Traci Sorell Depicts Native Children in Their Full Humanity

Og the bookworm reading

Traci Sorell Depicts Native Children in Their Full Humanity

At Primrose schools, teachers use our Balanced Learning® curriculum and books to encourage children to feel a sense of belongingness and possibility. One of those books is “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” by Traci Sorell. Sorell writes children’s fiction and nonfiction about Native Americans, both prominent figures and ordinary people; her work includes picture books for young children and chapter books for adolescents.

Before she began her career as an author, Sorell was an advocate for Native nations and their citizens. She wrote legal codes, testimony for congressional hearings, federal budget requests, grants and reports. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation in northeastern Oklahoma, where she lives with her family.

We talked to her about cultural representation in children’s literature and teaching the value of gratitude to all children.

Why did you start writing books for children?

When my son was in preschool, I looked at the books he had available to him. We hadn’t moved home to the Cherokee Nation reservation yet. Our public library had traditional stories about Native peoples but very few contemporary books, and none about Cherokee people. That was concerning to me, because we are very much still here, and I don’t see that reflected in what he was finding at the library and later, in the classroom. I contacted a friend who is a professor of English and said, I think I have something to contribute here. He advised me on how to get started, so I did. That’s why I write, because I know the erasure I experienced as a child, not seeing Native peoples depicted in our full humanity, certainly not in contemporary settings, and as a parent I saw that nothing had changed.

The book takes the reader through scenes of family and community life in Cherokee Nation over the course of a year. Why did you structure the book in that way?

It’s helpful for children to see, at an early age, Native nations and their citizens are just part of our society, they’re part of our community. It’s important for kids to see that there are a variety of people who make up what it means to be Cherokee — some have blond hair, some have black hair, they have blue eyes and brown eyes. I hope children see themselves, whether they’re Cherokee or not. What does your family do in the fall, winter, spring, summer? Maybe your family has picnics, maybe you have a dog or a cat, maybe you get together with your grandparents and hear stories. Maybe you’re also planting a garden or love someone who serves in the military, all of which is depicted in the book.

Why did you focus on the theme of gratitude?

We’re taught many values as Cherokee people, but a big one is about being grateful. Cherokee New Year begins in early October and goes through the four seasons, ending with the Cherokee National Holiday. We celebrate every year with parades and powwows. We are taught to be grateful, regardless of the circumstances.

The book includes Cherokee vocabulary words, starting with the title, “Otsaliheliga,” [oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah], which means “We are grateful.” You also include the Cherokee words for each of the seasons, as well as grandmother, strawberries and others. Why include those words?

To understand that English is not the language we have always spoken. We were forced to speak English at boarding schools and by missionaries, but we have our own languages. Children can understand that languages are expressed in different ways. In English, we use letters, and in Cherokee, we use symbols. Our language is still very much part of our reality and who we are.

Time is a difficult concept to understand, even for adults. What does your book and its journey through the four seasons teach children about time?

The tree you see at the beginning of the book is the same tree you see at the end. We try to make time linear, but it’s not. We’re all connected to those who have come before us and those who come after us. The book shows a grandmother giving a baby his Cherokee name, and by the end, the baby is walking. Even as people come to the end of their life cycle, others continue, and we are still here, and we are grateful for that. The child looks like their grandparent, so that grandparent is still here, even if they have died. People live on not just in your memory, but in your DNA. We are a manifestation of our ancestors and all that they went through.

Belongingness Discussion Questions

At Primrose, the books in our classrooms help teach children that everyone belongs and that differences are to be celebrated. After you read “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” with your child, ask them these questions to reinforce these important concepts.

  • What’s something you’re grateful for?
  • What makes your family special?
  • How does your family celebrate happy times?
  • How can you contribute to your community?
  • For older children: What can you learn from others in your community?

For more interviews with authors of books in Primrose classrooms, check out:

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