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When We Were Alone

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When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother's garden, she begins to notice things that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long braided hair and beautifully colored clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away. When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history and, ultimately, one of empowerment and strength.

32 pages, Hardcover

First published December 1, 2016

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About the author

David Alexander Robertson

45 books534 followers
DAVID A. ROBERTSON (he, him, his) was the 2021 recipient of the Writers’ Union of Canada Freedom to Read Award as well as the Globe and Mail Children's Storyteller of the Year. He is the author of numerous books for young readers including When We Were Alone, which won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award and the McNally Robinson Best Book for Young People Award. The Barren Grounds, Book 1 of the middle-grade The Misewa Saga series, received a starred review from Kirkus, was a Kirkus and Quill & Quire best middle-grade book of 2020, was a USBBY and Texas Lone Star selection, was shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award, and was a finalist for the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award. His memoir, Black Water: Family, Legacy, and Blood Memory, was a Globe and Mail and Quill & Quire book of the year in 2020, and won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction as well as the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award at the 2020 Manitoba Book Awards. On The Trapline, illustrated by Julie Flett, won David's second Governor General's Literary Award, won the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, and was named one of the best picture books of 2021 by the CCBC, The Horn Book, New York Public Library, Quill & Quire, and American Indians in Children's Literature. Dave is the writer and host of the podcast Kíwew (Key-Way-Oh), winner of the 2021 RTDNA Praire Region Award for Best Podcast. His first adult fiction novel, The Theory of Crows, was published in 2022. He is a member of Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg.

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137 (8%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 320 reviews
Profile Image for Nat.
553 reviews3,176 followers
August 2, 2018
The first thing I noticed upon starting When We Were Alone were the gorgeous illustrations that were detailed in all the right places. It was eye-bending in its beauty.

This picture book begins with a young girl helping out in her grandmother's garden, when she begins to notice things that make her curious.

Why does her grandmother have long braided hair and beautifully colored clothing?
Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family?
As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away.

"They wanted us to look like everyone else."

Along with the granddaughter, we get to be taken into the past and present of her grandmother's life and see the freedom she yearned to reach... and eventually received.
"Here little bird, eat, so you will get big and strong."

And since I've been sharing a few of the outstanding illustrations, I reckoned why not share a few more:



I've been looking around the page at every detail for hours!!
When We Were Alone was an exceptional story about a difficult time in history and, ultimately, one of empowerment and strength. And I've reread it a couple of times now for exactly those reasons.

ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

*Note: I'm an Amazon Affiliate. If you're interested in buying When We Were Alone, just click on the image below to go through my link. I'll make a small commission!*

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Profile Image for Julie.
1,948 reviews38 followers
September 4, 2019
A grandmother passes along her history to her curious granddaughter. It is a beautifully told story of how one culture tried to suppress another through uniformity and how they found ways to keep it alive. The illustrations are exquisite.
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,122 reviews104 followers
October 25, 2018
David Alexander Robertson's When We Were Alone poignantly begins with a young First Nations girl asking her grandmother, asking her kokom (whom she is helping in the garden) why she wears clothing of so many different colours. And her kokom's, her grandmother's response is that this is her own personal way of reclaiming herself, and being a person with the right to choose, because at school, because at the government residential schools she and so many First Nations children were mandated, were officially forced to attend, the teachers, nuns, priests and pastors in charge generally dressed ALL of the students, all of the children exactly the same (limiting their rights even with regard to the types of clothing permitted, which I guess is also somewhat the case and similar for many private schools or even public schools with dress codes, except that both First Nations children and their families did not ever have ANY choice in this matter, for these residential schools were absolutely mandatory and parents could, and often would easily lose custody of their children and even risk jail time if they tried to keep their kids out of residential school).

And thus, and basically, everything the little girl's grandmother does in When We Were Alone, everything she wears now and how she acts is generally a sweet and yes, a very much optimistic and positive, often small, but ultimately significant act of quiet rebellion, of reclamation of her soul and spirit from the clutches of the residential school monster and its grasping tentacles, from the draconian and often racist, bigoted regulations of the residential school system as a whole (the already mentioned colourful clothing, the grandmother's long hair, her use of and pride in the Cree language, the use of which was absolutely forbidden at school, spending as much time as possible with her siblings, as at residential school, families were more often than not separated and contact unfortunately even punished).

Now When We Were Alone does not ever delve in any manner too deeply into the true horrors of what so often transpired at these residential schools (that First Nations children were considered less than human by many if not the majority of their teachers, that they endured both physical and emotional, as well as sexual abuse, that residential schools were basically and yes sadly for the most part a program of deliberate government and church sanctioned cultural genocide, designed to take away First Nations' culture, their language, their pride and sense of self). However, for a basic introduction for younger children, When We Were Alone is in my opinion a perfect starting point, and even for older children, the book is of much potential value and use, if there are also additional discussions encouraged and supplemental information provided (with Julie Flett's brilliantly expressive, yet simple illustrations acting as a lovely and evocative, thought-provoking accompaniment, showing for example, the grandmother's love of colour and her long, flowing hair in contrast to the shorn heads of the residential school students with their drab and very much aesthetically ugly uniforms, the generally dreary and sad school atmosphere compared to colourful and soul sustaining beautiful gardens and nature).

Four shining stars and most highly rcommended (and the only reason I have not ranked When We Were Alone with five stars is that personally, I do think it would be of academic interest and benefit for David Alexander Robertson to include an author's note with additional information on the residential school system, along with suggestions for further reading, and last but not least a Cree/English glossary, for while I do appreciate that the Cree the grandmother speaks to the bird is translated as a footnote, a glossary would make actually trying to figure out a bit of Cree that much easier).
Profile Image for Laura.
2,695 reviews81 followers
September 8, 2016
This is a quiet picture book, that sneaks up on you. There are two levels here, one of a young child asking her grandmother, her kókom, why she does things the way she does. Why does she dress in bright colors, why does she wear a long braid, why does she speak in Cree?

And very simply, her kókom explains about the residential schools where these things were all forbidden.

The residential schools were a horrid part of history, and it is important for children, and adults, to realize that real people were hurt by this policy, and its legacy. It is so good that publishers are coming out with stories to tell about this, and being written by Indigenous people as well, as who better to tell their own story.

Highly recommend this book as a beautiful picture book for libraries, schools, and home libraries. This author has also been doing graphic novels of First Nation history, which are amazing as well.

Brovo to High Water Press for this, and other books they have been brining out about the First Nation experience.

Thanks to Netgalley for making this book available for an honest review.
Profile Image for Katie.dorny.
979 reviews498 followers
March 15, 2018
*Received by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

This book was a beautiful and simple children's story about the hardships suffered by native tribes within Canada.
The illustrations were beautiful, the original language of the people were used and it was lovely, quick and poetic.
Profile Image for Cheriee Weichel.
2,426 reviews34 followers
February 2, 2017
I would have picked up and read this book just because, you know, Julie Flett! I adore her illustrations.
In this narrative, a young girl spends time with her Nokom (grandmother) and wonders why she does the things she does. The girl questions how she dresses, wears her hair, why she speaks Cree, and spends so much time with her brother. We readers learn, along with the girl, that this is how her Nokom celebrates her life in contrast to her experiences in residential school.
I highly recommend this one for all libraries.
Profile Image for Mireille Messier.
Author 47 books28 followers
November 6, 2017
A young First Nations' girl asks her grandmother why she does things the way she does - wear her hair long, wear happy colours, hang out with her brother... The answers are as heartbreaking as they are beautiful. An absolute gem of a book about residential schools. I wish this book was read be every child in every school in North America!
Profile Image for Canadian Reader.
1,064 reviews23 followers
August 30, 2019
This is a very slight picture book about the indigenous residential school experience. As she works in the garden, a little girl asks her grandmother about her clothing, her hair, her language, and her regular visits with her brother (the little girl’s great uncle). What has made her grandmother the way she is? The grandmother explains in simple language the deprivations of residential school life: the depressing, colourless uniforms the children were made to wear, the cutting of the beautiful long hair they had been so proud of, the fact that they were forbidden to speak Cree, and were not permitted to associate with their own family members.The only place the children could get around these limitations was outdoors. Nature provided them with colourful leaves in autumn to place over themselves, grass that could be braided like hair, and space away from teachers to whisper their language and maybe hold a sibling’s hand.

Julie Flett’s illustrations are simple and serviceable, but they’re no great favourites of mine. I find this a satisfactory text, but I much prefer two other recent similarly themed picture books that have a lot more heart and more sophisticated artwork: Jenny Kay Dupuis’s I Am Not a Number and Melanie Florence’s Stolen Words. I’d choose either of those over this one.
Profile Image for Monica Edinger.
Author 10 books336 followers
April 17, 2017
From my blog review:

I have Debbie Reese to thank for drawing my attention to David A. Robertson and Julie Flett's When We Were Alone published by Portage and Main Press. Done simply, but with devastating clearness this is the story of a woman telling her granddaughter of her time in one of the boarding schools to which Canadian First Nation children were taken. She tells of the brutal methods used to strip them of their own cultures and how they managed to quietly, but firmly resist this. The lovely illustrations further the powerful emotional clout of this important book.

Profile Image for Cheryl .
9,261 reviews399 followers
November 22, 2018
The themes of Stolen Words are very much similar to those of When We Were Alone, but the former is lighter, more hopeful. The latter is also gorgeous and intense, but more detailed and more wistful, almost sad. I recommend both, actually... or at least one of them, to everybody.
Profile Image for Eija.
Author 1 book16 followers
June 15, 2017
Takes on history of indigenous people being removed from their homes and removed from their culture through the conversation between a grandma and her granddaughter. It is a quiet book of resilience and resistance.

It's a difficult topic to share in a children's book, but it is done beautifully by both David A. Robertson and Julie Flett.
Profile Image for Stephanie Croaning.
953 reviews17 followers
June 22, 2017
David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett have come together to create a brilliant and important picture book that introduces to children an important part of First Nation history, which must be understood to put U.S. history in context.

Picture book, First Nation history, fiction
Interest level: Pre-K through grade 3; reading level: 3.6
5 out of 5 stars

Much of the history of First Nation people in North America is never presented in the history books that children encounter in schools. In the late 1800s First Nation boarding schools were established in the United States. The idea behind the boarding schools was to eradicate First Nation culture. Forcefully removed from homes and separated from their family members, First Nation students were forced to give up their culture and were made to dress the same, cut their hair, speak only English, and convert to Christianity.

In When We Were Alone Robertson has managed to deftly present the bleak and horrifying story of First Nation children without overwhelming young readers. He has presented the realities of the situation in a general way and paired it with hope and perseverance.

The story focuses on a young child having a conversation with her grandmother. The girl asks "why" questions and the grandmother's answer focuses on how her time in the boarding school shaped her life as an adult.
"Nokom, why do you wear so many colours?' I asked.
Nokom said, "Well, Nosisim..."
The grandmother responds that when she was a child and went away to school, all the children were forced to dress the same because "they wanted us to look like everybody else."
Flett's monochromatic illustration of the children all dressed the same is a powerful image that illustrates how something as seemingly simple as having the authority to tell people what clothes they can wear can begin to erase an entire culture.

Robertson then follows up the bleak idea of the children's identity being erased by boarding school rules with a message of inner strength and hope. The grandmother has a story about how each season, when the children found themselves alone together, they would remember their culture and heritage and secretly work to maintain their identity.
But sometimes in the fall, when we were alone, and the leaves had turned to their warm autumn hues, we would roll around on the ground. We would pile the leaves over the clothes they had given us, and we would be colourful again.

And this made us happy.
Both Robertson and Flett are Cree descendants, so the voice of the story is authentic. My only wish is that the book contained some type of author's note or bibliography so that parents, teachers, or children would have further information about this topic. Some readers could believe this is a made up story, not realizing that it wasn't until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 that First Nation parents had the right to determine if their child was placed in a boarding school.

This is an incredibly powerful and important book that sensitively introduces a difficult, and little known part of U.S. history to young children.
Profile Image for Carla.
5,920 reviews127 followers
September 12, 2016
The residential schools were a terrible part of Canadian history, and it is important for children, and adults, to learn about this time, what it did to a proud people and what the fallout is still today.

This picture book tells about the experience of one person during the residential school time in very simple terms. A little girl is helping her grandmother in the garden and begins to ask her questions. "Kókom, why do you dress in bright colors, why do you wear a long braid, why do you speak in Cree, why do you spend so much time with your brother?" Her kókom very simply explains about the residential schools where these things were all forbidden and how she, her friends and her brother tried to recreate so many things they had to do without when they were alone.

I recommend this book to public, school, class and home libraries. This would be a great book to use when studying aboriginal people and their past in Canada.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for allowing me to read and review this book.
Profile Image for Barb.
109 reviews3 followers
August 22, 2017
This is a beautiful, beautiful book, one every teacher should read to their students. This book is a wonderful way to introduce conversations about residential schools. The text will not scare children, but will deliver hard truths.

Profile Image for Abby Johnson.
3,373 reviews313 followers
August 10, 2021
This moving picture book gracefully explains the injustices of the Native American residential schools on a kid-friendly level while still communicating the grief and anguish that they caused.
Profile Image for Ashley.
1,405 reviews19 followers
June 23, 2017
A beautiful book, fantastic introduction to residential school history without traumatising sensitive children. I always love Julie Flett's work, and this is no exception. All the illustrations accompanying lines about what the kookum had to give up at residential school are sparse, with lots of white space and dull colours, contrasted with all the other vivid, happy illustrations. This is a great example of communicating mood with illustrations and could be incorporated into lesson plans for art. The writing is also beautiful, peppered with similes and rich descriptions that strengthen but don't overwhelm the story. This book could easily be incorporated into English lessons, and obviously social studies or history as well.

I hope all schools add this book to their library and classroom shelves. It might be a bit long for a preschool storytime, but I would read it one-on-one with children as young as 3 or 4, and they would probably ask a lot of questions. The highest level concept would be that of language, which some young children might not understand if they haven't been exposed to more than one. I've read picture books about residential schools to teens up to age 16, and they still found them very engaging, so I wouldn't shy away from bringing this book into a high school class either.

This book is highly recommended reading for everyone. It's beautiful and valuable. My recommendation for those wanting to read it aloud would be to read through it once before so you don't trip up on the Cree words if you don't know them yet. If I find a pronunciation guide I'll post it!
Profile Image for Kate Puleo Unger.
1,142 reviews19 followers
December 10, 2016
Wow. This book is powerful. A young girl is helping her grandmother garden, and she asks innocent questions about why her grandmother wears such colorful clothes and wears her hair so long. She learns that her grandmother, an Algonquin from northern Canada, was sent to a boarding school where she was forced to wear a uniform, cut her hair short, and speak English instead of Cree. Now she does all of the things that were denied to her when she was young.

When We Were Alone tells an unpleasant bit of Canadian history, but it's important to share these stories with our children. Here in American we have our own horror stories of discrimination and trying to force people to be the same. This book introduces these ugly truths in a digestible manner. It's a story that children can understand, but it's a perfect conversation starter for some hard discussions we should be having with our kids, so that history doesn't repeat itself.

Profile Image for Tara.
1,220 reviews
September 22, 2016
A young girl is helping her grandmother in the garden. She asks here why she wears bright colors, and why she wears a braid and why she talks in Cree. With each question her grandmother tells about when she went to school and all the things that they weren't allowed to do like wear bright colors, have long hair and speak their native language. It's a very sweet and at the same time sad book.
Profile Image for KD Grainger-Peixoto.
205 reviews11 followers
November 4, 2016
I recieved this as an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher. The publication date is the end of next month - so a full review will not be posted until then.

However, I can say that this was a beautiful and engrossing read, that has made it onto my must-buy list for my young loved ones.
Profile Image for Christy.
473 reviews
December 6, 2021
A great story that explains the residential school that many indigenous children had to endure all framed in a loving conversation between a grandmother and a grandchild. Beautifully done!!
Profile Image for Polenth Blake.
Author 22 books49 followers
November 5, 2016
A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren't allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children's hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it's not all in the past. The girl doesn't face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There's that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn't be raised if the girl's family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl's kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It's a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don't already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn't make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Review from: http://blog.polenthblake.com/2016/11/when-we-were-alone/
Profile Image for Sharon Tyler.
2,718 reviews30 followers
December 9, 2016
When We Were Alone is a picturebook written by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett. It is currently scheduled for release on December 31 2016. When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things about her grandmother that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long braided hair and wear beautifully colored clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where everything was taken away.

When We Were Alone is a wonderful look at how much the younger generation can learn about their heritage and the lives of their family by asking questions. I think it is important for us all to understand what our elders and ancestors went through, and how other cultures have faced. this picturebook offers a little of each. Whether your family tree includes Cree (or any other Native American Heritage) or not, it is important to know what they faced, and how any group has been treated in the past or present. Not only does this book offer a lesson on heritage and history, it can also help with empathy and understanding. Perhaps a better understanding of our shared history can help us understand how others feel and prevent similar treatment of groups still or now considered 'other'. I would highly recommend adding this to any library collection. It can start many important conversations that are currently very relevant to the current state of the world and necessary.
Profile Image for Philip.
498 reviews672 followers
October 24, 2016
4.25ish stars.

A worthy historical tale told powerfully through the storytelling medium of the picture book.

Sometimes I think we fear that certain subjects are too sensitive or heavy to expose children to. I believe it's really just a matter of how things are presented. In this story a Cree grandmother sensitively explains the proud traditions she carries out to her curious granddaughter. The little girl's kókom is given a voice as the book relates, without excessive bitterness or accusation, her experiences in the residential schools that are now part of Canada's history where she was forced to assimilate into Euro-Canadian culture. Far from being victims, however, the kókom as a young girl and her friends managed to preserve their heritage in other ways.

The pallet of Julie Flett's finely crafted illustrations is gorgeous and the pictures bring life to Robertson's story.

This would be a great tool to use in school as well as a beautiful book to keep on the shelf at home.

Illustrations: 4.5
Story: 4

728 reviews47 followers
December 6, 2016
This story absolutely met my expectations! With quiet innocence and inquisitiveness, we learn from a granddaughter's perspective why her grandmother does things the way she does. Her kókom responds with an elegant reverie that resonates and lingers. Like the art, the story is spare and simple, with bright and powerful moments of color that make you go, "Ohhhh." (For those who recall Arsenio Hall's catchphrase, "Things that make you go hmmm..." <-- that's what I'm talking about.) If you are familiar with Christy Jordan-Fenton's & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's heart-achingly crafted stories, you're already familiar with a Native's experience traveling away from family for schooling. This is another fine example that shows resilience in the face of past wrongs. We need more stories like this.
Profile Image for Jesse.
2,489 reviews2 followers
November 1, 2017
When We Were Alone has two storylines: present day with grandmother and granddaughter in the garden discussing the second storyline: the grandmother's childhood after she was forcibly removed from her home and sent to a Native American Boarding School (as they were called) where her culture, language, and even her long hair were torn away. The grandmother repeats how she clung to her way of life with her brother and friends anytime "when we were alone". Flett's illustrations are beautiful, as always, and the story brought tears to my eyes. The horrors done to children in an effort to make them "like everyone else" have had lasting life-changing effects. We all need to be more aware of this part of our history!
232 reviews4 followers
May 23, 2017
This is a really good book for those looking to introduce younger children to the history of residential schools. This is a hard subject to raise with kids, and my son had some tough questions about why anyone would take children away from their families and treat them cruelly. I liked the fact that this book focused on the children's resilience and determination to retain their cultural practices and family ties. The book is framed as a grandmother telling her granddaughter about her childhood experiences, and how she and her brother and friends found ways to speak their language and practise their culture out of sight of the school authorities.
557 reviews13 followers
May 11, 2017
This brief, but beautiful picture book portrays a grandmother answering her grandchild's "why" questions, such as: "why do you wear your hair so long?" and "why do you wear so many colours?" When Native children in the Americas (in this case, Canada) were sent to boarding schools, they were forced to give up everything.... their language, hair, colourful clothing, all of which were important to their tribal identities. This lovely grandmother explains how she was able to cope with these sorrows, and how they impact the way she lives her life now. The illustrations are simple and clear, perfectly combining with this touching conversation between the generations.
Profile Image for Julia Mcknight.
109 reviews4 followers
July 3, 2017
This beautifully illustrated story of warmth and love between a grandmother and her grandchild depicts a survivor-to-child conversation about the residential school experience. The curious child asks her grandmother why she wears so many bright colours, speaks Cree, keeps her hair so long... and her grandmother gently describes the restrictions placed on her back when she was a child in residential school. She explains that now she is free to be with her family, speak her language, and live her culture.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 320 reviews

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