By Connie Ann Kirk
Illustrations by Christy Hale
Set in the early 1930s, SKY DANCERS is the story of a Mohawk boy who learns about family traditions and gains appreciation for nature after visiting his father at work as a steelworker building the Empire State Building. The story is a work of historical fiction, based on the Mohawk steelworkers who helped build many monumental New York structures, including the George Washington Bridge, Chrysler Building, World Trade Center, Triborough Bridge, Verrazano Bridge, Pulaski Skyway, West Side Highway, and Empire State Building. The book was written by Connie Ann Kirk and illustrated by Christy Hale. In this interview both the author and illustrator talk about their work on the project and what the story meant to them.
What do you think is significant about this story?
CAK: I think that the book works on several levels, as historical fiction about the Mohawks and the roles they played in building New York City skyscapers, and also as a family story about John Cloud and his relationship with his male relatives, in particular his father, uncle, and grandfather. I like how John Cloud does not assume that he will become a steelworker like his father, grandfather, and uncle even though he admires his father greatly. John Cloud has an independent mind and is open to possibilities. He is trying out different ideas for the kinds of work he might want to do one day, which is something I think children should feel free to do.
CH: I love the possiblities that this book opened up for me, both urban and rural landscapes, and I loved the historical aspect, learning more about the time the book was set in. I am particularly fond of the Art Deco graphics and attempted to infuse the illustrations with some of that period's look.
Do you have any personal connections to this story?
CAK: The bravery and amazing skills of the Mohawk steelworkers inspired me to write the book. But personally I was also moved by my own father's work as a carpenter and the skillful work he did on roofs and other hard-to-reach places. I would just stand and watch in awe. My father has always been my hero . . . . he is so talented and brave. I'm also part Native American, Iroquois Seneca on my father's side.
CH: My mother's childhood home overlooked the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, so when I was young, our family would drive from Massachusetts over the Mohawk Trail to visit my grandparents in upstate New York. When we stopped along the route I would help my older brother hunt for Mohawk arrowheads to add to his collection. We would also stop at the Hail to The Sunrise Monument, which was the inspiration for the book's cover.
What kind of research did you conduct for this project?
CAK: I read like crazy about the Mohawks' role in building the skyscrapers and bridges of New York City, and I interviewed some members of the Mohawk nation. I also researched the history of the Empire State Building and other structures being built in the city in the early 1930s. I even found myself watching steelworkers building a drugstore to get some firsthand experience of what the work was like. Their work was not nearly as high up, but there were welders with helmets, sparks lighting up the sky, tall cranes raising beams, and the bang and twang of hammers on steel. I often wondered what the men thought of me sitting across the street in my car in the parking lot!
CH: I was delighted to discover that the Mohawk ironworkers in New York City lived right near my old Brooklyn neighborhood! I was able to photograph apartments that they lived in as well as the Cuyler Church, which was a congregating place for the Mohawk community. That church appears out the window in the apartment scene in the book. I also viewed old photographic archives from Lewis Wickes Hine, who documented the construction of the Empire State Building, and reviewed numerous materials on ironworkers at the National Museum of the American Indian. Then I scoured books and an online photo reference for Art Deco graphic inspiration and for period details of life in 1930–1931.
About This Title
Interest Level:Grades 2 - 4
Reading Level:Grades 3 - 4
United States History, Identity/Self Esteem/Confidence, Occupations, Native American Interest, Immigration, Home, History, Fathers, Families, Environment/Nature, Childhood Experiences and Memories, People In Motion, Pride
English Fiction Grades 3-6, Fluent Dual Language , Historical Fiction Grades 3-6, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6, Native American English Collection, Father's Day Collection, Native American Heritage Collection, New York Past and Present Collection, Native American English Collection Grades PreK-2, Native American Collection English 6PK, Native American and Indigenous Booklist , Native American English Collection Grades 3-6, English Guided Reading Level P, Fluent English
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