The Stories for All Project: Native American Author Joe Bruchac on Growing Up on the Reservation and the Power of Books

Our guest blogger today is author Joseph Bruchac, whose book “Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path”, from Lee & Low Books, is part of First Book’s Stories For All Project.

What does a book mean to a child? A book all his or her own? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have books. I was raised by my grandparents in a house full of books that belonged to my grandmother. I loved to pull the books off the shelves and look through them, even when I didn’t understand most of the words.

But what meant the most to me was having my own books. It wasn’t easy to get books when I was a child. This was long before Borders, Barnes & Noble, and ordering books online. We lived in a small rural town, far from the nearest bookstore. One of the most exciting things for me was when my grandmother drove me to Glens Falls, twenty miles away, where there was a bookstore with a small children’s section. For the two dollars saved from my monthly allowance, I could buy a book—usually about nature—such as one of those in the Old Mother West Wind series by Thornton W. Burgess. All the way home I’d sit in the back of our old blue Plymouth, clutching that new book, eager to open its pages and be lost in the world it created for me.

That was more than sixty years ago. Do books still hold that sort of magic for children? Is having a book of one’s very own meaningful to a child in the 21st century when mobile devices make it possible to connect with the world in ways unimaginable in my childhood?

I firmly believe the answer is yes. It’s not just because I write books for young readers. My belief is based on what I’ve seen and continue to see when I visit schools. Kids cherish their books. Sometimes they express it to me in person or through letters and e-mails that they write to me, saying how much they’ve enjoyed a book, asking questions, and even offering suggestions for additional books I ought to write about the same character. When I see fifty excited third graders standing in line waiting for their chance to have their books signed by the author, I am certain that connection between children and a personal copy of a book is still strong.

I’ve seen this connection in children from every conceivable ethnic and economic background. It’s been my good fortune to be able to frequently visit schools on Indian reservations and in inner cities. There, rather than having a home full of books, children’s own first book may be the only one in the house.

Several years ago I did author visits to schools on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is perhaps the most economically disadvantaged community in the United States, situated far from any place where jobs can be found. Even the water on most of the rez is undrinkable and pure water must be brought in by tanker trucks. Levels of alcoholism, suicide, and abuse are shockingly high. Yet some of the finest people I’ve ever met still live on Pine Ridge.

I was being taken around by one of the school bus drivers. As we passed his house—a single story dwelling not much larger than an average two-car garage—he turned to me.

“Know how many kids we have living with us?”

I shook my head.

“Eleven,” he said. “Only four of them are ours. The rest are all kids who were homeless.”

I just nodded. He wasn’t looking for praise, simply letting me know how things were. The traditional Lakota way is to view all children as your own, to care for any child in need.

Then he smiled. “Today,” he said, “every one of those kids is going to get a book.”

And later that day, when one of those children handed me her copy of my book Jim Thorpe’s Bright Path, she said, “I really like where this book takes me.”

Love the Stories For All Project? Want more?

Latina Author Guadalupe Garcia McCall, “The library at school fed my mind. I was able to borrow as many books as I could ever read, and I read a lot. I wanted to own books too… but books were luxuries we couldn’t afford.”

African American Author Tony Medina, “This boy exclaimed about me, the author, ‘How does he know about my life?'”

Latina Author Pat Mora, “I wish you could see the smiles of Spanish-speaking children when, in reading one of my books to them, I say a word in Spanish.”

To learn more about our awesome Stories For All Project partner, Lee & Low Books, check out their blog.

image of a young woman laying in the grass, smiling and reading a book. There is light blue boxes with purple text that say, 'Share Your Favorite Summer Read for Our New Online Album. Take a selfie with your favorite summer read and upload it by July 22 to celebrate our First Book family and the work we’re doing together! Send your selfie.'