Gold Medal # 3: SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, a review by Alexis, 21 and Charlie, 18
Tick tock, Tick tock. It's already August, 2021. Last year seemed to go on forever. This one's speeding by. Some of us are back in college or school, at home or virtual. But it's also been a landmark year for Indigenous folks.
We saw the first Native person, Michael Goade (Tlingit and Haida), win the Caldecott Medal for her illustration in the picture book We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe Indians). The book rocketed to # 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list and zinged up and down "the list" for months.
Akimel O'odham/Pima librarian Naomi Bishop, who chaired the American Indian Youth Literature Awards from 2014-2018, was honored with an I Love My Librarian! Award from ALA and was recently named distinguished Alumni from the University of Washington ischool.
Cynthia Leitich Smith of the Muscogee Creek Nation was the winner of the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature. She also launched Heartdrum: Books by Native American Authors for kids 8+, a new imprint from HarperCollins, which makes an annual donation to We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) Native Fund.
We're seeing a genuine indigenous new wave.
It's wonderful to see our elders and friends who have worked hard to make this moment happen for young Native readers finally break through and get recognition. But how are the books?
In our reading Olympics, which in typical Native-style will be awarding gold medals after the closing ceremony in Tokyo, Ashleigh, 15, praised author Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, North Dakota) and illustrator Tara Audibert's (Wolastoqey/French heritage) charming and fun Jo Jo Makoons: The-Used-To-Be-Best-Friend, the first entry in a chapter book series. It's truly the kind of book we all could have benefitted from in our early education.
To us, the most fascinating entry of the initial Heartdrum books is Smith's own original entry. Sisters of the Neversea is a wonderfully subversive, I-Can't-Put-it-down retelling of J. M. Barrie's iconic and racist novel Peter and Wendy (1911), aka Peter Pan.
Alexis: I admit to never having read the original. The repulsive Disney film was shown to my second grade class. I took a picture book tie-in of the film home from the library to my mother's horror. I liked the mermaids. Tiger Lily was aloof but fascinating. The Indian characters were so extreme they seemed both nightmarish and divorced from anything I knew in my life. (I had no choice but to see this (below) as a kid, so you have to look at it--in case you're hanging on to any nostalgia.)
Why rewrite it? From the beginning I thought it was different than retelling Wilder's Little House on the Prairie or Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While Peter Pan literally steals from American Indians, the book is distinctly English rather than a literary millstone of the American myth (and genocide). I marveled at how the book was very cleverly and adeptly turning many plot points of their head. To the point where Smith's story becomes the centerpiece, rather than what she's referring to. The book stands on it own.
That Pan. The boy that loses his shadow (spirit?). The boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. The boy who the fairy Tinker Bell is jealous of when he shows attention to Wendy. The boastful and selfish. It was always a risk to ask us to like him, though many people over a century still do.
There are so many lurid things about Smith's Neverland which don't seem exaggerated so much as a clear- eyed view of what's really happening in that colonizer's paradise. And make no mistake, that's what it's always been. Why the presence of American Indians in an English novel? Of course, Peter Pan wants to play cowboys and Indians! I don't think that only Native readers familiar with the original material will exclaim about Smith's carefully constructed, multilayered revelations: I knew it!
Tick tock. Tick tock. The clock is striking in the Roberts-Darling home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Time is drawing near. Wendy and Lily are twelve-year-old stepsisters. They share a half brother, four-year-old Michael or Mikey. Lily's brother and Wendy's stepbrother John is soon off to college. And the blended family's parents, Ms. Florence Roberts-Darling who is Muscogee Creek and Mr. George Darling who is English, are about to spilt up for the summer, dividing the kids between them on different continents. [Charlie will discuss the family's origins more fully below.] There is a spat between the usually inseparable Lily (who has anxiety and rationalizes things) and Wendy (who is all-too-ready to want to meet a mermaid). It is into this turmoil and innocence that Peter and Belle and Peter's elusive shadow make their entrance. I experienced feelings of creepiness as the sisters are divided in their paths to Neverland. In today's world, girls are warned about and scared of and taken in by predators--maybe more than ever.
'Sisters' is in the title of the book. There is a complication I won't explain which involves adoption that creates the rift between Lily and Wendy. But they find other sister figures and friends in unexpected places. The kinship between Native women, whether blood relatives, adopted or found family is a strong theme in the book. This includes Two-spirit femmes or other people Peter falsely presumed to be boys. But the boys don't suffer from a shift away from the patriarchal. Little Mikey is full of wonder and you understand why everyone wants to protect him. Wendy lands with Peter and the Lost and she's able to make headway with some of the boys who are forgetting who they were before--a terrifying amnesia Peter encourages. Lily lands on the other side of the island and joins its Native inhabitants from various nations. Their history is fascinating and imagine our happy surprise that a Florida Seminole elder left behind crucial data and forged important relationships!!!! There is enough water around our peninsula to maybe harbor a merfolk.
Tick tock. Tick tock. It's the famous crocodile. What really happened that day in Kensington Gardens? Can Peter be redeemed or does he meet his end? And was Belle Peter's pet or the other way around?
To return to the beginning of this review and We Are Water Protectors: what may be seen as a didactic environmental message in this book is actually a common Indigenous belief that the well-being of people and the land and its other inhabitants are inseparable. At the same time, Smith obviously has fun writing in the late Victorian or early Edwardian style of the original, including the insertion of an omniscient narrator. There's great richness in this remarkable novel.
Please read Smith's back matter, where she states (among many other details) that she loves Tinker Bell who has become a pop icon outside of her original trappings.
Charlie: The great artist Floyd Cooper illustrated the gorgeous cover art. He recently died and is travelling to the ancestors. Our hearts are broken for his loved ones and for the work he would have done. He said in an essential 2020 WNDB interview that creating this cover "awakened a part of me that I look forward to expressing more in the very near future--my Creek Nation spirit." The interview includes real-life treasure: his initial sketch work and how the color pallet came to be.
While one character in the book is described as Black Native, Lily and Michael never are explicitly. Though I read them that way because of Mr. Floyd's artwork. I asked Ms. Cynthia if that influenced her thinking about the blended family. She replied (and gave me permission to quote):
First, I have to talk about Floyd. The fact that his artwork depicts the Roberts-Darling children is a highlight of my creative journey. He was my first choice for the illustrator, and I literally danced with joy when he said "yes." The text was crafted in full deference of his vision—my only specific hope was that Mikey’s facial expression reflected the wonder inherent in the story. That said, without any prompting on my part, Floyd rendered that emotion so beautifully. When I saw the characters in full color, my first thought was, “There you are!” I saw Wendy as white and British, Lily as Black Muscogee, and Mikey as Black Muscogee-British American. (Though I didn’t work out a multi-generational family tree, we know that Mikey is Lily’s brother as they have the same mom and Wendy’s brother as they have the same dad.) Before his death, Floyd spoke with enthusiasm about finally having the opportunity to reflect his Muscogee heritage in his artwork, and I’m so grateful he gifted us all with such a magical painting. He is dearly missed.
We highly recommend Sisters of the Neversea and hope it becomes part of school curriculum and home libraries for as long as the source material has been around! Shonabish!!!!