July 15, 2013
Dear Jon Scieszka,
I've got a bone to pick with you. Are you following the recent news story about the names of the pilots of the Asiana flight that crashed in San Francisco? Someone made up some names for those pilots. The newscaster read those made-up names on the news cast. Did you read about it? Here's those made-up names:
Sum Ting Wong
Wi Tu Lo
Ho Lee Fuk
Bang Ding Ow
The person who created those names, no doubt, had a good time doing it and probably laughed pretty hard at the people at the TV station who put those names into the script for the newscaster. That person probably laughed pretty hard at the newscaster, too, as she read the names and didn't realize they were made-up names that mock Asian people.
Lot of people read your books, Mr. Scieszka, and a lot of people laugh when they read the ways you use humor. You don't mean to be offensive or insensitive, right? Just in case you don't realize that some of your humor is precisely that---offensive and insensitive---let's revisit what you did with humor and names in Me Oh Maya.
In Me Oh Maya the boys in the Time Warp Trio find themselves in a Mayan ball court. A "short brown-skinned guy in a wild feathered headdress stood on top of the wall looking down" at the boys. This guy turns out to be an "evil high priest" who is named Kakapupahed. The boys hear the high priests name and think "Cacapoopoohead." They struggle to contain their laughter.
For those who don't know, the Time Warp Trio series is pitched to kids who are "reluctant readers." This sort of book provides readers with clever writing that functions as a hook to draw in a kid who might otherwise not read. In the Time War Trio series, the hook is puns, lots of action, and, as the reviewer at School Library Journal notes, "a little bathroom humor." Reviews of the book say that kids can learn a lot about Mayan culture by reading this book, but if that learning starts with the reluctant reader laughing at Mayan names, I have to wonder about your treatment, Mr. Scieszka, of the culture, too.
Do you see the connection, Mr. Scieszka, between what you did with names in Me Oh Maya and what happened at the news station and the mockery of the names of the pilots?
This sort of thing has been going on for a long time. On the child_lit listserv, we discussed problems with names in Arlene Mosel's Tikki Tikki Tembo some years ago. I don't lay the blame for what happened with the Asian pilot names at your feet, Mr. Scieszka, but since your humor encourages mockery of other, I think you're part of what makes that kind of incident possible.
Given your status within children's literature and education, I think this is a moment for you to issue a statement about humor that relies on ignorance of other. It would be a bold step, but you could even disavow what you did with names in Me Oh Maya!
I'm sure that many of your fans will come to your defense, chastising me for this letter, telling me to "get a life" and that "it's only a book!" and similar statements, but you and I know how much children's books matter to the children who read them. They can do good, but they can do bad, too, and that's not good for any of us.
American Indians in Children's Literature