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 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! 

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Check out the cover for Richard Van Camp's A Blanket of Butterflies:

Gorgeous, isn't it? A Blanket of Butterflies, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, is new this year (2015) from Highwater Press, an imprint of Portage & Main Press in Canada. That sword? It is a key piece of this story.

When you open the cover, here's the first page:

As the story opens, Sonny is at the Northern Life Museum in Fort Smith, Northwest Territory. He's looking at a samurai suit of armor when he notices a man who is also looking at it. The man's name is Shinobu. See the paper he's pulling from his coat? He's at the museum with a specific purpose: to pick up that suit. It belongs to his family. The museum staff worked to identify who it belongs to, and then got in touch with Shinobu's family.

I gotta say--I love how Van Camp's story gets going--and here's why. So many things in museums are there due to theft and exploitation. Grave robbing of Native graves is rampant. Native protests led Congress to take action. In 1990, Congress wrote the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to help tribal peoples reclaim remains and artifacts (see the FAQ). That law, and A Blanket of Butterflies, is all about dignity and humanity, for all peoples.

Back to the story...

There's something missing from the display. A sword. Shinobu learns where it is and sets out to get it, but Sonny knows where it is, too, and he also knows that it is risky for Shinobu to go there alone. Sonny follows him, and strikes up a conversation, noting that Shinobu has a butterfly tattoo on his hand. Things don't go well. Shinobu gets hurt...

Yesterday (Friday, November 14) I listened to Acimowin on CJSR, an independent radio station in Edmondton, Canada. The guest? Richard Van Camp. I listened to him talk about A Blanket of Butterflies and wish you could have heard him, too. There's a grandma in this story. She's the hero. Hearing him talk about her... awesome.

Get a copy of A Blanket of Butterflies for your library or classroom, or for your own young readers. I really like it and highly recommend it.

And--check out that weekly radio show, Acimowin, too, on Friday mornings. You can listen online. One of the best things people who write, review, edit, or publish children's and young adult literature can do, is listen to Native voices. Learn who we are, and what we care about. It'll help you do a better job at writing, or reviewing, or editing, or selecting, or... deselecting! Acimowin is hosted by Jojo, who tweets from @acimowin. I laughed out loud more than once, listening to the banter between these First Nations people... (Note: the radio show is not for young kids.) Love the graphics for the show!

Friday, November 13, 2015


Earlier this year, The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, by Selina Alko, illustrated by Alko and Sean Qualls, was published by Arthur A. Levine Books. It got starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly. The reviewer at Horn Book gave it a (2), which means the review was printed in The Horn Book Magazine. 

The review from The New York Times and my review, were mixed, and as I'll describe later, may be the reasons revisions were made to the second printing of the book.

Let's start with the synopsis for The Case for Loving:
For most children these days it would come as a great shock to know that before 1967, they could not marry a person of a race different from their own. That was the year that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Loving v. Virginia.
This is the story of one brave family: Mildred Loving, Richard Perry Loving, and their three children. It is the story of how Mildred and Richard fell in love, and got married in Washington, D.C. But when they moved back to their hometown in Virginia, they were arrested (in dramatic fashion) for violating that state's laws against interracial marriage. The Lovings refused to allow their children to get the message that their parents' love was wrong and so they fought the unfair law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court - and won!

On Feb 6, 2015, The New York Times reviewer, Katheryn Russell-Brown, wrote:
Alko’s calm, fluid writing complements the simplicity of the Lovings’ wish — to be allowed to marry. Some of the wording, though, strikes a sour note. “Richard Loving was a good, caring man; he didn’t see differences,” she writes, suggesting, implausibly, that he did not notice Mildred’s race. After Mildred is identified as part black, part Cherokee, we are told that her race was less evident than her small size — that town folks mostly saw “how thin she was.” This language of colorblindness is at odds with a story about race. In fact, this story presents a wonderful chance to address the fact that noticing race is normal. It is treating people better or worse on the basis of that observation that is a problem.

And on March 18, 2015, I wrote a long review, focusing on Mildred Jeter's identity. I concluded with this:
In The Case for Loving, Alko uses "part African-American, part Cherokee" but I suspect Jeter's family would object to what Alko said. As the 2004 interview indicates, Mildred Jeter Loving considered herself to be Rappahannock. Her family identifies as Rappahannock and denies any Black heritage. This, Coleman writes, may be due to politics within the Rappahannock tribe. A 1995 amendment to its articles of incorporation states that stated (p. 166):
“Applicants possessing any Negro blood will not be admitted to membership. Any member marrying into the Negro race will automatically be admonished from membership in the Tribe.”
I'm not impugning Jeter or her family. It seems to me Mildred Jeter Loving was caught in some of the ugliest racial politics in the country. As I read Coleman's chapter and turn to the rest of her book, I am unsettled by that racial politics. In the final pages of the chapter, Coleman writes (p. 175):
"Of course, Mildred had a right to self-identify as she wished and to have that right respected by others. Nevertheless, viewed within the historical context of Virginia in general and Central Point in particular, ironically, “the couple that rocked courts” may have inadvertently had more in common with their opponents than they realized. Mildred’s Indian identity as inscribed on her marriage certificate and her marriage to Richard, a White man, appears to have been more of an endorsement of the tenets of racial purity rather than a validation of White/ Black intermarriage as many have supposed."

Turning back to The Case for Loving, I pick it up and read it again, mentally replacing Cherokee with Rappahannock and holding all this racial politics in my head. It makes a difference.
At this moment, I don't know what it means for this picture book. One could argue that it provides children with an important story about history, but I can also imagine children looking back on it as they grow up and thinking that they were misinformed--not deliberately--but by those twists and turns in racial politics in the United States of America.

Fast forward to last week (November 4, 2015), when I learned that changes were made to The Case for Loving in its second printing. Here's a photo of the copyright page for the two books. Look at the second line from the bottom in the top image. See the string of numbers that starts at 10 and goes on down to 1? That string is data. The lowest numeral in the string is 1, which tells us that the book with the 1 is the original. Now look at the second line from the bottom in the bottom image. See the string of numbers ends with numeral 2? That tells us that is the 2nd printing.

I learned about the second printing by watching Daniel Jose Older's video, Full Panel: Lens of Diversity: It is Not All in What You See. Sean Qualls, illustrator of The Case for Loving was also on that panel, which was slated as an opportunity to talk about Rudine Sims Bishop's idea of literature as windows, mirrors, and doors, framed around Sophie Blackall's art for the New York public transit system. The moderator and panel organizer, Susannah Richards, said that she saw people using social media to say that they thought they say themselves in Blackall's art. (To read more about the discussions of Blackall's picture book, A Fine Dessert, see Not recommended: A Fine Dessert.)

At approximately the 34:00 minute mark in Older's video, Richards began to speak about The Case for Loving and how Qualls and Alko addressed concerns about the book. Richards had a power point slide ready comparing a page in the original book with a page in the revised edition. It is similar to the one I have here (in her slide, she has the revised version at the top and the original on the bottom):

Qualls said "So, part of what happened is... There is a page with a description of Mildred and Richard." Qualls then read the revised page and the original one, too: "Richard was a tall quiet man with fair skin and broad shoulders. The person he loved most was Mildred Jeter. Mildred was part African-American, part Native American, and she was thin as a rail; that's how she got the nickname, String Bean. Richard Loving was a good, caring man; he didn't see differences. There was one person Richard loved more than the rest. Mildred Jeter was part African-American, part Cherokee, but what most folks in Central Point noticed was how thin she was; that's how she got the nickname, "String Bean."

Reese's photo of original (on top) and revised (on bottom) page in THE CASE FOR LOVING

For now, I'm going to step away from the video and Quall's remarks in order to compare the original lines on the page with the revised ones:

Original: Richard Loving was a good, caring man; he didn't see differences.
Revision: Richard Loving was a tall, quiet man with fair skin and broad shoulders.

See that change? "he didn't see differences" is gone. This, I think, is the result of Russell-Brown (of the Times) saying that him not seeing difference was implausible, especially since this book is about race.

Original: There was one person Richard loved more than the rest.
Revision: The person he loved most was Mildred Jeter.

I don't know what that sentence was changed, and welcome your thoughts on it.

Original: Mildred Jeter was part African-American, part Cherokee...
Revision: Mildred was part African-American, part Native American...

In my review back in March, I said it was wrong to describe her as being part Cherokee, because on the application for a marriage license (dated May 24, 1958), she stated she was Indian. I assume the change to "Native American" rather than "Indian" was done because the person(s) weighing in on the change thought that "Indian" was pejorative. It can be, depending on how it is used, but I use it in the name of my site and it is used by national associations, too, like the National Congress of American Indians or the National Indian Education Association or the American Indian Library Association.

I think it would have been better to use Indian--and nothing else--because that is what Jeter used. "Native American" didn't come into use until the 1970s, as indicated at the Bureau of Indian Affairs website and other sources I checked. In order to tell this story as determined by the Supreme Court case, Alko and Qualls had to include "part African American" because that is the basis on which the case went to the Supreme Court in the first place. I'll say more about all of this below.

Original: ...but what most folks in Central Point noticed was how thin she was;
Revision: ...and she was thin as a rail;

I think this change is similar to (1). People do notice race.

Original: ...that's how she got the nickname, "String Bean."
Revision: ...that's how she got the nickname, "String Bean."

No change there, which is fine.


Now I want to return to the video, and look more closely at (3) -- how Alko and Qualls describe Jeter.

After reading aloud the original and revised passage, Qualls paused. The moderator, Susannah Richards, stepped in. Here's a transcript:
Richards: "Research is complicated, and in researching this particular book, and looking... And even having some of my law friends look at it, they were like 'well some things say she was Cherokee and some things say she was wasn't, some things say her birth certificate said this,' and... There was just a lot of information out there."
Qualls: "Right. And I think that Deborah..."
Richards: "Debbie Reese."
Qualls: "Debbie Reese..."
Richards: "Who many of you may follow on her blog."
Qualls: "Really brought issue with the Cherokee description of Mildred, and, I have spoken to at least some family members and no one really seems to know whether she was Cherokee or Rappahannock. And I think there are some... Debbie Reese may have said, or somewhere I read, that Mildred claimed not to have any African American heritage. But then I've also read that the Rappahannock Nation is less likely to recognize someone as Rappahannock if they claim to have any African American heritage. We're also talking about the 1950s and 1960s where it may have been convenient for someone to claim that they had no African American heritage. James Brown, of all people, claimed he was part Japanese, part Native American, and had no African American heritage. So, it is extremely loaded, and yeah, you know, I really don't know what to say about it. And, it comes down to ones intention, and you know, in trying to represent diversity, and the fact is, no one really knows what her back ground was. I believe that she was part African American. My gut tells me that. She looks that way, she feels that way when I see her, when I see videos of her. So, yeah, that became a little bit of a controversy and was very disturbing to my wife, who is Canadian in origin, and the fact that you're Australian, you know, its very interesting. There are two people that I know that include and have always included African Americans in their art, and without question, that's really important, I think.    

Qualls is right, of course. I did raise a question about them identifying Jeter as Cherokee.

I'm curious about his next comment, that he has spoken to family members who say that no one really knows whether she was Cherokee or Rappahannock. In my review, I quoted Coleman's 2004 interview of Jeter, in which she said "I am not Black. I have no Black ancestry. I am Indian-Rappahannock." I didn't include this passage (below) but am including it now--not as a deliberate attempt to argue with Qualls--but because I am committed to helping people understand Native nationhood and how Native people speak of their identity. Coleman writes (p. 173):
The American Indian identity is strong within the Loving family as demonstrated by Mildred’s grandson, Marc Fortune, the son of her daughter Peggy Loving Fortune. When Mildred Loving’s son, Donald, died unexpectedly on August 31, 2000, Marc, according to one attendee, arrived at his uncle’s funeral dressed in native regalia and performed a “traditional Rappahannock” ritual in honor of his deceased uncle. In fact, all of the Loving children are identified as Indian on their marriage licenses. During an interview on April 10, 2011, Peggy Loving stated that she is “full Indian.” This was also the testimony of her uncle, Lewis Jeter, Mildred’s brother who stated during an interview on July, 20, 2011, that the family was Indian and not Black. Echoing his sister’s words he stated, “We have no Black ancestry that I know of.”
Based on all I've read and many conversations with people who do not understand the significance of saying you're a member or citizen of a specific tribe, here's what I think is going on.

In watching videos of Jeter, Qualls said that he believes Jeter was part African American. In the video, he said "She looks that way, she feels that way when I see her, when I see videos of her." He is basing that, I believe, on her physical appearance rather than on her own words about her citizenship in the Rappahannock Nation. Qualls is conflating a racial identity with a political one.

I'm not critical of Qualls for thinking that way. I think most Americans would think and say the same thing he did. That is because Native Nationhood is not taught in schools. It should be, and it should be part of children's books, too, because our membership or citizenship in our nations is a fact of who we are. Indeed, it is the most significant characteristic of who we are, collectively. It is why our ancestors made treaties with leaders of other nations. It is why we, today, have jurisdiction of our homelands.

All across the U.S., there are peoples of varying physical appearance who are citizens of a Native nation. My paternal grandfather is white. He was not a tribal member. My dad and my uncle are tribal members. Myself and my siblings, though we range in appearance (I have the darkest hair and skin tone amongst us), are all tribal members. On the federal census, we say we're tribal members and we specify our nation as Nambe Pueblo. Our political identity is a Native one. Because of our grandfather, some of us look like we're mixed bloods, because we are, but when asked, we say we are tribal members, and we say that, too, on the U.S. census documents. We were raised at Nambe and we participate in a range of tribally-specific activities, from ceremonies to civic functions such as community work days and elections. What we look like, physically, is not important.  

In short, the revision regarding Jeter's identity is based on a physical description rather than a political one. My speculation: the author, illustrator, and their editor do not know enough about Native nationhood to understand why that distinction matters.

Now let's take a look at the content of the reviews.

The reviewers at School Library Journal, Kirkus echoed the book, saying that Mildred was African American and Cherokee. The reviewer at Publisher's Weekly did not say anything about her identity. Horn Book's reviewer said "Richard Loving (white) and Mildred Jeter (black) fell in love and married..." Not surprisingly, then, that the Horn Book reviewer tagged it with "African Americans" as a subject, and not Native American, but I'm curious why they ignored her Native identity? Did they choose to view the Loving case as one about interracial marriage between a White man and Black woman--as the Loving's lawyers did? Perhaps.

In Older's video, he says that there are some stories that he wouldn't touch. I think the Loving case is one that is more complicated than a picture book for young children can do justice to. Here's key points, from my point of view:

In the 1950s, Mildred Jeter said she was Indian. We don't know if she said that out of a desire to avoid being discriminated against, or if she said that because she was already living her life as one in which she firmly identified as being Indian. Either way, it is what she said about who she was on the application for a marriage license.

In the 1960s, because Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving's marriage violated miscegenation laws, their case went before the Supreme Court of the United States. To most effectively present their case, the emphasis was on her being Black.

In the 2000s, Jeter and her children said they are Indian, and specified Rappahannock as their nation.

In the 2000s, Alko and Qualls met and fell in love.

In the 2010s, Alko and Qualls worked together on a picture book about the Lovings. In the author's note for The Case for Loving, Alko said that she's a white Jewish woman from Canada, and that Sean is an African American man from New Jersey. She said that much of her work is about inclusion and diversity and that it is difficult for her to imagine that just decades ago, couples like theirs were told by their governments, that their love was not lawful. For years, Alko writes, she and Qualls had thought about illustrating a book together. The Case for Loving is that book.

I think it is fair to say that the love they have for each other was a key factor in the work they did on The Case for Loving, but who they are is not who the Lovings were. That fact meant they could not--and can not--see Mildred for who she is.

My husband and I are also a couple in an interracial marriage. He's White; I'm Native. If we were an author/illustrator couple working in children's books and wanted to do a story about the Lovings, we'd enter it from a different place of knowing. We both know the importance of Native nationhood and the significance of Nambe's status as a sovereign nation. He didn't know much about Native people until he started teaching at Santa Fe Indian School, where we met in 1988 when I started teaching there. What we do not have is a lived experience or knowledge of the life of Mildred Jeter as she lived her life in the 1950s in Virginia. We'd be doing a lot of research in order to do justice to who she was.

At the end of his remarks (in the video) about The Case for Loving, Qualls said that it comes down to intentions, and that his wife and Sophie Blackall are very careful to include diversity in their work. He said he thinks it is important. I don't think anyone would disagree with that statement. Diversity is important. But, as his other remarks indicate, he's since learned how complicated the discussion of Jeter's identity were, then and now, too. They've revised that page in the book but as you may surmise, I think the revision is still a problem.

I like the art very much and think it is important for young children to know about the Lovings and families in which the parents are of two different demographics. I'll give some thought to how it could be revised so that it sets the record straight, and I welcome your thoughts (and do always let me know--as usual--about typos or parts of what I've said that lack clarity or are confusing).

Pick up a copy of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia, published in 2013 by Indiana University Press. Read the chapter on the Lovings, and read Alko and Qualls and see what you think. Can it be revised again? How?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ladybug Girl in Headdress? Gone!

Yesterday, Betsy Bird at School Library Journal wrote about a significant change to the picture book, Lady Bug Girl, written by David Soman and illustrated by Jacky Davis. First published in 2008, it came to my attention when a reader wrote to me about the endpapers, which showed Lady Bug Girl in a headdress. At the time, I wrote a Dear Parents of Ladybug Girl post (writing to the author and illustrator as her parents).

Looking at the image now, I'm drawn to what she's doing: she's got what looks like a lipstick in her hand and is, presumably putting "war paint" on her cheeks. See? David Arnold's character did that in Mosquitoland. Remember that? (My apologies for the poor quality of the images I'm using today.)

Well, a new edition of Lady Bug Girl is out, and, as Betsy noted, Lady Bug Girl in a headdress is gone from the endpapers. I was pleased as can be about that change! Below are the covers for the 2015 "Super Fan Edition" and beneath it is the original 2008 cover.

And here's the changed endpapers:

It is the second book I'm writing about this year, that has been changed--for the better--and as such, something all of us can celebrate! Thank you, Soman, Davis, and Dial (the publisher) for deciding to remove it. It is a step in the right direction. Betsy and I agree--if there was a note in the book about the change, it would help people take a step in the right direction with you, Soman and Davis. For now, though, thank you!