Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press
Illustrator Wesley Ballinger and author Cheryl Minnema, both Mille Lacs Ojibwe, hold copies of their children’s book ‘Hungry Johnny.’

'Hungry Johnny' Dishes Up Elder Knowledge, Native Culture in Children's Book

Konnie LeMay

We’ve all known (or raised) a child like the title character in Cheryl Minnema’s first children’s book, Hungry Johnny (Minnesota Historical Society, 2014). He’s chock full of energy and impatient to have things right now—like dinner—because after all, Johnny likes to “eat, eat, eat!”

The Johnny in Minnema’s life, the one after whom the character is named and to whom the book is dedicated, is her brother Johnny Bubba, as he was nicknamed.

“It’s based on a memory,” Minnema told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I had a little brother named John, and our grandmother lived with us.”

Like the young boy in her book, Cheryl’s little brother did run into the kitchen, just about to snatch something to eat. His grandmother stopped him with the reminder that the food was for a ceremony and had to be blessed first and that at the event, elders get served before anyone else. Just like the Johnny in the book, her brother had to learn to wait.

Minnema hopes her book is “teaching children about being patient and about respecting elders and to show a change in my character, Johnny,” she said. “That point where Johnny finally gets to eat—that’s his moment of change.”

It’s at that moment, when he finally gets his turn at the table, that Johnny proves he has learned his grandmother’s lessons. But we won’t give away the ending.

For Minnema, Mille Lacs Ojibwe—who said she’s been writing since she was 12 or so—this is a year of beginnings. Besides from having her first children’s book published, she just completed her first year at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although writing is a familiar craft for Minnema, her usual genre is poetry, not children’s literature. She did find similarities between the two genres, though.

“I was so used to having limited space,” Minnema said of the condensed storytelling in a children’s work. “To write a children’s picture book, you only have very few pages to work with.… You squish it all together in one text. It felt the same [as poetry] to me. That’s what I enjoyed about it.”

Minnema used her writing group and also her two children, ages 12 and 8, as sounding boards.

“I read my manuscript over and over and over to them,” she said with a chuckle.

Even before Minnema found a publisher, her story of Hungry Johnny proved to be a winner. She entered it in a 2012 competition at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and won some critiquing time with award-winning children’s author Susan Marie Swanson.

“That process really helped me to polish up the story,” Minnema said. “Once it was where it should be, I sent it out; I don’t know to how many publishers. The first response I got back was an email [from the Minnesota Historical Society Press]. They were excited to have Hungry Johnny come through.… They had recently put out there that they wanted to increase their children’s picture books section, particularly with Native American characters. It was a blessing, they said, to have Hungry Johnny.”


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