Every once and a while a book comes around that changes somebody. For a young Alexis Saenz that book is Proud to be a Blacksheep written by Roberta John.
The book focuses on a young Navajo girl Shundeen who goes to school off the reservation and ultimately feels like an outsider. She must find a way to retain her culture while trying to find a way to fit in. The book is written in both Navajo and English.
This is Johns second book, her first was Red is Beautiful, and both books deal with issues of acceptance. The inspiration for her second book came years ago when she was out educating the community about the pros and cons of gaming. During that time she interviewed a professor who was also a medicine man.
"Before I interviewed him he let me sit in one of his classes," said John. "And he made all of his students introduce themselves to me and there was only one guy in the class and when he introduced himself he said, 'well I'm just the black sheep of my family' and we all laughed. And then the instructor said, 'you know that's really not that funny, because your all thinking you should look down on him, but you should look up at him.' He said in the Navajo culture we look up to the Blacksheep as the leader of the herd, they are always the wisest one and know how to find their way back home, you should always look up and be proud to be a Blacksheep. And that always stuck in my head for years."
Despite that defining moment it was years before John actually put that idea into a book, and the inspiration came after witnessing how children interacted with one another.
"People were always asking me when I was going to write my next book," said John. "I hadn't really thought about it, but one day I heard these kids teasing another kid for being a Blacksheep and so I figured I would write a story about a little girl who is part of the Blacksheep clan. She's viewed by her parents as an outcast, and she is the only Navajo in her class. And every summer she would go back to the reservation to visit her parents, and one time she doesn't listen to her grandfather, and she goes to the canyon and gets hurt. She has a little black lamb names frosty with her, and her grandfather tells her a story about how to never be ashamed about who she is."
This message transcended space to California when it reached 10-year-old Alexis Saenz
Saenz wrote in her letter, "You're book Proud to be a Blacksheep gave me confidence to be proud of who I am. I am Native American just like Shundeen...right after I read your book I went to my Navajo grandma's house and talked to her a lot about cultural things, like Pow-wows, Navajo food, Navajo dancing and famous Navajo people. 'why do you want to know so much about this?' she asked. 'you never did this before.' It helped me accept who I am I replied it's amazing what a book can do for a person. Now I just want to shout out to the world who I am."
Being named as a child's favorite author was a great experience for John.
"She named me and I said, 'are you kidding me? You just made me the happiest person ever'" said John. "I wrote her a letter back, but I don't know if she got it yet. I told her in the letter when she comes back to the reservation to let me know and then I could drive out there and meet her and her grandmother. You ever know the impact your books are going to have on people."
Although this is only the second of Johns' books, there is a specific message she wants to come through in all her books, and that is to never be ashamed of who or what you are.
"When I talk to the little kids about my books I always tell them don't be ashamed of who you are, or what color you are, or what you look like," said John. "And people will always tease you, but never be ashamed about who you are."
John would like that message to continue into the next book she publishes.
"I want to write a book either about a young Navajo boy or two brothers", said John. "In my head I'm just trying to figure out what issue I want to deal with. I feel like my books deal with contemporary, issues but have to deal a lot with Navajo teachings and values of how you use Navajo philosophy and values to heal and educate and empower our young people."