FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Michael Woestehoff's book "Shades of Aye," written for kids age seven and older, explores the challenges that Native American students face as they leave the familiarity of the reservation for college, the resulting feelings of isolation and the difficulty in discovering who they are and what is important to them in a new and different world.
The story follows Julienna Yellowhair, from Ganado, Ariz., as she finishes the fall semester of her senior year of college in Flagstaff. She wants to finish her degree and return home to Ganado as a physical therapist. With close friends from home at school with her, she has been able to succeed. But what happens when Noble Yazzie, a world-famous jewelry broker, enters her life?
"I wanted to tell a story that captured our humor in a familiar setting from a modern Navajo perspective. Not only is it a culture shock leaving our communities to attend college, we are expected to succeed in a world completely foreign to us," Woestehoff said. "It is not that we have problems with the academic components of college, it is the interactions that make college difficult."
Woestehoff said because he is Navajo and white, depending on where he was or in what situation, he was treated differently. He said the readers that he is hoping to attract are younger kids who are thinking about going to college, who will go through those experiences unprepared.
"They don't really tell you when you get to college this is how they are going to treat you, this is what is going to happen when you leave," Woestehoff said. "No one really has that experience they can share with you unless they are there. When you get there it is sometimes too late."
Woestehoff was born in Tuba City, Ariz. and grew up in Ganado where he went to school before attending Northern Arizona University and Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He currently works as a communications specialist in Washington D.C. for Native-based organizations, companies and associations.
Woestehoff said all of the female characters, Julienna's mother and her friends, are extensions of his family. He first started writing from a male perspective, but he was interacting with many dynamic women - his aunt, cousins, mother, sister and grandma - and he decided to switch the story around to make it about a girl who has three friends who go through an experience in college together.
"The mother says, 'always be who you are,' and I was just always reminded to really be authentic, don't try to make apologies and don't try to be somebody you're not," Woestehoff said. "That is what I want people to think about when reading the book because there are not enough Native heroines or Native characters out there that are really cool people and that people want to follow their journey of what they're going through."
The male character in the book makes Julienna question who she is, what she wants to be and what her goals are. Woestehoff said he wanted to explore that male ego and see what happens when a person walks in both worlds, a Native one and the outside world. He said that can be used to one's own advantage or it can be used to help others.
"I think he is a little bit of me," Woestehoff said. "He is my subconscious sometimes. The things that he goes through and the things he is embarrassed or insecure about are things I went through too."
Woestehoff believes the modern world provides numerous new ways to be a storyteller, through video or photographs, and younger generations can use technology to their advantage to creative positive images of the Navajo people.
"Navajo people can create," he said. "Navajo people are amazing and there are just so many different ways to be creative these days and you can embrace all that."
Perhaps the most important thing he wants people to know about the book and leaving the reservation is that it is possible to retain the things that are important when in a different environment that is scary and unfamiliar.
"You can still remain genuine to who you are when you are not with your family or when you are leaving what you think of as your home," Woestehoff said. "You can still bring home with you and you can still maintain your values and be an authentic person."
He is working on a second book of Julienna's journey.