Talking Leaves

Talking Leaves

by Joseph Bruchac
Talking Leaves

Talking Leaves

by Joseph Bruchac


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A work of historical fiction about Sequoyah and the creation of the Cherokee alphabet, from the acclaimed author of Code Talker 

Thirteen-year-old Uwohali has not seen his father, Sequoyah, for many years. So when Sequoyah returns to the village, Uwohali is eager to reconnect. But Sequoyah’s new obsession with making strange markings causes friends and neighbors in their tribe to wonder whether he is crazy, or worse—practicing witchcraft. What they don’t know, and what Uwohali discovers, is that Sequoyah is a genius and his strange markings are actually an alphabet representing the sounds of the Cherokee language. 

The story of one of the most important figures in Native American history is brought to life for middle grade readers. This text includes a note about the historical Sequoyah, the Cherokee syllabary, a glossary of Cherokee words, and suggestions for further reading in the back matter.

* “Bruchac has crafted a tale of depth and universal humanity in this fictionalized account of Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary, and his son, Jesse." —School Library Journal, starred review 

“Although the particulars of the novel occur two hundred years ago, the universality of fitting into a blended family and looking for love and acceptance from a once-absent father feel strikingly contemporary." —Horn Book

"A vivid retelling of a pivotal time for the Cherokee nation.” Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142422984
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 515,508
Product dimensions: 5.13(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.78(d)
Age Range: 10 - 13 Years

About the Author

Joseph Bruchac is a highly acclaimed children's book author, poet, novelist and storyteller, as well as a scholar of Native American culture. Coauthor with Michael Caduto of the bestselling Keepers of the Earth series, Bruchac's poems, articles and stories have appeared in hundreds of publications, from Akwesasne Notes and American Poetry Review to National Geographic and Parabola. He has authored many books for adults and children including Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two, Skeleton Man, and The Heart of a Chief. For more information about Joseph, please visit his website

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

My Father Is Crazy

Crazy. That is the best thing they whisper about my father.

Black magic. Witchcraft. What he is doing or trying to do is evil medicine. That’s the worst.

Since he returned from the West three weeks ago I have heard nothing but bad things said about him. Is it just those bad words that have kept me from going to see him? Am I afraid that when I do see him—if I see him—I will think he is crazy, too?

I am also uncertain how he will treat me if I show up at his door. Maybe he will not be glad to see me. Maybe he will tell me to go away. He has another child now, my half sister, Ahyokah. My father spends much of his time with her. She’s his favorite, not me. I think he loved me once. I remember the stories he used to tell me in his gentle voice. But if he really cared about me, why did he leave me and go to Arkansas? Why have I never heard anything from him during the years he was gone from our town?

Others of our people who emigrated to those western places have sent messages by way of the traders and missionaries who are always moving back and forth between our people. Some, who have learned English, have even sent written letters. But not my father, Sequoyah. No word, either written or spoken, has ever come to me from him.

Maybe he has even forgotten that he ever had a son.

Still, despite all my uncertainty, I have almost gone to where he is living at the home of his second wife. Last week I walked halfway across town toward their cabin before I turned back and returned to my mother’s cabin.

How long will my father be able to stay here? Some say that if it was not for the fact that Agili, who is now the chief of our town, was my father’s cousin and oldest friend, he would have been forced to leave—or worse. I worry I will not get the chance to see him before he is driven away.

I tap the chunkey stick I am holding against the ground. The ground sounds hollow as I do so, almost like a drum. It still holds the cold of winter inside it, even though it will not be long until the leaves return.

I don’t mind the cold. I know the song to keep frostbite away before going out to hunt for food when it is cold. It’s the song that calls on the deer, whose feet cannot be hurt by frost or snow, to share that power with the hunter.

I start to sing it to the rhythm of my stick striking the ground.

Tusunkawiye. Tusunkawiye, Tsunkawiye, Tsunkawiye Sauh! Sauh! Sauh! Sauh!

My uncle Red Bird taught me that song, which must be sung four times, imitating that snort of the deer—Sauh!—after each verse. No boy’s uncle could have been a better teacher. He also taught me to rub my feet in the ashes of the fire before singing it and then setting out.

But no one has ever taught me a song that will keep away the memory of harsh and unkind words.

Perhaps Uncle Red Bird, my mother’s smiling older brother, knew such a song, but if he did I will never hear him sing it. Almost a year has passed since he caught the coughing sickness and made the last walk to the Night Land. I do not have the words to express how much I miss him. Remembering him just brings back the pain I felt when his spirit passed from us. I need to turn my thoughts elsewhere.

Sitting here on the steps of my mother’s cabin, I can hear her moving around inside. She is making more noise than she usually does when she is cooking, banging the rough wooden spoon I carved for her against the iron pot. She is making squirrel stew.

That’s no surprise to me. I am the one who sat patiently under the oak trees as Great Sun walked slowly up into the morning sky, casting her light down on me through the leafless branches. As always, I had taken six long blowgun darts with me and one short one. I had already fired that first short dart at random, sending it off into the woods as an offering and for good luck.

I held my long blowgun steady, pointing it up where I knew the squirrel would appear. Only my lips moved as I imitated its call, knowing its curiosity would be too much for it.

Soon I heard the scrabbling of the first squirrel’s claws against the bark high above me. I drew in a deep breath and then—as soon as it leaned out from the trunk to peer down at me—whooot! My aim was true and the first squirrel landed at my feet, its heart pierced by my dart.

“Saloli,” I said, placing a little tobacco next to it as my uncle taught me to do.“Wado.”

I picked up the leaves which had been marked by the squirrel’s blood when it fell and placed them at the base of the tree where I could easily find them. When my hunting was done, I would make a fire and take all of those leaves and burn them. In that way I would both remove the traces of my hunting and make an offering of thanks to the ancient fire.

When a hunter remembers to do as I was taught by my uncle, then he will be successful. The game animals will take note of his proper behavior and agree to give themselves to him.

Then, with that first squirrel’s warm body inside the game bag slung over my shoulder, I had moved on to the next tree where I knew I would find another squirrel.

As long as I always take care to say thanks in the proper way whenever I take an animal, I will not have to worry aboutAwi Usdi. Awi Usdi is the Little White Deer who is the guardian of all the game animals. Whenever he comes—as he always does—to sniff at any blood drops left behind, he can tell that I have spoken the proper words, given thanks, and shown respect. He does not follow my trail to send me bad dreams and make my hands twisted with rheumatism so that I can no longer pull back a bow or hold a blowgun steady as I did when I shot each of those four fat squirrels.


The scent of that squirrel stew drifts out to me. It smells so very good. My mother’s cooking is the best in Willstown. And I am very hungry right now.

But even my hunger and the smell of my mother’s cooking does not stop me from thinking about my father and the hard words being spoken about him. I cannot go anywhere around people without hearing such gossip. Ever since he has returned from the West, it seems as if his curious markings are all that anyone can talk about.

With the tip of my stick I scrape a rough drawing in the dirt at the foot of the steps. A body, a head with a big beak, two feet, and then wings. Most people would see that shape as a big bird. But would they recognize it as an eagle or would they think it a buzzard?

My drawing is not good. I scrape my stick across it to erase it from the ground.

Is there really a way to make shapes that are better than just drawings of things. An animal, a bird, a plant. Can shapes be made that talk Tsalagi? Can our people really do as my father tells everyone he can now do? Or do writing and books really belong only to the language of the white men?


I turn at the sound of my name.

My mother is looking down at me from the doorway, an unhappy look on her face.

Table of Contents

1 My Father Is Crazy 3

2 My Mother Is Worried 10

3 Sitting and Thinking 21

4 I Greet You, Young Man 36

5 Ahyokah's Friends 48

6 Marbles 56

7 The Chunkey Players 66

8 Confused Thoughts 79

9 At the Town House 84

10 My Mother Knows 99

11 An Uncertain Fish 104

12 Marks in the Clay 115

13 I Agree 123

14 Leaves That Talk 128

15 Going to War 143

16 Horseshoe Bend 153

17 86 Symbols 163

18 Yugi's Warning 170

19 Seeing the Sun Land 179

20 Learning 188

21 Footsteps 200

22 The Village Chief's Visit 212

23 Good or Bad 220

24 The Test 227

Afterword 237

Sequoyah's Cherokee Syllabary 239

Cherokee Words 240

Further Reading 242

Acknowledgments 244

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