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Columbus Day Review: A Coyote Columbus Story by Thomas King

A Coyote Columbus Story
By Thomas King
Illustrated by William Kent Monkman
Groundwood Books
Ages 5 and up
On shelves now

Happy Fiorello H. LaGuardia Day!*

One of the perks that came with attending the Kidlitosphere Conference was free goodies.  For example, Ellen Klages was kind enough to hand me The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales in the course of the day and I’ve been poring of it ever since.  It’s a collection of short stories, all dealing with the idea of tricksters, and produced by some top notch authors.  I’m reading it right now, and something mentioned in the Introduction really caught my eye. Says Terri Windling of female tricksters, “Such wily women are rare . . . and seldom do they enjoy the cultural status of their masculine counterparts. (The majority of Hopi and Tewa stories, for example, feature the usual male Coyote.)”  This ties in beautifully with today’s book then.  I tend to pull this puppy out every Columbus Day, because I feel that it’s a magnificent testament to the classic trickster elements you always hope to find in your tales.  Coyote in this book does great good and great harm and the result is a book that has NOT gotten the attention it so richly deserves.  Now out in paperback for the first time, if you want a good Columbus Day title to counteract the multiple We Wuv Columbus biographies already out there.

I have never ever ever seen a picture book like this one. Never. This book first came to my attention when I heard that it was one of those great “lost” children’s books. I mean, roughly 5 bazillion picture books are published every year, so one or two good ones are bound to slip through the cracks. Naturally curious, I plucked it and discovered that it is perhaps one of the most original stories I have ever had the pleasure to read.

In this tale we read that Coyote created the world. She created both good things (rainbows, flowers, clouds) and bad things (prune juice, commercials, Columbus himself). But what Coyote loved more than anything else was to play baseball. Most of the animals Coyote creates aren’t keen on the idea of playing, but the human beings enjoy the game. Unfortunately, Coyote always cheats and always changes the rules. Pretty soon she has no one to play with again and in her distraction and boredom she doesn’t see the things that are created out of her head. Before she knows it the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria are knocking on the door and some funny looking people are coming aboard. Coyote can’t get these fellows to play ball either, they’re so busy looking for stuff to sell. Next thing you know they’ve captured the people already living on the land and are selling them for a profit back in Spain. Coyote tries to fix everything but when she tries to do so (her nose tends to fall off when she’s trying hard) suddenly there’s Jacques Cartier and a whole new bunch of goons. The native people catch the first train to Penticton and Coyote is left with the new group, trying once again to get them to play ball.

It wasn’t the ending I expected in the book. I had thought there’d be some sort of a happy finale or maybe some way in which Columbus is made into a fool for everyone to see. But this book is pretty darn honest about Columbus’s intentions, as well as his treatment of the Native Americans. And Coyote has always been a trickster god, neither good or bad. She wouldn’t go saving people just because she made a mistake. In fact, it’s entirely believable that she would make the problem even worse. The tale is told with a wonderful style of its own. Coyote says things like, “These people I made have no manners. They act as if they’ve got no relations” (in reference to Columbus & crew). So if you’re hoping for a happy ending to this fable, you’re barking up the wrong tree. If you’re looking for a book with a fabulous take on a variety of different legends, this is far more apropos.

And by the way, the eyes have plenty to take in as well. The story’s good, sure, but it’s William Kent Monkman’s illustrations that bring everything fully to life. The book is drawn in what I can only describe as psychedelic woodcuts. Woodcuts on PCP, if you will. The native people tend to have pretty normal colors and shades, whereas the Europeans are a gaudy cacophony of violent pinks, greens, oranges, and purples. And as for how everyone looks, Monkman bends over backwards to get it right. Coyote, for her part, is decked out in a hot pink tank top, shorts, and running shoes at all times. Columbus is a ridiculous clown with a red nose and bright orange hair. His men resemble an odd assortment of gangster/conquistadors. I think one of them is almost Elvis.

When I said that this book was absolutely original I meant it. The only book you can honestly compare it to, at this moment in time and in terms of content, is John Marsden’s breathtaking The Rabbits. Holy moley, if you combined the two in a storytime you’d have some of the most ethnically conscientious (and depressed) toddlers alive today. In any case, I’m just going to say that as modern legends go, Thomas King struck gold when he chose to tell a whole new kind of Columbus story. Even if you don’t take to it, you’ll have to admit that it’s an amazing creation to behold.

Misc: I would like to point out that Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature also gives the book a fine double thumbs up sign.

*Admit it.  You’d love to celebrate Fiorello Day, right?  It’s just so much fun to say!

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.