Friday, January 04, 2013


Recently, I was asked to read and comment on Bailey at the Museum by Harry Bliss. Here's the cover:*

Bailey is the dog shown on the cover. In the story, he tags along on a school field trip to a natural history museum.

Let's start by noting why we go to museums.

We go to them to learn something. Museum personnel work pretty hard at making their exhibits educational. They want you to leave the museum knowing more about something than you knew when you walked in. (Though there is much to say about the problems of having Indigenous peoples in natural history museums with the dinosaurs and animals, I'm focusing this post on the idea of a museum and Bliss's presentation of a museum in his picture book. If you want to give some time to my previous post on museums and Indians, see Syd Hoff's Danny and the Dinosaur.)

Do we, as readers, walk away from the museum in Bailey at the Museum knowing more than we did when we turned the first page?

Bliss is an illustrator for The New Yorker and has also done illustrations for a handful of children's books. He grew up in upper state New York. I'm wondering if the museum Bailey goes to is the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

In Bailey at the Museum, Mr. Snyder (the museum guide) takes the class through the museum.

Among the first exhibits Bailey sees are the ones of dinosaurs. On one page, Bailey climbs up on the T Rex and starts gnawing on its tail. To make sure he doesn't get in trouble after that, a museum security guard is assigned to accompany Bailey for the rest of the visit. From the dinosaur exhibit, the class has lunch and then moves to the Stone Age exhibit and a mural of evolution.

The next pages are about Indians.

On the page with the totem pole, Bailey looks at the pole and sees a likeness of himself. Totem poles generally represent history and stories. The Sealaska Heritage Institute has a page about totem poles. If you follow the link you'll see several wolves, but no dogs.

I'm uneasy about Bliss playing with someone's culture by inserting Bailey in that totem pole. Most people probably see it as amusing, but it gives me pause and it makes me wonder about the totem pole Bliss used as his model for this page. Was there a wolf on that pole? I'm guessing that the museum curator has a lot of information in that exhibit... like the name of the tribe with whom the totem poles originate. What tribe did the totem pole Bliss used as a model originate with? Bliss doesn't say. Surely the museum shared that info... but Bliss chose not to include it in his book.

Here's my scan of the next page:

Nothing on the page tells us what tribe this page is about. Notice the use of "were" instead of "are" in the information the museum guide says? I can imagine a museum guide saying "were" instead of "are." If Bliss heard a guide say that, he did not have to repeat that error. He could have used present tense instead, don't you think?

There is a teepee on the next page. All we see of Bailey is his tail sticking out the door of the teepee. As with the totem pole and the dream catcher, Bliss doesn't tell us anything about the tribe this tipi originated from.

As the field trip draws to a close, the security guard gives Bailey a gift that turns out to be a dreamcatcher and an information sheet "About your Dream Catcher" that says "The Sioux belie" (the rest of the words are hidden by Bailey's leg. Finally! Something tribally specific! Part of me wishes Bliss had included tribally specific information on each page... Would it have interrupted his story to insert just another word or two on those pages to tell his readers who these items originate with?

But even if he did include that tribally specific information, he's just using Native cultures as decorations and props for his story about Bailey. Some find the story amusing. I find it insensitive, and, it also negates what museums are trying to do with their exhibits. As such, I do not recommend Bailey at the Museum.

*Image credit: Pinterest

Thumbs down to some titles on CBC Diversity's Goodreads Bookshelf

The Children's Book Council's Diversity Committee is, perhaps, the most recent effort within the children's publishing arena to push for diversity in children's and young adult literature. The 'about' page on their website says they are "dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children's and young adult literature."

Among their activities towards that diversity of voice and experience is their Diversity Bookshelf at Goodreads that "curates front and backlist books by CBC members in order to raise awareness of the diversity-friendly content already in existence."

I'm glad they're taking this on. We most definitely need organized efforts at diversifying voice and experience.

In December, CBC member Cheryl Klein announced their Diversity 101 series and asked readers to look over Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism and Sexism (available at Sarah Park's blog), published in the 1970s by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. She pointed to her own growth over the last twelve years. I've written about my own growth in the last 20 years. This growth is a process, not an endpoint, and I hope that the journey of CBC members leads them to reconsider what they've pointed to on their Diversity Bookshelf.

I've not read all the 58 books on the CBC's Native American-Inuit list. Remember---their list is provided "to raise awareness of the diversity friendly content already in existence." I'm hoping that CBC members study Ten Quick Ways and then remove the following books from the list. They are not diversity-friendly. Instead, they affirm stereotypes and bias. Until we recognize and acknowledge the problems in these books and then quit using them, we're not going to make much progress in diversifying voice and experience. I believe these authors had good intentions, but good intentions are never enough, right?

Here's critiques of some of the books on the CBC Native American list. When you click on a title, you'll go to a page with several posts about that particular book, or, to a single post about it.

CBC has Ann Rinaldi's A Break with Charity: A Story about the Salem Witch Trials on its list, too. Though she is quite popular, she's among the worst offenders in terms of misrepresenting and stereotyping Native people. I haven't read A Break with Charity, but you might be interested in these critiques of two of her books.

I'll close today's post by saying that I'm concerned that the use of "diversity" and "diversity books" seems to be a new strategy within the industry itself to argue that stories can be written by anyone, and that insider perspective is not important. More thoughts on this later...

Updates, January 7, 2013
There's some books on the list that seem to be mis-labeled. Two of them are African or African American stories:

  • Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell
  • Feast for Ten by Cathryn Falwell

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Cowboys and Indians in Brandon Mull's FABLEHAVEN; RISE OF THE EVENING STAR

Thanks to Erin for letting me know about Brandon Mull's Fablehaven series...

Launched in 2007, the first book is titled Fablehaven. Subsequent ones have subtitles. I haven't read any of them, but plan to do so. The second volume is Rise of the Evening Star. Here's what Erin pointed out in her Goodreads review:

The illustration is on page 165 of the paperback. The girl in the illustration is Kendra. She's looking down at a foosball table. It doesn't look anything like any of the foosball tables I've played on...  Here's the text from page 163:
Spitted on rods were four rows of Indians and four rows of cowboys. The cowboys were all the same, as were the Indians. The cowboy had a white hat and a mustache. His hands rested on his holstered six-guns. The Indian had a feathered headdress, and his reddish-brown arms were folded across his bare chest.
Some questions... Have you seen a foosball table like that? And why was that particular scene chosen for illustration?!

When Kendra beats "the Sphinx" (he's "a black man with short, beaded dreadlocks" whose "skin was not merely a shade of brown--it was as close to truly black as Kendra had ever seen") at a game of foosball, he tells her "I feel like General Custer."

More questions... Custer? Why? What does it add to the story to have a cowboy and Indians foosball table?!  Why did Mull include any of this?

And why have no reviewers noted it?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Slapin's review of Deborah Miranda's BAD INDIANS

Editor's Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2012 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.


Miranda, Deborah A. (Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen, Chumash), Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Heyday, 2012.

“Story is the most powerful force in the world,” Deborah writes, “in our world, maybe in all worlds. Story is culture. Story, like culture, is constantly moving. It is a river where no gallon of water is the same gallon it was one second ago. Yet it is still the same river. It exists as a truth. As a whole. Even if the whole is in constant change. In fact, because of that constant change.”

For better or for worse, young Deborah never had to endure the daily humiliations of fourth grade in California, where children are taught the dominant discourse about the California missions. Where non-Indian children (and their parents) construct “mission” dioramas with beneficent padres instructing and supervising willing Indian neophytes as they learn how to work. Where Indian children—especially California Indian children—shrink into their seats, trying to disappear.

The real story—people massacred, children violated, land and languages stolen, cultures broken beyond recognition—is rarely told.

After asking her young son’s teacher to let him pass on the project—and being refused—an Indian parent I know allowed him to construct the required model mission. “So Nick built his mission and brought it home,” she told me. “And we built a fire and we talked about it again, how Indian people were enslaved and died building missions and living in missions. Then we put it in the fire and burned it and I promised Nick that I would always stick up for him and challenge anyone who would keep opening up these scars.”

“All my life,” Deborah writes, “I have heard only one story about California Indians: godless, dirty, stupid, primitive, ugly, passive, drunken, immoral, lazy, weak-willed people who might make good workers if properly trained and motivated. What kind of story is that to grow up with?”

Bad Indians is this story—the story of the missionization of California. In constructing Bad Indians, Deborah creates “a space where voices can speak after long and often violently imposed silence.” For Deborah, the stories seeped “out of old government documents, BIA forms, field notes, the diaries of explorers and priests, the occasional writings or testimony from Indians, family stories, photographs, newspaper articles.” Together, these disparate voices belie the dominant discourse; they are stories of tenacious survival. And they are Deborah’s “mission project.”

But Bad Indians is more than these voices; it’s Deborah’s family’s story as well. In it, I’m reminded of something that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that has recently been channeled through Kelly Clarkson: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Actually, Nietzsche wrote it with more elegance: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

Deborah’s life’s twists and turns have brought her to this place, to find her ancestors’ stories, to tell her own family’s stories, to connect them—and to heal. Some childhood memories, some faded photographs, some snippets of stories written down word for word by an anthropologist, some paragraphs from old textbooks. A lesser author might have crafted a novel spanning the generations, a linear novel, maybe a chapter for each character. But Deborah didn’t and wouldn’t do that; it would have dishonored her ancestors. Rather, she looks at what is—the pieces, the shards of a broken mirror—and interprets, imagines, wonders. If she doesn’t know a thing, she says so. Throughout, she is in awe of the voices, drawings, photos, whatever she can find—all treasured gifts, entrusted to her by the elders and ancestors she never got to meet.

“Who we are is where we are from,” Deborah writes. “Where we are from is who we are.”

On a Saturday morning, Deborah and relatives slowly and mindfully circle the grounds of the Mission Soledad, picking up bone fragments: “Here is a finger joint, here a tooth. Here a shattered section of femur, here something unidentifiable except for the lacy pattern that means human being. Our children run to us with handfuls of ancestors they keep calling ‘fossils’ because youth and privilege don’t let the truth sink in yet.” As they gently bury the tiny pieces of bones, “Xu-lin, we say to our broken ancestors: xu-lin, sprinkling sage, mugwort, and tobacco over the small grave. Xu-lin, we whisper as the earth takes back. Xu-lin, a plea and a promise: return.”

Bad Indians is not easy reading. Deborah draws connections between the violence of the California missions, the violence perpetrated on the descendants of the “Mission Indians,” the violence she witnessed at home, and the rapes she endured as a child: “Imprisonment. Whippings. Betrayal. Rape.” And she doesn’t mince words: “Erasure is a bitch, isn’t it?”

At the end of Bad Indians, Deborah quotes Tom King (Cherokee), who wrote in The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Toronto, Publishers Group Canada, 2003), “Take it. It’s yours. Do with it what you will. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”

If you’re a fourth-grade teacher who has ever taught a “mission” unit, if you’re a parent of a fourth-grader who has ever helped her child construct a “mission diorama,” if you’ve ever admired the architecture of a California mission, if you’ve ever harbored the thought that Ishi was the “last of his tribe,” you no longer have an excuse for perpetuating the horrors. Don’t say you didn’t know.

In Bad Indians, Deborah Miranda has created an achingly beautiful mosaic out of the broken shards of her people and herself, gently glued together with heartbreak and scars, memories and perseverance and hope. Her writing is crisp and clear and eminently readable, with passion in place of polemic. Deborah is a strong, brave, compassionate spirit, and I am honored to call her “friend.”

—Beverly Slapin