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Pocahontas: Princess of the New World Hardcover – March 20, 2007
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From School Library Journal
Kindergarten-Grade 3—Pocahontas is arguably one of the most famous Native Americans in United States history. And yet, she is often defined in terms of her relationships to the males in her life—her father, Powhatan; her friend John Smith; her husband, John Rolfe; and her son, Thomas Rolfe. Krull puts the spotlight firmly on the mischievous girl Matoaka, affectionately nicknamed Pocahontas. Primary sources provide the basic facts. She saved Smith's life (or possibly helped adopt him into her family) and she took food to the Jamestown settlers. Later, she was held captive by the English and married tobacco planter John Rolfe. Krull draws on scholars such as David Price and Helen Rountree to develop a more complete portrait of life in Virginia in the early 1600s. She occasionally ascribes undocumented emotions to Pocahontas, and makes a few questionable claims ("The princess became the first American convert to Christianity.") Diaz's cut-paper collage illustrations literally glow with vibrancy. He uses a palette of tropical colors—lemon yellow, lime green, ocean blue, and orange. The colors and book design harken back to the D'Aulaires' biography (Doubleday, 1985), but Diaz's figures are anything but old-fashioned. They burst from the page with exuberance and energy. Bridging her two worlds, Pocahontas is shown on the front cover as a young Native girl, and in English dress on the back (Diaz's interpretation of the famous Simon van de Pass portrait). Overall, this is an inviting introduction for young children.—Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher's School, Richmond, VA
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Picture-book treatments of Pocahontas have been rarer than novel-length titles, and it's not hard to see why. Between the increasingly high standards for sensitive, nonreductive portrayals of Native American culture and the picture book's inherent constraints, both of length and of reading level, the tale of the Powhatan princess who rescues Jamestown's settlers is full of challenges. So how does this title, which arrives just in time for the colony's 400th anniversary, chart a course through such choppy waters? The basic concept is admirable. Krull, whose previous picture-book biographies introduce Harry Houdini and Victoria Woodhull, moves beyond the narrow slice of the story presented in the Disney version, positioning Pocahontas' rescue of Captain John Smith from an apparent execution as one aspect of a broader life story. Her narrative sensibly notes that Pocahontas' intervention may have been a kind of role-playing, "part of some strategy or ritual," then goes on to describe the princess' later capture by Jamestown settlers; her marriage to John Rolfe (not to Smith, a common misconception); and her early death in England, where she was regarded as an example of civilizing British influences. Krull's due diligence is clear from the concluding bibliography, mixing scholarly and children's titles, and she finds unobtrusive ways to bring in cultural factsreaders learn that the Powhatans rowed "dugout canoes" and that women "had high status." She also spends several pages characterizing Pocahontas as a young girl, with descriptions of the "kind and compassionate . . . clever and fearless" daughter of the chief, who "perhaps" might have "joked her way out of chores," all details that will help children to connect with her subject. At other times, in reaching for a lyrical storytelling tone, Krull brushes close to stereotypical notions about noble savages frolicking in the wilderness: "And always Pocahontas danced in the moonlight . . . the Powhatan Indians worked so hard each day that they had time for music and dancing almost every night." Readers who look to the endnote to determine the origins of this cultural insight will learn only that "all the information we have on Pocahontas is from English sources" and that Krull "tried to make sense of the known facts, with the aid of material in the Sources section." The rest of the endnote deals primarily with the fate of Jamestown. The bibliography provided here is a great first step, but a separate, more comprehensive author's note about the story's blend of fact and fictionwith a few specific examples of where the narrative diverges from historical record and where it rests on solid groundwould have helped adult recommenders feel better equipped to field children's questions. Specific source notes would also have been helpful, at least for the several lines of main text that appear in quotes. More caution is needed when it comes to the striking artwork in Diaz's immediately familiar style. Making use of cut-paper designs finished on the computer, Diaz presents scenes in a mythic mode, reminiscent of Mayan or Egyptian figures in profile, set against swirls of pattern. Diaz's interpretations are bold, unexpected, and inventive, particularly in the jacket artwork. The front cover features a portrait of the young Pocahontas, braid flowing down one shoulder; flip the book over, and she appears in Elizabethan dress, her spiral facial tattoo ironically echoed in her formally rolled coiffure. However, when evaluating imagery of native peoples, it's impossible to ignore contemporary discussions on the matter, particularly the push toward avoiding pan-Indian representations (a problem beautifully explored by Jon C. Stott in Native Americans in Children's Literature, 1995). Controversy over Susan Jeffers' Brother Eagle, Sister Sky (1991), the cover of which showed a figure in Plains dress even though the text adapted words attributed to a Northwest chief, helped bring this kind of problem to light. Against this backdrop, it's disappointing that Diaz's pictures are too stylized to give readers a good sense of how Powhatan Indians might have actually looked, the environment in which they lived, or the traditions they might have followed. And although it may well be that Diaz researched native Powhatan costume and body decoration, or incorporated authentic Powhatan designs for his decorative borders, in the absence of an illustrator's note, it's impossible to know for sure. Picture-book authors have become increasingly aware of the importance of providing sources for their work, especially when dealing with cultures not their own; the same ought to be true for illustrators, whose contributions share equal burden in shaping children's impressions. Diaz's images also tend to imply a joyous, New Ageinfluenced oneness with nature that critics from within Native American cultures have long tried to dispel. Before her marriage to Rolfe, Pocahontas appears with blossoms and leaves tumbling from her long braid; in one fairyland-type scene, Powhatans dance in a moonlit grove, feet barely skimming the ground and backlit with a curious golden penumbra. Assuming that few children will possess much prior knowledge of Powhatan culture, a less fanciful approach would probably have been warranted. As an improvement on stock romance, and in light of the timely Jamestown component, this is a title full of good intention, and one with which many librarians will want to fill out their collections on Pocahontas. In light of the cautions cited, though, young readers ought to be encouraged to consider why it might be an entertaining tale more than a definitive portrayal of either the woman or her culture. Mattson, Jennifer
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