Monday, March 23, 2020

Children's Books for Social Distance Powwow


I typed the seven characters in COVID19 and then didn't know what to say.

I've been trying (but failing) to read new books, or to turn my notes on previously read books into a review. That fail is because of the weight--for me--of COVID19 on the heels of three years of work on An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. Adapting that book took a tremendous toll on me that I had not been fully aware of until I couldn't deny that toll any longer. I needed some rest! So, in February I made a recovery plan and started to feel better.

But then came COVID19. We've had a couple of scares but we're ok.

Some things lift my spirits. Most of you probably know that powwows are gatherings of Native people. One response to COVID19 is the Social Distance Powwow. If you're Native, you know what I'm talking about! Videos of Native people dancing--alone--are in our social media threads.

As I watch them--especially the ones of children--I think about some wonderful children's books I've reviewed here at AICL, that are about children and families at powwows or traditional gatherings.

Powwow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life by Marcie Rendon (Ojibwe); photos by Cheryl Walsh Bellville (not Native). I first read it in 1995 when I started doing research on Native peoples in children's books and absolutely loved what Marcie Rendon shared in this nonfiction picture book! Bellville's photos are terrific.

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek); illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (not Native). It came out in 2000 and is the book I wish I had when our daughter danced for the first time.

The Butterfly Dance written and illustrated by Gerald Dawavendewa (Hopi). This is another book I wish I'd had when our daughter first danced--especially because my grandfather was Hopi and this dance is similar to ones we do at Nambé.

Bowwow Powwow by Brenda Child (Red Lake Ojibwe); illustrated by Jonathan Thunder (Red Lake Ojibwe); translated by Gordon Jourdain (Lac La Croix First Nation). Delightful and informative, it came out in 2018 and won the American Indian Library Association's 2019 Youth Literature Award in the picture book category.

The Dancers by Thomas Peacock (Lake Superior Anishinaabe Ojibwe) and illustrated by Jacqueline Paske Gill (not Native) came out in 2019. Told from the perspective of a little girl, one of the dancers in this picture book is her aunt, who is a Fancy Shawl dancer. Later, the auntie joins the army and is badly hurt. Doctors amputate her legs, and with encouragement of her Native family and community and doctors she eventually dances, again. I got the book in Minnesota from the Birchbark Books table at a conference. The women at the table told me it sells well in the store and I can see why it appeals to Native people. Many of us have family in the military. 

I'll close this post with this: on my to-be-read pile is Siha Tooskin Knows The Love of the Dance written by Charlene Bearhead (not Native), Wilson Bearhead (Nakota and Wabamun Lake First Nation), and illustrated by Chloe Bluebird Mustooch (Alexis Nakoda Sioux Nation). Due out in 2020, it is part of the "Siha Tooskin Knows" series published by Highwater Press. Have you seen it? If you have, what are your thoughts? And, are there other books in this theme (Native children/families at powwows or traditional gatherings) that you'd add?

If you want more information about the Social Distance Powwow, I recommend you see Mary Annette Pember's article "Dancing for the people (virtually)" at Indian Country Today. If you do search on your own, some of what you find may be sketchy or appropriative.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Not Recommended: JUST LUCKY by Melanie Florence

Note from Debbie: there is sexual abuse and self-harm in the book and in my review that you may have difficulty reading.  

Just Lucky
Written by Melanie Florence
Published in 2019
Publisher: Second Story Press
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Not Recommended


Just Lucky by Melanie Florence came out in 2019 from Second Story Press. I read the book a few days ago, tweeting thoughts/summary as I read it (scroll down; I pasted the entire thread, for your reference).

I do not recommend Just Lucky. I find it deeply troubling and wonder why Second Story accepted and published it. The entire story feels shallow as it skitters from one horrific episode to the next before an all-too-quick happy ending, and one harmful depiction after another.

There is absolutely nothing in the book to help readers understand anti-Native attitudes that pervade Canadian and American society. Instead, we are invited to gasp at and condemn, for example, Lucky's mother who is an addict.

Today (Friday, March 6) I read The Guardian article on Oprah Winfrey's response to writers who objected to her decision to feature American Dirt in her book club. The article includes a powerful passage from a letter to Winfrey, written by 142 writers, that applies to Just Lucky. The writers said that the novel's treatment of migration, and Mexican life and culture, is
...exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed, too often erring on the side of trauma fetishisation and sensationalism...
That is precisely what Just Lucky does. It is exploitative and oversimplified. And in some places, it is literally sadistic. I'm thinking in particular of the scene where a foster father climbs into bed with 15-year-old Lucky and when she jumps out of the bed, follows her, rubbing himself as he approaches her.

Given the realities of Native children in foster care, Just Lucky strikes me as cruel. Who did Florence imagine as her audience for this book?

Just Lucky is laced with stereotypes that affirm and ensure the further mistreatment of Native children, families, communities, and nations. Many Native children who read this book will feel assaulted over and over by the story Florence created. Again: who is this book for? And what will it do to shape how people think about Native children?

At the top of this review, you see a red X on the book cover. I use those for books that I find especially horrific. To read more on that red X, see The Red X on Book Covers.

Saying again, I do not recommend 
Melanie Florence's Just Lucky. 

I invite you to share your thoughts (you can write to me directly or submit a comment).


Twitter thread I created as I read Just Lucky the week of March 2, 2020.

Melanie Florence's JUST LUCKY. Florence's JUST LUCKY is from Second Story Press, and came out in 2019. Florence has many books out. I've read a few of them and found them terribly lacking. Details here: (……)

But, her books keep getting published. Why? I think it is because they appeal to a white expectation of who Native people are. Many of those expectations are shaped by derogatory stereotypes. Florence seems to trade on that, which is very harmful. 


That derogatory depiction is in the second paragraph of the first page of JUST LUCKY.

Lucky is the name of the main character. She lives with her grandparents because her mom left her (as a baby) in the casino by a slot machine when she went outside to smoke crack. 

When the story opens, Lucky has been living with her grandparents for 15 years. She tells us her grandparents were "long done with their own parenting" and didn't give a second thought to "care and feeding of another kid."

To me that sounds like a White voice. 

Lucky has only seen her mother a couple of times in those 15 years. Certainly, a girl would have strong emotions about all of this but "I'm not even sure I could pick her out of a police lineup at this point" and thinking she WILL do that someday... it feels off, too. 

It is extreme... It is .... melodramatic. Yeah! That's it. In tone, this first chapter echoes what I saw in Florence's other books. 

Florence's writings about Native people are not without consequence. Rather than push back on derogatory images, she's feeding them. If you're reading tweets or news articles about #wetsuwetan, you know Canadians are using derogatory language about Native peoples. 

Still in chapter one, Lucky is trying to write an essay that is supposed to be autobiographical. She thinks about how her family isn't "normal."

Where does Lucky's family live? As I read on, will I learn that they're part of a Native community? Right now it seems, not. Now in chapter 3. Lucky's grandfather brought some books home for her from a used bookstore. One of them is GONE WITH THE WIND.

Anytime I see someone referencing GONE WITH THE WIND in a kid or YA book, I wait to see if they push back on its racism. Will Florence do that? 

Why drop that title into a story, as if it is just fine? FFS. Imagine a Black child reading this book. What does that child do when they come to this page and see this loving grandfather giving his granddaughter GONE WITH THE WIND?! 

WHY is that title in there? What purpose does it serve? Was/is Florence oblivious to its harm? And her editors at @_secondstory, too? Did they not notice that? 

Now in chapter 20 (chapters are very short). In previous chapters, we learn that her best friend Ryan was punched in the face by his father when he came out, that her grandmother's forgetfulness is serious, then, her grandfather dies.

When her grandmother forgets she's put something on the stove, there's a fire. She's ok but children's services gets involved and asks Lucky to call her mother because Lucky can't make decisions (she's a minor) about her grandmother's needs. 

Lucky calls her mom, Christina. 15 years have passed. I am wondering about the back story for Christina and her parents. What did they do? Kick her out of their lives? No mention of her parents (Lucky's grandparents) wondering how she is...

When Christina arrives at the hospital, Lucky notices her physical appearance (stiletto heels; short skirt; bleached hair; lots of make-up; ragged fingernails). She wants money to take care of her mom and daughter. Children's Aid person and doc are shocked at her ask. 

This scene... again, full of melodrama. 

Lucky gets placed in a foster home with a white Christian family that homeschools their son (he's an only child). The father leers at Lucky's breasts. Lucky and the son (Bobby) share an interest in comic bks. The mother warns Lucky not to lead Bobby into sin. 

Ch 28 is titled "An Unwelcome Visitor." Lucky is dreaming and thinks a spider is in her hair but it is Robert (the father) with his fingers entwined in her hair. She moves away from him; he gets into bed with her.

That scene feels gratuitous. Lucky leaps out of the bed; Robert follows her, "rubbing himself through the thin material."

Of course, things like that happen but for a Native person who has gone thru or knows someone who has gone through something like this, it seems callous. After he leaves she can't sleep. She goes to the bathroom and using scissors, cuts her hair off. Then she goes to the kitchen and gets a sharp knife to keep under her pillow. Then she falls asleep. 

Next day, she shaves her head with an electric razor she borrows from Bobby.

Remember: Bobby is 15, too. Why does he have an electric razor?

That night, Robert is back in Lucky's room, drunk. She raises the knife under her pillow, to his Adam's apple. 

She tells Robert that her grandfather taught her how to use a knife and that she can gut a trout in 60 seconds, and "I doubt you'd take much longer." He leaves.

I don't know what to make of that scene. This feels, over and over, like an outline. No depth. Just high points. 

The next morning, the mother confronts Lucky, telling her that Robert told her that Lucky had threatened him with a knife and demanded money, that she's "evil" and that she "won't have evil in my house." Lucky replies that evil was in the house before she arrived. 

I am realizing at this point that in addition to the gratuitous melodramatic scenes all thru the bk, the way that Lucky speaks doesn't ring true. She sounds tough/hard but her 15 yrs w/ her grandparents weren't harsh ones. So, her words don't fit w/ the loving grandparents. 

Another realization is that I'm nearly halfway thru the book, and it doesn't FEEL like a Native character. Any markers or values that would be from a Native home/community... they're not evident in character/story development, words, action, etc. 

As such, it feels like a lot of books by Native writers who tack on a Native identity for a character but leave it at that. 

Lucky has to leave that foster home (the Wilson's). Bobby tells her he knows his mother is covering for his father but he can't speak up because nobody will believe him.

Cynthia (social worker) goes to get Lucky, rips into her, insisting that the Wilson's are a good family. Error in tweet 27!

I meant to say that non-Native writers tack on the name of a tribal nation for a characters identity, but then never do anything else with it. That's decoration, superficial, wrong. 

As the social worker drives, she starts to listen to Lucky and says she'll investigate, and that Lucky's grandmother is now in a facility for people with dementia and Alzheimer's. 

Lucky is furious that she wasn't told about the move. Social worker hands her a paper w/ name of the facility: "Sunset Seniors." Lucky replies w/ some snarky jokes about the name of the facility. 

That snark (again) is jarring and is another instance in which the ways that Lucky speaks doesn't fit with that happy go lucky, warm childhood she's had with her grandparents up till now. 

Lucky is placed in a new foster home; husband/wife are nice and have 2 boys near Lucky's age that they are also fostering. Interactions much warmer than the first home Lucky was in (fundamentalist Christian/pedophile). At her new school, she meets a bunch of kids at lunch. 

The two foster boys, Charlie & Jake, show her around. Kids are friendly but most girls, including a redhead named Elyse, are not. Elyse seems jealous that Jake sat with Lucky instead of her. When Jake and Lucky get up for next class, Lucky is sure Elyse calls her a whore. 

She thinks about responding but remembers her grandfather saying "Don't ever let anyone tell you you're not enough, Lucky. You come from a long line of strong Indigenous people. Do them proud."

That seems an odd thought for her to have, then. 

Even if Elyse said "Indian whore" it wouldn't make sense, because Lucky's thought is abt not being "enough." It would only make sense if Elyse had said "half-breed whore."

What I am getting at is that I don't know enough about Lucky to understand why she would feel "not enough." The author (Florence) hasn't given us enough for Lucky's thought/her grandfather's words, to make sense at this particular moment in the story. 

The theater dept is doing a play. Jake plans to try out; so does Elyse; Jake wants Lucky to try out, too. She doesn't want to but he pressures her into reading with him when he tries out. Everybody--except Elyse and her friends--are impressed by her reading. 

When she's at her locker, she's surrounded by Elyse & her group. Elyse tells Lucky to leave Jake alone and not to walk around in her underwear (she knows Lucky lives in the same foster home as Jake). Lucky tries to leave but Elyse stops her, calling her a "nasty little slut."

In reply to Lucky's 'what did you say' Elyse says "Are you going to go all 'war party' on us?" and starts to whoop and dance around Lucky. Elyse's friends do it, too.

Lucky punches Elyse in the face and then stomach, knocking her down. Lucky is the one in trouble. 

As Lucky is led away by a teacher, Elyse says "What do you expect from someone like her? She's trash." One of the others says "Indian trash."

Several times up to this pt, Lucky has characterized these girls as hostile. As noted in an earlier tweet in this thread, it doesn't feel like there's enough story IN the story so far for this "hostile" characterization or this stereotypical anti-Native scene to make sense. 

Sarah (the new foster mom) is called to school because the initial plan is to expel Lucky, but Sarah listens to Lucky's account, believes her, and persuades principal to give her another chance. 

In ch 43 Lucky talks abt how her grandparents would be ashamed that she got into this fight, but, that she "never had much patience for racist pieces of garbage like Elyse."

As noted before, I'm having a hard time reconciling the things Lucky says/does with the happy home she had with her grandparents for 15 yrs. Overnight (literally), she's got an intense attitude and ready to fight in an instant, several times. 

Jake is in the play; Charlie and Lucky make sets for it. One day as Charlie and Lucky are ready to leave, Elyse appears and implies they are involved. Her tone reminds Lucky of the Wicked Witch; Lucky thinks of her as the witch and her friends as flying monkeys. 

That reference--to the Wizard of Oz--strikes me as odd.

Maybe Florence (the author) is not aware that L. Frank Baum wrote editorials calling for the extermination of Native people. It reminds me of that earlier chapter when Lucky's grandfather gives her GONE WITH THE WIND. 

In neither instance do we see Florence pushing back on either writer or book. Does she not realize that they are problematic? Who was her editor? Did that person not know? Or ... did they discuss these? Will this get resolved in later chapters? 

Elyse starts in on Charlie's identity, telling Lucky "You got yourself a little Mexican boy to play with."

Charlie yells "I'm Dominican!"

Elyse replies "Dominican, Mexican. Who cares? They're both brown. Why don't you just go back to wherever it is that you came from?"

That scene is more of the melodrama I noted in earlier scenes. These scenes are needlessly full of hurtful content.

Things like that get said, today, in the US and Canada, but as written, they seem to revel in the hurt. There's little regard for readers. 

Charlie starts yelling at Elyse, in Spanish. Elyse tells him he can do better than an Indian whore, spits at Lucky and tells her nobody wants her "worthless ass" and that's why she's in foster care. And, she says...

"You're nothing. An Indian whore who has nothing to offer except what's between your legs."

Come on, @_secondstory... part of what you try to do is provide books for Native readers. This book assaults Native readers! 

We (readers) are supposed to know that Elyse is mean, racist, etc. but it is a failure of the writer to inflict hurt in the ways that Florence does. It does not feel to me like she cares about a Native reader. 

Furious, Lucky throws a punch at Elyse but just at the last second Charlie steps between the two girls. The punch knocks him to the pavement where he hits his head, hard. Elyse and friends saunter away, ambulance is called, Charlie has a concussion. 

Lucky imagines that she's killed him, that he'll have brain damage.

Doctors say he'll be ok.

School is expelling Lucky again, so she has to go to another foster home. 

That third foster home is good but the father is being transferred to another location, so, Lucky has to go to another home. This one has several girls near her age in it; Lucky is burned out from trying to make things work at the other foster homes. 

In the morning she puts on one of the sweaters her grandmother had knitted for her. When she initially packed clothes she packed the sweaters, even though they were small. This one is tight. Mia (one of the other girls) says it is a "slutty sweater."

The mom (Janine) works at the school. By the time they get to school and are by the school office, Lucky shoves Mia and gets ready to hit her but Janine stops her and then tells Lucky info from her file that is, to Lucky's surprise, accurate. 

All through her stays in these foster homes, Lucky has visited her grandmother in the senior facility she's in for Alzheimers. Sometimes she recognizes Lucky; sometimes not. To visit her this time, Lucky took $5 from Janine's purse, thinking she'll pay her back later. 

When Lucky gets back that night, Janine is waiting and Lucky expects her to accuse Lucky of stealing and that the social worker is coming to get her but instead, Janine hugs her, saying she was worried about her. Lucky tells her about taking the money. 

But Janine tells her she'll drive her next time. When she goes to her room she sees that Janine left a book for her on the nightstand. The book is Stephen King's THE SHINING.

Again... odd choice, given the Indians in it...

At breakfast next day Janine makes pancakes. The syrup reminds Lucky of maple butter, so she tells them about putting maple butter on bannock. Mia asks what bannock is and--finally! We read a specific tribal name! I'm rdg a Kindle copy and am at Location 2175 of 2367. 

Lucky tells them "It's a kind of bread... we're Cree. My grandparents and I."

Janine suggests Lucky teach them; Mia says she doesn't like Indian food. Lucky thinks Mia is racist. 

As days pass, Janine continues to make Lucky feel welcome. Lucky holds on to hope that her grandmother will get better and that they'll return to their home, but on one visit, her grandmother tells her that isn't going to happen and that she's put their house on the market. 

She gonna put the money from the sale into an account for Lucky to go to college and is updating her will so that Lucky's mother can't get at any of it. In the car, Lucky cries and Janine comforts her.

At Janine's, Mia continues to harass Lucky. 

One day Mia asks Lucky if she likes "showing off your tits" and Lucky ignores her. Mia asks "Are all Indians deaf or just you? Or maybe you're stupid? Is that it?" Lucky clenches her fists. Mia says "Give it your best shot. I've fought girls more savage than you, Pocahontas."

As I noted earlier in the thread, these conflict scenes feel gratuitous and Florence (the author) seems oblivious to how they might impact a Native reader. 

There's warmth in ch 66 when Janine brings Lucky's grandmother, Jake & Charlie and Lucy (from previous foster homes) over for Lucky's birthday. Mia had watched Lucky make bannock and has made some for the party. 

Ryan is there, too (Lucky has stayed in touch with him throughout the book). There are thoughtful gifts; Lucky feels that this is finally like home. The story ends with her blowing out the birthday cake candles.

Keeping an Eye Out: Thoughts on The Dactyl Hill Squad

A draft version of a post on the Dactyl Hill Squad series was published here by accident the morning of 3/6/20. I apologize for any inconvenience. -- Jean Mendoza

Spoilers ahead! This isn't a review; it's more of an essay about looking at Native content in a book series, as it unfolds.

The Dactyl Hill Squad is a middle-grade series by Daniel Jose Older. It's fun to read. The plot moves lightning fast. The characters are interesting, there's real pathos as well as humor, and the fantasy elements (ride-able dinosaurs) combine surprisingly well with realistic Civil War Era settings and characters.

The "Squad" of the title is group of courageous kids from the Colored Orphans Asylum in New York City. In the Dactyl Hill Squad: Book One, they band together after the asylum burns down in a riot, leaving them homeless and targeted by a band of racist kidnappers. The kids (and their enemies) ride dinosaurs.

I started the series aware that one character, Amaya, is Native, and have kept an eye on how the author represents her among the other orphanage children, who are Black. She is described as having dark skin, and the black-and-white illustrations show her with very long, straight-ish hair and skin about the same tone as that of Magdalys Roca, the series protagonist. Amaya's father is still living and still in touch with her and the orphanage staff. Amaya doesn't seem to like or trust him. Near the end of the first book, she reveals to Magadalys that he's a general, a war hero who secretly trained her for combat ("tactics and strategies, weapons ... everything"). In the same conversation, Amaya tells Magdalys that she's "half Apache" and that her father's students at the Citadel thought of her as savage.

I'm not finding stereotypes or tired tropes about Native people in Older's depiction of Amaya. She's not "magical," exceptionally "spiritual," or stoic. She guards her feelings and personal history, psychologically consistent with her life experience. She gives special care to one of the younger orphans, and shows warmth toward fellow Squad members. She prefers machines to riding on dinos. (In the illustration shown on the right, Amaya is in the dark dress.)

Amaya's character continues to develop in the second Dactyl Hill book, Freedom Fire. Other than "long strands of jet-black hair," the author again leaves her physical appearance to the reader's -- and the illustrator's -- imagination. (I'm not treating that as stereotypical, though some might disagree. Plenty of kids with one Native parent and one White have the very dark hair, though not all do.)  Amaya continues to put her military training to good use, and she's still courageous, but no more so than her fellow Squad members.  By the end of the book, she has left the Squad behind to find and help her family, guided by a mysterious note.

We can consider Amaya in the context of something Cynthia Leitich Smith has said about the secondary characters she created for her novel Hearts Unbroken. Does Amaya have her own narrative "hinted at through beats and brush-strokes"? Or is she a "standard bearer," a "moral compass" or a symbol of a larger cause? Seems to me Older gives this Native character those beats and brush-strokes. So far, so good!

Freedom Fire features a second Native character. Colonel Ely S. Parker, who in real life was an aide to General Ulysses Grant, tries to find information about Magdalys' missing brother. Older includes a biographical sketch of Parker in the Notes. If Grant makes an appearance in the next Dactyl Hill book, perhaps Parker will, too.

I'm also keeping an eye on what the author does with Major General Philip Sheridan, an actual 19th Century US military figure. The Dactyl Hill kids end up in a camp where Sheridan commands the troops. In real life, Sheridan was an advocate and practitioner of scorched-earth tactics that targeted non-combatants, both during the Civil War and in his campaigns against Indigenous nations.  He advocated exterminating the buffalo herds to starve Indigenous people into submission. A number of people, myself included, consider him a war criminal.  He's also infamously supposed to have said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." He claimed he didn't say those words, but that's irrelevant, as his desire to get rid of Native people was evident.

In Freedom Fire, Sheridan is ambitious, strategy-oriented, kind of humorously pompous, smart, and on the right side of the war. He covets Magdalys' ability to communicate with and control the dinosaurs, and she resents his purely strategic interest. Amaya is blunt: she doesn't trust Sheridan because she "grew up around those types" and knows that to them, everything but winning is "expendable." She and Magdalys and another key character have the following conversation:
"You guys are black and I'm Apache," Amaya said. "I don't think they know how to see us as anything but expendable." ....
"Whether there's a war going on or not," Cymbeline agreed. 
"Exactly, and anyway, there's a whole other war going on that nobody wants to talk about it. A perpetual one. The beloved savior Lincoln hanged thirty-eight Dakotas in a single day at the end of last year, and that's not even to mention the ones who were massacred in the run-up to that."
Cymbeline nodded sadly.
You won't see truths like those in many middle grade fantasy adventures, or even realistic historical fiction! Not only does Daniel Jose Older show young people talking about how racism affects them -- he also brings in the Dakota 38. This passage makes me think that he won't ultimately give Philip Sheridan the hero treatment in the next Dactyl Hill Squad book.

My antennae went up, however, when Mardi Gras Indians appear in Freedom Fire. The Mardi Gras Indians are secret societies of African-American New Orleans residents who create remarkable, elaborate, colorful regalia for celebrations that include Mardi Gras. In the Note at the back of the book, Older explains that this dates back to the 1800s, "when black Americans wanted to honor the Native Americans who had helped them out during slavery."

Most explanations I found online are not specific about the actual origins. Unfortunately, even if the goal is to honor, the tradition draws heavily on stereotypes & tropes. There's a Big Chief. Names of the groups include "Yellow Pocahontas."  Adrienne Keene (Native Appropriations) expressed her ambivalence about it back in 2010. Some other Native people are not ambivalent -- they don't like it. And a 2016 NPR segment on a somewhat-related topic indicates that one leader, knowing Native people's objections, decided to rename their group to reflect African-American heritage.

For Older's Dactyl Hill Squad, the Mardi Gras Indians are a positive presence. Amaya is curious and excited at the first mention of them, and mildly disappointed to find they aren't part of a real tribe, but still finds them "beautiful." An illustration shows a few of them in a parade setting, with abundant long plumes that don't really resemble traditional regalia of Indigenous groups of what is currently called North America. And they heroically save Magdalys from certain death. So I'm watching what else happens with the Mardi Gras Indians in Book 3. I'll have more to say after June 2, 2020, when it's available.

Thursday, March 05, 2020


My Mighty Journey: A Waterfall's Story
Written by John Coy
Illustrated by Gaylord Schanilec
Published in 2019
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

The approach to the topic here -- the "life" of a waterfall -- is unusual in a children's book. That is, author John Coy (White) makes this geological feature the narrator of its own 12,000-year-plus story.  The book's remarkable visual images and minimal words make that work pretty well.

The waterfall of the title was the only one occurring naturally on the upper Mississippi River. Its underlying rock formations were such that the falls actually "moved" upstream over thousands of years as the rock eroded -- that's the Mighty Journey. It's now more or less anchored in place, in Minneapolis, MN.

The author could have focused strictly on the written history of settler-colonizer interactions with the waterfall. But he acknowledges the area's Indigenous presence over millennia, into the present time, in several ways. Men kill a woolly mammoth near the falls (an event which would have happened more than 10,000 years ago). People tell stories around a winter fire. A boy and his grandfather fish near the falls. From the flow of the story, it's clear that these are not colonizers, but Indigenous people.

Coy first names a Native nation when he describes "a Dakota man who calls me OWAMNIYOMNI" making an offering on an island in the falls. The facing page tells of the priest who "claims he's discovered me/ and says my name is le Saut Saint Antoine de Padoue/ the FALLS OF SAINT ANTHONY OF PADUA." I like what Coy does there. He puts an Indigenous (Dakota) name for the falls first. His choice of the word "claims" makes clear that this priest has "discovered" nothing. Not only that, the priest's name for the falls is quite obviously irrelevant to its existence. This hints at the  relationship of settler-colonizers to the falls.

The next reference to Indigenous people is on a page about a mother and daughter picking chokecherries and tending a garden. In addition to leaves and flowers of garden plants, that illustration incorporates a 1766 print of the falls, which shows canoes on the river above it, and tipis on the far bank. (More about Schanilec's illustrations in a moment.) This use of an image made by settler-colonizers marks a turning point: white-owned businesses will take over, and nearly destroy, the waterfall.

Several pages are then devoted to those decades of exploitation, the disaster, and the engineering feats that now keep the falls in place. The next and final reference to Indigenous people comes at the end of the story, in contemporary times, when Dakota drummers/singers are among the people near the restored bridge over the falls. Just as the falls are still here, this implies, so are the first people to see it.

The Author and Illustrator Notes explain how Gaylord Schanilec (White) and several collaborators created the illustrations, which tend toward the abstract and complex. It was a relief to see that he doesn't use stereotypical imagery like feathers or beadwork on the pages with Indigenous content. Instead, images of two stone spear points (found in what is currently called Minnesota) signify the killing of a woolly mammoth near the falls thousands of years ago. A copper fish hook (over 2000 years old, according to the author note) is part of the illustration for text about a boy and his grandfather fishing. Leaves and flowers of bean, squash, and corn plants signify the garden tended by an Indigenous mother and daughter. Finally -- this took me a while to notice -- the arrangement of autumn leaves, grass blades, and words on the next-to-last pages of the story is evocative of a medicine wheel design. For me as a reader, this doesn't seem like stereotyping or appropriation. It's more of a visual allusion to something an observer might see on the Dakota drum the author describes on those pages, as well as a reference to the cycle of seasons.

I hope someone will comment with a correction if I've missed problems with the Dakota content or any of the imagery.

I was glad to see that some of the royalties from sales of the book will benefit Dream of Wild Health, a Native-owned farm whose mission is to recover "knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines and lifeways." People from the farm did some collaborating with the book creators, and plants grown at the farm were "the basis for the images of growth and cultivation in the book."

I do recommend My Mighty Journey. It's a unique book, and contains much to consider, both for children and for adults. Before sharing it with children, though, adults ought to read it cover to cover, with special attention to the "More About" section and the detailed author/illustrator notes. That way they will have the historical information behind the story and the illustrations. They should also spend some unhurried time with each 2-page spread, noting what they see, and be prepared to invite children to do the same.

[Edited 3/6/2020. To be consistent with other posts, changed "Euro-American, US" to "White."]

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Recommended! nibi is water; nibi aawon nbiish, by Joanne Robertson; translated by Shirley Williams and Isadore Toulouse

nibi is water, nibi aawon nbiish
Written and illustrated by Joanne Robertson (
Translated by Shirley Williams and Isadore Toulouse
Published in 2020
Publisher: Second Story Press
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended

Last month I (Debbie) was in Toronto at the 2020 Ontario Library Association's Super Conference. There, I spoke (and ate, and laughed--a lot!) with Native women. At one of these moments, they were asking me if I'd seen Joanne Robertson's new board book yet. I had not, but as I listened to them talk about it... to the delight in their voices, I suspected it would be something I'd like, too. 

nibi is water, nibi aawan nbiish arrived at my house and sure enough, it lifted my day! The nuts and bolts, so to speak, are this: it is what some call a "concept" book. It tells us several characteristics of some thing... like an information book, but for very young readers. 

Robertson's book is about water and the many ways that a child experiences it. You can swim or bathe in it, you can drink it, you can use it to wash your clothes... But Robertson reminds us that we need to care for it, that we have to respect, love, and protect it because, as the final page tells us, water is life. 

If you got Robertson's The Water Walker you'll recognize the walkers from that book, in nibi is water, nibi aawan nbiish (note: keep your eyes open... they're in the book, more than once--this is the sort of detail that kids adore!).

I'll state the obvious: this is a bilingual book. On every page, you'll find Ojibwe words and at the end of the book, a pronunciation guide. Get a copy and come back here. Submit a comment! What do you see? What speaks to you? 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Debbie--have you seen BUFFALO DANCE: A BLACKFOOT LEGEND by Nancy Van Laan?

In today's mail is a question from a librarian. She's got a copy of Nancy Van Laan's Buffalo Dance: A Blackfoot Legend in her library and wonders if she should weed it.

I'm sharing how I go about evaluating a book.

First: is the author Native? In this case, no. Nancy Van Laan is not Native. When the book is one that looks like it might be a creation story, my impulse is to say that the book probably should be removed from the shelves, especially if it has "legend" in the title and if it is categorized as "folklore." Here's a screen cap of the entry in WorldCat (red circles are mine):

For decades, non-Native people have "retold" Native stories and called them myths, or legends, or folktales. Those books are usually shelved or categorized as "folklore" alongside Little Red Riding Hood. That's an example of institutional racism. Bible stories from the Christian bible aren't called folklore, right? So--that's one problem. Another is the integrity of the story itself. When an actual creation story is told by an outsider, chances are pretty high that there are errors in the telling, especially if their sources are outsiders, too. That likelihood means I wouldn't want Van Laan's book to be categorized as if its contents had the same integrity as this story, told by a Blackfoot writer.

Second: what is the publication year? In this case, 1993. That's old, especially when you think about how much the field has changed. In 2015, Corinne Duyvis's hashtag, #OwnVoices, took off. With respect to books by and about Native people, we've seen an increase over time, in books by Native writers. That's significant! There are many reasons #OwnVoices are important. With traditional stories that are creation stories, an insider knows the nuances of the story and how or when it can be told. If this book was by someone who is Blackfoot, I would call it #BlackfootVoice. But it isn't. It is by a white woman.

Third: what are the sources for the retelling? When I open the Amazon page I can see Van Laan names four sources. One is Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God. That book came out in 1959. I know Campbell has quite a lot of fans but I'm not among them. In his Hero with a Thousand Faces, chapter 1, he starts with "Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, [...] or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale..." Those clearly judgmental words didn't stop Campbell's book from being published in 1959, but it should stop you from thinking he's the bees knees, today. Van Laan's second source is The Blackfeet by John Ewers, published in 1958; and her third one is Blackfoot Lodge Tales by George Bird Grinnell published in 1962. I would look up those two sources to see how they are evaluated, today, by Native scholars. I wouldn't take them at face value because of the long history of outsiders going into Native spaces, and writing what they saw--from a white perspective that was supposedly objective. Her fourth source is The Buffalo by Francis Haines, published in 1970. A quick look at reviews of that book indicates it is the "tragic Indian" account that is captured by those dreadful "end of the trail" images.

Fourth: what does the book say? I don't have a copy of it at hand. I could go to the library and see one there. What I do see, online, is the introduction. It starts with "Long ago, when the Blackfoot Indians roamed the hills of the Great Plains of Montana, they depended on the meat and fur of the buffalo to survive." Speaking quite frankly, I find past tense wording like that highly problematic because it dovetails with the idea that Native peoples no longer exist. It confines our existence to the past, when we are very much part of the present day. The first and second paragraphs of the intro continue with past tense verbs. The third paragraph does have "is" but I don't think that one use of "is" is enough to displace the existing knowledge children have about Native peoples, or the extensive use of past tense in the first two paragraphs. I also object to the use of the word "roamed." I see that a lot in books about Native peoples. I view it as a biased word. It suggests they didn't have a homeland--that they just went here and there. It isn't a small problem. It contributes to the idea that Native peoples were primitive and uncivilized.

If I got a copy of the book, I would probably end up giving it a not-recommended label. If I do pick up a copy, I'll be back with more to say but based on what I see right now, I doubt that I would hand it to any child and if I was working in a library, I'd probably weed it.

Recommended: MARY AND THE TRAIL OF TEARS by Andrea L. Rogers

Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story
Written by Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee); illustrated by Matt Forsyth
Published in 2020
Publisher: Stone Arch Books (Capstone)
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended

Andrea L. Rogers is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her book, Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story came out on February 1, 2020. I've read it and I've followed conversations about it amongst citizens of the Cherokee Nation and am hoping for a review from a professor, soon. In the meantime, I want to make sure people order it for their children, or their classroom, or their library.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

An Illustrated Record of My Indigenous Spotlight Lecture at 2020 Ontario Library Association Super Conference

Devon Kerslake's Illustrated Record of My Indigenous Spotlight Lecture 
at 2020 Ontario Library Association Super Conference* 
by Debbie Reese

Last year, Nancy Cooper (Ojibwe from the Chippewas of Rama First Nation) and Deanna Nebenionquit (Atikmeksheng Anishnawbek) invited me to be a featured speaker at the Ontario Library Association's 2020 Super Conference. Nancy and Deanna are planners for the Indigenous Stream. They wanted me to give the Indigenous Spotlight session. I accepted their invitation and spoke on January 29, 2020.

To prepare for it, I thought about concerns that Native peoples in my networks have been talking about in recent periods. Identity and fraudulent claims to Native identity are a primary concern. So, I settled on Politics, Ethics, and Native Identity as my topic. It was captured in real-time by Devon Kerslake, who sketched as I spoke. This is what it looks like (and isn't it the coolest?!):

To prepare for talks I give at a conference, I look to previous conferences to see what sorts of talks people have given. I saw that Tanya Talaga (Ojibwe) gave the 2019 Indigenous Spotlight talk. And, I saw that her remarks had been captured by Devon Kerslake, a graphic illustrator at Think Link Graphics:

I was psyched as I studied the visual artifact, or graphic recording of her talk (other phrases for this kind of work are story mapping and sketch notes). As I looked around the conference website, I saw that lectures given by other featured speakers had also been sketched out. In particular, I noted that there was one on intellectual freedom, given by James Turk. As I looked at it I saw the usual ideas that people put forth to discredit us when we object to something. I used content of Talaga's and Turk's lectures to frame my remarks. I don't know if I was successful or not. That was the first-time I've given a talk about that particular set of slides and that topic.

I didn't know that a similar record would be made of my talk!

As I set up my computer and tested the microphone, I saw a person come in and realized they were setting up to do one. I asked Nancy if she could take occasional photographs of it, as the illustrator worked.

My goal was to provide some personal historical context about identity, how Native identity was denigrated by state actors (federal government and its employees) in my personal family history, how identity can be monetized for personal gain, and the ethics--or lack of them--when a writer selects content for their stories.

What I'll do in the remainder of this post is tell you a bit more about the illustrations that the illustrator captured. When I have the illustrator's name, I'll be back to add it. I think it is Kerslake but will know for sure, later. [Update on Feb 3: I've heard from Devon Kerslake. It is, indeed, her work. I've added her name to the title of this post.]

The first things I said were about my tribal nation, Nambé Owingeh. I talked about growing up there, what I learned, and I showed some photos from there, including one of three-year-old me on my trike. The "best wheels" remark was about the hard rubber tires on that trike. They never got flat like the bicycle wheels would, later! I talked about liking school and getting a certificate from my teacher at the end of the year. I had the best grades that year. The "Naming Matters" part is about my name. My teacher was sure my parents did wrong in naming me Debbie. She insisted that Debbie is a nickname and not a proper name. Can you imagine that? The audacity of that woman! At the end of the year, she wrote Deborah on my certificate. I also talked about my grandfathers. My mom's father was Hopi. When he went to boarding school his name was changed, forever. My dad's father was White. His name was the same at his birth and death. The federal government ran those boarding schools and changed Native student's names. It was a political effort to turn us into white people. Obviously, it didn't work. We're still here, fighting to protect who we are: sovereign nations.

I showed the 2018 infographic that Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen imagined into being and that David Huyck drew and called attention to the data about Native people. It combines quantitative data from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's metaphor that books can function as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. I call attention to the shards of glass at the feet of the Native and Children of Color, because in that 1% of books, a lot of the content is stereotypical, biased, or wrong. Here's the slide I used:

And here's how it was sketched:

I also talked at length about claims to Native identity, the ways that people speak of their Native identity (and how its shifts over time strike me as indicative of little to no connection with the people they claim to be from) and the benefits some writers receive.

For Bouchard, I talked about his 2016 video, "David Bouchard on Being Métis" and things he said. It begins with him saying "one of the nice things about being Métis is I have no plan." and that "When I was white I had a 10-year plan." I noted that his books are stereotypical and romantic or sentimental in tone, both of which I think obscure who we are as people. I referenced the letter he received in 2007 from the Metis Nation of British Columbia, stating they could not confirm his claim to being Métis.

When I spoke about Melanie Florence, I talked about the ethics of writing a story about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Back in 2017 when I read Missing Nimama I felt it was exploiting pain. I found her writings about why she wrote that book (to give voice to these women and their families) and a children's writing contest prompt she wrote (comparing missing and murdered Indigenous women to having some thing stolen from contest participants) to be insensitive. I believe firmly that some stories are best told by people with the experience necessary to share them with care.

From here on I'll use close ups of the post-talk image. The illustrator added color to what they had sketched during the talk. I continued with the "Is this your story to tell" question by referencing Rebecca Roanhorse and the stories she's chosen to tell in her adult books and her middle grade novel, Race to the Sun. These are stories taken from the Diné people. She is married into a Diné family. I recounted my initial support for her and Trail of Lightning and that I listened when Diné people objected to what she had done with their sacred stories and beings. I withdrew my support for that book because I agree with their objections. In several places, I have spoken or written about what we keep private. I've added "curtain" to Dr. Bishop's metaphor because Native peoples do, in fact, draw curtains on some of what we do (see, for example, page 390 of Critical Indigenous Literacies.)

(Note: A special thanks to Lisa Noble who was at the presentation, for suggesting I add these next two paragraphs and images.) A segment of my talk was about my personal family history and how that would shape my thinking if I was writing fiction. In my slides, I had this image. The top row is my grandparents, the second row is my parents, and the bottom is me. I said that I would feel comfortable writing about my life growing up at Nambé. I could write stories about riding my trike or bicycle, or playing in the river below our house (or any number of things we did!). Although I spent a lot of time at Ohkay Owingeh visiting my grandfather, uncles and aunts, and playing with cousins there (its about 25 minutes away from Nambé), I didn't grow up there and wouldn't feel ethical about writing a story from the point of view of a kid from Ohkay Owingeh. And though we went to Hopi a few times, I wouldn't create a character or story from a Hopi child's point of view. There's too much I don't know about the essence of what it means to grow up at Ohkay Owingeh or Hopi. My personal ethics mean that I wouldn't do it.

That personal history portion of my talk was captured in this sketch ("consider the ethics of identity"). At Nambé Owingeh I was taught what I can and cannot share. I have strong family relationships and friendships at Ohkay Owingeh but my personal ethics about respecting a tribal nations sovereignty and protocols over what they do not want shared means I would definitely not write a story about their sacred songs, dances, or stories.

I talked about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People, which is the book that Jean Mendoza and I adapted from Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz's book. I noted the mirrors for Pueblo children that I added to it (Po'Pay and the seed pot made by Nambé tribal member, Pearl Talachy) and the mirrors that Jean added for Muscogee children. I noted that in chapter ten, we wrote about activism, and I talked about how we used the book's index to decenter Whiteness.

This next illustration captures the Q&A. People wondered what to do about Bouchard's books. I asked them to think about why his books have such appeal. I used the phrase "tugging at your heart strings" to characterize the ways that we (readers) can be manipulated by text and image in ways that are not helpful to the sound education that teachers are expected to provide to children. Our responsibility as educators is to educate, not entertain. Entertainment is fine, of course, but not if the content of the entertainment is misleading or inappropriate. I suggested using such books with kids to teach them how to read critically. I issued a caution about DNA tests--well, it was more of a "don't do them!" statement, and I recommended Kim TallBear's book Native American DNA. The introduction to me and my talk was given by Feather Maracle. She referenced my work on Little House on the Prairie and the name change. In the Q&A someone asked me to talk about it, so I did. In answering that question I also talked about the backlash and security concerns when I speak at some places. In reply to a "what can we do" question, I asked people to speak up and do this work with me.

I think that's about it! As always, if something I said in this post (or in the lecture, if you were there or read/talked about it with someone) is not clear, let me know in a comment and I'll respond.

Additional thoughts about my trip to Toronto

The last event of my trip to Toronto was a visit to the First Nations House at the University of Toronto. There, we laughed, ate, and talked about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. 

Ishta Mercurio was at the First Nations House, too. She is one of the authors of a letter written to the Children's Book Guild in Washington DC over their treatment of Carole Lindstrom. Ishta, Julie Foster Hedlund, and Martha Brockenbrough's decision to write that letter embodies what I said in the Indigenous Spotlight Q&A (speak up).

A highlight: I met Joanna Robertson, author and illustrator of The Water Walker. She told me about her and Josephine Mandamin reading my review of the book as they drove together one day. I'll remember what she said, forever. I also met Samantha Martin-Bird and Robyn Medicine, who did a session on white fragility at the conference that drew fire from a conservative Toronto newspaper. Talking with them was way cool! And, the time I spent with Nancy Cooper, Deanna Nebenionquit, Jenny Kay Dupuis, and Feather Maracle was filled with affirmation and that strong sense of Native women, doing important work together.


Back to add the illustrated record of Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek's talk! I encourage you to head over to Twitter and see the tweets in the hashtag, #OLASC.

*On February 3, I heard from Devon Kerslake. She is the artist who sketched my talk. I've added her name to the title of the blog post.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Highly Recommended: Gitige - She/he Gardens

Gitige - She/he Gardens
by Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Anishinaabe consultants Tom Jack, Tara Dupuis, Marcus Ammesmaki, Jodie Locking
Photographs by Autumn Aubu't
Published in 2019
Published by Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

The first lines of Gitige - She/he Gardens are, "Here is a story about gardening and what happens with a little watering, sunshine, and children's special care." It's a story that unfolds in the photographs, as it follows young children in their garden through a growing season.

Gitige is the latest of several delightful board books Fond du Lac Band has created that incorporate  words in Anishinaabemowin (or Ojibwemowin). The others have all been reviewed or mentioned on AICL: Boozhoo/Come Play With Us, The Story of Manoomin, niimiwin/Everyone Dance, and Our Journey. Like several of them, Gitige is illustrated with photos of children from the Fond du Lac community. They show preschool-age children involved in the real work of gardening: digging, watering, working with adults, appreciating their plants, and sorting harvested food, as well as dressing up as flowers.

The photos on each page are labeled in English and Anishinaabemowin. At the end of the book is a page showing all the translations. One strength of the book is that the two languages are side-by-side on each page. There are nouns, verbs, phrases, and whole sentences for children to hear, see, and say.

Adults sharing the book can use the words in the captions to start conversations about the pictures,  encouraging children's oral literacy in either language.

An adult who wants to hear the pronunciations of many of these words can find audio by native speakers on The Ojibwe People's Dictionary web site.

Anyone expecting to see a Three Sisters garden in the book may be disappointed. These kids are growing sunflowers, carrots, and a riotous assortment of flowers as well as corn and squash. I found only one problem with the book. On the first page, it looks like the English equivalent of zhoomiingweni has been left off inadvertently. I don't know if that's true for every copy or if mine is the only one. In any case, with adult help, children can do the detective work of figuring out via the glossary which English word belongs there.

You can order Gitige - She/he Gardens and those other great board books from the Fond du Lac Head Start Web site. [Editing on 1/30/2020 to report that until Fond du Lac Head Start is able to update their books page, you can order the book by emailing Thanks, Sam Bloom for letting me know about that problem!]

And ...

Are you a Native writer or artist with an idea for a story? Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing would like to hear from you! Black Bears and Blueberries is a small Native-owned independent press dedicated to developing Native-themed books by Native authors and illustrators. They published and help to market Gitige. See their page of author info, or contact Betsy Albert-Peacock directly at