The Song That Called Them Home
The Song That Called Them Home
Lauren chased after them. Behind the waterfall, she found a portal to another place. A place she could not yet see. A place that made her whole body tremble. But she knew James needed her, so she took a deep breath in, then let it out, and made herself calm.
David A. Robertson and Maya McKibbin have come together to create something special in The Song That Called Them Home. This gorgeous story, beautifully told, captures the magic of legend and family while introducing readers to a piece of folklore they may not have been exposed to previously.
The story opens with Lauren and James, her younger brother, going fishing with Moshom (their grandfather). While Moshom naps, the two siblings take the canoe out to catch fish for dinner, only to have it capsize. James is pulled under water by the Memekwesewak, small human-like creatures. Lauren gives chase through a waterfall and then a portal to another place where she finds James dancing and singing with the Memekwesewak. She, too, becomes entranced with their dancing and singing until the thump thump of Moshom’s drum calls them back to the shore. Mirroring the siblings’ time with the Memekwesewak, they spend the rest of the evening drumming, singing, and dancing around a fire.
Robertson includes an author’s note about the Memekwesewak in the back of the book, explaining that many Indigenous communities have stories about them. While the Memekwesewak are small and mischievous, Robertson explains that they have also been known to be helpful, especially to children in distress. This extra cultural context is great for readers who may never have come across the Memekwesewak before. One thing this picture book does particularly well is introducing the reader to this legend by situating it in a story that stands on its own. Often when readers are introduced to legendary creatures or stories, it is in a historical context, with the stories told about them having taken place long ago and passed down through generations. Or, they are introduced through straight exposition about the creatures, themselves. Not here, though. Robertson has situated the Memekwesewak in a story that feels alive, like it could take place today and, by extension, makes the story of the Memekwesewak, themselves, feel alive.
McKibbin’s illustrations, done digitally, create the perfect mood for the story. They’re lush but not overwrought. They’re full of movement, and the scenes underwater feel dynamic. Despite the necessity of so much blue, dark greys, and greens, McKibbin’s managed to keep the compositions feeling balanced and not overly cold. The depictions of James and Lauren are particularly well done. James is depicted as much smaller than his older sister, with hair that hangs halfway down his back. Lauren is depicted as taller, much broader, and strong looking. She has a mullet and does not present in a traditionally ‘feminine’ manner, which is refreshing to see in a book that is not about being a tomboy or pushing back against expectations of gender presentation. It’s simply who Lauren is. The Memekwesewak are all white with long hair that seems to extend down the bridge of their noses, like an extended widow’s peak. They are covered in artistic markings, and their skin has an almost pearlescent quality. They are especially striking when contrasted with the fire they dance around, which seems to also dance around them.
The Song That Called Them Home is a wonderful picture book that children will be sure to enjoy. The writing keeps the story moving at a good pace, and the illustrations are beautiful; it feels magical, is full of adventure and a lot of heart. The core of the story comes back to the love that families share, but it is presented in such a way that there’s something for most readers to enjoy here.
The Song That Called Them Home would make a great first purchase for libraries and schools. It would be an especially good choice for those institutions looking to expand on, or modernize, their collection of materials on Indigenous legends and folklore. It’s something children who can read independently would likely enjoy reading for themselves, but the book would also do well as a read-aloud by teachers or parents.
Alex Matheson is a children’s librarian in Vancouver, British Columbia.