Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jodi Lynn Anderson's TIGER LILY - Part 2

Back in June, I read part of Jodi Lynn Anderson's Tiger Lily. I didn't like what I read and posted my thoughts. The book is now on School Library Journal's "Best of 2012" list, so I got it out of the library and read it today. These are my initial thoughts.

Basics: 

  • The story is set in the time prior to Wendy's arrival at Neverland. 
  • The narrator is Tinker Bell. 
  • There are tribes. They live in these three villages: SkyEaters, Cliff Dwellers, and Bog Dwellers.
  • I don't think Anderson uses the word 'Indian' anywhere in the book. She uses 'tribe' and 'warrior' and 'warriors' and 'shaman.'  


What I don't like:
Here's what stands out to me right now. I've got lots and lots of notes, but as I close the book and set it down, this is what is in my mind.

First concern: the names Anderson created for the Native characters. For years and years, non-Native writers have created outlandish names for their characters. In the process, they intentionally or not, trivialize and mock something that matters to us a great deal. Russell Hoban did it in Soonchild. Jon Scieszka did it in My Oh MayaHere's the names in Tiger Lily:

Pine Sap
Stone
Moon Eye
Tik Tok
Magnolia Bud
Aunt Fire
Aunt Sticky Feet
Bat Wing
Silk Whiskers
Red Leaf
Bear Claw

Tik Tok is the name of the village shaman. We don't know what his name was to start with, but once he finds the clock and hears its tick tock, he decides to have a ceremony and change his name to Tik Tok. It makes him seem a foolish and silly person.

Tik Tok finds Tiger Lily under a tiger lily flower and names her after it. Aunt Sticky Feet was named that way because of the time she had walked through hot tar and then got her foot stuck to a chicken that ran into her path.

Some of you may have heard the crass joke about how an Indian is named after the first thing the person bestowing the name sees in the morning, or just at the moment he/she is about to give a name to someone. It is a racist joke, and as such, it isn't funny, and neither are the humorous names authors create for their characters (whether they directly call their characters Indian or not).

Second concern: Tik Tok is a transgender character. He wears purple and raspberry colored dresses. Once I got past the name, I liked him. I liked him a lot. But then, the Englander named Philip moves into the village and turns the people against him. Instead of listening to Tik Tok, they cluster around Philip and stories of his god. In Anderson's story, the villagers are simpletons. Though, by the end of the story, they've rejected Christianity and returned to their own ways, Anderson's characterization of them is troubling. This may be Neverland to her, but to me, she's playing with very painful history in which Indigenous peoples fought very hard to defend their ways of life.

It was very hard for me to read the pages about what happens to Tik Tok. Because of pressure from Philip and the villagers rejection of him in favor of Philip, he decides he cannot live his life as a man who wears dresses and long hair anymore. He lets Philip cut his hair. It was painful to read that part, and I'm not sure that Anderson knows just how that scene will impact Native readers.

Not long after that, Tik Tok commits suicide. That was painful to read, too, though it isn't spelled out as graphically as the hair cutting is. Same thing with Moon Eye's rape. It is not graphically laid out, but there is enough there that it is painful to read.

Reviewers note that Tiger Lily is very dark, but for me, its darkness is one of ignorance--not the ugly racism Anderson seeks to expose--but the exposure of her own ignorance of what certain things in history might mean to a Native reader. As for the naming, I don't know how to characterize it. When I've had time to think about Tiger Lily a bit more, I'll likely write some more, but that's what I've got for now.

------------------------------------------------------------
Update, Thursday, December 13th, 10:12 AM

Picking up where I left off last night... I have additional concerns.

The tribal people, obviously, had their own language prior to the arrival of the Englanders. But, when the Englanders first arrive (prior to the setting of Tiger Lily), they brought their language with them and gave it as "a gift" (page 10) to the Bog Dwellers, who in turn, gave it to the other tribes. Remember, it is Tinker Bell who is narrating, and it is she who calls English a gift. Maybe Tiger Lily has a different view of English, but we don't know.

Stepping into a broader context, Native peoples in the U.S. who were sent to boarding schools were beaten when they spoke their own language. The result is that Indigenous languages are in decline. In that context, it is callous to see English called "a gift." I assume Anderson needed to insert English into the narrative because Tik Tok and Pine Sap read books written by Englanders. One is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. On page 64, Pine Sap is reading "Song of myself" aloud to Tiger Lily. Ironically, I imagine that Whitman is one of the poets Native students had to read in the boarding schools. On page 33, Anderson's reference to an old mission tells us she must have some knowledge of missionary activities. Perhaps she views missionaries as benevolent, and that's why she calls English a gift. Anderson is a gifted writer. Couldn't she have figured out a way to problematize English as "a gift"?

On page 84, when Tiger Lily first meets the Lost Boys, Tootles tells her that she has hairy arms, and that girls aren't supposed to have hairy arms. Tiger Lily is embarrassed and thinks about "photos of the English ladies she'd seen, smooth and white, and for a moment, it made her sad." We know Tiger Lily's thoughts because Tinker Bell can hear them. Was Tiger Lily sad that her skin wasn't smooth and white? Later in the book, Wendy's skin is described as "cloudlike with whiteness." Wendy showers Peter and the boys with admiration. They "can't take their eyes off her" (p. 235). In the end, Peter chooses Wendy. We know he chooses Wendy---it is, after all---Barre's story that Anderson is working with. I don't know what to make of all this. It is more complicated than a simple elevation of white over dark skin, but the messages it imparts are troubling.

A few words about the photos... We aren't told where she saw those photos. Are they in books left behind by the missionaries? Leaves of Glass was published in 1855, which is right around the time that it was beginning to be easier to reproduce photographs. I don't know about the dates at which books with photographs in them would be circulating. Course, Tiger Lily is a work of fantasy and we can't really say what time period it is set in, but the reference to Whitman and a later reference to the end of sailing and steamships (in favor of "newer and quicker machines" (p. 279) do give us a time period to work with. She probably was seeing photographs of English ladies, if not in books, then actual photographs.

Do I find anything to like about Tiger Lily? I'm reluctant to say, because I don't want my comments taken out of context to indicate that I recommend the book. I don't recommend it. I find Tiger Lily very troubling, and I find it troubling that reviewers are praising it. Didn't any of them have a niggling of any kind that might suggest it isn't deserving of all that praise? I suppose they like her writing. She is a good writer. I just wish she had not used her art in this book.  

20 comments:

Jean Mendoza said...

The positive reception this book has gotten is one reason I hope that we (meaning all interested parties) can create what you suggested recently -- some kind of constantly expanding and up-to-date "go-to" source of critical reviews of books for children, teens, young adults, etc. By critical I mean "employing critical theory"and looking deeply and thoughtfully at characterizations of race, class, culture, etc. in the books that come along in any given year. Sometimes I'm amazed that it continues to be necessary, but as you are able to point out time after time, it does continue to be necessary!

Mary Z said...

From your words at the beginning of this post, I can see that you read this book with the intent to dislike it.
I thought this was a fantastic book. I grew up watching the old musical of Peter Pan (the Mary Martin version), which featured an amazingly stereotypical and, I'm sure, offensive, portrayal of idiginous peoples. I am not Native American, but my parents made sure that we children understood that this portrayal was not accurate, and that it was not acceptable.
This book, however, paints Tiger Lily as a full person. She has hopes and fears and history and traditions. She struggles to understand her place in society, and has the same adolescent worries about her appearance that all young teens, regardless of race, have.
One of the main themes of the book was how outsiders tried to force their ways on the indiginous peoples of Neverland. Slowly, the tribes come to understand that their ways are not wrong, and what is right for the English is not what is right for everyone.
This book had some very positive aspects, and overall it was a wonderful read.

Charlotte said...

Thanks, Debbie--I wasn't sure if I wanted to read this one or not, and now am pretty sure that it's "not."

Cool Young Librarian said...

Tik Tok is also the name of a character in the Wizard of Oz series. Yes, in this particular book, he's given the name because of the clock, but the spelling of the name indicates (to me, anyway) that Anderson was drawing inspiration from Baum more than anything else.

My Library Lady said...

Debbie, I have read your blog and read your posts on LM_NET. I understand your focus on Native American characters in popular fiction.

Here is what I don’t understand-- and I AM really asking for clarification--not baiting or playing Devil's Advocate.

Why is it that you think--or do you think-- or do you have evidence that--readers will assume that native people "are" as they are portrayed in fiction?

There are stereotypes of ALL TYPES of characters-- in fact high school and college students study them as archetypes.

Is it because the characters are not drawn true to life vis-a-vis religion/spiritual practices? Is it because of stereotypes are tied to race? The Native American character in books is not the only one maligned. While I honor your painstaking work in finding as many as you can and showing those of us who buy books for kids the errors of the authors’' ways in stereotyping, I do not know if my time as a librarian is well spent making sure my kids never read books with stereotypical characters.

I think my time would be a lot better spent showing kids how to recognize a stereotype and letting them apply those lessons for themselves as they continue reading and dealing with real life situations as they grow up.

What do you think the best course of action for a school librarian is in the cases of books that are portraying Native American's in a stereotypical light should be?

Cory Eckert said...

I've posted pretty extensively in a few places about my mixed reaction to this book, but let me know what you think. I have this niggling theory that Anderson is attempting to start from the very racist original material and turn that racism on its head by making the characters really nuanced. I think she fails because she doesn't understand the history of Native racism well enough to not fall into more traps. I don't think that forgives it, I think if she's trying to undermine the racism she should have had some outside opinions and done more research, but I can see the bones of a well-intentioned idea that failed. I also feel like what the village allows to happen to Tiger Lily's friend (whose name I can't remember) makes the whole tribe look awful. I keep forgetting to mention that in my reviews. I think I blocked it out.

Veronica Schanoes said...

Well, I'm not Debbie, but I think two issues are at stake.

One is, what is this book conveying to teens of Native American descent? One of the things Debbie is doing is helping to sensitize those of us who are not NA to what is going to hit those kids as they read this book, given the history and culture they already know, and how such messages will alienate those readers from a reading culture that considers books that treat their heritage stereotypically and dismissively to be "Best of."

Another issue is teaching kids who are not NA how to recognize and analyze stereotypes, which I agree is a worthy project, but it's not one that "Best of" lists encourage. When we say that a book that relies on dismissive or trivializing stereotypes is the "best," we're not giving readers a context that is conducive to criticism. It also concerns me because given the ongoing cruelties of the US, many non-NA teens are not going to know anything but these kinds of representations, unless we as educators and librarians make an effort to put books in their hands that provide a more nuanced, accurate view. Which is where Debbie's blog does such an enormous service in helping those of us who are not NA know which books those are.

Laurie Ward said...

I would like to address this question:
"What do you think the best course of action for a school librarian is in the cases of books that are portraying Native American's in a stereotypical light should be?"

Do the same thing you would do with books that show other cultures in a stereotypical light. It is our job to teach students to recognize and analyse stereotypes of all cultures. Why would this be different?

Anonymous said...

thank you so much for this posting; I will share it with our library /school committee working on a project for the spring ; we are reading Howard Zinn's history of the American people and he has good insights for our study of Native American culture etc. that is how I came across this website. Keep up your important work.
jean

Alex Flinn said...

Like My Library Lady, I am curious and not trying to play devil's advocate. I respect your opinions a great deal and have even approached my children's teachers about, perhaps, not using certain books (A Light in the Forest, for example) which you have pointed out as having bad Native American characters. I do believe it is important, particularly because we have very few Native Americans where I live, so books are my children's main impression of Native American people. But, in this case (and, full disclosure, I did blurb the book), I'm just not sure this is applicable. First off, I'm a little confused by the idea that the characters here are Native American. The book does not take place in America. It takes place in a fictional world, and moreover, the original author, J.M. Barrie, was not American so, if anything, the characters are British or maybe Indian (from India) or just, as I believe, residents of Neverland. You say yourself that Anderson never identifies them as Native American or Indian. I always sort of thought the characters in Peter Pan were some sort of fantastical tribe. And no, I don't think the word, tribe, only applies to Native Americans. It could be applied to any people who travel as, well, a tribe and has been applied to people in many countries. Now, part of the reason I think of Barrie's characters as more fantastical people is their names. Here, I feel you are being shortsighted by saying that Anderson gave the characters in Tiger Lily's clan unusual names as a form of racism because, in the story of Peter Pan, everyone, with the exception of the Darling children and Peter himself, has a weird name (rather like Hinton's gang characters, Ponyboy, Sodapop, etc.). Captain Hook has a hook for a hand, but his name is also, ironically, really James Hook (and, like Tik-Tok, he is fascinated and frightened by a clock even though he is a grown man in a leadership role). The Lost Boys have names like Twin One and Twin Two, which describe them, and one of the boys (I remember this because my daughter played him in a school play) is named Slightly because he was found with a laundry tag on his clothing, which said, "Slightly Soiled." These characters also exist under these names in Anderson's book, and I believe she gave Tiger Lily's family, most of whom are not named in the original, names to match. Does that not negate the idea that the name, Tik Tok is suspect? Should the members of Tiger's clan be named Bob and Joe while the pirates and Lost Boys are named Smee and Nibs? It seems to me that everyone in Neverland has these descriptive names. In fact, ALL the characters in Barrie's (and, by assocation, Anderson's) Neverland are rather simple, which is why they are so taken in by what the Englishman tells them. But it's not just Tiger's clan -- it's also the pirates and the Lost Boys, who are the other residents of Neverland. They have no exposure to ideas outside of this one place, so they would be simple. Just my observation. Thanks for the good work you do.

London Crockett said...

Debbie, that was an interesting and engaging essay.

I'm not sure I understand about your concerns vis-a-vis the "dark" subject matters. I haven't read the book, but based on your description of Tik-Tok, his hair-cutting, and suicide, it sounds as if Anderson has taken care to show how damaging imposed culture can be.

I'd love for you to expand on this. How you see such portrayals as damaging? How you think authors might approach such subjects with more sensitivity and knowledge?

Debbie Reese said...

Mary Z,

I can't honestly say that I started reading Tiger Lily with an intent to like or dislike it. I did bring to it--to any reading, of any book--the knowledge that most likely, there will be problems with the ways that Native peoples are portrayed. That's just the way it is. Most people don't know enough about Indigenous peoples to write about Indigenous peoples accurately, because they can't step outside of their own box. They can't see their own lens.

I don't think, for example, that all adolescents, regardless of race, have the same worries about their appearance or place in society. That may be an American value, similar to a valuing of the individual, but within Native societies, there are different values. Community takes precedent over individual. Native nations that have something similar to a beauty pageant use different criteria (not beauty) to select the young woman who will represent them for that year.

Debbie Reese said...

Cool Young Librarian,

Interesting that Anderson may have drawn from Baum.

Some of the knowledge that I referenced in my response to Mary Z comes into play anytime I see Baum's name. Most people revere him as an author of the Oz books, but, he was also the author of editorials calling for the "total annihilation" of American Indians. I wrote about him here: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2006/08/l.html.

Debbie Reese said...

My Library Lady,

I think Laurie Ward posed a good question in response to your question about a course of action. If you know there are stereotypes or inaccurate information about a particular group, do you buy the book anyway?

And you're right---we can't realistically make sure that kids never read books with stereotypes, and so, it is appropriate that we teach critical thinking and the ability to identify the stereotypes.

Let's consider the ways that women are portrayed, looking at the portrayals in present and past contexts. There was a time when women were shown only as homemakers, housewives, nurses, etc. It has taken a long long time for that to change. There are more representations of women, in a wider range of occupation than was the case in the past. There's still far too much gender-specific representations out there (think of the Berenstain Bears, for example), and the glass ceiling is still very much intact, but we've come a long way. So, in that context, buying another Berenstain Bears book could be seen as ok because you've go lot of other books on the shelves that counter the gender stereotypes in it. If, however, the majority of the books on your shelves showed women as homemakers, wouldn't you go out of your way to reject books with that stereotype and select ones that counter it?

Debbie Reese said...

Cory,

Good observations, Cory. She gave an interview about the book on a blog somehow connected with HarperCollins. I can't find it... my computer's been in the shop twice in the last week and a half.

I'll keep looking, because she had some interesting things to say about writing Tiger Lily.

Debbie Reese said...

Alex,

I think Anderson was very careful NOT to use the word "Indian" anywhere in the book. But given the story she's telling, "Indian" is there, everywhere. I've seen it and so have many others who've written about the book. How can it not be?

Your questions and comments about my critique point to the context from where we stand. You're a writer, too, right? You're reading the book from that perspective, and you're working very hard to defend the writer. But, you're also a writer who brings a particular heritage and experience and identity to the book that is not the one that I bring to it.

I see the naming as problem. You don't.

Writers can name white characters "Twin One" and "Twin Two" and "Smee" because there's a million other white characters out there in stories. Some have realistic experiences and names, and some are like these ones, appearing in fantasy. Either way, the representations of them are such that we can say that nobody walks away from reading "Twin One" and "Twin Two" having added to their knowledge of white people. I don't think we can say that about Indigenous characters. Do you?

voicesofmyancestors said...

I think it is the writer's responsibility to make things better in terms of what goes on in children's literature. Without the writer, there simply is no piece of literature to begin with and as artists we should feel called to use our talents to make this world a better place for all children. I think we writers need to get to a place where we would rather not have something published than publish something that will hurt or demean or cause a loss of self-esteem in ANY child. And until we get to that point, we are going to forget about the very reader we should be putting first. We are not going to be as careful as we need to be. That's the sacrifice required if you want to write children's literature.

hschinske said...

Barrie absolutely did mean American Indians, who were regarded as common property for fantasy at the time. See, e.g., books.google.com/books?id=TMu3Nk8h_W8C&pg=PA157 "One important result of the brush on the lagoon was that it made the redskins their friends. Peter had saved Tiger Lily from a dreadful fate, and now there was nothing she and her braves would not do for him. ... Even by day they hung about, smoking the pipe of peace ... 'The Great White Father,' he would say to them in a very lordly manner, as they grovelled at his feet, 'is glad to see the Piccaninny warriors protecting his wigwam from the pirates.' "

Helen Schinske

mclicious.org said...

@Alix, it's pretty clear from the source material that Barrie is referring to "Injuns," given their feathers in their hair and all. So that's not really a valid counterargument. And as far as the names, there is still a difference between the names of the Lost Boys (presented as jokes that we can all laugh at, like how Twin One and Twin Two aren't allowed to do anything to distinguish themselves because Peter can't tell the difference between them, and so none of the other boys are allowed to admit that they can) and the highly stereotypical naming of Native characters of all tribes in all manner of books, which aren't presented as jokes but as pseudospiritual names like Woman As Fast As A Horse or Bear Spirit or some such thing. It's very obvious that the naming is different in both style and intent.

"Tribe," too, though usually in the adjective form, is used, yes, for lots of different types of people, but almost invariably to denote primitive, non-westernized people. You only have to look at any fashion designer or fashion magazine to see how both "ethnic" and "tribal" are used to mean "nonwhite."

mclicious.org said...

Oops! Apologies for misspelling your name, Alex.