Thursday, April 23, 2015

Daniel Jose Older's SHADOWSHAPER

Last year I read Daniel Jose Older's excellent essay in Buzzfeed Books. Titled "Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing," it was shared widely in my social media networks. I started following him on Twitter, and learned that he had a young adult book in the works. By then I'd already read Salsa Nocturna and loved it. His is the kind of writing that stays in your head and heart.

I've now read his young adult novel, Shadowshaper, and am writing about it here. Older is not Native, and his book is not one that would be categorized as a book about Native peoples. There are, however, significant overlaps in Indigenous peoples. There are parallels in our histories and our current day politics.

Here's the cover:



The girl on that cover is Sierra, the protagonist in Older's riveting story. She paints murals. Here's the synopsis:

Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of  making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears... Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.
With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one -- and the killer believes Sierra is hiding their greatest secret. Now she must unravel her family's past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.

That synopsis uses the word "magic." Older uses "spiritual magic" at his site. I understand the need to use that word (magic) but am also apprehensive about it being used in the context of Indigenous peoples and people of color. Our ways are labeled with words like superstitious or mystical--words that aren't generally used to describe, say, miracles done by those who are canonized as saints. It is the same thing, right? Whether Catholics or Latinas or Native peoples, beliefs deserve the same respect and reverence.

For anyone with beliefs in powers greater than themselves, there are things that happen that are just the norm. They're not mystical or otherworldly. They are just there, part of the fabric of life.

Anyway--that's what I feel as I read Shadowshaper. The shadowshaping? It blew me away. I love those parts of the book. We could call them magical, but for me, they are that fabric of life that is the norm for Sierra's family and community. When she starts to learn about it, she doesn't freak out. She tries to figure it out.

She does some research that takes her to an archive, which eventually leads her to a guy named Jonathan Wick who wants that shadowshaping power for his own ends.

That archive, that guy, that taking? It points to one of the overlaps I had in mind as I read Shadowshaper. 

Native peoples in the U.S. have been dealing with this sort of thing for a long time. Someone is curious about us and starts to pry into our ways, seeking to know things not meant for him, things that he does not understand but is so intoxicated by, that he has to have it for himself. It happened in the 1800s; it happens today.

But let's come back to Sierra. She's Puerto Rican. When she starts her research in the library at Columbia University, she meets a woman named Nydia who wants to start a people's library in Harlem that will be filled with people's stories. Pretty cool, don't you think? Nydia works there, learning all she can to start that people's library. Amongst the things she has is a folder on Wick. She tells Sierra (p. 50):
He was a big anthro dude, specifically the spiritual systems of different cultures, yeah? But people said he got too involved, didn't know how to draw a line between himself and his -- she crooked two fingers in the air and rolled her eyes -- "subjects. But if you ask me, that whole subject-anthropologist dividing line is pretty messed up anyway."
Sierra asks her to elaborate. Nydia says it would take hours to really explain it but in short (p. 51),
"Who gets to study and who gets studied, and why? Who makes the decisions, you know?"
I can't think of a work of fiction in which I read those questions--straight up--in the way that Older gives them to us. Those are the big questions in and out of universities. We ask those questions in children's and young adult literature, and Native Nations have been dealing with them for a very, very long time. I love seeing these questions in Older's book and wonder what teen readers will take away from them? What will teachers do with them? Those questions throw doors wide open. They invite readers to begin that crucial journey of looking critically at power.

Older doesn't shy away from other power dynamics elsewhere in the book. Sierra's brother, Juan, knew about shadowshaping before she did because their abuelo told him about it. When Sierra asks Juan why she wasn't told, too, he says (p. 110):
"I dunno." Juan shrugged. "You know Abuelo was all into his old-school machismo crap."
Power dynamics across generations and gender are tough to deal with, but Older puts it out there for his readers to wrangle with. I like that, and the way he handles Sierra's aunt, Rosa, who doesn't want Sierra to date Robbie because his skin is darker than hers. Sierra says (p. 151):
"I don't wanna hear what you're saying. I don't care about your stupid neighborhood gossip or your damn opinions about everyone around you and how dark they are or how kinky their hair is. You ever look in the mirror, Tia?"
"You ever look at those old family albums Mom keeps around?" Sierra went on. "We ain't white. And you shaming everyone and looking down your nose because you can't even look in the mirror isn't gonna change that. And neither is me marrying someone paler than me. And I'm glad. I love my hair. I love my skin."
I love Sierra's passion, her voice, her love of self, and I think that part of Shadowshaper is going to resonate a lot with teens who are dealing with family members who carry similar attitudes.

Now, I'll point to the Native content of Shadowshaper. 

As I noted earlier, Sierra is Puerto Rican. That island was home to Indigenous people long before Columbus went there, all those hundreds of years ago. At one point in the story, Sierra notices the tattoo on Robbie's arm. He asks her if she wants to see the rest of it. She does, so he pulls his shirt off (p. 125):
It was miraculous work. A sullen-faced man with a bald head and tattoos stood on a mountaintop that curved around Robbie's lower back toward his belly. The man was ripped, and various axes and cudgels dangled off his many belts and sashes.
"Why they always gotta draw Indians lookin' so serious? Don't they smile?"
Did you notice the tense of her last question? She asks, in the present, not the past. There's more (p. 126):
"That's a Taino, Sierra."
"What? But you're Haitian. I thought Tainos were my peeps."
"Nah, Haiti had 'em too. Has 'em. You know..."
"I didn't know."
That exchange is priceless. In the matter-of-fact conversation between Robbie and Sierra, Older guides readers from the broad (Indian) to the specific (Taino) and goes on to give even more information (that Taino's are in Haiti, too).

But there's more (p. 126)!
Across from the Taino, a Zulu warrior-looking guy stood at attention, surrounded by the lights of Brooklyn. He held a massive shield in one hand and a spear in the other. He looked positively ready to kill a man. "I see you got the angry African in there," Sierra said.
"I don't know what tribe my people came from, so it came out kinda generic."
It is good to see a character acknowledge lack of knowing! It invites readers to think about all that we do not know about our ancestry, and what we think we know, too... How we know it, what we do with what we know...

What I've focused on here are the bits that wrap around and through Older's wonderful story. Bits that are the warm, rich, dark, brilliant fabric of life. Mainstream review journals are giving Shadowshaper starred reviews for the story he gives us. My starred review is for those bits. They matter and they speak directly to people who don't often see our lives reflected in the books we read. I highly recommend Shadowshaper. Published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine Books, it is exceptional in a great many ways.


Willa Strayhorn's THE WAY WE BARED OUR SOULS

Willa Strayhorn's The Way We Bared Our Souls opens with a deeply problematic scene. The characters in the story are inside a "ceremonial kiva" (p. 1). Chronologically, this scene is from the last part of the story Strayhorn tells.

Told from the viewpoint of Consuelo (called Lo for short), an "Anglo, not Hispanic" (p. 11) character, she is in this "ceremonial kiva" with three others. Missing is Kaya, "the girl who felt no pain" (p. 1).

Kaya, we learn later, is "Pueblo on her mom's side and Navajo on her dad's" (p. 66). Of course, she's got high cheekbones. She's not in that opening scene, because by the end of the story she's dead.

These teens go to Santa Fe High School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I'm from Nambe Pueblo, about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. It is where we went, as teens, to see a movie, eat out, etc. There's a lot of things in the novel that don't jib with the Santa Fe that I know, like the part where Consuelo sees the school mascot at a party (Santa Fe High's mascot is a demon, not a buffalo) and the part where Consuelo and Ellen are at the train depot and Ellen talks about wanting to hop a train to parts unknown (there's been no train service like that in Santa Fe for a very, very long time; the only train in recent times is the Railrunner, which is a commuter train that runs from Santa Fe to Albuquerque). There's other things, too, that yank me out of the story, but I want to focus on what Strayhorn does with Native culture.

They're in this kiva because of Consuelo. A week prior to that opening scene, she'd been to the doctor. Her likely diagnosis was multiple sclerosis. Understandably upset, she's gone for a drive. A coyote runs out in front of her car. She pulls over and is approached by a guy with "silky dark hair" named Jay. There's some chitchat and then (p. 28):
"What happened to your blood, dear?" he said.
And
"You're unwell, he said. You're... afflicted. Is it your blood, sweetheart?"
She tells him it is her brain (I cringed when I read "dear" and "sweetheart"). He can sense her pain and suffering and tells her that her (p. 29):
"...essential well-being is much deeper than the burden your body carries. You do not have to be tyrannized by your disease."
See that word, "burden"? Jay is going to suggest that Consuelo invite four friends to go through a healing ritual that will heal her energy and release her from her burden. The "powerful medicine" in this ritual "can eliminate your pain and disease and teach you to accept everything fate throws your way. With joy" (p. 33).

Of course, she agrees, and invites four kids from school to do it with her.

Along with Kaya is Thomas. He was a child soldier in Liberia and carries emotional trauma. Ellen is a drug addict and Kit is depressed over the accidental death of his girlfriend. Kit, by the way, is also the group expert on Native Americans, delivering mini-lectures here and there. His name (Kit) is a bit of a misstep. When I hear that name, I think of Kit Carson, the person responsible for removing the Navajo people from their homelands.

The ritual takes place at "Pecos Park" which is, in reality, Pecos National Historic Park. As a national park, it is protected from the very sorts of intrusion that happens in this story. People have been exploiting these sites for a long time, removing artifacts, defacing structures, and engaging in pseudo-rituals... just like the one Jay is doing in this book.

The kids don't know what this ritual involves. Some of the kids express skepticism about it and about Jay, too, but all partake, nonetheless. In it, Jay tells them his sacred name for the ceremony is "Walks with Coyotes" (p. 105). He chants, spits "sacred oil" on them, asks each one to talk about his or her burden, and then gives each one a totem that represents their struggle (p. 106). He does more chanting, and then throws some powder into the fire. The powder puts the fire out, leaving the kiva in complete darkness. Thomas gets the fire going again. Jay and Dakota are gone.

The kids go home. The next day, they realize that their respective burdens are gone, replaced by that of one of the others in the group. Consuelo now has Kaya's burden. She feels no pain.

Kaya has Thomas's emotional trauma, but she has the additional trauma of reliving the atrocities Native people experienced historically. She's in those moments several times. Those parts of Strayhorn's novel are gruesome, and the scene where Kaya dies is gratuitous.

Earlier this month, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs held its annual conference. At his session,* Varian Johnson posed a question to the audience: "Are you writing to exploit or enrich?"

"Are you writing to exploit or enrich?"

The events child soldiers in Liberia, and Native peoples in the U.S. experienced were horrific. Strayhorn may have felt she was bringing important history to life by writing this story, but it doesn't work for me. She is exploiting atrocity experienced by the child soldiers of Liberia, and, Native peoples, too. Who benefits from this? What lives are enriched by this?

Not Native kids, that's for sure, and I doubt that former child soldiers would feel empowered by reading The Way We Bared Our Souls. In fact, this feels very much like another author who didn't imagine not-White readers of her book. Did she know that Native readers are out here? Does she know that killing off the Native character is just a very bad move?

In an interview at RT Book Reviews, she was asked about the Native parts of the story:
The book also includes elements of Native American culture. Do you have personal ties to the culture or did you have to research the customs and practices?
Because I don't have personal, firsthand knowledge of any indigenous tribes, I felt a little wary about putting so much Native American history in the book. I didn't want to give the impression that I was trying to appropriate what wasn't mine. But that part of the country (the Southwest) is packed with fascinating history and ultimately I couldn't ignore it. I just hope that my deep respect for these New Mexico tribes shines through more than my ignorance. I did a lot of research for the book, and have actually been reading about America's indigenous peoples since I was a teenager and discovered my dad's beautiful books about them. I also had an extraordinary teacher in high school who'd studied Native American history and was sure that his students didn't neglect it even as he pumped us full of info about the founding fathers for the AP exam. But books and museums can't compare to firsthand knowledge, which I woefully lack.  
With that last sentence, she seems to gesture at an understanding that she's erred in her use of Native culture for this story. In reviews of her book, many view the burden-sharing as unique, but see problems in its execution. 

I'm certain Strayhorn felt she was enriching, not exploiting, as she wrote this book, but that interview suggests that she may have had niggling doubts that she didn't listen to. Some of this doubt can actually be seen in some of the things that Kit says. He wonders, for example, if Jay is a wannabe or a charlatan--both of which are exploitative. 

In the acknowledgements, Strayhorn thanks her editor, Liz Tingue at Razorbill. Razorbill, by the way, is part of Penguin, which means we have yet another book by a major publisher that does a poor job with Native content. 

Coming back to Johnson's question about exploitation, what is an editor's role? Do editors ponder the exploit/enrich question Johnson posed? When Tingue took Strayhorn's manuscript to the marketing department at Razorbill/Penguin, what was that conversation like? Honestly, I find myself cringing again as I imagine what was said. 

Willa Strayhorn's The Way We Bared Our Souls, published in 2015 by Razorbill, is not recommended. 

___________________

*Thanks to Mindy Rhiger for her excellent report, Diversity at AWP15.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

THANKSGIVING THIEF (Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew #16)

There are many ways I could critique Thanksgiving Thief. We could start with the cover:



Nothing wrong, we might say, but chapter one is called "Cool Costumes" and introduces the three kids on the cover to a "Native American girl" named Mary who is new to the school and providing them headbands (the "cool costumes") they'll wear in the school pageant. Mary's not on the cover. Maybe she shouldn't be, though, because she's not part of the series.

Here's how Mary is introduced to readers (p. 2):
Bess twirled around in front of Nancy's mirror and looked at the beaded leather dress she was wearing. "I love being a Native American princess," she said. "This is so cool."
Mary White Cloud looked at Bess. "You look great!" she said.
Mary was a new girl in their class at school. She was Native American. The girls' teacher, Mrs. Ramirez, had asked Mary to cast three more girls in the class to play Native American princesses in the pageant part of the River Heights Thanksgiving Celebration.
So far, we don't know what tribal nation Mary is from. I'm curious about that "beaded leather dress." Such items are not playthings to the Native families who have them. They hold great significance. A lot goes into the making of them. A lot of people are involved.

And this princess theme... not good!

Nancy, Bess, and George--the girls on the cover--and Mary, are all at Nancy's house (p. 3-4):
"Now for the headbands," said Mary. She opened a box on Nancy's bed and took out four beaded strips of leather. "These were worn by real Native American princesses in a tribal ceremony in Oklahoma last year," she told the other girls. "My uncle in Lawton sent them to me."
Aha! Some geographical information! Lawton, Oklahoma. There's a lot of Native nations in Oklahoma. Lawton is the location of the Comanche Nation's tribal offices. That doesn't mean the uncle in Lawton is Comanche, though. That he'd send these beaded strips of leather--used in a ceremony--to Mary? Not likely. Especially if they're to be used for "costumes" at a Thanksgiving pageant.

Nancy, Bess, and George put the headbands on, but Nancy asks (p. 5):
"Where are the feathers? Don't we have to have feathers?"
Mary nodded. "That's the most important part, but it's also the most difficult."
"What's so hard about finding feathers?" said George. "My pillow is full of them."
"It can't be that kind of feather," Mary said. "It has to be a special feather."
"What makes a feather special?" asked Nancy.
"It has to come from a living bird," Mary explained.
"You mean we're going to have to pull a feather from a real, live bird?" Bess exclaimed? How are we going to do that? I don't think we should go around chasing birds, trying to steal their feathers."
"That wouldn't work, either," said Mary, "even if you could catch one. No, it has to be one that the bird left behind, just so it can be used in a ceremony."

Oh-oh. I'm not liking this at all!

"Birds do that?" Nancy said.
"That's what one of our legends says," Mary told them. "A bird will drop a feather somewhere, making a connection with the earth and then we'll pick it up and put it in our headbands and use it when we're celebrating something important."
Ummmm, I don't think so. Sounds "Indian" though, doesn't it? It isn't.

While they're talking, a mystery develops. The girls take off their "costumes" and leave to investigate. The next day, they all meet up again at the gymnasium. Mary's mom is making fry bread, and when she's finished, she's going to help them with their parts in the pageant. While they're waiting, Bess shows Mary a feather she found (p. 23):
"That's wonderful! You're the first person to pick up a feather, Bess," Mary said. That's special in our culture."
Again... sounds like an "Indian" bit of lore, right?!

Things are going wrong--things that threaten the pageant and celebration. There's talk of it being cancelled. Meanwhile, more feathers are turning up at sites where food for the celebration is being stored or prepared. The crew thinks there's a thief at work who is leaving these feathers as his calling card. If that's the case, Mary tells them (p. 48):
"...that means they're negative, not positive, and you always need to use positive feathers in a pageant when you're dealing with Native American culture."
Again... sounds like "Indian" lore, right?! Nancy asks Mary if she knows the specific kind of feathers they are finding.
Mary shook her head. "No, I don't. We don't always know what kind of a bird drops its feathers, but in our culture, it doesn't really matter, as long as the bird does it willingly."
Goodness! That bogus legend gets even weirder! This suggests that any feather will do, but that is not the case. For many tribal nations, eagle feathers are the ones we use, and the acquisition of them is carefully regulated. The author of this Nancy Drew story obviously doesn't know about any of this. If you're interested, spend some time on the Eagle Repository website.

By the end of the story, we learn that those feathers the crew has been finding are turkey feathers, and that it is hungry turkeys that have been stealing food. Mystery resolved and an action plan in place to take care of the turkeys, the crew and Mary get ready for the pageant.
"Let me look at you," said Mary. She adjusted their headbands. "Perfect. You really do look like Native American princesses."
"Do you have our turkey feathers?" Bess asked.
Mary nodded. "Your three and one Mr. Fulton gave me!" she said.
"Super!" Nancy said.
"I am not going to perform the feather ritual," Mary said. "I will put one feather at the back of each headband." 
Thankfully, there is no description of this ritual. Here they are, on stage (p. 80).



They were welcomed by the Pilgrims? Hmmm... And see the two girls with hands raised as if saying "how" to those Pilgrims?

Published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster, and again in 2012 as an e-book, Thanksgiving Thief is not recommended. It is just another troubling Thanksgiving story, but in some ways, worse than the standard fare because of that legend Mary tells. There's already so much misinformation out there about who Native people are... why add to it?

Before ending this review, I want to say a few things about the Indian Princess. When non-Native girls think of being an Indian Princess, they are engaging in play. It may be rooted in the Y-Indian Princess program, or it may be connected to the erroneous idea that Pocahontas was a princess. The part of Thanksgiving Thief in which Mary's uncle sends headdresses worn by Indian princesses? A lot of pow wows in Oklahoma include a competition in which Native women seek to be named as their tribal princess, or, princess of the pow wow itself.  In Tribal Fantasies: Native Americans in the European Imaginary, 1900-2010, Renae Watchman writes:
Native people have refashioned the "Indian Princess," which has evolved into a powerful title for some Indigenous communities. Young women are obligated by their titles to act as ambassadors, gaining entry into the political realm of tribal sovereignty. Native Royalty are empowered as public speakers, representing their communities, their organizations, and their Nations. Pageants have erupted in the twenty-first century, as ambassadors are sought to represent a plethora of organizations such as college and university Princesses (for instance, Miss Native American University of Arizona and Miss Indian Nations from United Tribes Technical College), national, regional, state, and provincial royalty (Miss Indian Alabama, Miss Indian Canada, Miss Indian USA, Miss Indian World, to name only a handful of titles), countless Nation-Specific Rodeo Queens, as well as an infinite number of Princesses elected to represent their distinct Native Nations. 
Watchman has a lot more information about it than I've quoted above. Do read it. She quotes Jennifer Denetdale about the competition for Miss Navajo Nation. It isn't about Western notions of beauty. It is about culture. What you see in Thanksgiving Thief is stereotypical, detribalized playing Indian, and that is not ok.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Teddy Anderson's THE MEDICINE WHEEL: STORIES OF A HOOP DANCER

Several people in Canada have written to ask me about a self-published book that is being promoted via social media.

From the author's website is this:
"Medicine Wheel: Stories of a Hoop Dancer" is a recently published children's book written by Teddy Anderson, a professional hoop dancer of the First Nation's style who has performed in 20 countries across the world. His performances, as well as the book, teach the concept of using the First Nation's symbol of the Medicine Wheel."
Performing in a "First Nation's style" --- is a huge red flag. Anderson isn't saying he's Native, but he is using his version of Native cultures to promote a "one family" philosophy that we're all supposed to revere.  

And woah! Check out the stereotypical depictions of children around the world!


There is so much wrong with the illustrations!

And inside the book, the writer/illustrator match their idea of a medicine wheel to skin tones of the children on the cover. That child with the spear? His face is paired with the black quadrant of the wheel; the girl on bottom left? She's paired with yellow....

Anderson has good intentions but is contributing to existing problems of appropriation and misrepresentation. Don't buy his book, and don't book him to perform at your school.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BLUE BIRDS by Caroline Starr Rose

In Caroline Rose Starr's Blue Birds, the two main characters are Alis, an English girl, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. Set in July 1587, Blue Birds is a Lost Colony story.

Alis and her family come ashore at Roanoke. Among them is Governor White and his daughter. She is pregnant with Virginia (Virginia Dare is widely recognized as the first English person born in what came to be known as the United States).They are in the fourth English group that Kimi's people interact with. Before them, we read, there were three other groups. The first one took two Native men back to England: Mateo (a Croatoan) and Wanchese (a Roanoke).

With Alis's group is Manteo. Having spent the last few months living in London, he dresses like English people but still has long hair. Alis thinks of him as "that savage."

Kimi watches Alis's group. She thinks of them as "strange ones." Some of her people think they are "spirits back from the dead" and others say that they have "invisible weapons that strike with sickness after they've gone." Kimi's father told her they were "people like us, only with different ways." But, her father is dead.

Dead? Yes. Soon, we learn that Kimi's father, Wingina, was beheaded by the second group of colonists, and that Wanchese (he's her uncle) killed the people in the third group.

Did you catch that? The English beheaded her father. Yet, she's going to befriend Alis.

Possible? Yes. Plausible? I don't think so.

Why does she do this? Because she's lonely.

See, her sister died of disease brought by those English.

Did you catch that?! Her sister's death is due to the English. But... she's going to befriend this English girl?

Possible? Yes. Plausible? I don't think so!

And... Alis. When they land, she finds the bones of a man. She worries they may be the bones of her uncle, Samuel. Soon after that, one of the Englishmen (Mr. Howe) is killed, adding to her fear of the Roanoke people. She imagines them, waiting. Watching. Yet, she, too, is lonely enough to move past her fears. Is that possible? Yes. It is plausible? I don't think so!

Human emotions aside, let's look at the some of the ways the Roanoke people think and live.

It is a challenge to imagine how the people of a culture not your own, of a time not your own would think of you. In this case, we have a not-Native writer imagining how Native people think about English people. A good many non-Native writers lapse into a space where we (Native people) are shown as primitive and in awe of Europeans who came to Native lands. We see this in Kimi (Kindle Locations 367-370):
The English have great power,
mightier than we have seen
in the agile deer,
the arrows of our enemies,
the angry hurricane.
Able to blot out the sun.
There's other things that bother me about Blue Birds. One of the stereotypical ways of depicting Native people is how quietly they move, not making a sound. Kimi does that. Another stereotype is the way that Kimi thinks of Alis's wooden bird. Kimi thinks it is Alis's power:
I imagine her cowering in her village
without her power.
I want to see
her weakness.
She comes from brutal people,
yet is as loving
with her mother as we are.
Can both things we true?
That passage in Blue Birds gets at the heart of what I think Caroline Rose Starr is trying to do. Have two girls come to see past differences in who each one and her people are, to the humanity in both. She's not the first to do this. Children's literature has a lot of historical fiction like this... Sign of the Beaver is one; so is Helen Frost's Salt. 

When the two girls come face to face, Kimi thinks of her dad and sister's death. In her language, she tells Alis "You have brought us sorrow." Kimi sees that Alis is frightened by her words and thinks that balance has been restored.

The balance has been restored?! I think that's too tidy.

There are other things that don't sit well with me... the parts of the story where Kimi has a ceremony, marking her passage from child to woman is one. The parts where the Roanoke's are dancing around the fire at night, preparing for attack? That just reminds me of Little House on the Prairie! Indeed, Alis's mom reminds me of Ma!

As the friendship between the two girls continues, they worry for each other's safety. Kimi gives Alis her montoac (power, pearls given to her in that womanhood ceremony). In the end, Alis goes Native. That is, she chooses to live with Kimi. And when the English return, she looks upon them, crouching behind some reeds as she watches them.

That ending--with Alis living with Indians--parallels a theory about what happened to that Lost Colony. In the author's note, Starr tells readers about the Lost Colony. I'm glad to see that note but the story she told? Overall, for me it does not work, and it makes me wonder about the motivation to create friendship stories like this? They seem so more idealized than anything that might really happen between children of peoples at war. And, given that these stories are told--not by Native people--seems telling, too. Borne, perhaps, of guilt? Or what? I don't know, really.

Starr's Blue Bird, published in 2015 by G. P. Putnam's Sons (an imprint of Penguin Group) is not recommended.




Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cynthia Hand's THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE

A reader of AICL has written to tell me she's reading Cynthia Hand's The Last Time We Say Goodbye. 

In particular, the reader pointed me to the part of the book where a character named Seth is telling Sadie and Lex (the protagonist) a ghost story about when he saw a shadow on a wall, and that when he turned around to see who was making the shadow, he saw (p. 133):
"...an Indian. He was wearing the buckskins and moccasins and the feather in his hair and the whole Native American ensemble, which was weird enough, but what was weirder was that I could sort of see through him, to that sign on the wall that counted how many days since the last accident."
Seth stepped away, and says that the Indian
"...nodded, all solemn, and then he lifted his hand up like this." Seth raises his palm. "And then he said, "How.'"
"'How'?" I repeat. "'How' what?"
"Like, 'How, white man. I come in peace.' And after that we were totally friends, me and Tonto, and every night after work we'd knock back a beer." 
Obviously, we're supposed to think that is amusing, but I don't think it is funny. Sadie starts to pummel him and then (p. 134):
"But seriously, though," he says, "That Circuit City was built on an old Indian burial ground. Look it up on the internet if you don't believe me. And sometimes, for real, we'd hear footsteps or things would be moved in different places when we left the room. Seriously."
My turn to utter that word: Seriously?! Pulling out the stereotypical Indian burial ground trope?! So... what IS this story about? Here's the synopsis:
From New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Hand comes a gorgeous and heart-wrenching story of love, loss, and letting go.
Since her brother, Tyler, committed suicide, Lex has been trying to keep her grief locked away, and to forget about what happened that night. But as she starts putting her life, her family, and her friendships back together, Lex is haunted by a secret she hasn't told anyone—a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.
In the tradition of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, Gayle Forman's If I Stay, and Lauren Oliver's Before I FallThe Last Time We Say Goodbye is a thoughtful and deeply affecting novel that will change the way you look at life and death.

It may be a deeply affecting story about life and death but it is deeply troubling to see this stereotypical burial ground in it. I know--people will defend it because suicide is something so many people deal with, and this book will help them deal with it...

The Last Time We Say Goodbye, however, joins a very long list of books that help one population at the expense of Native people. I have not read this book but my guess is that Hand could cut these parts completely and the book would be fine.

Published by HarperTeen in February 2015, it will be on my year-end Not Recommended list.




Thursday, April 09, 2015

"It's None of Your Business"! -- Avi

Two days ago I arrived in Minneapolis for several reasons. I'll write about the panel I was on at St. Catherine University in another blog post. This one is about Avi.

Avi was on campus and gave a talk about his writing. He started by reading the opening pages of a work-in-progress:

Photo credit: Billy Hinshaw


He then invited those in attendance to ask him anything. No holds barred. Professor Sarah Park Dahlen asked him about his thoughts on the We Need Diverse Books campaign. He started by saying he supports the campaign, and that he thinks any writer can write about anything they want to, but followed by talking about the writer's responsibility to do the research necessary to do justice to the people they're writing about... and how it is very hard to do that research. Doing it well is time consuming. I chimed in about resources people use -- how they're faulty, and he said that writer's have to find people they can trust.

At one point he talked about what Native people are willing to share and that there are things people might want to know about his family, and that he'd say "It's none of your business!"

I liked that comment. That's what a lot of Native people say, but far too many not-Native writers persist in "gotta tell their stories" ways of thinking. If we don't want to share it, it is because, to quote Avi, we think it is "None of your business."

I gotta run (I'm due at AWP) but may come back to this post later. There was much more said in the room that I'd like to share.


Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Boxcar Children: Mystery of the Lost Village

In The Boxcar Children: The Mystery of the Lost Village, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny visit "a Navajo Indian reservation." Violet exclaims "A Navajo reservation!" (p. 2).

That is the first red flag as I start reading this story. There is only one Navajo Nation, and only one Navajo reservation. A Navajo child who pays attention to how Navajo people are portrayed will notice that error right away.

The Boxcar Children and their grandfather fly over the Mississippi River and the Grand Canyon. They land in New Mexico. When they land, they take a taxi to a group of houses on the reservation.

Several red flags there!

They fly over the Mississippi River. Fine. But the Grand Canyon? Nope! Not unless the pilot was lost.

Here's another thing. They land at the airport, which is probably Albuquerque International Airport, which is miles and miles and miles away from the Navajo Reservation... and they go there by taxi?! I know their grandfather is wealthy, so maybe cost is not a big deal, but goodness!

Check out this image. It shows the Navajo Reservation (it spans four states):



Point A is Albuquerque. Point B is Gallup. Distance? 140 miles.

At that group of houses the taxi pulls up to, the Lightfeather children, Amy and Joe, greet them. They get into the taxi, too, and direct the driver to their home. Once at the Lightfeather home, Amy shows Violet and Jessie where they'll sleep (Amy's room). They talk at length about the colorful Navajo blankets on the beds. They've got animal designs on them: an eagle, a deer, a turtle, a hawk, and a turtle. Amy tells the girls that each one, by design, always has a tiny mistake in the design because Navajo women believe that if it is perfect, it would offend the gods.

More red flags!

Navajo blankets being used as blankets on a bed? I'll have to do some checking on that... They're very expensive and are usually more like wall hangings than something you'd wrap yourself up in. And the way the kids talk about the animals on them... well, I can't imagine them. If you do an image search on Navajo blankets, you'll see what I mean. Birds--yes, but all those animals? Not so much. Possible, but not plausible.

Later that evening, the kids meet Kinowok, "the oldest man on the reservation" (p. 14). He's a storyteller. He tells them about a tribal village nearby, just off the reservation, that "the earth had swallowed" up when the people abandoned it during a drought.

To me, that sounds like the things said about Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon... all those sites that are the ancestral homes of Pueblo peoples.

Henry says "A lost village" and talks about archaeology. He wants to find that site and start digging. Mrs. Lightfeather studied archaeology in college and spent two summers working on digs, so she offers to give them some tips. She tells the kids that students have tried to find this particular village but so far, nobody has found it. Once they start digging, they find an arrowhead and a "bright orange" piece of pottery. Later, Mrs. Lightfeather tells them a real estate developer wants to build there, and that they only have two weeks to dig. If they can find the village, it will stop the real estate developer. Sites like that are protected by the law, she says.

The next time the kids dig, Violet finds an entire pot. The cover of the book is meant to show that part of the story, except the pot on the cover has a piece missing. The one Violet finds is in perfect condition. They take it home that evening. Mrs. Lightfeather congratulates her on the find.

More red flags!

If Mrs. Lightfeather is Navajo and has studied archaeology, she'd probably have a different response. Such finds are rare and must be handled with great care.

It is possible but not plausible, to find a perfect pot, and possible but not plausible for Mrs. Lightfeather's reaction, too. She sounds more white than Navajo!

One day, Amy takes the girls to the stable where her horse is. While they're there, a "tall blonde" man enters the stables and startles the girls. He tells them he's a genealogist and that the council has given him permission to look through their records.

Amy assumes this means he is Navajo and asks him about it. He says that yes, he is part Navajo but mostly white. He spots the necklace Amy is wearing and asks her if the stone is an opal. She tells him it is turquoise. After he leaves, she tells the girls that, if he is really Navajo, he would know the stone is turquoise, because of its significance to the Navajo people. There's a legend about it, she says. Violet wants to know what the story is, and Amy starts out with "I guess you'd call it a fairy tale."

With that line, I am going to stop reading. There's too much wrong. The Mystery of the Lost Village -- though a work of fiction, is so deeply flawed that I do not recommend it. According to WorldCat, it is in over 1200 libraries. It is available in Braille and as an e-book. Is it in yours? I hope not.