Friday, January 25, 2013


A few weeks ago, I pointed to stereotypes in Brandon Mull's Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star. Today, I'm pointing to problems in his Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague. 

First---here's an overview, by Denise Daley (her review is at Barnes and Noble):
Strange things have been happening in Fablehaven. A mysterious shadow plague is slowly overtaking the once peaceful magical creatures that live there. The nipsies are like regular people except they are only about half an inch big. Some of their kingdoms have recently been attacked by other nipsies who have somehow been transformed into sinister beings. Seth is the first to discover the disturbing changes. He and his sister Kendra have been staying with their grandparents at Fablehaven. Kendra has unique abilities that can possibly help, but the situation is extremely dangerous. Kendra's grandparents reluctantly grant her permission to visit a special place where she is inducted into the Knights of the Dawn. She and several other knights immediately begin an assignment to retrieve a hidden artifact. 

That assignment takes her to the "Lost Mesa preserve" (p. 94) in Arizona which is on Navajo land. The hidden artifact is one of five. Together, all five of the artifacts can open a demon prison called Zzyzxa. In chapter 7, Kendra and the other knights arrive at Lost Mesa. Here's the illustration at top of that page:

Some of you will say "but that's Taos!" when you see that page. I sure did! (For those who don't know about Taos Pueblo, do an Internet search of images on Taos Pueblo and you'll find plenty of them.)  There are, in fact, pueblo people in Arizona. The Hopi Nation is there, and, they do have structures like the ones at Taos, but seriously---do the search and there's no denying that a photo of Taos was the inspiration for Brandon Dorman's illustration of Lost Mesa.

Kendra and her group are driven to Lost Mesa by "a quiet Navajo man with leathery skin, probably in his fifties" (p. 122). His name is Neil. He's wearing a cowboy hat and a bolo tie, and though Kendra tries to get him to talk to her, he answers her questions "but never elaborated or made inquiries of his own" (p. 123). Though some of us are quiet like that, I suspect that Mull is drawing on stereotypes of the stoic Indian.

Neil starts talking a bit more when they get closer to Lost Mesa. He tells her they call it Painted Mesa, and that
Almost nobody knows, but part of the reason the Navajo people ended up with the largest reservation in the country was to conceal this hallowed place" (p. 125). 
How, I wonder, do people who aren't Native, or who don't pay attention to the quality of Native content in children's and young adult books, process that line?! Part of it is true. The Navajo Nation does have the largest reservation in the United States. But that bit about having the largest reservation so they could conceal a hallowed place?! Who, in Mull's fantasyland, did THAT?!

Mull has done some research for this book. His research is evident in this exchange, when Kendra asks about Lost Mesa (p. 125):
   "Do Navajo's run it?" Kendra asked.
   "Not solely. We Dine are new here compared to the Pueblo people."
   "Has the preserve been here long?" Kendra asked. She finally had Neil on a roll!
   "This is the oldest preserve on the continent, founded centuries before European colonization, first managed by the ancient race outsiders call Anasazi. Persian magi actually established the preserve. They wanted it to stay a secret. Back then, this land was unknown across the Atlantic. We're still doing a good job at remaining off the map."
   "Painted Mesa can't be seen from outside of the fence?" Kendra asked.
   "Not even by satellites," Neil said proudly. "This preserve is the opposite of a mirage. You don't see us, but we're really here."
In Mull's book, Lost Mesa is an "it" that is "run" by someone. He might know that Native Nations are sovereign governments, but he might also think they're like corporations to be run by someone. From Neil, we learn that the Navajo and Pueblo people run Lost Mesa together. Remember what I said earlier... there are, in fact, Pueblo people in Arizona, but they generally refer to themselves as Hopis. Historically speaking, the Navajo are newcomers to that area.

Let's assume that Mull is talking about villages on one of the Hopi Mesas. They were, in fact, founded centuries before European colonization. But, "first managed by the ancient race outsiders call Anasazi" is a bit messy. "Managed" confirms my suspicion that Mull thinks of Native Nations as companies rather than governments. "Ancient race" is Hopis, but I think it was the Navajo people that called them Anasazi, and then, that term was widely used by anthropologist and archaeologists. For a long time, a lot of people thought the Anasazi people vanished, but today, it is widely acknowledged that we (present day Pueblo Indian) are descendants of that "ancient" people and that we didn't vanish.

But what to make of "Persian magi" who "actually established the preserve" before Europeans even knew the continent existed?! These magi must be part of Mull's fantasy world. He doesn't say they established the village. He specifically says "the preserve."

And then that part about being invisible?! We're supposed to be with Mull in his fantasy world, but as a Native person who knows a lot about the ways that mainstream power structures misrepresent and omit Indigenous people, I gotta say that this is wacky!!!

Moving on...

On page 127, Neil pulls up at a hacienda. There's a pueblo near the hacienda. We meet "a short Native woman" named Rosa and her daughter, Maria, who is "a tall, slender Native American woman with a broad jaw and high cheekbones." Rosa has "copper skin" and is the caretaker of Lost Mesa. They also meet Hal, who is Maria's father and Rosa's husband. He is described as a "potbellied man with narrow shoulders, long limbs, and a heavy gray mustache." I think he's white, don't you? White is the default. Generally speaking, writers only describe skin color when a character is not white.

Hal takes Kendra and Gavin (a youngish knight like Kendra) on a tour of Lost Mesa. They see "an old Spanish mission" with a cemetery and "a pueblo" which, Hal says, "are the oldest structures on the property" (p. 131). Hal stops to feed the zombies in the cemetery.

Yeah... you read that right. Hal tells them that it is the oldest and biggest zombie collection in the world. In the cemetery, there are almost 200 graves. Beside each grave, there's a bell on a small pole, with a cord attached to the bell. The cord goes down into the grave. If a zombie is hungry, it rings its bell. Hal lifts a tube, unstops it, puts a funnel in it, and pours "goopy red fluid" from a bucket down into the grave. Are you creeped out? Or grossed out?!

Next stop is a museum that houses "the world's largest collection of freestanding magical creature skeletons and other related paraphernalia" (p. 135). Gavin objects to the display of a dragon skeleton, because, he says dragons are sacred, and its sacrilegious to display their bones. That's an interesting turn, given that complete skeletons of Native people were, for many years, displayed like museum objects. For more info on that topic, this video is worth watching:

Back to Mull's story....

That night, the group of knights climbs Lost Mesa to "the Old Pueblo" (p. 204):
Lightning blazed across the sky, the first Kendra had noticed since setting out. For a moment, the entire expanse of the mesa flashed into view. In the distance, toward the center, Kendra saw ancient ruins, layer upon layer of crumbling walls and stairs that must once have formed a more impressive pueblo complex than the structure neighboring the hacienda. Briefly her eye was drawn to the movement of many dancers prancing wildly in the rain on the near side of the ruins. Before she could consider the scene, the lightning flash ended. The distance and the darkness and the rain combined to obscure the revelers even from Kendra's keen eyes. Thunder rumbled, muffled by the wind.
   "Kachinas!" Neil cried
   The middle-aged Navajo rapidly loosed Kendra from the climbing gear, not bothering to remove her harness. Lightning flared again, revealing that the figures were no longer engaged in their frenzied dance. The revelers were charging toward them.
Ok, I'm going to stop reading Mull's book.

Equating kachinas with revelers is offensive. Using "prancing wildly" and "frenzied" to describe them is also offensive. Seems to me that Mull is the one in a frenzy!  Caught up in superficial knowledge of Native peoples, he inserts stereotypes and misinformation into another genre of children's literature. Some might find his books engaging. I find them insulting.

Why, I wonder, did Mull feel compelled to write Native people into his book?!

No doubt, fans of Mull's series will submit comments to this review, telling me "its just a book" and "its fantasy, not non-fiction, so leave it alone!"

The fact is, it isn't ONE book. It isn't just Mull's Fablehaven series. Its misrepresentation and stereotyping in books published every year, going back hundreds of years. It'll only stop when we stop buying books like this.

Consider what you have on your library shelves right now. If you started a pile of fiction and nonfiction books that misrepresent Indigenous people, and placed alongside it ones that accurately portray Indigenous people, you'd see what I mean. And hopefully, you'd start to deselect those with misrepresentations. Course, you'd have a lot of space, but you could fill that space with books that don't misinform your patrons and students. Won't that be better? For all of us?

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