Both of these books feature beautiful faces on their covers. Because I am a Girl invites us in with a shyly smiling African child, dressed in colourful printed fabrics, her arm raised as though volunteering for a task or to answer a question. Dreaming in Indian shows an androgynous face composed of collage elements in tones of ochre, its expression strong and challenging. Both covers alert us that we’ve moved beyond mainstream Canadian culture but give highly contrasting messages as to what they’re offering their young audience.
Because I am a Girl’s author, Rosemary McCarney, is president and CEO of Plan Canada, an organization dedicated to the rights of children and the force behind an initiative to end gender inequality worldwide. The book relates the stories of eight girls whose situations and experiences each represent one tenet of the “Because I am a Girl Manifesto.” For example, Maryuri from Peru was pulled out of school by her father. Her teacher finally convinced Maryuri’s mother to pressure the father to allow the girl to continue her education. She learned business skills, started her own snow-cone stand, and supported her family while earning enough for further education. Her story is the exemplar of the belief, “Because I am a girl I will pull my family out of poverty if you give me a chance.” Interspersed between the narratives are statistical nuggets (“39,000 girls under the age of 18 are married every day”) and sidebars on issues such as clean water, microfinance, and the significance of universal birth registration.
The collection takes a happy-ending approach; on every page we see photos of healthy-looking, nicely dressed, smiling girls. While Maryuri’s story matches this approach, some do not. The facts surrounding Kathryn’s escape from the nightmare of South Sudan – including a 200-kilometre walk to a refugee camp in Uganda, standing in line for 12 hours to get water, and losing both her parents – are so devastating that the final line of her story, “it’s my job to be the heart of my community because I am a girl,” feels unconvincing. The book tackles some uncomfortable issues (such as girls in certain parts of Uganda being forced to stay home from school during menstruation because of a lack of feminine hygiene products), but the general spirit of the book is upbeat and empowering.
Dreaming in Indian also traces and promotes fundamental social change but it does so with more attitude. Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, both experienced editors and anthologists, have gathered a collection of indigenous stories, poems, songs, essays, art, and photography in a hectic, colourful, startling book. In it, we are introduced to people who have succeeded in what author Lee Maracle calls the struggle to “go forward, into modernity, onto the global stage, without leaving our ancient selves behind.” Among them are a chef, a comedian, a jingle dress dancer, a make-up artist, an actress, a break dancer, a throat singer, a fashion designer, and a novelist. Many have surprising sources of strength. Tsimshian artist Kelli Clifton talks about her reaction to the Disney movie Pocahontas: “She was everything that the Aboriginal woman seen on the nightly news wasn’t. She could sing, she could swim, she gathered food, she was confident, the boys loved her – but most important, she had dark skin and dark hair, just like me.”
There is much here to celebrate, but the collection does not allow the reader the luxury of complacency. Woven in among the gorgeous shoe designs, the self-mocking photo installation “4 Reservation Food Groups,” and an essay on how hunting is, for one urban office worker, a “reset button,” are more painful pieces, from memories of residential schools to a stark account of bullying to a starker account of a day in the life of a sex-trade worker.
The contributors range from Joseph Boyden to Macheshuu Needganagwedgin, a Grade 3 student in Edmonton. I have never seen an anthology that treats adult and child contributors so equally. The take-away? For me it was hidden on a page of thoughts from children of the Horse Lake First Nation in Alberta. Responding to the question, “What gives you strength?” a girl named Madison writes a list in tiny printing: “Working out. Help. Pain. Family. Sports. Anger. Love.”
These two books should be on coffee tables, not because they’re luxury tomes but because they need to be at the centre of our conversations. The old ideas are obviously not working very well for us. These books suggest new ones.