Cautionary Fables & Fairy Tales, vol. 5: The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories

The Woman in the Woods and other North American Stories marks the fifth volume in the series of cautionary fables and fairy tales. The eight tales in this volume are from Indigenous nations, told and illustrated by Indigenous artists, and highlighting tales from Odawa, Chickasaw, Métis/Cree, Métis, Ojibwe, Tania, Navajo, and S’Kallam societies. The editors asked each of the authors to ask for permission from the Elders and/or nations to retell and rework the stories for inclusion in this anthology as they recognized and respected the protocol inherent in the gathering of the stories from the people. Unfortunately, there are no source notes included in the collection, making it of less value to educators, librarians, and storytellers than I had hoped. True, the intended audience is middle school readers, not scholars, but the authenticity of each of the tales should be paramount for them as well. I do appreciate the fact that each of the tribal affiliations has been identified for the tales.

While the tales are rendered in black and white with various hues of grey, the cover itself jumps with colour. Ironically, the story alluded to on the cover is not included in the collection. Editor and cover artist Alina Pete remarked that she had hoped to include the creation story of Sky Woman and Turtle Island, but she could not find anyone that had permission to tell this story. Sky Woman fell to the water-covered world and fell on the back of Turtle. One by one, the animals dive into the water to try and find land until Muskrat is successful in bringing back soil. Sky woman spreads the soil on Turtle’s back to create the world as we know it. She shows Sky Woman dancing for joy and two constellations on the back cover featuring two of the characters from the tales within the covers.

Most of the illustrations in the book itself have simple backgrounds, focusing on the characters of each tale. The different styles of illustrations make each of the stories individual in a collection continuous from tale to tale without any commentary. Most of the illustrations are rendered realistically, although one or two stories have manga-like characteristics and vary between historical and contemporary settings. They also vary in length.

The anthology begins with the Odawa creation story, “As it was told to Me,” retold and illustrated by Elijah Forbes, which demonstrates that the world needs the balance of good and bad to exist. It is followed by a trickster rabbit story about the cost of vanity from the Chickasaw people. “Chokfi” is written by Jordaan Arledge and illustrated by Mekala Nava. The next two stories are located closer to this reviewer. “White Horse Plains,” from the Métis settlement St. Francois Xavier, relates the tale of the dangers of greed and conflict. It is written and illustrated by Rhael McGregor. The second Métis tale is possibly the most familiar character in the collection for me. Written by Maija Ambrose Plamondon and illustrated by Milo Applejohn, “The Rougarou” tells the story of a werewolf like monster and a young boy who befriends the Rougarou. I must admit that while I am familiar with many Rougarou tales, this is the first time I have encountered this one. Alice RL’s Ojibwe tale of “Agonjin in the Water” relates a tale of another story of friendship between a human and a mythical creature: the mythical, Mishipeshu the Great Water Guardian of the lakes and rivers.

The Taino story that follows gave its title to the anthology. It is written and illustrated by Mercedes Acosta and also focuses on the relationship between a woman and a spirit of a young girl who sees the mysterious “Woman in the Woods.” The penultimate tale, “Into the Darkness,” is a Navaho shapeshifter tale about a character so frightful that no one dares to speak its name. It is written by Izzy Roberts and illustrated by Aubrie Warner. The final tale, written by Jeffrey Veregge and illustrated by Alina Pete, is a romantic tale from the S’Kallam people. The Moon in “By the Light of the Moon” falls in love with Octopus Woman, the Queen of the Salish Sea in Puget Sound. The bright light of the Moon makes it possible for the Moon to watch her dance and to send her kisses. The power of the kisses has a surprising repercussion.

The stories are followed by two pages of concise biographies of the creators including their tribal affiliations and, in most cases, their sexual orientations.

Recommended for middle school and public library collections. Because the book is part of the cautionary fables and fairy tales series, most of the stories have strong lessons imparted in the story line, but they are not dogmatic and do allow the power of the storytelling to shine through. I just wish there were adequate source notes—did I say that already?

Cautionary Fables & Fairy Tales, vol. 5: The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories
Edited by Kate Ashwin, Kel McDonald, Alina Pete
Iron Circus, 2022
ISBN: 9781945820977

Publisher Age Rating: 10-12
Series ISBNs and Order

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation:  Cree, Metis, Navajo, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans, Two Spirit
Character Representation: Cree, First Nations or Indigenous, Metis, Navajo

Waluk: The Great Journey

Waluk: The Great JourneyIn this book’s opening, the titular Waluk, a young polar bear orphaned as a cub, happens upon an older bear named Manitou. The two form a beneficial partnership in which Manitou shares his wisdom with the young Waluk, and Waluk helps Manitou (who’s missing a few teeth) hunt for food. The story moves through a series of episodes in which the two polar bears interact with other bears, humans, a snowy owl, and a team of sled dogs. The events of the story highlight real challenges faced by animals in the Arctic. These include difficulty finding enough food, which leads a mother polar bear to team up with Waluk and Manitou, and the encroachment of shipping lanes into the bears’ habitat as the ice caps thaw. While portraying realistic conditions, the book also contains fantastical elements such as great animals who appear in the sky to assist in times of trouble, and a giant white dog who comes to the rescue when sled dogs are threatened by their owner. 

The full-color watercolor illustrations present the animals and the Arctic landscape in beautiful detail. The book is laid out with typically four to six panels per page in a landscape style, allowing the art to take center stage, while the text per page is minimal. Characters are clearly defined, with a few brief moments when some of the polar bears can be difficult to tell apart. A clear contrast is shown between the animals with their shades of white, brown, and black, and the humans who introduce colors unnatural to the setting such as red, and yellow.

While episodic, the events of the book tie together as Waluk and Manitou encounter a pair of humans and their team of sled dogs in multiple circumstances. One small episode that stands apart from this continuity is when Waluk is briefly entangled in a research robot of some kind. This event seems out of place, though it does continue the theme of the bears facing off against human intervention. The majority of the humans present in the book cause trouble for the animals, whether intentionally or through ignorance. Nevertheless, while humans might meddle with nature, the story shows the natural world with the power to overcome those challenges. 

While Waluk: The Great Journey contains beautiful artwork and a positive message about conservation, its portrayal of the culture and mythology of indigenous Northern peoples is problematic, and the book has proved controversial. The many animals which appear in the sky at the book’s climax, along with a great dog which helps the animals, seem designed to mimic Native beliefs while not corresponding to the true mythology of any indigenous group. Furthermore, the character of Manitou was named “Eskimo” in advance copies of the book and later changed. Scattered textual errors, probably due to translation problems, make the text awkward in places. It is unfortunate that a book with such beautiful artwork and an important message about protecting the environment is marred by cultural insensitivity. 

Waluk: The Great Journey
By Emilio Ruiz
Art by Ana Miralles
Abrams, 2021
ISBN: 9781951719050

Publisher Age Rating: grades 4-6

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Spanish
Character Representation: First Nations or Indigenous,

A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars

This review is on the first three of four volumes of a visually poignant and enthralling graphic novel series about the Métis people of western Canada. The fourth and final volume, The Road Allowance Era, is forthcoming in April 2021. Contrasting the critical Canadian historical events with contemporary Echo’s current story, the series reveals how past governmental policies have shaped the current day experiences of a people.

Echo Desjardins, a thirteen-year-old Métis girl discovers that she has the magical ability to time travel back and forth to witness important events in Canadian Métis history. For readers outside of Canada, the Métis  have a distinct collective identity, with customs and culture, that are unique from Indigenous or European roots. Their roles in Western Canadian history have been contentious and distinctive, and often persists to be misconstrued and ignored today.  Echo’s magic allows her, and the reader, to more fully understand critical events of 19th century Canadian history and their repercussions through the individual entries in the series:  The Pemmican Wars, the Red River Resistance, and the Northwest Resistance.

Echo, an extremely quiet and reserved teen, is in a new foster home, missing her mother, and attending a new school when she first slips through time, and back, while attending her social studies class. These vivid and active time slips offer insight and augment her knowledge about her own family background, heritage, and history.  Present day Echo is mostly silent as is a large portion of the graphic novel series, superbly written by Katherena Vermette, an award-winning Métis poet and writer and effectively and brilliantly illustrated by Scott B. Henderson and coloured by Donovan Yaciuk. Their combined understanding of the issues, landscape, and people of the area bring an added vitality and realism to the series. Much of the story arc is delivered by narration boxes augmented by brief dialogue amongst characters mostly in the historical sections of the story. Poignant images throughout the series are those of “Mom’s play list” that Echo constantly listens to when not attending classes. The importance of the music and the connection with her mother are echoed (pardon the pun) in all the cover illustrations where her earbuds are resolutely visible as part of her personality.

In the first volume, Echo, a troubled and lonely teen, finds herself, without warning, transported out of her Winnipeg, Manitoba social studies classroom into a buffalo hunt in 1814 in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan during The Pemmican Wars. [1] During the following few weeks, Echo finds herself transported back and forth in time to visit the old fur-trade routes and a Métis camp where she is befriended by a young girl. Oddly enough, the fact that Echo remains in her contemporary clothing does not seem to evoke notice or comment by anyone in the historical segments. The volume concludes with Echo sharing her new found knowledge with her mother as she visits with her in her group home.  I was enchanted by the school library sequences in this volume and the selection of books that Echo selects to read.

Echo’s story is continued in volume 2 when she travels between her contemporary life and a Métis community in 1869 during the Red River Resistance.[2]  Her contemporary life seems to be settling down as Echo adjusts to the school, the foster home, the visits with her mother, and the continual discovery of her Métis heritage and history. A delightful humourous aside occurs in a illustration of the bake sale sign up sheet where Echo signs her name below that of Katherena Vermette (page 14). Echo shares her time slip adventures with Benjamin, a young Métis man she meets when first transported into this historical era. The volume concludes with Echo in tears as she witnesses her new friends being forced to leave their land.

The third volume begins with Echo’s mother coming to stay with her in the foster home. Echo’s historical travels take her to 1885, to the Northwest Resistance.[3] Riel has returned from exile to resist encroaching forces to ensure his people’s rights. Amongst the chaos Echo meets Josephine, Benjamin’s daughter. She also discovers, in conversations with her mother, a treasury of family photographs and her family tree. Benjamin is her grandmother’s great grandfather who lived to be 102, living through both resistances. The series will conclude with Volume 4, The Road Allowance Era.

Through the insight of major past events, Echo develops her own strength and sense of belonging. She is no longer the lost and lonely individual that related more to the playlist on her iPhone than the people around her. I eagerly await to see how it all comes together by the end of volume 4. I have included footnotes for readers who may not be aware of the struggles of the Métis people and much of their history is largely unknown.

The vibrant colour palate, the realistic illustrations, and the creative panel layout add to the vivacity of the history and the tales being told. Effective depiction of body language and facial features plus the historical accuracy of the writing and art make this series a highly recommended purchase for middle school, high school, public library, and academic library collections. Each volume includes a brief time line of the historical era explored in that volume plus additional material such as a recipe for pemmican, brief introductions to admirable historical characters, and maps.

[1] The Pemmican War was a series of armed confrontations during the North American fur trade between the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) in the years following the establishment of the Red River Colony in 1812. It ended in 1821 when the NWC merged with the HBC. Unlike the Hudson’s Bay Company, which imported most of its provisions from England, the NWC relied heavily upon locally procured pemmican, the majority of which was purchased from the local Métis. Pemmican was made of dried buffalo meat pounded into a powder and mixed with melted buffalo fat.

[2] The Red River Rebellion (or the Red River Resistance, Red River uprising, or First Riel Rebellion) was the sequence of events that led up to the 1869 establishment of a provisional government by the Métis leader Louis Riel at the Red River Colony, in what is now Manitoba.

[3] The North-West Rebellion of 1885 was a rebellion by the Métis led by Louis Riel against the Canadian government. Many Métis felt that Canada was not protecting their rights, their land, and their survival as a distinct people. During the rebellion, Riel was captured, put on trial, and convicted of treason. Despite many pleas across Canada for clemency, he was hanged. Riel became a heroic martyr to the Métis and Francophone Canada.

A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars
By Katherena Vermette
Art by Scott B. Henderson and Donovan Yaciuk


Highwater Press, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Teen
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: First Nations or Indigenous
Creator Highlights: Metis
Related to…: Book to Comic

Seen: Edmonia Lewis

This is the first of a new nonfiction graphic novel series highlighting, as the series says, “marginalized trailblazers.” This volume tells the story of the life of Edmonia Lewis, a Black/Ojibway woman born in 1844 in New York, who triumphed over prejudices against her race and sex, the challenges of poverty and lack of education, to become a well-known sculptor.

Information on her early life is sketchy, but she apparently spent much of her childhood with her Ojibway aunts, after her parents’ death. Her brother, who supported her artistic career, followed his father’s career as a barber from the age of twelve. Supported by abolitionists, Lewis struggled to get an education despite prejudices against her race and sex, present even in the partially-integrated schools available. Her college career at Oberlin ended disastrously, when she was falsely accused of poisoning two of her classmates and attacked and left for dead before the trial. Although she was acquitted, the school continued to suspect her and, accusing her of theft, forced her to leave without matriculating.

She started her sculpting career in Boston, under the aegis of the Abolitionist movement, and then traveled to Italy with the help of various Abolitionist patrons. There she found her skin color less of a hindrance than her sex and poverty, but she continued to forge her own pathway, although she sometimes angered her patrons and fellow sculptors. She reached the zenith of her career with her sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. After this triumph, she returned to Rome, but the changing artistic trends and decline in the popularity of Neoclassic sculpture eventually left her in obscurity. She eventually moved to London and died there in 1907. Her greatest work fell into obscurity only a few years after its exhibition and was only found and restored in the 1990s. Contemporaries and visitors of Lewis reported her as continuing to work and maintain her bright and cheerful personality until her death. She maintained a close relationship with her brother, who continued to support her as well.

Notes, sources, and an extensive study guide are included in this slim volume. The art is detailed and focuses on red-tinged earth hues. Edmonia is shown as a determined, strong woman with curly black hair, dark brown skin, and a red cap perched on her curls. She moves through the panels as the central figure in a swirl of historical characters and her white contemporaries. Her Neoclassic style is well-represented in the lines and faces of her white marble statues and busts. While the art focuses primarily on faces and the eponymous “talking heads,” action and interest is added by interposing examples of Lewis’ work and shifting from panels to spreads of her surrounded by action and movement as she moves through her career.

The unique subject matter, accessible art, and extensive resources for teaching in the back (they include educational standards, a multiplicity of questions on the art and subject, and educational activities) should make this a stand-out title. However, there’s one serious problem – the size and layout of the book. It’s a tiny volume, 7×5 inches, and the font and art is correspondingly reduced. While there is plenty of detail and emotion in the faces shown, it’s difficult to catch the nuances when the faces are so tiny and many readers will find the small size of the font frustrating. At less than a hundred pages, this title will quickly disappear on a shelf or be lost and only the most dedicated readers are likely to work through the small size of the font.

Nonfiction graphic novels are extremely popular with my middle school and high school readers, the best audience for this small but dense volume, but sadly, this one is likely to go unnoticed. However, with its very affordable price point and availability in paperback, schools may find it useful to purchase in bulk for a class read. The publisher appears to be planning one volume per year (Rachel Carson in 2021 and Willem Arondeus in 2022) and I can only hope that they will perhaps consider binding them into one large volume and enlarging the art and text to correspond.

Seen: Edmonia Lewis
By Jasmine Walls
Art by Bex Glendining, Kieran Quigley (Colorist), DC Hopkins (Letters)
ISBN: 9781684156344
Boom, 2020
Publisher Age Rating:
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Character Traits: Black First Nations or Indigenous
Creator Highlights: Black

Black Stars Above

The very first page of Black Stars Above is a large, white box with small, cursive narrative text; so let’s start with the lettering by Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou. This comic is not only a slow-burn horror story by way of historical fiction, but it is also strongly dependent on characters’ journal entries providing the narration. Other textual effects include more standard lettering on spoken dialog, which uses carats to mark whether characters are speaking Michif or French, and white-on-black lettering inside of jagged speech bubbles for noises made by an alien creature. At the midway point of the story, the comic transitions into eight full pages of journal entries, with a couple of sketches included. Ostmane-Elhaou’s use of small, cursive font for journal entries will force readers to slow down as they scan through pages, and the effect this has on purely visual pages cannot be understated.

The second page of Black Stars Above is a wordless, four-panel sequence of some lynx traveling across snowy land; so let’s talk about more of the visual elements of this book. At the brightest of times, the Canadian wilderness is depicted as a gray wilderness with snow storms either taking over the horizon or directly flurrying the panels. A good deal of the comic takes place during dusk or nighttime, with lanterns and moonlight acting as dramatic light sources for the protagonist. Brad Simpson’s coloring is able to find a suitable range of hues for each situation, whether it’s the warm fireplace colors of a cabin, the cold blues and silvers of the snowy dark, or touches and waves of red as the story becomes more disturbing and violent. As mentioned before, the wordless segments of the story feel carefully paced to complement the dense use of text, making this a difficult comic to skim or skip through unless readers want to cheat themselves by “fast forwarding” to the horror reveals. Jenna Cha’s artwork and thoughtful paneling, which considers characters’ movements throughout each scene, deserves full consideration from beginning to end. Her talents include rendering a silhouette in a snowstorm, use of upside-down perspectives to visually suggest transitions that physically occur later, and eldritch creatures given a wintry spin that makes them simultaneously off-putting and kind of cute.

The third and fourth pages see the narrator and lynx meet; so let’s describe the actual story here. Lonnie Nadler’s script can be broken into three acts, each centering on Eulalie Dubois, a young woman on the Canadian frontier who yearns to escape her rural existence. In the first act, she struggles against the constricting expectations of her parents, including her First Nations mother and French father, who plan to marry her off to a nearby suitor. In the second act, Eulalie attempts to deliver a mysterious package on her own, with the hope of earning enough money to buy her independence. In the third act, the senses are assaulted as Eulalie travels to the eponymous black stars and discovers all kinds of freakiness and rituals. Images of cosmic horror that are briefly displayed or hinted at in the first couple of chapters receive thorough payoff in the latter half of the book, like a prestige horror film that plays with themes and setting but doesn’t forget to deliver the bloody goods. Far from schlock or grindhouse thrills, the journey of Black Stars Above could be described in Eulalie’s words as, “delirium walking hand in hand with awe.” People aren’t getting graphically murdered, or at all, but the book’s surreal imagery around madness, alien creatures, and disruption to the natural order is highly suggestive.

Where content warnings are concerned teens and older who know the word “cthulu” will be uniquely excited to follow this book’s immersive bread crumbs into madness. Animals are skinned and gutted, including the sight of an animal fetus dead in the womb. Creatures’ eyes drip black goo, and there is a brief scene of a topless woman. The literary tone that permeates the text, along with the less than accessible cursive font, means a good amount of focus will be required, but will also lead toward immense satisfaction and hope for a sequel in the same vein.

Black Stars Above
By Lonnie Nadler
Art by Jenna Cha
ISBN: 9781939424532
Vault Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: First Nations or Indigenous Characters Multiracial,
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator

La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo

La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo is a book that aims to fill a gap in the historical record, highlighting the contributions of Ramon Jaurigue (Tata Rambo) to the Pascua Yaqui tribe in Arizona and the Mexican American Yaqui Organization (M.A.Y.O.). Ramon Jaurigue is the great-grandfather of the book’s writer, Henry Barajas, who channels his background as a journalist into piecing together Jaurigue’s story through interviews, oral histories, newspaper clippings, and the scant recorded history available through his public library.

The story opens in 2015, with Barajas taking an aging Jaurigue to a protest, relating to the reader that it may be the last march he would be able to attend, before traveling back in time to 1969. The book traces Ramon’s involvement with M.A.Y.O. to protest the construction of the I-10 highway, which would have further displaced around 12,000 members of the Indigenous Yaqui community. A vital step to blocking the measure is to get the tribe recognized by the federal government, an ongoing five-year-long struggle depicted over the course of the book. Barajas includes both community-oriented anecdotes and personal stories, with tension slowly building as more time dedicated to the community often seemed to mean less time he spent with his own family.

Barajas re-appears in the story several times, but always briefly and as a supporting character, prompting the reader to think of Jaurigue’s legacy and how history is recorded and remembered. The storyline can feel a little stunted with abrupt transitions between scenes, which may reflect Barajas’s difficulty with piecing together his great-grandfather’s story. But as a result, Barajas represents key moments in the history of the M.A.Y.O. without losing the facts in too much fictionalized connective tissue.

The art is very bold and stylized, with thick black outlines—almost any panel looks like it could be made into a poster. The color palette centers around shades of red, blue, and yellow, invoking traditional comic book colors, but with a twist—shades of teal and turquoise, deep red-orange, and muted sunflower yellow—that also references the American Southwest. The consistent use of these colors brings some unity to the disjointed scene changes.

In the book’s foreword, scholar Frederick Luis Aldama stresses the importance of corrective counter-narratives that balance our understanding of American history with appropriate, truthful representations of people of color. He describes how comics have become an important medium is this regard, and La Voz de M.A.Y.O. is an excellent example.

After the story, the book includes a two-page interview between Barajas and Congressman Raul Grijalva; five full issues of the titular newsletter, La Voz de M.A.Y.O.; various newspaper clippings; and a five-page letter from Ramon himself. Barajas has produced a well-rounded work that would be easy to place in a classroom curriculum, with a wonderful opportunity for studying primary texts alongside a historical narrative.

Librarians wishing to shelve this book and teachers looking to teach with it should be aware of the following content warnings: police brutality, brief depictions of colonial violence, and brief depictions of war.

La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo
By Henry Barajas
Art by J. Gonzo
ISBN: 9781534313637
Image, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: T+ (Teen Plus)

Browse for more like this title
Character Traits: Pascua Yaqui, Mexican American
Creator Highlights: Latinx Creator, Chicano Creator