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'Hungry Johnny' Dishes Up Elder Knowledge, Native Culture in Children's Book

[node:summary]'Hungry Johnny' dishes up Native culture and history in an engaging children's book.

We’ve all known (or raised) a child like the title character in Cheryl Minnema’s first children’s book, Hungry Johnny (Minnesota Historical Society, 2014). He’s chock full of energy and impatient to have things right now—like dinner—because after all, Johnny likes to “eat, eat, eat!”

The Johnny in Minnema’s life, the one after whom the character is named and to whom the book is dedicated, is her brother Johnny Bubba, as he was nicknamed.

“It’s based on a memory,” Minnema told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I had a little brother named John, and our grandmother lived with us.”

Congressman Usher Burdick of North Dakota posing with 'The Rescue,' 1939. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Like the young boy in her book, Cheryl’s little brother did run into the kitchen, just about to snatch something to eat. His grandmother stopped him with the reminder that the food was for a ceremony and had to be blessed first and that at the event, elders get served before anyone else. Just like the Johnny in the book, her brother had to learn to wait.

Minnema hopes her book is “teaching children about being patient and about respecting elders and to show a change in my character, Johnny,” she said. “That point where Johnny finally gets to eat—that’s his moment of change.”

It’s at that moment, when he finally gets his turn at the table, that Johnny proves he has learned his grandmother’s lessons. But we won’t give away the ending.

For Minnema, Mille Lacs Ojibwe—who said she’s been writing since she was 12 or so—this is a year of beginnings. Besides from having her first children’s book published, she just completed her first year at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although writing is a familiar craft for Minnema, her usual genre is poetry, not children’s literature. She did find similarities between the two genres, though.

“I was so used to having limited space,” Minnema said of the condensed storytelling in a children’s work. “To write a children’s picture book, you only have very few pages to work with.… You squish it all together in one text. It felt the same [as poetry] to me. That’s what I enjoyed about it.”

Minnema used her writing group and also her two children, ages 12 and 8, as sounding boards.

“I read my manuscript over and over and over to them,” she said with a chuckle.

Even before Minnema found a publisher, her story of Hungry Johnny proved to be a winner. She entered it in a 2012 competition at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and won some critiquing time with award-winning children’s author Susan Marie Swanson.

“That process really helped me to polish up the story,” Minnema said. “Once it was where it should be, I sent it out; I don’t know to how many publishers. The first response I got back was an email [from the Minnesota Historical Society Press]. They were excited to have Hungry Johnny come through.… They had recently put out there that they wanted to increase their children’s picture books section, particularly with Native American characters. It was a blessing, they said, to have Hungry Johnny.”

Unlike with development of many children’s picture books, the author was included in the process of finding an illustrator. The artist chosen, Wesley Ballinger, also happens to be Mille Lacs Ojibwe.

“I feel very fortunate that I was a part of that project,” Minnema said. “I was able to send the illustrator some family pictures to inspire him.”

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The image of her uncle became the inspiration for the elder saying the prayer at the community gathering. Portraits on the wall in Johnny’s home are from Minnema and Ballinger’s own families.

Minnema is already hearing how satisfying her book is for Native children.

“I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback, especially from teachers, from Ojibwe reservations,” she said. “There is so much the children can identify with from their own lives, to see themselves in children’s book. To see themselves today, not in outdated stereotypes.”

In another of her endeavors, Minnema also blends cultural sensibilities with modern-day inspirations. She is an accomplished bead artist, most recently creating a series of four season-inspired bandolier bags with Ojibwe-style floral beadwork. She calls the work Mino Bimaadiziwin—the Good Life Ojibwe Beadwork Project.

“I come from a very traditional family of mostly women—my mother, my grandmother and my first cousins,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of beadwork. It was mostly for regalia.”

She does not consider herself an artist per se, or at least not until recently.

“I’ve only been open for the last couple of years to being called an artist,” she said. “It took awhile for me to wrap my head around that: How our way of life could be called out.... I take traditional style and I incorporate my own ideas.”

Her relatives taught her how to do her best beadwork, how to take apart and redo something that didn’t quite work.

“When I was younger, my relatives were very helpful in teaching me how to do beadwork," Minnema said. "I had grown up watching them sew and learned a lot just by watching. When I started practicing, they were encouraging and when my work wasn't turning out, they knew what I was doing wrong just by looking at it. I learned to be patient as my skills slowly improved."

These days she is the one handing down the knowledge.

“The relatives who taught me how to do beadwork have mostly passed on now, so I no longer receive their direction," she said. "They do continue to inspire my work on many levels, such as the use of their favorite colors and flowers.”

Minnema finds that the skills she has honed in a lifetime of beadwork also aid in her writing.

“Having patience and becoming inspired translates directly over to my writing,” she said. “Writing is a process, and learning the different crafts of writing is also about improving skill.”

More children’s books are likely for the author and crafter, perhaps again with Johnny. She also has a special writing project and a commitment to seeing it published, a tenacity that in itself could inspire children and adults alike.

“I have a poetry manuscript I've been working on for quite a few years,” said Minnema. “It will be published, because I refuse to give up.”