Friday, July 03, 2009

Tanya Landman and Can't-be-relied-on reviews

Last year I read a book filled with errors and bias. I wrote about it here and posted Beverly Slapin's review, and did a follow-up a week later. Now, colleagues tell me that Tanya Landman, author of that book (Apache: Girl Warrior), has another book coming out in the U.S.

She's a Brit, doing research from afar. On her website, Landman talks about emotionally laden words and biased presentation of information and history, so it would seem she'd write a book that did not repeat that problem. Yet, repeat the problem is precisely what she did in Apache: Girl Warrior. And, US review journals gave Apache: Girl Warrior favorable reviews.

Francisca Goldsmith of Booklist said: "With an eloquent voice and dignified pace, Landman creates a credible and artistic story with excellent characterization and engaging psychological and sociopolitical questions."

The reviewer at Kirkus said "The lively narrative is peppered with actions scenes, all loosely based on historical events...", and, "Constantly engrossing, this offering will engage young readers in a way no textbook can."

The review in The Horn Book Guide said "Though its historical and cultural accuracy are suspect, the story itself is compelling." Their recommendation: Recommended, with minor flaws.

Claire Rosser of KLIATT said "Reading this story, we learn a lot more about the Apache struggle for survival as their lands are threatened by Mexicans and then by white settlers." She recommends it, too.

Harolyn Legg of Library Media Connection said "This story is based on a book about Geronimo that the author read. Landman gives the reader a sense of the love or the land that Native Americans have and how they had to fight to keep their lands fro being spoiled."

The only reviewer that got it right is Jenny Ingram at VOYA. I am just now reading all these reviews, and was surprised to read her words, and, that she pointed readers to Oyate and to American Indians in Children's Literature. Thanks, Jenny! In VOYA, the book was tagged as "Hard to understand how it got published." Jenny wrote: "The narration by Siki is awkward and unnatural, written as if the British author drew upon American Indian movies to write her book. In her afterword, Landman writes that she made no attempt to create an accurate historical novel, yet a bibliography follows, which will mislead readers about the credibility of the book."

Having read Apache: Girl Warrior, and now, reading the reviews of it, I think it is clear that the reviewers, with the exception of Jenny Ingram, are writing reviews based on their memories--to use Jenny's words--of American Indian movies. She means, I think, all those westerns where bad Indians slaughter innocent pioneer families or tragic Indians lament their losses. It was and is all bogus, and it is disappointing that the reviews of Landman's book are good. They should not be.

On American Indians in Children's Literature, I'm going to start naming names. Maybe that will give them pause next time they're going to review a book about American Indians. That might seem mean, but I'm far more invested in the children that will be "learning" from books reviewers recommend.

Having said all that, those "bad Indians" and those "good Indians" and most "Indians" most Americans watched in movies or read in books, they were not (and are not) Indians at all. They're fictions created by people who have no idea what they are talking about. And all of us who consume their imagery are ill-served by their fictions.

HOW IS LITERATURE GOING TO GET BETTER if reviews and review journals continue to recommend books like I am Apache?

10 comments:

Stephanie Duckworth-Elliott said...

So who does accurate reviews and how do authors get in contact with these people? And do they yield book sales, The big "boys" of industry yield high sales so where do authors go?

Debbie Reese said...

Stephanie,

"accuracy" is the question. The reviewers who wrote positive reviews of Landman's book did so based on literary criteria.

I look at the accuracy of the content. For me, when we are talking about subject matters that people know very little about, the accuracy of content is crucial.

Definitely, the positive recommendations from the mainstream journals play a huge role in what librarians buy.

Publishers are businesses. They want to make money. Romantic, tragic, fake Indians sell. Realistic ones? Not so much.

What's at the root of your question. Are you an author? If you want to sell a lot of books, then, write romantic and tragic and biased stories about Indians. If, however, you feel a responsibility towards the subject(s) you're writing about, and, the Native people who are being portrayed, then, don't write romantic, tragic, or biased stories. Is that binary too rigid? Some say yes. Some don't care.

Tricia said...

Hi Debbie,

So, this is where I get frustrated and wonder where we go. Books shouldn't be judged on literary criteria alone. If I were reviewing a piece of nonfiction about the first moon landing and there were errors, I certainly would not recommend the book. I am at a loss to understand why historical fiction isn't held to some level of scrutiny. Yes, I get that it's fiction, but by virtue of having endnotes and/or a bibliography, readers are led to believe that what they are reading is true.

I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum. Surely reviewers of these books read child_lit and other sources and are aware of the bias they contain. How do we get folks to take these issues more seriously?

I am no expert, and frankly, find myself floundering when I come across a book that has any content related to American Indians. I just don't know how to evaluate it. You would think that trained reviewers would confront these issues in their training. If not, we're doing them and future readers a terrible disservice.

Saints and Spinners said...

I struggled with this years ago (though not hard enough) when I reviewed Peter Pan in Scarlet. To my regret, even though I felt uneasy about them, I didn't cite the "Redskins" passages that were in keeping with the original book's tone but were inappropriate nonetheless. It was a "teaching moment" to be sure. After that review, I switched to nonfiction and sent in a detailed list of my areas of specialized knowledge.

There has been one book in particular I've not reviewed because it had a section on folktales and creation stories from different American Indian tribes, but I'm not sure if my not reviewing it did any good.

Debbie Reese said...

Trish,

Do you think it is willful ignorance that is driving the lack of better reviews?

It is a real downer for me, reading criticism that goes back decades, and still, the books mostly look the same. We definitely have better books, but they're overwhelmed by the same-old-same-old.

Debbie Reese said...

Sorry, Tricia, I was thinking of a Trish that I know, and typed her name intead of yours.

Debbie Reese said...

Good question, Farida.... does NOT reviewing a book help/hurt it?

I think silence is not good.

I think it is better to say something like:

"Given what I've learned about the appropriation and misrepresentation of Native folktales, coupled with my lack of knowledge and expertise about American Indians, I don't feel that I can, in good conscience, review this book. I recommend not buying it until it has been reviewed by those who do have that expertise. Especially during tight economic times, it would be tragic to waste money on a book that you're not sure about."

What do you think would happen? Would that work? I'm sure there's gaps in my thinking on that response. What are they?

Laura Trellue said...

It is very difficult to order books from just journal recommendations. My first year as a librarian, I ordered the book Mel's All Fight Diner by just reading the reviews. After reading the first 2 pages, I couldn't get to my library fast enough to get it off the shelf! The language was horrible. It was recommeded for 4th graders. OMGOSH! Glad no one read it.
So do we read all the books? No we continue to read reviews and hope we make good choices.

JJYahn said...

We have had a similar discussion in my graduate class on American Indian Literature. As our professor often points out, we first have to remember publishing is a business. Another thing I have found helpful is to seek criticism from people within the culture being portrayed in the piece of writing in question. However the most helpful information I have been given was an evaluation sheet provided in a conference I attended that was led by members of Oyate.

I've also found that before I decide to introduce a book to my students or use it in class, I need to step away from the novel and the reviews for a few weeks. It has become important to me to let all the information settle in my mind, so that I really am considering multiple perspectives.

I am curious as to techniques and protocol others follow when trying to use literature that is reflective of a culture and builds understanding rather than further mistrust and hate.

Gary said...

As a librarian I have to depend on reviews as I make my selections for the library. It would be nice to read the vast multitude of books published each year so that I could select the best for my clientele but that just isn't a possibility. One of the things that I can do, however, is learn something about the culture I'm considering so that I can make a better, more informed choice. That is my intent in the future.