The First Blade of Sweetgrass: A Native American Story by Suzanne Greenlaw and Gabriel Frey, illustrated by Nancy Baker. Tilbury House, 2021. 9780884487609
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5+
Genre: Picture book
What did you like about the book? The past and present day dovetail in this story of a grandmother and young girl who visit a salt marsh to pick sweetgrass. It’s Musqon’s first outing to collect the plant, which Uhkomi (grandmother) explains is used in ceremonies and for baskets. The older woman shows the girl how to identify the plant and explains that they must never pick the first blade they see; that way, there’ll be sweetgrass for the next generation. Musqon struggles at first to follow Uhkomi’s instructions, but is ultimately successful and excited at the thought of showing her treasure to her parents and eventually teaching her younger sister how to pick the sweetgrass. The prose is down-to-earth but lyrical with a short glossary at the end for the native words used in the story. Baker’s illustrations look as though they were created with pastels and their gentle, glowing colors reinforce the love between the characters and the natural environment. The story is set in the present, with the characters arriving in a blue truck and dressed in rubber boots and jeans. But, as Uhkomi tells her story, images of people from the past appear in a braided frame of sweetgrass, so that young readers can clearly identify the flashback sequences. Backmatter includes examples of braided baskets and more information about sweetgrass. The endnotes indicate that the authors belong to the Maliseet band and Passamaquoddy Nation and have based the story on the experiences of family members.
Anything you didn’t like about it? No
To whom would you recommend this book? For any class grades 1-5 studying First Nations in New England. By placing First Nations people in the present day, but showing their connection to ancient customs, the book fills a unique niche. The tender, mentoring relationship between Musqon and her grandmother will appeal to many readers.
Who should buy this book? Elementary and public libraries
Where would you shelve it? Picture books
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: August 19, 2021