Written and illustrated by Daniel W. Vandever, “Fall in Line, Holden!” (2017), subtly references the American government’s forceful separation of indigenous children from their families, community, and culture. Sent to boarding schools, indigenous children were required to adopt Western names, hairstyles, language, and culture in a violent effort at assimilation. Vandever focuses the story on the rebellious spirit of a child who refuses to fall into line, highlighting the inability of powerful groups to stomp out resistance.
The lyrical text is a pleasure to read aloud. It begins: “Deep in the heart of Indigenous Nation,/ Stood a strict Western school of stern education./ Where everyone obeyed and did what they were told,/ And conformity ruled all to fit like a mold./ Until a boy fell out of line…”. This is the only direct reference to the historical context that prompts the story, but an author’s note explains Vandever’s inspiration.
Although the story references the past, the crisp contemporary illustrations help fold the past into the present, cleverly suggesting that conformity is still necessary for success in the current US education system, and threats to American Indian political and cultural autonomy remain in place.
Throughout the day, children move silently through a highly regimented routine, lining up and walking in neat lines through sparsely decorated hallways. Vandever writes that the marching students have “tired minds” and “heavy feet.” However, despite seeming to conform, the children’s “spirits never break.”
While most of the children shuffle through their routine anonymously, Holden, the rebel, is repeatedly identified by name. An unspecified authority appears as a bright and bold exclamation across the page visually bellowing “Fall in line, Holden.” The exclamation is scrawled across the wall as if emanating from the building itself. Distracted, or empowered, by his imagination, depending on how you look at it, or perhaps who is looking, Holden roams hallways full of knights, witches, and astronauts, alone with his imagination, that is until school ends for the day. At the end of the school day, upon reaching the door, Holden’s peers “can’t take it anymore” and “all fall out of line”.
Throughout the text, the school children are literally white-washed. Their eyes and hair are drawn in black and standout starkly against the impossible chalk-whiteness of their faces. However, once they reach the door and leave the school building which is an instrument of Western surveillance, control, and oppression, their skin takes on the varied hues of the American Indian children they represent.
This is a great picture book for very young children, from 3 to 5 years-old. Although it will certainly prompt reflection and conversation when shared with older children as well. However, I do think it is useful to have further knowledge of boarding schools and American Indians generally to help facilitate critical engagement with the text as historical references are subtle.