Review: Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith; ill. by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

I am waiting for one last book to come in, so my Nafiza Recommends post will have to wait another week, I’m afraid. Now for the good news: I get to talk about a marvellously lovely, gentle, and warm picturebook written by Muscogee (Creek) author Cynthia Leitich Smith and illustrated by artists and life partners Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu.


Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

Publisher: Morrow Junior Books

Jenna wants to jingle dance, like Grandma Wolfe. She practices the bounce-steps and feels the brum, brum, brum, brum of the powwow drum. But Jenna has no jingles – her dress cannot sing.

Like the drums that Jenna’s heart beats to, this book has rhythm. The repetition and patterns in this story are subtle. Sun and Moon go about their dance overhead. Once again Jenna visits and helps four important women who are dear to her. There is a strong suggestion that Jenna’s actions and interactions with Great-aunt Sis, Mrs. Scott, Cousin Elizabeth, and Grandma Wolfe are a regular rhythm in their lives. We are given a glimpse of a warm community, one built on mutual respect and love. When Jenna asks for jingles, she asks for a single row, “not wanting to take so many that [anyone’s] dress would lose its voice.” Every night Jenna practices her bounce-steps, and every night Jenna and Grandma Wolfe sew the rows of jingles and regalia on Jenna’s dress together, giving the dress its voice. When Jenna dances at the next weekend’s powwow, she dances for the four women whom she loves.

Watch for what Sun and Moon are doing, and for the use of fours. In the western European tradition, threes are significant; in the Muscogee (Creek) and Ojibwa (Chippewa/Anishinabe) Nations (and many other Indigenous peoples of North American), fours are important.

The warmth of the narrative is emphasized in the illustrations, which use golden hues as the primary shading for the background, and bright shades for clothing and regalia. The close relationships between the women and girls of different generations is evident in their expressions and body language.

The author’s note provides cultural background for the story, just enough to whet the appetite, and a glossary explains any terms non-Indigenous readers may be unfamiliar with.

In short, if you are looking for a story featuring a community of women centred on love and respect for each other and for their heritage, this is it.