January 20, 2020

Nibi's Water Song

Written by Sunshine Tenasco
Illustrated by Chief Lady Bird
North Winds Press (Scholastic Canada)
32 pp.
Ages 4-8

Though I've already started reviewing books being released in 2020, I'm still finding gems from last year that I really, really want to bring to the attention of young readers and the adults in their lives. Nibi's Water Song is one such title. Its premise of an Indigenous young person searching for potable water is both a cautionary tale and one of resilience and hope, and supportive of the need for clean water in all communities.

Nibi means water in Anishinaabemowin. Considering this young person's thirst, it is highly appropriate that it is her name. But when Nibi is desperate for water to quench that thirst, she finds no clean water at her home or that of her neighbour, only brown water.
From Nibi's Water Song by Sunshine Tenasco, illus. by Chief Lady Bird
So begins Nibi's search for clean drinking water. When she finds only dirty water in the river, she skips to the next town of "big, shiny houses." Though a nice lady gives her a teeny-tiny plastic bottle of water, she is given no more, no matter how much knocking she does at the doors of the big, shiny houses. Finally she dances in the street with her sign that "Water is Life."
From Nibi's Water Song by Sunshine Tenasco, illus. by Chief Lady Bird
Desperate for more water, thirst overpowering her, Nibi is joined by her friends, all begging for water. Their signs shout "Clean Water" and "We All Need Water."
From Nibi's Water Song by Sunshine Tenasco, illus. by Chief Lady Bird
It is only when their voices are joined together in volume and purpose that the people in the big, shiny houses fall in to help Nibi get clean water.
With a lot of hard work, digging and singing, everyone worked together. And finally, thirsty, thirsty Nibi got her clean water...and she shared with all of her friends.
From Nibi's Water Song by Sunshine Tenasco, illus. by Chief Lady Bird
Nibi's Water Song reminds us that we are part of a larger community, one whose members may not all have water safe for drinking or washing. The United Nations may have declared it a human right to have safe drinking water and sanitation but there are numerous Indigenous communities who have lived with drinking water advisories as well as compromised water and waste water systems for decades. Author Sunshine Tenasco, Anishinabe from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Quebec makes it clear that improvements will only be realized when the people in the "big, shiny houses" get involved. It may only take one person, like Nibi, to step forward and start a movement but it will take a concerted group effort from within and outside these unhealthy situations to make them safe. Still Nibi sings and dances to get the attention needed to address the problem.

Nibi's hope is reflected in the bold and bright illustrations of Toronto artist Chief Lady Bird of the Rama First Nation and Moose Deer Point First Nation. Her colours are vivid and lively, from the blue of the clean water to the greens of the grass. Her characters wear red and pink, and blue and orange, and traditional clothing and regalia like moccasins, fringed shawls, and beadwork. Most important are the flowers that surround Nibi, symbolic of the hope for water, the element that grows and sustains life. Chief Lady Bird's highly-stylized plants surround Nibi and reach forward, stretching to advance her quest for clean water.

The message of Nibi's Water Song is a simple one: everyone deserves clean water. I hope that the words and art of Sunshine Tenasco and Chief Lady Bird will reach all communities to spur to action those of us in our big, shiny houses so that we might help everyone quench their thirst and realize that human right to clean water. 


Nibi's Water Song is also available as a French-language edition, Nibi a Soif, Très Soif

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