Voices Of Youth

When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans (The Smithsonian Institution and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). Cloth, $16.

OPPOSITE A STUNNING photograph of a Pahlikmana Katsina doll -- that's "butterfly" in Hopi -- in this collection of children's poems is a piece titled "The Buffalo Ran Away." The Katsina's an old one: blocky, with paint worn off the rounded, undetailed hands and feet, the headdress repaired at the edges of its rectangular frame. It was from Oraibi.

The buffalo poem, 10 lines long, periodically enjambed for effect and exhibiting both hyperbole and simile, was written by Dewayne X. Mix, a 9-year-old Pima kid from Tucson. It contains the lines "My fur is rough and brown / as a torn-up tire."

Makes even a crusty book critic smile. Especially one with a fondness for Arizona's Old Oraibi.

When the Rain Sings is a collection of poems written by young Native Americans from across the country. A partnership between the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers and BIA-funded schools worked with 250 students ages five to 18 to hone communication skills. They asked them to respond in writing to cultural artifacts and period photographs from the National Museum of the American Indian. This book, with poems paired with their artifacts, is the result.

Glossy, brilliant in reds, blacks and yellows, When the Rain Sings reveals the sort of fresh, raw candor only children can express. In response to a painted Chippewa cradleboard, for example, a ninth-grade Ojibwe girl wrote a narrative that finishes: "I hold in my hands / A cradleboard / Knowing it is empty / Still I wonder / What happened to the baby / The one that should be / My mother."

It's not always saved from the childish ("I love horses / Horses are beautiful to ride"), but these poems give a young perspective to the bewildering, abiding sense of ruptured community and culture. And pervasive metaphor gives a voice to their views. It underpins 12-year-old Oglala Lakota Kimberly Eagle Bull's description of trying to sleep through a storm: "I count our strength / Two and a child...And my heart owns a doubt / Whether it is in us to arise with day / And save ourselves unaided." The literal drives a poem about a dying father: "Never drink like me, A-doe."

Drawn from culture, with details characteristic of children's vision, sensitive to human relations and natural environment, When the Rain Sings is a lovely little book. It declares itself "for ages 10 and up." "Up" should take a look at it.

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