Fifth-Grader Draws From History

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Sasha Harmon Matthews distils Sitting Bull’s story in words and pictures


  • Sasha Harmon Matthews outside Book Culture on 82nd Street, and where she will read from her graphic novel, Sitting Bull: A Life Story by Sasha, on June 18. Photo: Scott Matthews

  • Sasha Harmon Matthews and her graphic novel, Sitting Bull: A Life Story by Sasha. Photo: Scott Matthews

Book Culture on Columbus Avenue has teapots and jam in its window, along with some children’s books with cheerful covers. What catches a passer-by’s eye, though, is the drawing of a wide-eyed Native American, his mouth turned downward.

He has lines under his eyes, and even the bull pictured in a cloud above him appears melancholy. The man in the drawing is dressed in vivid orange, and there are beams of yellow coming from the cloud. We can see a few teepees, feathers and a headdress; a smaller man depicted on a horse; two soldiers with guns; and a grave marker with the word “Custer” on it. The title is in bold black — Sitting Bull: A Life Story by Sasha.

Inside the bookstore, the book is displayed at the counter. A small note explains that the eight-page graphic novel is the work of a 10-year-old fifth-grader who attends PS 9, The Sarah Anderson School.

“I knew I could do it, but I didn’t think people would like it so much,” said Sasha Harmon Matthews, smiling through her embarrassment at being the center of attention and loving being there.

“It’s not surprising that the youngsters are interested in Native Americans,” said Sasha’s teacher, Melissa Murphy. “What surprised me was how much time Sasha dedicated to the project.”

Sitting Bull came out of what are called extension activities — optional subjects suggested to students who have completed their assigned work. Sasha considered several possibilities from the 19th century, the suggested time period. She Googled and found, which she calls “a good source,” and settled on her theme.

“It’s the life story of the great Indian chief,” she said, “but it’s more than that. It tells about what happened to the Native Americans.”

She explained that people don’t know how the westward expansion affected them. On the next-to-last page, Sitting Bull is killed, but Sasha wanted a happy ending, so on the final page she pictured the chief being taken to the Great Spirit in the sky.

Sasha knew she wanted to tell her story in a graphic book. “The pictures in a comic book show what the author is thinking,” she said. “In a regular book, you have to make it up in your head.”

Sasha’s Sitting Bull begins “Once upon a time,” and the narrative flows naturally. Her drawings, all bright colors and confident lines, burst from the page, setting the time and place, vividly showing how the Sioux fought the Crow nation, how Sitting Bull grew from a child to a great leader until the “white settelers came.” The drawings are so impressive, and the storytelling so assured, that adult eyes, seeing an occasional misspelling or historical error, have to be reminded that this is the work of a 10-year-old. This is especially true when a soldier is depicted talking on a not-yet-invented telephone, though Sasha has meticulously pictured a rotary model.

Making Sitting Bull took a lot of work, she said, but “it was fun so it wasn’t hard.”

Sasha walks with one of her parents from their apartment near Columbia University every school day. Her father, Scott Matthews, who has set aside a career developing web services and products to act as her guide, booster and agent, takes her to art class or other extra-curricular activities afterwards.

It was Sasha’s grandfather who turned the eight pages she had drawn into a stapled book. Annie Hedrick, Book Culture’s owner, said Matthews was the one who had approached her. “They were so organized,” she said. “They had copies of the book ready.”

At $4.95 a copy, sales are brisk. “People are happy when they see it,” she added, “and it makes everyone feel good.”

Matthews said an upcoming June 18th reading at Book Culture came about because he and his daughter went to the comics and cartoons MoCCA Arts Festival last April. At the table featuring the Olympians series, which retells the Greek myths in graphic novels, Sasha gave the saleswoman a copy of her book, and her father supplied their contact information. They could never have expected what happened.

The Olympians’ author and illustrator, George O’Connor, sent Sasha a remarkable email, saying how much he liked her “storytelling, lettering, coloring, and drawing skills.” O’Connor, an established, professional artist-writer, suggested they trade copies of their books at the bookstore. He signed the email “Your fan.” This led, with a little nudging from Sasha’s father, to the upcoming reading.

“Learning about what you’re interested in is the best way to learn,” said Murphy, and Sasha echoed that. She advises would-be authors: “Explore a lot of things and if you find something you like, go with that.”

Sasha is already proving that she’s not a one-trick pony: she’s working on a new graphic novel — Pompeii: Lost and Found.

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