Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Open Letter to Champaign Public Library Regarding "110 Books for Every Child"

February 6, 2013

Dear Librarians at Champaign Public Library,

While reading The News Gazette yesterday, I read that you had prepared a list of books called "110 Books for Every Child." When I read "every child," I wondered if you were thinking about all children in the area. Were you thinking about American Indian children, too? We are part of the Champaign-Urbana community.

When I clicked on the link and opened the list, I was glad to see some titles on it, like Bud Not Buddy and The Giver and Poppy. But I am disappointed that it also includes Little Town on the Prairie. 

On page 257, Laura is amongst the crowds gathered in the schoolhouse, waiting for the "Literary" (performance) to begin. Here's an excerpt:
Then up the center aisle came marching five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms. White circles were around their eyes and their mouths were wide and red. Up onto the platform they marched, then facing forward in a row suddenly they all advanced, singing, "Oh, talk about your Mulligan Guards! These darkies can't be beat!"

The five men take the stage (p. 258):

Here's the text on that page, just above the illustration:
When the dancing stopped, the jokes began. The white-circled eyes rolled, the big red mouths blabbed questions and answers that were the funniest ever heard. Then there was music again, and even wilder dancing.

Darkies? Big red mouths?!

(Note: A reader pointed out that the following passages are not from the same book. Corrections are made as noted; Little House in the Big Woods is not on the library's list.Earlier in the book,  In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura and Mary listen to Pa tell them a story about how, when he was a little boy, he'd pretend he was hunting Indians (page 53):
When I was a little boy, not much bigger than Mary, I had to go every afternoon to find the cows in the woods and drive them home. My father told me never to play by the way, but to hurry and bring the cows home before dark, because there were bears and wolves and panthers in the woods.

One day I started earlier than usual, so I thought I did not need to hurry. There were so many things to see in the woods that I forgot that dark was coming. There were red squirrels in the trees, chipmunks scurrying through the leaves, and little rabbits playing games together in the open places. Little rabbits, you know, always have games together before they go to bed.

I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians. I played I was fighting the Indians, until all woods seemed full of wild men, and then all at once I heard the birds twittering 'good night.'

Stalking wild animals and Indians?!

I'm not calling for these books to be removed from the library, but I do think Little Town on the Prairie ought not be endorsed as a "good book" for "every child." I don't think its good for any child at all!

Imagine reading it aloud to an African American or an American Indian child. How would you manage those particular excerpts?

I know people who say that reading these books lets kids know that there was racism in America's past, but, isn't endorsing them in 2009 as "good books" a bad idea? Children should learn about racism in the past and present, too, but might that be better done in another way?

See--if you're reading this book aloud to a child, you're probably doing it in a way that will cause them to like the characters. And then you're going to interrupt the reading to explain that, essentially Pa was either a racist, or, engaged in racist thinking. It seems a better idea (to me) to select a book to enjoy that doesn't do that sort of thing.

I wonder how many people actually take time to explain those passages as racist?

My guess is that a lot of people just blow right past them, thereby inserting racist ideology into the minds of the children that are being read to, and/or affirming the already-existing racist ideology that has crept into that child's world view.

And---if a child is reading this book alone (without an adult to mediate it), how will that child make sense of those excerpts?

I have similar concerns about other books on the list and am sharing brief notes on them:

The Indian in the Cupboard is very popular, but it makes people into the playthings of children. This is especially troubling because of the identities of the characters. In it, you have a white child manipulating the life and death of an Indian man.

Island of the Blue Dolphins has stereotypes in it and the information it provides is outdated. Today, we know so much more about the people involved in this story. This book doesn't accurately portray them. Shouldn't we set it aside in favor of terrific stories that don't misrepresent someone, especially when that someone is a group for which most American have little substantive knowledge?

We keep recycling romantic and stereotyped ideas and images of American Indians. Maybe that is what makes it possible for a book like Walk Two Moons to win awards. It, unfortunately, has a great many stereotypes of American Indians in it.

As I noted earlier, I'm not asking you to remove the books from the library, but I do think their place on a list of "good" books ought to be reconsidered. Perhaps if they were removed from the list, you could replace them with award-winning books that provide children with accurate knowledge about American Indians. Given our proximity to the Great Lakes, Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House and its sequels would be terrific additions to the list.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature


Anonymous said...

The second passage you quote isn't from LITTLE TOWN ON THE PRAIRIE as you state. Have you read it?

Debbie Reese said...


A correction to the post has been made.

Thank you,