Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa and Book Giveaway!

March 20 - Today's post provided by Gina Capaldi

Twenty some odd years ago, I came across the work of Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Native American author and musician. Published by the Atlantic Monthly Magazine in 1900, her serialized stories appeared under the pen name, Zitkala Sa. To this day they captivate me as none other.  Her tales are of a young girl who was sent from her home on the Yankton Reservation to attend a Quaker boarding school. After graduating from college she become a teacher, and finally an author. The experiences Zitkala Sa shared about her passage from Yankton life to Anglo society were often as heart wrenching as they were riveting. It was not, however, until I began researching another book, A Boy Named Beckoning: the True Story of Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Lerner/Carolrhoda, 2009), that I was reminded of Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, not as Zitkala Sa, but as a young woman in love with a Yavapai doctor and activist.

Gertrude Bonnin

Following this tidbit of information, I discovered that Zitkala Sa as the first American Indian to write an opera, and that she was also a powerful activist who championed the rights of her people.  The opportunity to write and publish a story about Gertrude Simmons Bonnin came along when Jean Reynolds, my editor for A Boy Named Beckoning, asked if I was familiar with Zitkala Sa. Was I ever!
The possibility of writing a picturebook encouraged me to recruit my co-author, Q. L. Pearce. Her knowledge and passion about Native American cultures, her divine writing gift, attention to detail, and consummate professionalism helped to bring the manuscript to fruition. By the end of 2009 Q and I were steeped in research searching for the full, rich details of Gertrude Simmons’ life that would enable us to create the picturebook, Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala Sa (Lerner/Carolrhoda, 2010). 
We used several of Gertrude’s serialized stories from the Atlantic Monthly Magazine  (Impressions of an Indian Childhood, The School Days of an Indian Girl, and An Indian Teacher Among Indians) to build the framework for our picturebook.  We discovered that she had not intended her stories to merely entertain but to enlighten Anglo society. Writing as Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird), she presented her readers with thought provoking and often disturbing snapshots of her life, and that of other Native Americans trapped in the massive experiment of American Indian assimilation and its consequences. Many historians believe, however, that Gertrude’s stories were only semi-autobiographical and not entirely factual.

Our goal was to tell the true story of Gertrude's life so we set about weeding through the misinformation and confirming the facts through scholarship. We began our research at Brigham Young University, Marriott Library, which houses the Gertrude and Raymond Simmons archives. From these we were able to outline Gertrude's life on the Ute Reservation, her family life, her work on the Sundance Opera and her collaboration with another musician, William Hansen. We also discovered the depth of her personal commitment to her people that inspired her activism from Utah to Washington, DC.  From the Carlisle Indian Industrial School Archives, we were able to chronicle Gertrude's association with the school before and after teaching. The information garnered from these archives also revealed how she began to write her Atlantic Monthly series, and how the stories were viewed by her employer, Captain Richard Pratt.  We also approached Earlham College librarians who generously supplied us with massive copies of articles, report cards, writings published in their school newspaper, and much more. It was a tremendous amount of information to go through, but each document helped us to weave the story of Gertrude's life. Finally, we looked to individual historians who generously helped us fill in the missing details and identify any misinformation about Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.

Our second hurdle was what to choose which of Gertrude’s stories could best represent her point of view in a 32-page picturebook.  She wrote in the late 1800's and was published in the first part of the 20th century. Her stunning prose is dense and her language may be difficult for a young reader. Hoping to simplify the style while maintaining the spirit of Zitkala Sa’s work, we chose to modernize her language enough to make it more accessible to a young audience and so introduce them to her powerful story.

We used the images in the book to give readers a further sense of the time and place in which Gertrude lived. By incorporating collage elements we were able to add historical and emotional depth. For example, newspaper clippings and maps added historical information, and pressed flowers and grasses native to Gertrude’s homeland expanded the sense of setting. Perhaps one of the most profound collage elements was our use of real hair in the cover and leading page images.  In Gertrude’s culture shorn locks were a sign of mourning or cowardice. The dramatic cutting of her hair caused Gertrude to experience fear, humiliation and shame. The reality of the clipped hair in the art added to the drama of the spread.

Overall, the life of Gertrude Simmons Bonnin is one of bravery, determination and devotion. In spite of the loss, discrimination and self-doubt she faced, she succeeded and went on to fight for her people. Red Bird Sings is an American Indian story and the story of a woman whose great courage enabled her to reach a global audience and bring about change for those suffering in an oppressive system. We are proud to be a part of bringing that story to a new generation of young readers.

Giveaway:  Would you like to win an autographed copy of Red Bird Sings?  If so, please leave a comment below!  The winner will be chosen at random.  

Editor's Note:  Gina Capaldi has both written and illustrated award-winning books that include nonfiction, educational and picture books, including A Boy Named Beckoning: The True Story of Dr. Carlos Montezuma, Native American Hero (Carolrhoda/Lerner, 2008).  She is also a certified fine arts appraiser and has honed her other professional arts skills with credits in film editing and video graphics.   She has previously worked as an illustrator, product developer and designer for an international manufacturing company.


  1. What a fascinating story! It should be in every school library.

  2. When we learn about Native American history in school, I often feel that we distance ourselves from it. Having books like these help us to close that distance.

  3. Thank you for another fascinating post highlighting the history of native women in America.

  4. This is so interesting! I would love to read this book, she sounds like an amazing person.

  5. What an interesting story. I find it amazing how much history there is that we never hear about, ever unless we poke around in unusual places! I would love to win a copy of this book to share with my daughter and my students.