Zemlicka, Shannon. Pocahontas. Illustrated by Jeni Reeves. Carolrhoda Books, 2002.
Counter Narrative Connections
It is difficult to find any picture book or early reader biographies of Pocahontas that do not embrace several of the master narrative tropes. Many contemporary children’s books attempt to position themselves as more reliable sources of information about Pocahontas’ life than the Disney film with which many children are familiar. Certainly in comparison, these books are more factual (and largely do not indulge in the John Smith - Pocahontas romance, for example). Still, most Pocahontas picture books and early readers remain written from a Euro-centric perspective and rely almost entirely on John Smith’s and colonialist’s writings for historical reference.
This early reader biography version of the story is not perfect. It includes scenes such as Pocahontas saving John Smith from Chief Powhatan and warning Smith that the Powhatans were planning an attack on the colonists (both historically disputed events) The book is, however, the only Pocahontas picture book or early reader that I found that acknowledges the messiness of historical accuracy that is Pocahontas’ story (including when discussing Pocahontas saving Smith). Further, the book represents the Powhatan community respectfully and includes the possibility that Pocahontas was not in a fully consensual marriage with John Rolfe or happy living with the English colonists. The end of the book includes a short bibliography and timeline of Pocahontas’ life, as well as an afterword discussing the role of ambiguity and the unknown in understanding Pocahontas’ life. Given that many children’s starting point understandings of Pocahontas’ life will be the Disney version, this book opens up many opportunities for important conversations.
Ask students: has somebody ever told a story about you? who was that? how did they tell the story? did they get all the facts right? did they change anything? Connect these questions back to the Pocahontas story: who is telling Pocahontas’ story in this book? whose side of the story do we have? whose side do we not have?
Pair this book with a discussion of classical European depictions of Pocahontas such as John Gadsby Chapman’s Baptism of Pocahontas, Simon van de Passe’s engraving, and Johann Theodor de Bry’s The Abduction of Pocahontas. What does it mean for somebody to be able to tell their own story? What does it look like when they don’t?
Primary vs Secondary Sources
Historical Fiction vs History
Fact vs Opinion vs Conjecture
Grappling with Competing Historical Accounts