Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Books to get (& avoid) from the We Need Diverse Books/Scholastic Reading Club collaboration

A few weeks ago, Scholastic and We Need Diverse Books announced a Special Edition of the Scholastic Reading Club program.

You know what I'm talking about, right? You remember your teacher handing out those book club flyers? You remember poring over the options, deciding which ones you'd get? And then the joy when they arrived!

I was on both ends of that program. As a kid, I got books that way, and as an elementary school teacher, my students got books that way, too.

Like anyone, Scholastic has an uneven track record in terms of the books they publish. Some are great, some are not.

When I saw the first page of the flyer for this collaboration between Scholastic and We Need Diverse Books, my first thought was "Oh no! Not Stone Fox!" That book has stereotypical imagery in it. The stoic Indian in it is violent, too, striking the white kid that is the main character. Even though it all comes out ok in the end, I don't recommend it. Stereotypes are just no good, for anyone.

I've finally gotten a chance to look over the entire flyer and am really glad to see Joseph Bruchac's Eagle Song is in there. I like that book a lot and recommend it. (The flyer also has Bruchac's story about the Trail of Tears, but I haven't read that one yet.)

Don't waste a dollar on Stone Fox. Spend three dollars instead, and get Eagle Song. Danny, the main character, is Mohawk. The setting is present day. His dad is a steelworker. They've moved to a city where Danny feels alone and is teased about his heritage. Like other Native families who find themselves in cities, they seek out a Native community, and find it at the American Indian Community House. Lot of good in this book! I highly recommend it. It was first published in in 1999 by Puffin Books.

Stereotypical words and images: Gone!

Over the years, I've written about children's books that were revised.

A few days ago I compiled links about revised books (some are mine and some are from others who work in children's literature) and inserted them in my post about A Fine Dessert. Today, I'm putting them on a stand-alone page. If you know of other changes, do let me know. This set of links will eventually appear at Teaching for Change.

We are rarely told why these books were changed, and we're rarely told when the change itself is made.  Some changes are no-change, really, because the ideology of the book (writer?) is still there, beneath the words that get changed. Some changes--like the ones in picture books--are significant. All of them are, nonetheless, important to know about.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dear Teachers: An Open Letter about Images of Indians

November 17, 2015

Dear Teachers,

Each day when young children get home from school, parents ask how their day went and if they have any homework. For some parents, the homework their child brings home can be daunting because it has material on it that they haven't thought about in years. They have to "brush up" on it in order to help their children understand the concepts the child's homework is intended to reinforce. Some parents find homework annoying because it is so repetitive and their children could be doing something more engaging.

Last month on social media, Native parents circulated photos of worksheets and books their children were bringing home. Some of these photos were of cartoon-like images of Indians who greeted Columbus.

November is Native American month. Thanksgiving happens this month, too, so, some of the worksheets parents are sharing on social media are about Indians greeting the Pilgrims. Some just have random images of Indians on them because it is Native American month.

If I asked you, teachers, to look through your file of worksheets, some of you will see what I'm talking about. Smiling Indians handing corn to Pilgrims. Cute Indians sitting cross legged on the ground, tending a fire, next to a tipi. Color-by-number worksheets of Indians... We could go on and on, right?

For Native parents--and for non-Native parents who know these images are stereotypical--the homework itself is more than daunting or annoying. They know those worksheets carry messages of who or what Indians are supposed to be. They know those images are misinforming the children the worksheets are meant to educate. For them, these worksheets put them in a what-do-I-do about this moment. Some will point out the stereotypical image and, if needed, tell their child why it is stereotypical and not ok. Some will arrange to meet with the teacher. Some will express their frustration, with family and friends, in person and on social media. And some will keep silent because they fear that speaking to you, their child's teacher, will put their child in an awkward position.

For Native children, those images are one more silent assault on Native culture. These silent assaults, however, are ones their teachers are handing to them. My guess is that some of you, teachers, don't even notice those images on those worksheets.

I have empathy and respect for teachers. I taught elementary school in the 1980s. I know how hard it was, then, to work with the limited resources I had from the school itself, and from my own pocket. Teaching is even harder, today, than it was then. So I'm not writing this to make you feel bad.

I'm writing to ask you to take a few seconds to look--really look--at the worksheets you're going to use today, or tomorrow, or the next day, or any day. Do they have those images of Indians on them? If they do, set them aside.

A lot of you assume these worksheets and biased children's books don't matter because you believe there aren't any Native kids in your classroom. If you're basing that belief on an idea that Native people have dark skin, dark hair, high cheekbones, and personal names that sound Indian in some way, you're reflecting a stereotype.

I don't say any of this to shame you, or to embarrass you.

We all have a lot of ignorance about people who are unlike ourselves. I have had many moments of being embarrassed! I, for example, loved Five Chinese Brothers. I have very warm memories of reading it--memories that go all the way back to my early childhood years. I carried that book in my heart for decades. Then, in a graduate school course about children's literature, that book was one we looked at, and I realized how racist its depictions are... and I let it go.

I hope you'll read this letter as a virtual hug, of sorts, from a fellow educator who--like you--cares about teaching and what we teach to children. We're all learning, every day, how to do it better. I welcome any questions you have--about worksheets, or books. My entire website is for you. It's all free. For you.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

P.S. (added an hour after I hit upload on my letter):

My husband suggested I say a bit more about what teachers can do instead of the usual Thanksgiving activities. So! If you're working with very young children, remember your training. Early childhood education is centered on teaching children in a here-and-now framework. For them, the long-ago (when colonization began) is not best practice. For children at that age, if you want to do something about the holiday, take the what-I'm-thankful approach instead of a usual Pilgrims and Indians ones. Because you're working on their fine motor skills and use craft projects for that purpose, you can do arts activities about turkeys. For older children (3rd grade and up), check out American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving. If you want to take some time to unlearn what you've learned about Thanksgiving, you can start with a fellow teacher's post about Thanksgiving books: Kara Stewart's "Children's Books about Thanksgiving."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Absolutely disgusted by Catherynne M. Valente's SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE

I've never used "absolutely disgusted" in a title before today. There are vile things in the world. Some of them are subtly vile, which makes them dangerous because you aren't aware of what is going into your head and heart.

Some things, like Catherynne M. Valente's Six-Gun Snow White are gratuitously vile. As a Native woman, it is very hard to read it in light of my knowledge of the violence inflicted on Native girls and women--today. Here's the synopsis:

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents--a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.

There is no redeeming Valente's words. There is nothing she could write, as the book proceeds, that will undo what she says in the first half. I quit.

I don't think this is meant to be a young adult novel but I've seen a colleague in children's literature describe it as "fantastic" which is why I decided I ought to see what it is about. As the synopsis indicates, it is a retelling of Snow White. It was first published in 2013 by Subterranean Press as a signed limited edition (1000 signed and numbered hardcover copies), but is being republished in 2015. This time around, the publisher is Saga Press.

Obviously, I don't recommend it.  I've never read anything Valente wrote before. I asked, online, if this is typical of her work, and the reply so far is no. So why did she do this? Why would anyone do this?

Six Gun Snow White is not fantastic. It is not brilliant. It is grotesque. It is so disgusting that I will not sully my blog with actual quotes from the book.
  • Valente uses animal-like depictions to describe the main character's genitals. Yes, you read that right, her genitals. Animal-like characteristics are often used in children's literature but none, that I recall, that are anything like these. In children's books, you'll find things like Indians who "gnaw" on bones or have "steely patience, like a wolf waiting." Such descriptions dehumanize us.
  • Valente has the stepmother bathe the main character in a milk bath to make her skin lighter in tone, but to do the inside parts of her she shoves the main character's head underneath, which echoes the intents of the boarding schools established in the 1800s. A guiding philosophy was 'kill the Indian/save the man' and the idea of the "civilizing" curriculum was to "hold them under until they are thoroughly soaked in the white man's ways."  
  • Valente shows the main character and her mother (her mother was Crow) being lusted after, abused, beaten, and violated by white men. This is especially troubling, given the violence and lack of investigation of that violence that we see in the US and Canada. 

I suppose all of that is so over-the-top to make a point of some kind, but that point need not be made in the first place. As the title for this post says, I am absolutely disgusted by what I see in Six Gun Snow White. 

Dear Katherine Handcock at A MIGHTY GIRL...

November 16, 2015

Katherine Handcock
A Mighty Girl

Dear Katherine,

I saw your November 15, 2015 post at A Mighty Girl. Your topic is celebrating Native American Heritage Month. Of course, I applaud A Mighty Girl for lot of reasons, and I am glad to see you contributing a post about Native peoples, but some of the books you chose are pretty awful.

I'll start with Scott O'Dell. Though he meant well and people who decided to give his books medals meant well, too, his books are not accurate. Rather than providing children with worthwhile information about Native peoples, children's misconceptions of who Native people were--and are--are affirmed by the misrepresentations and bias in his books. Please don't recommend Sing Down the Moon or Island of the Blue Dolphins

My guess is, Katherine, that you read those books when you were a child. They resonated with you. That's the case with a lot of people. They read something when they were a child, but upon re-reading it as an adult, they are taken aback by the ways that Native people are depicted. A few weeks ago, CBC Diversity recommended Island of the Blue Dolphins in a post about strong female characters. The pushback from social media was immediate. It came from Native people, and from scholars in children's literature, too. Within hours, CBC Diversity had removed the book from that post.

Julie of the Wolves... oh dear. Wrong in so many ways! Same with Mama Do You Love Me!

I see you also have The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses on that list. It's a fail, too, when looked at critically. Pretty art, some say, and a Caldecott Medal, too, but there's no tribe in that story! It is a made-up story--made up by a well-intentioned British writer/illustrator (Paul Goble). It looks like a Native story, and to most people, it will be assumed to be a Native story, but it isn't. Same with Frog Girl. That is made up, too, by someone (Paul Owen Lewis) who is not Native.

You do have some terrific books listed, including:

  • Buffalo Bird Girl, written and illustrated by S.D. Nelson
  • Crossing Bok Chitto, written by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges
  • Morning Girl, written by Michael Dorris
  • The Birchbark House, written by Louise Erdrich
  • Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home: by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes
  • House of Purple Cedar, by Tim Tingle
  • Native Women of Courage, by Kelly Fournel
  • SkySisters, written by Jan Bourdeau Waboose, illustrated by Brian Dienes
  • Jingle Dancer, written by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
  • Very Last First Time, written by Jan Andrews, illustrated by Ian Wallace

Anything I didn't list above is something I've not read, or, that I have read but cannot recommend and haven't yet written about in my book chapters, journal articles, or at my blog American Indians in Children's Literature.  I should also note that I'm a Pueblo Indian woman, a former school teacher and professor in American Indian Studies.

A few additional thoughts: because Capaldi's book about Carlos Montezuma was so flawed, I suspect that her book on Zitkala-Sa has similar problems. Same thing with regard to dePaola. His Legend of the Indian Paintbrush has problems, so I suspect that his Legend of the Bluebonnet might have similar problems. And, Katherine, if you're into children's literature, I highly recommend a new blog called Reading While White. Among its writers are librarians at the CCBC (you cited CCBC in your post).

Please reconsider the books you have on your list. Like thousands (millions?) of people, you meant well, but intentions don't matter. The content of a book and what it tells children is what matters most of all. Some of the books you recommended actually work against what I think A Mighty Girl is all about. Affirmation. Some of the books you recommend affirm stereotypes. Can you remove them?

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Well, I did my annual visit to Barnes and Noble to see what they had on the Thanksgiving shelf. Never a pleasant outing, I hasten to add, but one that I do each year, hoping that there won't be any new books where characters do a Thanksgiving reenactment or play of some kind.

Out this year from HarperCollins is Just a Special Thanksgiving by Mercer Mayer. I'll say up front that I do not recommend it. Here's the synopsis:

Little Critter® has charmed readers for over forty years.
Now he is going to have a Thanksgiving he'll never forget! From the school play to a surprise dinner for all of Critterville, celebrate along with Little Critter and his family as they give thanks this holiday. Starring Mercer Mayer's classic, loveable character, this brand-new 8x8 storybook is perfect for story time and includes a sheet of stickers!

If you just look at the cover, you don't see anybody in feathers. You might think they're doing a "just be thankful" kind of story, but nope. 

One of the first pages shows Critter and his buddies at school, getting ready for the play. 

When it is time for the play, Critter (playing the part of a turkey), freezes and the others look on, worried:

Later, everyone goes to the parade, where Critter ends up on a float:

Pretty awful, start to finish, and I gotta say, too, that I'm disappointed. Though I haven't read a Critter book in a long long time, I do have fond memories of them. I dove into research spaces and see that a colleague, Michelle Abate, has an article about Critter in a 2015 issue of Bookbird. I'm going to see if I can get a copy of it. Course, her article won't have anything about Just a Special Thanksgiving in it, but I'm interested in a researcher's perspective on the series. 

Oh, and here's a photo of the display:

I didn't look at each book. Some are familiar from years past, like Pete the Cat in which Pete is shown as Squanto. And there's some messed up images in the Curious George book, too. And Pinkalicious

If I was buying? I'd get that one on the bottom row: The Great Thanksgiving Escape by Mark Fearing. It is hilarious. That page where the kids run into "the great wall of butts" is priceless! I know my sister's grandson would love that part. 

Update: Nov 16 2015

I got Michelle Abate's article, "The Biggest Loser: Mercer Mayer's Little Critter Series: The Queer Art of Failure and the American Obsession with Achievement," published in Bookbird in January of 2014. Reading it helped me think about why I liked the books I read with my daughter when she was little. Abate writes (p. 8):
...although he never completes any of the tasks that he sets out to accomplish, these disappointments allow him to discover alternative achievements that are, arguably, even more fulfilling and important than his initial goal... 

Those alternative achievements? The importance of relationships. 

Reading her article makes me think about the relationships the publishing industry has with Native people--indeed--with the many peoples who have been misrepresented or omitted entirely from the books they publish. From my point of view, Just A Special Thanksgiving is a failure that Mercer Mayer and his publisher can set aside in favor of the relationships they want to build with Native people and all people who are saying 'stop giving us this story' of Thanksgiving!