition to stories about traditions passed down by the women of a culture.” (K-Gr 3)

Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies 2001
2 x 2 Reading List (Texas Library Association) 2001
Oklahoma Book Award finalist 2001
Storyteller Award finalist from the Western Writers Association 2002
CCBC Choice 2001
Read Across Texas Bibliography (Texas State Library and Archives Commission) list 2002
Michigan Reader’s Choice Award List 2002

Jingle Dancer can be used to introduce the continued importance of dance to many modern-day Native Americans, specifically the Muscogee (Creek) and Ojibway (Chippewa/Anishinabe). History of these tribes can be studied through nonfiction books like The Creeks by Jill Ward (2010) or The Creek by Liz Sonneborn. These books discuss the history and traditions of the Creek tribes of Native Americans. The Ojibwa Indians by Bill Lund (1999) and The Ojibwa by Michelle Lomberg (2004) examines the past and present lives of the Ojibwa people including homes, communities, clothing, food, tools, weapons, defense, religion and beliefs, ceremonies and celebrations, music and dance, language and storytelling, and art. Websites like that from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation (http://www.muscogeenation-nsn.gov/), Native American Facts for Kids (http://bigorrin.org/chippewa_kids.htm ) by Orrin Lewis, a Cherokee, or, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (http://www.llojibwe.com/) should be included to compare information provided by the books for authenticity.

Study the jingle dance by visiting its history on the Manataka American Indian Council site (http://www.manataka.org/page685.html) or the Gathering of Nations site (http://www.gatheringofnations.com/educational/powwow_dancers/index.htm). View videos of jingle dancers at powwows from across the country by performing a videos search on Google for ‘jingle dance’. Include a visit from a local Native American tribe during which they may share some of their traditions such as the Gathering of Nations traveling show (http://www.gatheringofnations.com/traveling_show/index.htm).


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