Established in 2006, American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society. Scroll down for links to book reviews, Native media, and more.
Today is December 31, 2007. We’re ending one year and starting another. Looking over the NY Times list of best selling children’s books, I note two books that are on the lists. These two books capture all that is good, and all that is not good, about books by and about American Indians.
On the picture book list is Jan Brett’s The Three Snow Bears. It represents all-that-is-not-good. I would not buy it.
On the chapter books list is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It represents all-that-is-good. I recommend it, and I give it as gifts. It is astounding on so many levels.
Before I start this discussion, I want to state clearly that I do not believe Jan Brett (or anyone who likes her new book) is racist or misguided. Mis-informed, or maybe, mis-socialized, mis-educated…. That is the root of the problem.
Both books have been on the best selling list for 14 weeks. As of today The Three Snow Bears is ranked at #4; Absolutely True Diary is ranked at #5.
The accompanying NYT blurb for The Three Snow Bears:
"Aloo-ki and the Three Bears: the Goldilocks tale goes to the Arctic Circle."
The blurb for Absolutely True Diary:
"A boy leaves his reservation for an all-white school."
Jan Brett is not an indigenous person. But like many writers, she has written (and illustrated) a book in which Native imagery figures prominently. A lot of writers retell Native stories, changing values and characters in such a way that the story can no longer be called Native. Pollock disneyfied The Turkey Girl, a story told among the Zuni people. Brett didn’t try to retell a Native story. She told an old favorite classic, and set her story in the Arctic. Her Goldilocks is an Inuit girl she named Aloo-ki.
The book flap for the hardcover copy says that Brett went to the NunavutTerritory in northern Canada, I gather, to climb to the Arctic Circle marker. While there she visited a school and according to the flap (note: authors don’t generally write the material on book flaps), “Jan saw the many intelligent, proud faces that became her inspiration for Aloo-ki.”
Why is “faces” modified with “intelligent” and “proud”? Is it Inuit faces that need these modifiers? Do you see such modifiers about the faces of any-kids in any-school? (I also want to say at this point that Brett's inspiration reminded me of Rinaldi's inspiration when she saw the names of Native kids on gravestones at Carlisle Indian School. Rinaldi was so moved by their names that she used the names, creating characters to go with them.)
The flap also says that she visited a museum where she “marveled at images of Arctic animals in Inuit clothes and felt a door had opened.”
My colleague, Theresa Seidel, addresses problems with the story (and the flaps) in her open letter to Jan Brett. She points out that in The Three Snow Bears, we have another book in which an author/illustrator puts Native clothing on animals, effectively de-humanizing American Indians.
Yes---Beatrix Potter did that in her Peter Rabbit stories, and nobody is making a fuss over that, but there is a difference.
The humanity of the people Potter’s bunnies represent is not questioned. Those people are recognized as people. Regular people. Not people (like indigenous peoples of the US and Canada) who are adored and romanticized. And, they're not a people who most others think vanished. Some people might put Princess Di on a pedestal and swoon over who she was, and they might swoon over some part of English culture, but they don’t do that to all of the English people.
In contrast, far too many people think we (American Indians, Inuits, First Nations) no longer exist. We (or rather, some semblance of who we were/are) do, however, make frequent appearances in fiction, as mascots on sports fields, as inspiration for troops whose helicopters and battleships and missile’s named after Native tribes, and on products from tobacco to automobiles to foodstuffs. For too many, we are an idea, not a living, breathing people whose kids go to the same schools as yours do.
Brett had good intentions. She was inspired by the people, their art, their world. And she she wrote and illustrated this book that subtly and directly affirms problematic notions of who we are. It is a beautifully illustrated book. (As a work of low fantasy, we must suspend our disbelief so we buy into the polar bears living as humans do. Look closely, though... The polar bears wear their parkas when they go out, but leave their boots behind.)
Aloo-ki is surprised to come upon “the biggest igloo she had ever seen.” That’s worth a challenge, because it suggests that Aloo-ki is accustomed to seeing smaller igloos. Problem is, most people think that igloos are cute dwellings, about the size of dog houses. They’re actually quite large. If you saw the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), you saw just how big igloos are. (Go to the movie’s website and view the galleries http://www.atanarjuat.com/galleries/movie.php).
In sum, Brett’s book is pretty to look at, a trinket, a decoration, but Native peoples are not trinkets or decorations.
Turning now, to Alexie’s book…
Alexie is Spokane. He grew up on his reservation. His book is largely autobiographical. It is HIS story, his LIVED story, that he gives us in Absolutely True Diary. He doesn’t retell a traditional story. He gives us a story of a modern day Native boy, living life in these times, not some far-off, exotic place, distant in time and location. His story is note cute or charming. It is gritty.
We can agree that children who read picture books have different needs than those who read chapter books. But it IS possible to write picture books about present day Native kids. Native authors who’ve written precisely this kind of book are Joseph Bruchac, Joy Harjo, and Cynthia Leitich Smith.
Today, Diane Chen (a blogger at School Libray Journal) wrote about the need for discussion and growth, so that the children’s book world (and American society) can move beyond the place we are STILL at, where problematic books about American Indians are written, published, favorably reviewed, bought, and read by kids across the country.
We can do better, but the Jan Brett’s and their editors, their publishers, and reviewers, teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers, all have to listen to our concerns. This is not, from my point of view, an issue of racism. It is an issue of not-knowing, and being unwilling to admit errors.