Tuesday, October 22, 2013

JINGLE DANCER, by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. (2000). Jingle Dancer. Ill. by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu.  New York : Morrow Junior Books.
ISBN 0-688-16242-8 (library), 0-688-16241-X (trade)

(Note that Books in Print lists her name by Smith, not by Leitich-Smith.  She also does not hyphenate her name on her own website, so neither did I.)


Jenna wishes to dance at the next powwow, but does not have the required jingle dress.  She needs four rows of jingles.  As she helps her relatives throughout the day, she asks if she may have one row of their jingle dress, and they agree, asking her to dance for them.  At the end of the story, the little girl is able to dance her first jingle dance.  The author writes a note at the end that explains more about Jenna’s tribe (Muscogee (Creek) Nation, as is the author), about jingle dancing, the regalia used in a jingle dance, and other related facts.  A glossary is included for four words related to Native American culture.


In this sweet tale of a young girl’s desire to become a full participant in her culture by dancing like her adult female relatives at the next powwow, Jenna problem solves her need for a jingle dress by realizing that each adult could share from her own dress.  No one else solves it for her.  She is shown as a thoughtful girl, as she does not want to take so many jingles from one person that, “her dress would lose its voice,” which is a statement repeated each time she asks for a row of jingles. The writing is lyrical, with repetition used to tie each scene together.  The author uses personified phrases such as, “As Moon kissed Sun good night” and “as Sun fetched morning” to indicate time passing, which enhances the lyrical tone of the book and brings to mind legends and stories of Native peoples around the world.  The book begins with onomatopoeia (“Tink, tink, tink, sang cone-shaped jingles sewn to Grandma Wolfe’s dress”) and also uses onomatopoeia when describing the drums of the powwow (“brum, brum brum.”)  The use of these sound devices helps the reader fully experience the story, as sound is so important in a powwow jingle dance.  The dance itself is shown to be important and sacred to their family.  You can see the pride and excitement in Jenna’s face when she finally achieves her goal.

The illustrations are realistic and soft, appropriate for a story of a young girl and her loving interactions with her family and friends.  The smiles and love between the family and friends are rendered carefully in the illustrations.  The details in the dresses are culturally accurate, based on the Author’s Note, which describes jingle dresses. Each character is shown with the coloration of a Native person as a cultural marker, but with modern dress and hair styles that encourage children to understand that Native people are not the stereotypes that are still unfortunately shown in so many places, from ABC books to children’s counting songs.  As Cynthia Leitich Smith says, “I’m usually feather free” (Smolen and Oswald, 142).

The plot is very straight-forward, but is a wonderful representation of Native American culture.  It does not encourage stereotypes.  It is true that Great-aunt Sis tells Jenna a traditional Muscogee (Creek) story, but it is appropriate because it’s a specific, accurate tribal story (not a generic or made-up, “Native American” story) and it is a story that fits in with the theme of the story.  The story focuses on a young, small girl wishing to join the rest of her family –team--by dancing for the first time.  She has something to contribute despite her youth and size, just as Bat does—she will be dancing for all of those who cannot dance for themselves. 

Ms. Leitich-Smith is Muscogee (Creek) in heritage as well, which gives her the credibility and authority to use a traditional story from that particular tribe, as well as the knowledge about powwows and jingle dancing to write an authentic, celebratory book about her culture.  Jenna eats fry bread, which is an authentic Native American food.  This could have been a stereotypical image, except that the focus is not on the food, but on the daydream she is having while eating the food.  Fry bread is defined in the glossary, as is powwow, Indian tacos and regalia, but the glossary and story do not encourage stereotyping.  On the contrary, this book is a wonderful replacement for books that use stereotypes or one dimensional portrays of Native Americans. 

Dr. Vardell reminds us that “Currently, the biggest lack in Native literature for young people is the need for contemporary stories in both picture books and novels. We need more books which show us Native children today, and not simply as "movie" characters from long ago and far away.”  We see Jenna dancing in front of the TV, using modern technology. Great-aunt Sis lives in a suburban neighborhood.  Mrs. Scott lives in a new duplex, and will be selling fry bread and Indian tacos at the powwow, earning an income as a woman. Cousin Elizabeth is a lawyer who can’t make it to the powwow because she’s got a big case coming up.  Each of these women visited by Jenna show a modern Native American woman who both values her heritage, but who also is a part of broader society and modern culture. Instead of some books that show Native Americans only in the past in traditional garb, in this story, the majority of the characters are seen in modern dress, in a modern, suburban setting.  Our text states, “Many children grow up believing that native peoples no longer exist….For that reason, Leitich-Smith’s Jingle Dancer (2000) and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (2007) offer the reader contemporary Native American characters who wear baseball caps, are both women and successful lawyers and business people…The message stands that native peoples do exist…” (142).

In a nice tribute to many Native people’s view of four as a holy number, instead of three, Jenna travels all four cardinal directions throughout the story seeking her four jingle rows.  The number four in relation to Native people is mentioned in the Author’s Note.


“Smith's language consciously evokes legend. For example, "As Sun caught a glimpse of the Moon" indicates the time of day; and Jenna is careful to borrow only a limited number of jingles, "not wanting to take so many that [another's] dress would lose its voice." Van Wright and Hu's (Jewels) lifelike renderings capture the genuine affection between Jenna and these caring older women. Their easy integration of Native and standard furnishings and clothing gracefully complement Smith's heartening portrait of a harmonious meshing of old and new. Ages 4-10.”—Publishers Weekly, May 15, 2000

“This contemporary Native American tale highlights the importance of family and community through a young girl's dream of joining the dancers at the next powwow. Jenna is a girl of Muscogee (Creek) and Ojibway (Chippewa/Anishinabe) descent. She has practiced the steps for the jingle dance by following her grandmother's moves on a video. Now she must get enough jingles (traditionally made of tin, aluminum, or gold canning lids rolled into cones) to sew on her dress to make a satisfying "tink, tink" as she dances. The way Jenna gathers her jingles (borrowing enough to make a row, but not so many that the lender's dress will "lose its voice"), and her promise to dance for the women who cannot dance for themselves illustrate the importance of family and community ties. The colorful, well-executed watercolor illustrations lend warmth to the story. A note explaining Jenna's heritage and a brief glossary are appended. “– Booklist, May 15, 2000

“Watercolor paintings in bright, warm tones fill each page. In scenes where she is dancing, backgrounds of blurred figures effectively represent both the large audience and the many generations whose tradition the gathering honors. Seeing Jenna as both a modern girl in the suburban homes of her intertribal community and as one of many traditionally costumed participants at the powwow will give some readers a new view of a contemporary Native American way of life. An author's note and glossary tell more about the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Ojibway origins of jingle dancing, and the significance of the number four in Native American tradition. This picture book will not only satisfy a need for materials on Native American customs, but will also be a welcome addition to stories about traditions passed down by the women of a culture.”- School Library Journal, July 1, 2000

Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies 2001, National Council for SS & Child. Book Council

Named to the Texas 2X2 List.


  • Read books about jingle dancing. 
  • Watch a video of a public powwow that demonstrates the actual dance. Hearing and seeing the dance are very different than just imagining it. 
  • If possible, attend a public powwow.  Compare and contrast the experience with the book.
  • Read other books by Cynthia Leitich Smith that focuses on Native American culture for an author study, such as book Indian Shoes (2002).   (She also writes fantasy novels, so be careful which book you choose for classroom use!  Vampires and angels are not going to help the discussion on Native cultures, though her Tantalize series is very popular and well-done, as well.)  If you are working with teenagers, Rain is Not My Indian Name would also be an excellent choice.
  • Based on our textbook and class notes, do NOT try to duplicate a jingle dance in the classroom or have students create jingles to put onto their clothes or (worse) a paper bag decorated with generic mish-mash of symbols that are meant to look Native American. This is the kind of activity that teachers have done for years without realizing that the dances are seen as sacred events and the regalia is also sacred to many Native Americans, so having children make their own would be insulting to these people groups.  Example of what NOT to do: http://www.orientaltrading.com/native-american-headband-craft-kit-a2-48_1691-12-1.fltr?Ntt=native%20american or  http://www.orientaltrading.com/thanksgiving-photo-frame-sticker-scenes-a2-9_1221.fltr?prodCatId=550055+1238 .
  • Study Cynthia Leitich Smith's website, which is rich in multicultural book reviews and author blogs and interviews.  Her website is:  http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/ .


I had the good fortune of attending a public powwow as a teenager with my best friend in Oklahoma, who is part Comanche.  It helped me see how many stereotypes are around us regarding Native American culture.  I really enjoyed the book.  There is very little drama to the story, but there is a rhythm to the story that carries the reader along easily.  This was her first published work and it’s easy to see her skill even in her earliest work.  Unfortunately, my children would not read it with me.  They said it was too slow for them.  They did, however, enjoy watching videos of jingle dances from several sources on Youtube, which then led to watching all sorts of Native American dances.  But they still would not sit still for this book.

Works Referenced:

Smith, Cynthia Leitich.  (2001).  Rain is Not My Indian Name.  New York : HarperCollins Publishers.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich.  (2008).  Tantalize. Somerville, MA:  Candlewick Press.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich et al.  (2002).  Indian Shoes.  New York:  HarperCollins Publishers. 

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  (2011).  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008).  “Overview” Culture 4 Native Am Lit.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed October 23, 2013.  

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