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The Moons of Goose Island (first Nations Children’s Literary Series)

by Don K. Philpot, Margaret Hessian, illus.

Thoughtful simplicity and an interesting illustrative approach distinguish this quiet but effective story about bereavement, mourning, and healing. Launching an intended four-book series that will portray contemporary First Nations children in their communities, this first book, from a Winnipeg-based author-illustrator team, is a good start. Its themes and images definitely speak First Nations.

The story is about a boy whose life changes suddenly when his mother dies and his grandparents take him to live with them on Goose Island. Initially, the boy’s sense of loss and confusion is profound. However, with the combined influence of time, his grandparents’ wisdom, and lessons he learns caring for an abandoned gosling, he comes to terms with his grief as his awareness of nature grows.

Philpot’s text reflects his storytelling background. His sentences tend to be short, his language spare yet lyrical. He makes particularly good use of a brief prologue to establish an immediate rapport between readers and narrator. Most readers will hear a poignant echo of the boy’s own sense of abandonment in the first words he speaks to the gosling.

If there is a storytelling technique that hasn’t translated well to this book, it’s the namelessness and agelessness of the boy. The deliberate absence of detail that encourages listeners to identify freely with a character is confusing to readers looking at pictures. The text describes emotions and activities characteristic of a child, yet some of the book’s early illustrations show a character who looks like a young adult.

Although its cover has low impact, The Moons of Goose Island is interestingly illustrated. Margaret Hessian shows an affinity with nature and the First Nations characters and settings. Using black ink and gradually adding pencil crayon colour as the story progresses, she succeeds in illustrating the boy’s emotional evolution. A twisting bright yellow ribbon splashed across a two-page spread well into the story has the cheering effect of a sudden shaft of sunlight. Her use of unexpected perspectives is also stimulating: the bird’s-eye view of the boy’s bedroom suggests a spirit presence.

The Moons of Goose Island is a highly illustrated story similar in format to The Illustrated Father Goose (the children’s edition of Father Goose, which inspired the movie Fly Away Home). More than a picture book but not a full-blown juvenile novel, The Moons of Goose Island will appeal primarily to six- to nine-year-olds, the young end of the publisher’s suggested age range. However, booksellers and librarians may want to promote it to older readers because of its bereavement and First Nations themes.