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Old Ways Cradle A New Life In 'I Sang You Down From The Stars'

Apr 4, 2021
Originally published on April 4, 2021 8:40 am

"I loved you before I met you. Before I held you in my arms, I sang you down from the stars."

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

With these opening lines, children's author Tasha Spillett-Sumner follows a mother-to-be who prepares for the arrival of her child by following the rites of her Indigenous heritage. She gathers sacred elements from the Earth into a bundle for her baby, and whispers the protective prayers of her ancestors. The beautiful tapestry-like illustrations in the book visualize motherhood in Cree culture.

Artist Michela Goade, who has Tlingit heritage and just this year won a Caldecott Medal, is the illustrator of I Sang You Down from the Stars. She says she was drawn to the story because it focused on the woman's preparation before she becomes a mother. "And it's the sort of magical journey that she goes through as she realizes she's pregnant, as she prepares for this child, and then she welcomes the child into the world. And then with the author, with Tasha Spillett-Sumner's Cree world view, it lends itself a really beautiful, unique quality to the story."


Interview Highlights

On where she found inspiration

At the core of this book were themes that I often explore in my own work as well in terms of, you know, land is central to identity and love for land, and how it ties us to our Indigenous cultures. And so I relied on that to help lend some authenticity from my end to the story. And I also wanted to root the visual story in Tasha's world as much as I could. She was pregnant at the time. You know, she welcomed her baby Isabella right about the time I finished the book. And so I looked to her and her life and her culture as much as I could. And I really wanted the story to have this intimate, tender quality that the text already had. And so I thought honoring her in that way would give the book just an extra magic.

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

On the symbolism in her illustrations — especially the "swoosh" of stars on each page

The book is sort of separated into what I viewed as more of the gathering and the assembling of the sacred bundle for the baby. And then once the baby arrives, the book delves into the gifting of these objects. And so there was an interesting setup there visually, between collecting and gifting. And so each gifting and collecting spread thematically tied together through colors and visuals. And then I think it just came into being the swoosh when specifically that river stone spread, when Tasha says the land carries stories and so do you. And a way to communicate that this the stone, this little stone held all of these stories was to create this sort of dreamy swoosh that held symbolism and imagery from both Cree and Tlingit traditional stories. And I think people from within the culture can look at that and identify things. And then even if you're outside of the cultures, I think you can tell that there's, you know, a sense of power and gravity imbued in that swoosh.

On the relationship between the past and present

You know, it really is a powerful thing. I think Tasha talks about it in the book, in the back matter where the woman, the mother is collecting these objects and gifting them to the her child. But then upon the baby's arrival, she learns that the baby is, in essence, its own sacred object, its own sacred bundle itself. Because within this child are the hopes and dreams of culture and of carrying on traditions and connection to everyone who's come before you. And I really just loved that essence or that idea too of the generation, the power of that passing on generational wisdom. And I think also having that swoosh helped us visualize just how everything comes full circle and, you know, past is our present is our future, and I just try to communicate as much as I could of all these big ideas into this children's book.

This story was edited for radio by Kitty Eisele, produced by Andrew Craig, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

I loved you before I met you. Before I held you in my arms, I sang you down from the stars. With these opening lines, children's author Tasha Spillett-Sumner follows a mother-to-be who prepares for the arrival of her child by following the rites of her Indigenous Cree heritage. She gathers sacred elements from the Earth into a bundle for her baby and whispers the protective prayers of her ancestors. The beautiful tapestry-like illustrations in the book visualize motherhood in Cree culture. Artist Michela Goade, who just this year won a Caldecott Medal, is the illustrator of "I Sang You Down From The Stars." She joins us now from her home in Sitka, Alaska. Welcome to the program.

MICHELA GOADE: Hi. Thank you, Lulu. I'm so happy to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I Sang You Down From The Stars" is such a powerful idea of motherhood. Just - first question. Tell me how the relationship between mother and unborn child is understood in this story.

GOADE: You know, I was really drawn to this manuscript because it focused on the preparation before the woman becomes the mother. And it's this sort of magical journey that she goes through as she realizes she's pregnant, as she prepares for this child. And then she welcomes the child into the world. And then with the author - with Tasha Spillett-Sumner's Cree worldview, it lends itself a really beautiful, unique quality to this story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I understand that you are not yet a mother. And the book focuses on an Indigenous culture that is different from your own, which is Tlingit. Where did you find inspiration?

GOADE: Yeah, it was an interesting question I asked myself before beginning. And still at the core of this book were themes that I often explore in my own work, as well, in terms of land is central to identity and love for land and how it ties us to our Indigenous cultures. And so I relied on that, too, to help lend some authenticity from my end to the story. And I also wanted to root the visual story in Tasha's world as much as I could. She was pregnant at the time, you know? She welcomed her baby, Isabella, right about this time I finished the book. And so I looked to her and her life and her culture as much as I could. And so I thought honoring her in that way would give the book an extra magic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, your illustrations - which our listeners can see on our Twitter page - are absolutely stunning. You use sort of color theme, saturation, movement, depth to make sort of this rich imagery. A prominent visual motif in the book is the band of stars that wraps around the characters. It's present on every page, and it kind of guides the reader from one page to the next. Can you talk to me a little bit about the symbolism? I think you named it the swoosh?

GOADE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GOADE: Somehow, it became known as the swoosh. Yeah, I think it just came into being the swoosh when - specifically that river stone spread when Tasha says, the land carries stories, and so do you. And a way to communicate that this little stone held all of these stories was to create this sort of dreamy swoosh that held symbolism and imagery from both Cree and Tlingit traditional stories. And I think people from within the culture can look at that and identify things. And then even if you're outside of the cultures, I think you can tell that there's, you know, a sense of power and gravity imbued in that swoosh.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's also something about the relationship between the past and the present and the relevance of traditions today because as the mother gives birth, the band of stars sort of splits to reveal images of Cree traditions like music-making, gathering food, admiring nature. What did you want to say there?

GOADE: The mother is collecting these objects and gifting them to her child. But then upon the baby's arrival, she learns that the baby is its own sacred bundle itself because within this child are the hopes and dreams of culture and of carrying on traditions and connection to everyone who's come before you. And I really just loved that essence of passing on generational wisdom. And having that swoosh helped us visualize just how everything comes full circle. Past is our present is our future. And I just try to communicate as much as I could have all these big ideas into this children's book.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are the first Indigenous Caldecott winner. Why do you think this has taken so long? I mean, these prizes are now just only starting to recognize the myriad experiences of those who write and illustrate books.

GOADE: The publishing industry is and has been traditionally a white industry. And we've been seeing a growing movement to increase inclusivity and diversity. It's hard to process the full, enormous - you know, how big this award is. But it tells publishers, and it tells people that there is an audience for these powerful stories. And people want to read and see these experiences and these other worldviews.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's artist Michela Goade talking about her illustrations in the forthcoming book "I Sang You Down From The Stars," which is out this Tuesday. Thank you very much.

GOADE: Thank you. (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM TYLER'S "CALL ME WHEN I'M BREATHING AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.