The First Strawberries (A Cherokee Story)
Retold by Joseph Bruchac, Illustrated by Anna Vojtech
Children’s Picture Book: K-6
Stars: 5 (out of 5)
Summary: This story is an old Cherokee tale about how strawberries came to exist on the earth. A young woman runs away after a quarrel with her husband over dinner not being ready when he returns home. The husband tries to catch up with his wife, but she is too fast, and so the sun decides to help him but growing raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and finally strawberries. The wife stops to try some strawberries, decides she loves them and her husband would too, which gives her husband enough time to catch up with her to apologize.
My favorite part of this book is definitely the illustrations! They are very realistic and colorful. These illustrations are large and take up the entire page, some with the words of the story written over them, some simply without words. Those are my favorite, the juxtaposed pages with no words, but just an illustration that stretches across two whole pages. These illustrations really help provide a sense of what the land looked like and the setting in which the tale takes place. This is a simple story, with few words, but the words that are indeed written are powerful and do plenty to convey the story and the underlying message. Even though this is a Cherokee Indian tale, as I was reading the story, I completely forgot about that aspect. I was so immersed in the story that I forgot that this was a “folk tale.” Part of this, I believe, is due to the fact that the story elicited such an emotional response. I felt for the husband, sharing in his worry that he would not catch up to his wife and would lose her forever. My emotional connection to him was powerful, and I felt as distraught as I imagined he must have been feeling. Part of this emotional connection I think arose due to the universal nature of the story. I could remember times in my life when I had said something that I instantly regretted and the person that I had hurt refused to hear an apology. They were either unavailable or unwilling to hear me out, which was always super frustrating. Thus, I really felt for this man and was relieved when the sun agreed to help him attain his goal: to apologize to his wife.
While the tale is a simple one, that focuses on the Cherokee Indians and what strawberries are reminiscent of: “to always be kind to one another; to remember that friendship and respect are as sweet at the taste of ripe, red berries.” But even students who are not Cherokee descendants can relate to this story, for most simply, it is about forgiveness and appreciating the sweetness in others. It is also about regret and the power of our words. I think it could not only be used in a social studies unit related to the Native American experience, but it would also be just as appropriate when discussing more basic and universal themes, such as the power of words and forgiveness. Since I hope to teach one of the primary grades, I would likely use this book in my classroom for the second purpose, to explore the power of words and the importance of thinking before we speak. I have seen many fights on the playground or during recess over students speaking negatively to one another, not recognizing the power of the words that they might say to one another. This could be used to illustrate the lesson: we need to be careful of what we say to friends because negative words can be hurtful, and that it is appropriate to apologize when our words have hurt someone that we care about, be it a parent, a sibling, a classmate, or a friend.