Picture Book Review: I Am Sausal Creek by Melissa Reyes

Image description: Two children play in a small creek. They are looking at the rocks in the creek bed. Both children have brown skin and brown hair. One wears jeans and a red and white shirt; the other wears jeans and a yellow shirt. Behind them is a lush, green forest.

I Am Sausal Creek/Soy El Arroyo Sausal written by Melissa Reyes, illustrated by Robert Trujillo, translated by Cinthya Jeanette Muñoz Ramos

From Goodreads: I Am Sausal Creek/Soy El Arroyo Sausal is a bilingual children’s book about the environmental and cultural history of Oakland told through the voice of a local waterway, Sausal Creek.

I love everything about this book. It’s part natural history, part human history, part resistance. The story is the history of the Oakland, CA area which is usually pushed aside for its shinier, tonier neighbor San Francisco. Sausal Creek narrates, sharing what the natural world was, then follows the Ohlone people onto the land, then European, Mexican, and American settlers, the Gold Rush, and then the city of Oakland being built. Finally, the Creek tells how some people are helping to free it from the concrete that has bound it for so long and how nature is ever present and encouraging us to live more harmoniously with it.

I was surprised to learn that the Fruitvale area, now infamous for the murder of Oscar Grant, was named because of the fruit that was grown there nearly a century ago. I haven’t thought of the Bay Area as a fruit or food producing area since in my lifetime it’s always been very built out. For my own family this was a good conversation to have since my daughter knows Fruitvale Station for its tragedy and I’m glad she can see the area (generally and specifically) not just for trauma but for its changeful beauty. The end of the book includes a three page history of the area that will appeal to older children who want more information and will help teachers and caregivers tie it in with historical and ecological curriculums.

Trujillo always does beautiful pen and watercolor illustrations. I think his style lends itself especially well to nature with rich colors and flowy edges. His people are always wonderful and he plays with perspective in a unique and fun way in this book. I think my favorite illustration is one of the final pages where the reader looks up through the creek, as if laying on the bottom, past some fish and toward two boys one of whom is reaching down into the water. It’s so beautiful. Other pages require you to flip the book 90 degrees to show how tall the redwoods once were and to take in a sweeping view of the mouth of the creek as it flows out into the Bay.

We own at least one other book that takes the perspective of a natural object, an oak tree in that book. Neither that book nor this one anthropomorphize the tree or creek and I think it’s a fascinating way to connect children to the natural world. It shows them that these plants (or animals or natural features) do not require human-like feelings or sentience to still matter in the world and to have life, intelligence, and a right to be.

In this strange time that is COVID-19, I think this is a story we all need. One that encourages us from the first lines to sit quietly and listen to a story that is older than any of us, older than our cities, older even than most civilizations and peoples. It’s comforting in its long view that even this shall pass, bring change, and, if we play it right, change for the better of nature and us.

Purchase the book here (not affiliate links). Please, in this uncertain time, if at all possible, purchase from an independent/local bookstore. They need our help right now.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.