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Crossing Bok Chitto

Booklist 5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars
*Starred Review* Gr. 2-4. In a picture book that highlights rarely discussed intersections between Native Americans in the South and African Americans in bondage, a noted Choctaw storyteller and Cherokee artist join forces with stirring results. Set "in the days before the War Between the States, in the days before the Trail of Tears," and told in the lulling rhythms of oral history, the tale opens with a Mississippi Choctaw girl who strays across the Bok Chitto River into the world of Southern plantations, where she befriends a slave boy and his family. When trouble comes, the desperate runaways flee to freedom, helped by their own fierce desire (which renders them invisible to their pursuers) and by the Choctaws' secret route across the river. In her first paintings for a picture book, Bridges conveys the humanity and resilience of both peoples in forceful acrylics, frequently centering on dignified figures standing erect before moody landscapes. Sophisticated endnotes about Choctaw history and storytelling traditions don't clarify whether Tingle's tale is original or retold, but this oversight won't affect the story's powerful impact on young readers, especially when presented alongside existing slave-escape fantasies such as Virginia Hamiltons's The People Could Fly (2004) and Julius Lester's The Old African (2005). Jennifer Mattson
The New York Times
“Crossing Bok Chitto,” by Tim Tingle, a story teller and folklorist, tells a tale with a happier ending, but its journey is no less a departure from the narrative of American uplift. In Mississippi, a Choctaw girl and a black slave boy join forces when his mother is sold: he knows how to become invisible to whites, she knows how to cross the river to escape them. They do not go north, to be with the enlightened white abolitionists. Instead, his family disappears into the fog — illustrated with a symbolic, almost Japanese simplicity, by Jeanne Rorex Bridges — and out of American bondage.

“In stories or in life, trouble comes,” Tingle writes; in literature for children, this is a lesson as old as the Grimms. But these realities cut deeper than any fantasy. Even young children recognize the Wicked Stepmother as an archetype. Will the children who read these books recognize the white people in them as the white people in their lives or in their own families?
The New York Times
Children’s Books: New York Times Book Review, August 12, 2006
By Simon Rodberg

  • MALIAN’S SONG By Marge Bruchac Illustrated by William Maughan. Unpaged. The Vermont Folklife Center. $16.95. (Ages 6 to 10)

  • CROSSING BOK CHITTO A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom By Tim Tingle. Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. Unpaged. Cinco Puntos Press. $17.95. (Ages 8 to 12)

  • THE OLD AFRICAN By Julius Lester Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. 79pp. Dial Books. $19.99. (Ages 9 and up)


In the elementary classroom, at least, multiculturalism has succeeded. Schoolchildren now learn about the American journey as the coming-together of diverse cultures, with not just Pilgrims but Native Americans and Africans and, more recently, Latinos and Asians walking along the national trail. Even in this updated version, ours is a triumphalist travelogue: from slavery to freedom; from poverty to riches; e pluribus, unum. Sure, the new children’s literature suggests, we have our problems, but eventually we gather everyone with us into the future.

Three new children’s books radically challenge this myth, with alternative narratives and alternative dreams. In each, the journey of escape leads not into a bright American future, but out of an American nightmare. As a slave puts it in “The Old African ” (2005), by Julius Lester, “I don’t know what’s in Africa, but I sho’ know what’s here. . . . I believe I’ll take a chance on what I don’t know rather than to keep on living with what I do.” This is the classic voice of the American immigrant, reversed.

Unlike the multicultural mythos of America, these brilliant books are not feel-good, not melting-pot optimistic. They are as difficult as the real histories they tell, and they insist not only on diversity but on difference. They force parents and teachers to confront just how harsh a truth we can teach our children.

Marge Bruchac’s “Malian’s Song,” set in an Abenaki village in Canada in the 18th century, starts with the Native American idyll beloved by the 60’s generation (and their children). William Maughan’s lush palette illustrates Abenaki folkways, from catching fish to a breakfast of corn porridge, dried blue berries and maple sugar. The book feels almost “ by the shores of Gitche Gumee” — until “the White Devil” appears. “Awanagiak, strangers,” warns a scout, “come at dawn . . . burn village!” Flames obscure the moon: the English soldiers have arrived. Malian, an Abenaki girl, flees into the night, and sings, “I am lonesome; I am lonesome. . . . There is no friend anywhere.” This true story, about a 1759 attack north of Montreal, shows the other side of our multicultural history: a violent taking, not a joining.

“Crossing Bok Chitto,” by Tim Tingle, a story teller and folklorist, tells a tale with a happier ending, but its journey is no less a departure from the narrative of American uplift. In Mississippi, a Choctaw girl and a black slave boy join forces when his mother is sold: he knows how to become invisible to whites, she knows how to cross the river to escape them. They do not go north, to be with the enlightened white abolitionists. Instead, his family disappears into the fog — illustrated with a symbolic, almost Japanese simplicity, by Jeanne Rorex Bridges — and out of American bondage.

“In stories or in life, trouble comes,” Tingle writes; in literature for children, this is a lesson as old as the Grimms. But these realities cut deeper than any fantasy. Even young children recognize the Wicked Stepmother as an archetype. Will the children who read these books recognize the white people in them as the white people in their lives or in their own families?

The hero of “The Old African” thinks the skin of slave traders is “white like sorrow.” The traders remind newly captured men of “Mwene Puto, the Lord of the Dead, who was the color of bones.” The book’s first words convey fierce anger at the horrors of history. “The boy’s wrists were tied so that his arms hugged the trunk of the large oak tree. His face was pressed against it as if it were the bosom of the mother he had never known. His back glistened red with blood. Whack!”

“The Old African” depicts the brutality of the slave trade with stunning effect. Jerry Pinkney’s emotion-filled illustrations match the honesty of Julius Lester’s text; the hold of the slave ship, with dozens of emaciated, twisted bodies crammed into the page, is as horrifying as painting can be. The journey to America is a descent into hell.

These books reject the idea that there is one American history, or even several compatible stories. The Old African never says a word on American shores. “You can only talk if there is someone who understands,” he thinks. “No one in this new place could. Then how could he speak?” This incompatibility will pain both liberal multiculturalists and conservative unifiers.

The story we now teach our children is of American openness, of possibility in variety. At the school where I work, almost all the students are black or Latino and poor. We assign research papers on black mathematicians and hold assemblies for Hispanic Heritage Month , and tell students: “This country is yours, too.” If history is meant to hold lessons for living, these children’s books offer a more complex moral, and hope, for personal and cultural survival. Strikingly, each book ends with an afterword of closely printed text, the story behind the story. “Malian’s Song” turns out to stem from Abenaki elders and their descendants who refused “to live in fear. . . . They are finally speaking the truth about the past, and sharing their knowledge with anyone who is willing to listen.” In “Crossing Bok Chitto,” Tim Tingle writes, “We do not deny that darkness exists, but we chose to walk in light . . . as long as our stories are told, we can be Choctaw forever.”

These authors connect the traumas of the past to the telling of those traumas without compromise. The Old African learns “how to hold the hurting in a heart so it would not break, how to keep the living alive — and the dead too.” These stories ask the same of us.
- August 12, 2006 
School Library Journal
Grade 2-6–Dramatic, quiet, and warming, this is a story of friendship across cultures in 1800s Mississippi. While searching for blackberries, Martha Tom, a young Choctaw, breaks her village's rules against crossing the Bok Chitto. She meets and becomes friends with the slaves on the plantation on the other side of the river, and later helps a family escape across it to freedom when they hear that the mother is to be sold.

Tingle is a performing storyteller, and his text has the rhythm and grace of that oral tradition. It will be easily and effectively read aloud. The paintings are dark and solemn, and the artist has done a wonderful job of depicting all of the characters as individuals, with many of them looking out of the page right at readers. The layout is well designed for groups as the images are large and easily seen from a distance. There is a note on modern Choctaw culture, and one on the development of this particular work.

This is a lovely story and beautifully illustrated.
Publishers Weekly 5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars
Bridges, a Cherokee artist making her children’s book debut, joins Tingle (Walking the Choctaw Road) in a moving and wholly original story about the intersection of cultures. The river Bok Chitto divides the Choctaw nation from the plantations of Mississippi. “If a slave escaped and made his way across Bok Chitto, the slave was free,” writes Tingle. “The slave owner could not follow. That was the law.” But Bok Chitto holds a secret: a rock pathway that lies just below the surface of the water. “Only the Choctaws knew it was there, for the Choctaws had built it,” Tingle explains. When a slave boy and his family are befriended by a Choctaw girl, the pathway becomes part of an ingenious plan that enables the slaves to cross the river to freedom—in plain view of a band of slave hunters during a full moon.

Bridges creates mural-like paintings with a rock-solid spirituality and stripped-down graphic sensibility, the ideal match for the down-to-earth cadences and poetic drama of the text. Many of the illustrations serve essentially as portraits, and they’re utterly mesmerizing—strong, solid figures gaze squarely out of the frame, beseeching readers to listen, empathize and wonder.
- March 13, 2006 
Midwest Book Review 5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars
A celebration of diversity, acceptance, and unity

Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale Of Friendship And Freedom, by Tim Tingle and featuring illustrations by Jeanne Rorex Bridges is the inspiring tale of Martha Tom, a young Choctaw girl. Following Martha Tom through her pursuit of blackberries in the deep forest, Crossing Bok Chitto will captivate young readers with vivid and colorful pictures as the young Native American girl stumbles upon a forbidden slave church and befriends one of its members. A welcome addition to school and community library picturebook collections, Crossing Bok Chitto is very highly recommended for all young readers as a celebration of diversity, acceptance, and unity in a remarkable production of expert authorship and invaluable illustrations.
- July 14, 2006 
Children's Literature
...a very moving story about friends helping each other and reveals a lesser-known part of American History: Native Americans helped runaway slaves...While, this is a picture book; it would make a wonderful read-aloud for middle elementary students.

Box Chitto is the river that cuts through Mississippi and serves as the boundary between the Choctaw Indian nation and the plantation owners and their slaves. Martha Tom, a Choctaw girl, is sent to pick blackberries. Her quest for blackberries leads her to cross Box Chitto. She knows of a stone path just beneath the river's surface. As she discovers blackberries, she also discovers another people living in the woods--the slaves. Little Mo, a slave boy, leads Martha Tom back to the river and learns of her stone path; the two become good friends.

When Little Mo's mother is sold and the family fears separation, Little Mo realizes he can help by using the stone path that Martha Tom has shown him. The other Choctaw Indians help lead Little Mo's family across Bok Chitto and keep the guards away by appearing as ghosts. Tim Tingle, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, tells a very moving story about friends helping each other and reveals a lesser-known part of American History: Native Americans helped runaway slaves. The muted and soft illustrations done by Jeanne Rorex Bridges, a Cherokee ancestor, fit the story's time and place, particularly the river's muddiness. The notes at the end also provide useful information to learn more about the Native Americans in history and the background of the story. While, this is a picture book; it would make a wonderful read-aloud for middle elementary students.

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