Old Ways Cradle A New Life In 'I Sang You Down From The Stars'
"I loved you before I met you. Before I held you in my arms, I sang you down from the stars."
With these opening lines, children's author Tasha Spillett-Sumner follows a mother-to-be who prepares for the arrival of her child by following the rites of her Indigenous heritage. She gathers sacred elements from the Earth into a bundle for her baby, and whispers the protective prayers of her ancestors. The beautiful tapestry-like illustrations in the book visualize motherhood in Cree culture.
Artist Michela Goade, who has Tlingit heritage and just this year won a Caldecott Medal, is the illustrator of I Sang You Down from the Stars. She says she was drawn to the story because it focused on the woman's preparation before she becomes a mother. "And it's the sort of magical journey that she goes through as she realizes she's pregnant, as she prepares for this child, and then she welcomes the child into the world. And then with the author, with Tasha Spillett-Sumner's Cree world view, it lends itself a really beautiful, unique quality to the story."
On where she found inspiration
At the core of this book were themes that I often explore in my own work as well in terms of, you know, land is central to identity and love for land, and how it ties us to our Indigenous cultures. And so I relied on that to help lend some authenticity from my end to the story. And I also wanted to root the visual story in Tasha's world as much as I could. She was pregnant at the time. You know, she welcomed her baby Isabella right about the time I finished the book. And so I looked to her and her life and her culture as much as I could. And I really wanted the story to have this intimate, tender quality that the text already had. And so I thought honoring her in that way would give the book just an extra magic.
On the symbolism in her illustrations — especially the "swoosh" of stars on each page
The book is sort of separated into what I viewed as more of the gathering and the assembling of the sacred bundle for the baby. And then once the baby arrives, the book delves into the gifting of these objects. And so there was an interesting setup there visually, between collecting and gifting. And so each gifting and collecting spread thematically tied together through colors and visuals. And then I think it just came into being the swoosh when specifically that river stone spread, when Tasha says the land carries stories and so do you. And a way to communicate that this the stone, this little stone held all of these stories was to create this sort of dreamy swoosh that held symbolism and imagery from both Cree and Tlingit traditional stories. And I think people from within the culture can look at that and identify things. And then even if you're outside of the cultures, I think you can tell that there's, you know, a sense of power and gravity imbued in that swoosh.
On the relationship between the past and present
You know, it really is a powerful thing. I think Tasha talks about it in the book, in the back matter where the woman, the mother is collecting these objects and gifting them to the her child. But then upon the baby's arrival, she learns that the baby is, in essence, its own sacred object, its own sacred bundle itself. Because within this child are the hopes and dreams of culture and of carrying on traditions and connection to everyone who's come before you. And I really just loved that essence or that idea too of the generation, the power of that passing on generational wisdom. And I think also having that swoosh helped us visualize just how everything comes full circle and, you know, past is our present is our future, and I just try to communicate as much as I could of all these big ideas into this children's book.
This story was edited for radio by Kitty Eisele, produced by Andrew Craig, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.