Hiawatha and the Peacemaker

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Gorgeous picture book brings timely peace message.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The story of how the Iroquois tribes stopped warring among themselves and became one nation -- more than a century before Columbus set foot in North America -- will be new to many readers of all ages. Even kids too young for the vocabulary will appreciate the sound of Robbie Robertson's language and the vivid storytelling of David Shannon's images, and they'll be moved to return when they can read it for themselves (and play the accompanying song by Robertson). A historical note in the back of the book explains the origins of the story and the history of the Six Nations.

Positive Messages

Forgiveness, kindness, and perseverance all are part of delivering the Great Law: "Fighting among our people must stop. We must come together as one body, one mind, and one heart. Peace, power, and righteousness shall be the new way."

Positive Role Models & Representations

The Peacemaker, who overcomes his disability to help his people, and Hiawatha, who overcomes hatred and his need for revenge, work together to make life better for many. Often skeptical at first, the tribal leaders are moved to seek peace by the needs of their people.

Violence & Scariness

Hiawatha and the Peacemaker brings a strong antiviolence message, but young or sensitive kids might find some elements upsetting or scary. The tale begins as Hiawatha discovers that his family's been slain, and though we don't see the bodies of his wife and children, his lost loved ones appear from time to time in ghostlike images. Some images of the evil Tadodaho, who, among other things, has snakes coming out of his head, may be nightmare fodder. The Peacemaker's distinctive, mask-like face paint is benign, but clown-phobic kids may have issues here.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Hiawatha and the Peacemaker has nothing to do with the hero of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem but instead is about two legendary 14th-century men who united the warring Mohawk, Cayuga, Onodaga, Seneca, and Oneida tribes into the People of the Long House -- one family who could live together in peace. Noted musician/songwriter Robbie Robertson, himself descended from Mohawk and Cayuga ancestors, first heard the tale as a child from a tribal elder. He retells it in strong, stately language, while Caldecott Honor winner David Shannon's rich, colorful illustrations bring the characters compellingly to life. Some images (such as the monstrously evil villain) and situations (the killing of Hiawatha's family) may be too intense for some kids.

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What's the story?

In the 14th century, Mohawk warrior Hiawatha returns home to find everything burned to the ground and his wife and daughters slain. Knowing this can only be the work of the evil Chief Tadodaho, Hiawatha is planning revenge when a stranger appears. It's the Peacemaker, who brings a new message: The five Iroquois tribes must stop warring with one another and behave as one family. His word is strong, but his voice is weak because of a speech impediment, so he asks Hiawatha, a fine speaker, to help him reach the tribes. Soon HIAWATHA AND THE PEACEMAKER set sail in a white canoe of hand-carved stone, hoping to persuade the nations to lay down their weapons; they face many challenges along the way.

Is it any good?

A long-overlooked, still-timely story, which Robbie Robertson first heard as a child from an Iroquois elder, comes to life in stately language and rich, brilliantly colored illustrations. Robertson complements the book's strong, poetic narrative with an audio track, "The Peacemaker," in which he tells another version of the legend. Kids too young to read the book themselves or to understand all the vocabulary will be drawn in by the sound and rhythm of the words, as well as by David Shannon's magnificent illustrations.

Sensitive or nightmare-prone kids may have trouble with some situations, especially the killing of Hiawatha's family, or images, especially of monstrous villains and characters in face paint.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Native American history and what North America was like before the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans. What other stories do you know about this time?

  • Do you think that fighting makes sense as a way to solve problems, or do you think something else might work better?

  • Have you ever been nice to someone who hadn't been nice to you? How did it turn out?

Book details

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For kids who love picture books and history

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