Janet Shaw is the author of the new Kaya series in The American Girls Collection®, as well as the Kirsten® series and short stories. To create Kaya's stories, Ms. Shaw worked closely with many Nez Perce tribal members, advisors, and elders in Washington and Idaho, who shared with her the stories and legends of the Nez Perce people that helped her envision Kaya's world in 1764.
Before she began writing for American Girl in 1985, Ms. Shaw had established a successful career as a poet and writer of fiction for adults. Her fiction has appeared in national magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Redbook, and McCall's and her poems and stories have also been widely anthologized, including two stories in The Norton Anthology of Short Stories.
A Missouri native, Ms. Shaw attended Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, where she won Mademoiselle magazine's Short Fiction Contest in 1959. She later earned a master's degree in English at Cleveland State University.
After raising her three children, Ms. Shaw began writing again, and in 1973 the Cleveland State Poetry Forum published her first book of poetry, How to Walk on Water. A second poetry book, Dowry, was published in 1978 by the University of Missouri Press. In 1984, the University of Illinois Press published Ms. Shaw's first collection of short fiction, Some of the Things I Did Not Do, to critical acclaim. In 1987, Viking Penguin published her first adult novel, Taking Leave.
Janet Shaw lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband and their two dogs.
Ask the Author
Author Janet Shaw responds to questions about Kaya and her stories.
Q: How would you describe Kaya's personality?
A: Kaya's personality combines daring, courage, strength of spirit, and a determination to do right. The rigors of her active life have made her strong, and the self-discipline she's learned gives her confidence, even in dangerous situations. Kaya faces many hardships as her stories progress, but overcoming those hardships only strengthens her spirit even more. Many times she is humbled by her mistakes, but I admire her fierce determination to become a better person — one who thinks of others before herself. Always, she is guided by the wisdom of her elders and her respect for spiritual powers.
Q: What do you hope Kaya's stories will do for young girls today?
A: I hope that by looking at the world through Kaya's eyes, our readers will learn to understand, appreciate, and respect a rich and intriguing way of life very different from their own. Kaya and her people were strengthened by their powerful sense of community and their relationship with the world around them. They prized justice, independence, bravery, generosity, and spirituality — enduring values we badly need in our lives today.
Q: How did you prepare yourself to write an accurate and compelling story about Kaya and the Nez Perce people?
A: The Kaya stories are the written record of my own education in the Nez Perce people, their culture, and their beautiful country. When I began this work five years ago, the only thing I was certain of was that I knew very little about the Nez Perce people. My ignorance humbled me as I faced all that I would have to learn in order to make Kaya and her world believable to our readers. I settled in to read and studied the materials that Pleasant Company's historical researchers were compiling — a long list that now numbers more than 90 books and articles. I studied photographs and made sketches of tools, jewelry, saddles, and tepees, and I visited museums all over the Northwest. But it wasn't until I met the Nez Perce people themselves that my true education began — and the world of black and white print began to change into color.
The eight-person advisory board led the way, introducing me to Nez Perce men and women, young and old, with stories of all kinds — personal stories, family stories, legends, and tales — as well as all kinds of special knowledge to share with me. The men spoke of hunting, fishing, and horses. The women described how to tan hides, weave baskets, and their many other skills. But both the men and women talked a lot about their families, too; they spoke of their parents and grandparents, their children and grandchildren. Through their stories I was able to picture a world in which all the children are like brothers and sisters, and every age group has important skills needed by all the others. Many of those stories found their way into the books about Kaya.
They also took me to so many places in their beautiful country! My travels followed the routes taken by Kaya's band as they journeyed from hunting and fishing grounds to berry-picking and root-gathering fields. As I explored, I learned many things. But it wasn't until I saw a herd of Appaloosa horses appearing out of the dappled shadows, and a spotted mare and her new foal stepped away from the others, that I felt I was truly seeing through Kaya's eyes. It was then that all the experiences given to me came together. I believed that I could take what I'd learned and make it my own. I believed that I could make Kaya come alive in the imaginations of our readers.
At every step along the way, the members of the advisory board gave me guidance and corrected my mistakes. If these stories portray Nez Perce life truly and accurately, it is because of the dedicated attention they have given to the text, illustrations, and products. The authenticity of Kaya's world is their gift to all of us. The Nez Perce say that there is more honor in giving than in receiving, and in this case the honor is theirs indeed.
Ask the Nez Perce Tribe
Responses were compiled from the Kaya advisory board members
Q: Why did the advisory board agree on this time period (1764) for Kaya's stories versus one that would have portrayed the challenges the Nez Perce faced after contact with white people?
A: We chose this time period because our children — and children yet to come — need to know where they have come from. And, because we chose to interpret a time before conflict and tragedy, they will be able to visualize our people at the height of our culture. As grandparents, we want the children to know of life before contact with Euro-Americans — a time when our institutions of education, law, health, and beliefs were still intact. We want them to know of the peace that was in our lives, our families, and our villages. It also validates that we were here since time immemorial. Most important, however, is believing that some day things will come full circle and we will live like we once did — not as subjects of an inner colonial system or as a minority group of America, but as the true, real people that we were created to be — a people with strong beliefs who will once again be the stewards of this land from which we all came.
Q: What was the board's experience working with Pleasant Company?
A: The Nez Perce have a long history of working with other entities. We have dealt with neighboring tribes, state and federal government, archeologists, anthropologists, and others like them who are interested in the Nez Perce story. Never before this project have we had the good fortune to work with a group of individuals who always remembered our common interests and goals, and that this project could best be served through cooperation and communication. It has been a wonderful experience working with the gentle, knowledgeable, and culturally sensitive people on the staff at Pleasant Company. They cared very deeply about what they were doing and were convinced that the Nez Perce Tribe had the potential to tell a terrific, authentic, accurate, and compelling story. We were asked to be on the advisory board to retain a true sense of the unique Nez Perce history and culture in the Kaya products, and we are grateful to Pleasant Company for their willingness to listen and to respect the wishes of the board. We commend them, because in our opinion they have gotten it right.
Q: What was the board's experience working with author Janet Shaw?
A: Janet Shaw acted very much like our family historians do. These people, with the help of a witness, usually a sister or a best friend, keep track of all the important family events throughout their whole lives. They tell these stories over and over again. The witnesses make sure the story is kept straight and accurate, to the best of their memories. Janet let us, the advisory board, be her witness. If she had not told the story quite right, there was no debate; it was changed. Janet's research and her grasp of Plateau lifeways and history underscored her dedication and devotion to making Kaya's stories accurate as well as exciting! We feel confident that the stories of Kaya and her people were told beautifully and truthfully by Janet.
Q: What does the board hope Kaya's stories will do for Nez Perce children as well as all young people?
A: We hope our young and old alike will be inspired by Kaya and proud that she is Nez Perce. After reading Kaya's stories and seeing the doll and her many accessories, we hope that children, as well as adults, will want to learn more about who the Nez Perce people were then and are now — a people who helped shape the culture and history of the Northwest for thousands of years. We want everyone to know that we have not vanished through extinction or assimilation, and that we have stood up to all the waves of change with courage and endurance to carry on for future Nez Perce generations.
We hope Kaya's stories will touch the lives of many young people and provide the gift of understanding at a time when there is so much misunderstanding in the world. We predict that once children have read all six books about Kaya's life, there will be no question as to why she is in her rightful place as the first girl in The American Girls Collection.
Q: Is the advisory board comfortable calling Kaya an American Girl?
A: Yes, we are comfortable calling Kaya an American Girl for several reasons. Kaya and her people belonged to this land for centuries before explorers or settlers claimed it for themselves and gave it their names. Even though the Nez Perce suffered at the hands of the people who formed our nation, and lead it today, we are devoted to this land — whatever it may be called. Today, we have dual citizenship; we are Americans and Nez Perce at the same time. Nez Perces are extremely patriotic and have fought for this country — our homeland — ever since the very first war. The American flag is proudly carried first in the opening ceremony of every pow-wow, and there is a tremendous feeling of support for all defenders of this country.
Interviews and information provided by The Pleasant Company.
Meet Kaya: An American Girl
Illustrations by Bill Farnsworth
Kaya, a Nez Perce girl living in 1764, is the newest in the "American Girl" historical fiction series from the Pleasant Company. There are 8 girls altogether, each living through a different period in American history, from 1764 to 1944. There are six short novels featuring each girl and each includes several pages of documents, illustrations or photos and information about the period. Meet Kaya, is devoted to the Nez Perce lifestyle and culture, their homeland in what is now Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and their encounter with the Lewis and Clark expedition and later white settlers. There is a short glossary of Nez Perce words that are used throughout the book. Kaya is an adventurous nine-year-old who is very proud of her horse, Steps High. She creates problem for herself and her peers when she becomes boastful and irresponsible, but she later earns back the respect of her family and even the feisty young boy Fox Tail when she saves the life of a young blind girl. The story has more dramatic moments and suspense than some of the previous American girl books and it shows young readers the life of Native Americans when it was full, proud and nearly untouched by Europeans. Only Kaya's grandmother remembers that her pockmarked face is due to the smallpox brought by early white traders. There is enough excitement in the book to hold the interest of diverse readers, boys and girls alike, with special appeal for young horse lovers. There are also numerous opportunities to generate thoughtful discussion about respect for elders, the individual's role in the community, and the historical interactions between Native Americans and whites. 2002, Pleasant Company, Ages 7 to 14, $5.95. Reviewer: Karen Leggett
Illustrated by Bill Farnsworth
In this, the second book in the Kaya American Girl series, Kaya and her sister, Speaking Rain, members of the Nez Perce or Nimíipuu tribe, are captured by raiders. Because she thinks it was her fault they were captured, Kaya takes it upon herself to find a way to get out. With the help of Two Hawks, a Salish boy who was also captured by the raiders, Kaya is able to make her escape, but will they make it back to her tribe? Woven into the story are authentic depictions of the every day life and customs of Native Americans. Chief among these is the strong independence and self-sufficiency of the children in the story, even at a young age. Like other books in the American Girls Collection, this opens a door for children to a world that may have gone unexplored otherwise. It's refreshing to read a story about Native Americans that talks about life before any conflict with Europeans, concentrating on the people at the height of their culture. A short historical section and glossary are included. 2002, Pleasant Company, Ages 7 to 10, $5.95. Reviewer: Carey Ahr
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