Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Not Recommended: HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh


Harriet the Spy
Written by Louise Fitzhugh
First published by Harper and Row in 1964
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Review Status: Not Recommended




A biography about Louise Fitzhugh is in the news. She is much-loved for Harriet the Spy. The biography description says that Harriet is "erratic, unsentimental, and endearing." But like many (most?) people,  Fitzhugh and her character have problematic views of Native people. The biography will likely prompt people to purchase Harriet the Spy again, and gift it to children. Should they do that? 

For those who did not read Harriet the Spy (first published in 1964), here is the description of the book:
Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?

In chapter one, we meet Harriet and her friend, Sport. Harriet is drawing and writing in her notebook. Sport looks over her shoulder (location 67 in e-copy), watching her. She says:
"Now, as soon as you've got all the men's names down, and their wives' names and their children's names, then you figure out all their professions. You've got to have a doctor, a lawyer--"
"And an Indian chief," Sport interrupted. 

Harriet ignores Sport's suggestion, saying she needs someone who works in television. There is no further mention of Sport's comment. 

Some of you may know the rhyme that Sport was going with as "Tinker Tailor." It is a counting or jump rope rhyme for girls that is supposed to tell them about their future husband. It starts out with "Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief." It juxtaposes "good" things, like being rich with being poor, or being a thief. Given that pattern, I think it is safe to say that it is preferable that a future husband be a doctor or a lawyer, but not an Indian chief. Near as I can tell, the rhyme with "Indian chief" in it is dated to the late 1800s in the US. I did a lot of jump rope rhymes when I was a kid but don't remember this one. Do you? Do you see kids saying it, today? If yes, where?

Not mentioned in the book description is Ole Golly, but she figures throughout the story. In the midst of Harriet and Sport's conversation in chapter one, we read "Harriet! Get up out of that mud!" from someone in the brownstone behind them. It is Ole Golly, her nurse. In chapter five, Harriet spies on Ole Golly when she goes out to be with her boyfriend, Mr. Waldenstein. She hears him tell Ole Golly that she is attractive, who is embarrassed by the compliment and changes the subject. She blushes. The text there is (location 1007):
The crimson zoomed up Ole Golly's face again, making her look exactly like a hawk-nosed Indian.
Big Chief Golly, Harriet thought, what is happening to you?
In the space of a few words, we see stereotypical depictions of Native people: the hawk nose, the red skin, and the use of "Big Chief" to describe someone with authority. 

When I call attention to this kind of content in popular or classic books, someone invariably replies that there's a lot in the book that is important, and that those things are more important than the problematic Native content. Those who say that are pretty much saying that the impact of this derogatory content on a Native reader doesn't count as much as the others who will, in some way, be affirmed by the rest of the story. But I hear that a lot. Over and over, Native kids are expected to push through that kind of content, for the sake of the other kids. 

That's deeply troubling! It is spoken as if there is only one book in the entire world that can do what Harriet the Spy does. And of course, that isn't true! You may have an attachment to it because it did something for you when you were a kid, but come on. You can let it go, right? 


 



Tuesday, December 01, 2020

2020: AICL's Best Books of 2020

This is the time of the year when annual "Best of" booklists come out. AICL has published our own Best Books lists for many years now. We like to make sure teachers have those suggestions as they think about what to bring into their classrooms. And as the winter holidays approach, we want families to know what's new and good in books with Native content, that they can give to the young people in their lives.

The year 2020 has been difficult for us at AICL. We've only been able to create 38 posts. We've read some books that we like and haven't yet created reviews for, but will list them below and when we can we'll get a review done. We also find ourselves in the unusual position of not having been able to get to all the 2020 books by Native creators -- this may be one of most prolific years ever for publications by Native and First Nations writers and illustrators. So we promise to add to the Best Books list as we have a chance to read the ones we may have missed. 

In not posting reviews for all books on our Best of list, we realize we are asking you to trust us but we hope that 15 years of work on AICL demonstrates that our assessments are careful and attentive to children and how they may be impacted by the Native content in a book. 


That said, below is AICL's list of Best Books published in 2020. Books are arranged by age of reader but any book in any category can--and should be--read by every reader. Teens and adults can gain tremendously by studying the words and illustrations in a picture book and you can share content of middle or young adult books with younger children. 

In parenthesis following the names of individuals, we provide information about their tribal nation. We use information that the individual uses. Some writers say they are an "enrolled citizen" and some say "tribal member." Some only list a nation (or more than one) but due to those nation's determinations of its citizenry, there are people who can't be enrolled or claim to be citizens of any nation. They are, however, recognized by people of those nations. 

We hope you share our list with parents, teachers, librarians, caregivers, professors... anybody who works with children and books! Don't miss Best Books of previous years! And if there is a book that we did not list, please submit a comment to let us know. 



Best Books of 2020
American Indians in Children's Literature


Books by Native Writers or Illustrators

Comics and Graphic Novels
  • Vermette, Katherena (Metis). Illustrated by Scott B. Henderson & Donovan Yaciuk. A Girl Called Echo, Vol. 3: Northwest Resistance. Highwater Press. Canada

Board Books
  • Haayk Foundation, Illustrated by Huk Yuunsk (Tsimshian, Gitsbutwada Clan) [Note: Huk Yuunsk includes his English name, David Lang, in parenthesis.] Wilgyigyet: Learn the Colors in Sm'algyax. Sealaska Heritage. 

Picture Books
  • Begay-Kroupa, Jolyana (Navajo). Becoming Miss Navajo. Salina Bookshelf. US.
  • Brink, Heather (Ojibwe), illustrated by Jordan Rodgers (Lakota). Rez Dog. Black Bears and Blueberries. US.
  • Callahan, Jodie (Listuguj First Nation). The Train. Second Story Press. Canada.
  • Erdrich, Louise (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians). The Range Eternal, paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher). University of Minnesota Press. US.
  • Lindstrom, Carole (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians), illustrated by Michaela Goade (Tlingit, member of the Kiks.ådi Clan). We Are Water Protectors. Roaring Brook Press. US.
  • Robertson, Joanne (Atikameksheng Anishnawbek). nibi is water, nibi aawon nbiish. Second Story Press, Canada. 
  • Sammurtok, Nadia (Inuit), illustrated by Lenny Lishchenko (Ukrainian/Canadian). In My Anaana's Amuatik. Inhabit Media. Canada.
  • Smith, Monique Gray (Cree/Lakota), illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt (Dine), translated by Mildred Waters (Diné). When We Are Kind. Orca Books. 

For Middle Grades
  • Coulson, Art (Cherokee), and Traci Sorell (enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation), illustrations by Carlin Bear Don't Walk (Crow and Northern Cheyenne) and Roy Boney Jr. (full blood citizen of the Cherokee Nation). The Reluctant Storyteller. Reycraft Books, US.
  • Engleking, Jessica (White Earth Band of Ojibwe), illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Peggy Flanagan: Ogimaa Kwe, Lieutenant Governor. Wise Ink Creative Publishing. US.
  • Ferris, Kade (Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Canadian Metis descent), illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher. Wise Ink Creative Publishing. US.
  • Hopson, Nasuġraq Rainey (Inupiaq). "The Cabin" in Rural Voices edited by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, Candlewick Press. US.
  • Peacock, Thomas (Ojibwe). The Wolf's Trail: An Ojibwe Story, Told by Wolves. Holy Cow! Press. US.
  • Rogers, Andrea L. (Cherokee). Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Story. Stone Arch Books (Capstone). US.
  • Sorell, Traci. (enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation). "The Way of the Anigiduwagi" illustrated by MaryBeth Timothy (Cherokee), in The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love & Truth edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson. Random House Children's Books. US.
  • Wilson, Diane (Dakota Mdewakanton Oyate enrolled on the Rosebud Reservation), illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinaabe). Ella Cara Deloria: Dakota Language Protector. Wise Ink Creative Publishing. US.
For High School
  • Gansworth, Eric (Enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation). Apple (Skin to the Core). Levine Querido. US.
  • Little Badger, Darcie (Lipan Apache). Elatsoe. Levine Querido. US. 

Cross-Over Books (Written for adults; appeal to young adults)
  • Harjo, Joy. (Muscogee Creek). When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. Edited by Joy Harjo. W. W. Norton and Company. US.
  • Rendon, Marcie. (White Earth Anishinabe). What's an Indian Woman to do? In When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. Edited by Joy Harjo. W. W. Norton and Company. US.

Books by Writers or Illustrators Who Are Not Native


For Middle Grade
  • LeZotte, Ann Clare. Show Me A Sign. Scholastic.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Debbie Reese's Notes on Larry Watson's MONTANA 1948

Note from Debbie: This is a page of notes I'm taking as I read Larry Watson's Montana 1948. Originally published in 1993, it is taught in high school classrooms. In the last couple of years, I've had a few inquiries about it. It received starred reviews and though it does not look to me like it was put forth as a book for teens, it appeared on year-end lists of best books for young adults/teens. I have excerpts below but not page numbers because I'm reading an electronic copy of the book. And please note: there are graphic excerpts about rape, in my notes. 

Debbie's Notes:

Chapter 1

The setting includes the "Fort Warren Indian Reservation" which is not a real place. It is described as "the rockiest, sandiest, least arable parcel of land in the region." And, "its roads were unpaved, and many of its shacks looked as though they would barely hold back a breeze." The town, Bentrock, is also fictional. 

The story is told from the point of view of David (Davy). In it, he is 12. His mother, Gail, works out of their home. His father, Wesley Hayden, is the sheriff. Wesley's brother, Frank, is a doctor. Their father was the town sheriff before Wesley accepted the job.

On page 12, Davy tells us that they have a housekeeper who lives with them during the week. Her name is Marie Little Soldier, a Hunkpapa Sioux who is from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. Marie's mother married a Canadian who owned a bar called Frenchy's in Bentrock. There is a rumor that Frenchy 
"kept locked in his storeroom a fat old toothless Indian woman whom anyone could have sex with for two dollars." 
Some think it is Marie's mother, but Davy knows that isn't true because Marie's mother is a thin, shy woman. Marie was nearly six feet tall and had a "fleshy amplitude" that made her seem soft and strong, "as if all that body could be ready, at a moment's notice, for sex or work." She had "a wide, pretty face and cheekbones so high, full, and glossy I often wondered if they were naturally like that or if they were puffy and swollen. 

Marie has a boyfriend named Ronnie Tall Bear. Davy adores both of them. 

One time, Davy saw Marie naked when she stepped out of the shower. They were both embarrassed. He saw (location 290): 
Dark nipples that shocked me in the way they stood out like fingertips. A black triangle of public hair below a thick waist and gently rounded belly. 
Marie gets sick. Gail puts blankets on her to sweat out the sickness like Sioux people do (location 290): 
To this day many Sioux practice a kind of purification ritual in which they enclose themselves in a small tent or lodge and with the help of heated stones and water steam themselves until sweat streams from them.
Marie doesn't want Davy's mother to call Dr. Hayden. She prefers Dr. Snow. When she gets worse, Wesley reaches for the phone and Davy tells him again that Marie doesn't want a doctor. Wesley tells him it is Indian superstition. Davy's father (location 354):
... did not like Indians. No, that's not exactly accurate, because it implies that my father disliked Indians, which isn't so. He simply held them in low regard. He was not a hate-filled bit--he probably thought he was free of prejudice!--and he could treat Indians with generosity, kindness, and respect (as he could treat every human being). Nevertheless, he believed Indians, with only a few exceptions, were ignorant, lazy, superstitious, and irresponsible. I first learned of his racism when I was seven or either. An aunt gave me a pair of moccasins for my birthday, and my father forbade me to wear them. When I made a fuss and my mother sided with me, my father said "He wears those and soon he'll be as flat-footed and lazy as an Indian."

His father asks Davy, sarcastically, if Marie needs a medicine man, then calls his brother. Davy listens to the phone call. 
"She didn't say why. My guess is she's never been to anyone but the tribal medicine man." 
He laughs, and hangs up the phone. He says: 
"Frank said maybe he'd do a little dance around the bed. And if that doesn't work he'll try beating some drums." 
Frank arrives and goes into Marie's bedroom. She calls for Davy's mother. Gail goes into Marie's room, too, but Davy can still hear Marie saying no. When Frank comes out, Davy's dad asks what is wrong with her, and Frank says: 
"Like you said on the phone. They're used to being treated by the medicine man. Or some old squaw. But a doctor comes around and they think he's the evil spirit or something." 
Davy's father says: 
"They're not going to make it into the twentieth century until they give up their superstitions and old ways." 
They talk about Marie's care, that she might have pneumonia. Gail says Marie will stay with them. She seems irritated at Frank. He leaves, and she asks Davy to go inside because she needs to talk with Wesley. Davy sneaks around the house to listen and hears (location 527):
The reason, Wesley, the reason Marie didn't want to be examined by Frank is that he--he has... is that your brother has molested Indian girls." Wesley starts to leave but she insists he stay and listen. she tells him "He's been doing it for years, Wes. When the examines an Indian he... he does things he shouldn't. He takes liberties. Indecent liberties." 
She goes on (location 561):
Your brother makes his patients--some of his patients---undress completely and get into indecent positions. He makes them jump up and down while he watches. He fondles their breasts. He--no, don't you turn away. Don't! You asked and I'm going to tell you. All o it. He puts things into these girls. Inside them, there. His instruments. His fingers. He has... your brother I believe has inserted his, his penis into some of these girls. Wesley, your brother is raping these women. These girls. These Indian girls. He offers his services to the reservation, to the BIA school. To the high school for athletic physicals. Then when he gets these girls where he wants them he... Oh! I don't even want to say it again. He does what he wants to do." 
Wesley decides to talk to his deputy, Len, and his wife, Daisy, in a way to see if either of them has heard what Marie shared. Daisy says (location 631): "The word is he doesn't do everything on the up-and-up." and she adds who he does things to by saying "Just the squaws, though." 

When they leave, Davy hears his parents talking. His mother says that people in town know about Frank. Davy realizes that both he and his mother see their husband/Davy's dad as a brother to a pervert. Looking at him, Davy doesn't want to see the ways his uncle Frank's features and his dad's are similar. Wesley says he doesn't want this talk spread over town because there's no proof, and that it will be upsetting to their father (he was sheriff, too), who heroizes Frank. 

Chapter 2

Wesley decides to investigate. He talks to Ollie Young Bear, a Native vet who he holds in high regard as an example of what someone can be if they choose to work hard, if he knows anything about Frank's abuse of Native women. Then Wesley, Gail, and Davy go to visit Julian. Frank is already there, at Julian's ranch house. Julian is waiting on the porch. Davy listens to the two men talk. Julian says Wesley and Gail only had one child, and that they should have had more. They talk about Frank and Gloria (his wife) not having children but that Julian only wants white children. Wesley asks him what that means, and (location 924):
Grandfather laughed a deep, breathy cuh-cuh-cuh that sounded like half cough and half laugh. "Come on, Wesley. Come on, boy. You know Frank's always been partial to red meat. He couldn't have been any older than Davy when Bud caught him down in the stable with that little Indian girl. Bud said to me, 'Mr. Hayden, you better have a talk with that boy. He had that little squaw down on her hands and knees. He's been learning' from watching the dogs and the horses and the bulls.' I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some young ones out on the reservation who look a lot like your brother." 

A couple of days later, Marie dies. 

****

I am pausing my reading to look for reviews and articles about the book. So far, I see that Frank poisoned Marie to protect himself from the accusations. Based on what I've read of the book, it is one that will eventually have a Not Recommended label. In the excerpts I provided above, we see horrific things being said about Native people. Some are said by characters we are not meant to like, but some are stated as fact (Daisy using "squaw" rather than "women"). It is one of those books, I think, where the author intends readers to see anti-Indigenous attitudes. The author does not, I think, imagine that any of his readers might actually be Native. He may not have anticipated how his writing would impact Native readers--or the dynamics in a classroom of Native and non-Native readers. I may have more to say, later, if I come back to read more of the book and share notes and eventually (perhaps), a review. 

For now, I will say that I do not recommend Montana 1948 for any classroom of young people. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Highly Recommended: THE RANGE ETERNAL by Louise Erdrich

The Range Eternal
Written by Louise Erdrich
Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Published by University of Minnesota Press
Reviewed by Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended

 
When I was a little girl on our reservation (Nambé Owingeh), I sat by my grandmother's wood stove and watched her cook and tend the fire in her stove. In The Range Eternal we see a mother and daughter standing at their stove, making soup. 


Here's a photo of that page. Look at the bottom right corner. See that dark rectangle next to that circle? That rectangle is a slot for a tool that lets you lift that circular cut-out of the stovetop so you can put wood right underneath that spot, to make the spot extra hot for your cooking. My grandmother would put a slice of bread just over that rectangle. As the bread toasted, a rectangular shape would emerge on my bread. I don't have a memory of talking about that rectangle. It is just something my grandmother did to my toast. In another spot on the stove, she used a copper bottom one-cup measuring cup to make my oatmeal. It is such a warm memory! 

But--there's also some scary memories, too. The ceiling of my grandmother's house was boards supported by beams. Those beams had once been trees. My grandfather cut the trees down, then cut the branches off, and then peeled the bark away, leaving a rough beam. In my childhood imagination, some of the spots where the branches had been cut away formed scary-looking faces. The nearness of my grandparents chased those frights away. 

Childhood imagination and the warmth of memory permeates The Range Eternal. The little girl standing with her mother by the stove imagines a Windigo, and deer, and bear, and horses, and the buffalo you see on the book cover. Time passes and the arrival of electrical wires means the stove is moved out of the house and an electric one takes its place. But--it is missed. More time passes and the little girl grows up and still, as an adult, feels like something is missing. One day she sees a Range Eternal in an antique store and knows what was missing. It is the stove. So, she gets it. The closing pages show us the woman and her children by their Range Eternal. 

It is a marvelous story that I absolutely adore! The Author's Note gives us something, too. The Range Eternal of this story was her grandmother's stove. Her mother talked about that stove, with affection. The illustration with the note is by Dr. Angela Erdrich--Louise Erdrich's sister. It is of their mother, standing in front of a Range Eternal. Dr. Erdrich's art adds layers of warmth to the story told in The Range Eternal. 

I've clearly made a personal connection to The Range Eternal. For me, it evokes a lot of memories. We had electricity in my grandmother's house but we did not have running water or gas, yet. Both would come before I was ten years old. Though they made life easier in some ways, other things are lost. Those things hold powerful feelings. On a low table, my grandparents had buckets of water that they'd get from the river each morning. I'd go with them, sometimes. In the wintertime, we'd have to chip away at the ice. Next to the buckets was a dipper to scoop water for cooking and cleaning. Sometimes, though, I'd drink right from that dipper.  Where is that dipper, now? 

I'd best bring this reminiscing to a close and say -- get a copy of The Range Eternal. First published in 2002, I'm thrilled that the University of Minnesota Press brought it out again. It is part history, part family story, and very Native. Spend time with it and your own memories!

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Recommended: In My Anaana's Amautik by Nadia Sammurtok



In My Anaana's Amautik
Written by Nadia Sammurtok
Illustrated by Lenny Lischenko
Available in English and Inuktitut
Published by Inhabit Media
Publication Year 2019
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

A while back, Victoria J Coe tweeted that Teresa Peterson's Grasshopper Girl is a "huggable book." What a great descriptor -- some books are just that! And we need those, in these strange times when hugging people we love can actually be dangerous. 

Another example of a book you might want to hug is In My Anaana's Amautik by Nadia Sammurtok (Inuit). It offers peaceful illustrations of an adorable baby in snuggly situations, with loving word-images about the comfort and joy of being carried and cared for. What's more huggable than that? 

The book begins with a two-page illustration of a child's hand reaching toward a large sun that shines brightly over an Arctic landscape (by Lenny Lischenko, not Native) and these words:
In my anaana's amautik, I feel warm. The warmth of her skin feels like sunshine, keeping me safe from the cold. I love being in my anaana's amautik.
"Amautik", pronouced "a-MOW-tick," is defined in the brief glossary as "a pouch in the back of a woman's parka where a baby can be carried".

Every page of text begins with the words "in my Anaana's amautik," followed by sensory images of something the child loves to do, and ends with "my Anaana's amautik." That repetition makes it easy for toddlers or preschoolers to chime in when their adult pauses there in reading, once they're familiar with the book.

Some of the imagery is rooted in a specific environment: "Her breathing feels like ocean waves gently rolling in and out." But many images have a more universal feel, and are always linked to the natural world: "Her scent reminds me of flowers in the summertime."  It's a love poem, really, about caregivers and their little ones. 

In My Anaana's Amautik shows us how a baby's fundamental and lasting sense of security and well-being is woven from sensory experiences large and small. Family members, like the mother in the book, often provide such comforts without even thinking about it. (I'm smiling right now, remembering that one of our "grands" says they would sometimes "forget" their favorite blanket at our place, so we would mail it back to them. When they open the package, "It smells like Grandma's house.")

But worries can keep parents and caregivers from being "in the moment" with little ones: "Am I doing enough? Am I doing something wrong? Am I giving my baby a chance at a good future?" 

Where do we find our own sense of security as adults, as people with responsibility for generations to come? The mother in In My Anaana's Amautik is right there in the same experiences the baby is having, though from a different perspective. To me, this says that as adults, we can find and accept the comfort available in what the earth offers us: warm sunlight, rolling waves, lovely sounds, objects soft to the touch, a tender new life. We often overlook such things, take them for granted. But when we allow ourselves to be in the moment with them, maybe we can touch that sense of security, of being gently hugged and cradled in an amautik.     

In her 2016 review of  We Sang You Home (by Richard Van Camp), Debbie wrote of "feeling loved by words" or "loved by a book." For so long, there were no books that showed Indigenous children receiving such loving care.  In My Anaana's Amautik joins We Sang You Home and other titles like Grasshopper Girl and My Heart Fills with Happiness in putting unconditional familial love at the center. (And Inhabit Media makes it available in Inuktitut as well as English -- more love for Indigenous languages, and Indigenous kids.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Mural of Vine Deloria, Jr. at Haskell Indian Nations University's Tommaney Library

Ask just about any Native scholar or activist to name someone who inspired them to do the work they do, and you're likely to hear "Vine Deloria, Jr." over and over again. You can see that in the tributes to him in 2005 at the Indianz article about his impact: Vine Deloria, Jr. giant in Indian Country, dies at 72

Without question, his writings are tremendously influential in my work in children's literature. Every library should have his books and books by Native writers on their shelves. Together, we can #IndigenizeLibraries across the continent! 

And so, it was exciting to see a mural of him being done at Haskell Indian Nations University's Tommaney Library. With permission from Carrie Cornelius (Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin & Prairie Band Potawatomi)--the extraordinary librarian there--I am sharing photos they put on Facebook as the mural was being done, live (via Zoom), on Tuesday, November 17th. The muralist is Steven Grounds (Euchee Navajo). Dr. Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma) delivered two lectures during the day.  

About the mural and the space it is in, Carrie Cornelius said "Every library needs safe places for Indigenous People." She's doing terrific work at the library. I'm glad to know her. She makes a huge difference in the life of Native students. 

Here's the photos. I've studied them more than once already. And take a look at that last one! Students approaching the library can see the mural through the windows. One day--I'll get there, and see it in person. 












Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Questions about Messner and Rex's THE NEXT PRESIDENT: THE UNEXPECTED BEGINNINGS AND UNWRITTEN FUTURE OF AMERICA'S PRESIDENTS

On March 24, 2020, Chronicle Books published a new social studies-themed picture book for ages 8-12. Titled The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents, it is written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Adam Rex. As readers of AICL know, we approach our reviews with a Native reader in mind. How will a Native child feel about the contents of this book? How will that child’s parents feel about its contents? We are precisely those parents. 


Our post about The Next President differs from our typical posts in which we recommend, or do not recommend, a book based on its handling of Native content. The Next President is, in many ways, unlike most other books, particularly books about the presidency for young people. We found that we engaged differently with it. So this post is as much about that engagement as it is about the words and illustrations -- what we noticed, what we questioned, and where we went with our questions. We hope readers of the blog will find this approach useful. Part of our engagement involved a series of online, COVID-safe conversations, so we have inserted our names as appropriate, to show who said what.

Debbie: The Next President got some starred reviews. It uses an interesting concept. Rather than repeat what other books about presidents do--which is to talk about their presidency--it is an opportunity for children to see some aspect of each president’s life before they became president. The structure of that information is intriguing, too. Rather than a strict chronological presentation, it is framed by periods/years. Within that structure, Messner and Rex give us information about individuals who were born during that time and/or something they did. It is difficult to describe in words, so we’ll show you a page, here (this image is from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast's blog post about the book):



Jean: This is the first informational two-page spread in the book. It is focused on 1789, the year George Washington became president of the United States. As with most of the pages in the book, there’s a lot going on. On the left, Washington gestures from inside a portrait someone is painting. On the right, four of the men who would later become president are deep in serious conversation. The text above them provides pre-presidency facts about each of them in order: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. The text in the box for President 2 says: 

John Adams was Washington’s vice president. Adams was known for having a short temper and getting into arguments. He was the only one of the first five presidents who didn’t enslave people.

Now, look closely at what Adam Rex has created behind them. Several Black people are shown carrying a building. We thought at first it must be the White House, but it is actually what was called Federal Hall in New York, which no longer exists. In 1789, Federal Hall was a significant government building -- New York was the capital of the US then. Washington was inaugurated there, and Congress passed the Bill of Rights and established the federal judiciary in that building. A lot of the infrastructure of that time was built with enslaved labor (and slavery existed in New York at the time). So I think this illustration of the Black workers holding up Federal Hall might suggest a couple of things. One, it says that the labor of enslaved people was essential to the growth of the United States even in those early days of the country. And it may also say that when the seat of government picked up and moved (from New York to Philadelphia to Washington DC), much of that work was done by people who were enslaved, and whose human rights were denied by that government. It seems to me that illustrations like this one -- a depiction of people holding up an entire building --  invite readers to look further for meaning. 

Debbie: We like that the author/illustrator team tells readers about slavery, right away. We’re told that Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Washington enslaved people. We wish that information extended to other presidents beyond these four. The website, “Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood” says 12 presidents enslaved Africans. In Messner and Rex’s book, the other eight pretty much get a pass. 

Another page we like a lot is the opening double page spread, where we see a range of people and families touring a gallery where they learn about each of the presidents. We especially like that this is a very diverse set of individuals and families (this image is from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast's blog post about the book):


Jean, as we looked at the book, what stood out for you? 

Jean: Ah … Aside from the nearly complete lack of reference to Native people …  I was struck by the range of pre-presidency experiences Messner and Rex depict. We see Andrew Jackson scowling at a bird, along with text about his temper. (Later there’s a page about a duel in which he killed a man.) And on the facing page are pictures of 10-year-old Martin Van Buren, 16-year-old William Henry Harrison, and then 4-year-old Zachary Taylor playing in water with a stick. Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor later were known as “Indian fighters”, which boosted their political careers, and Van Buren eventually oversaw Indian Removal to Oklahoma. None were making war in the year 1789, but their interactions with Native people would prove significant, so I think it would have been good to have some mention of that in the book.

What’s something that stood out for you, Deb?

Debbie: When I first opened the book and saw the end paper art, I was really annoyed. You know how books have a nameplate in a book where its owner can write their name? This one says “This Country Belongs to” and has a line for a child to write their name. It reminded me of the uncritical singing of “This land is your land, this land is my land…” Both obscure the history of this continent, who those lands belong to, and the wars that Native people fought to keep their families safe on their homelands. Part of me wants to enjoy little Zachary playing with that stick but all I can think of is “whose land is that, Zachary, and how did your parents get it?!” That emotion carried, for me, as I went from one page to another in the book. 

As we paged through the book, we spent a lot of time on some of the things we noticed. Like that statue of George Washington. That is… interesting, isn’t it? Here's a screen capture of it, taken with my phone: 


Jean:
Oh, gosh, yes. Adam Rex places a huge statue of Washington in the middle of the gallery on that first full 2-page spread. Is it a factual depiction or is it something imagined that Rex wants readers to think about, like the enslaved men holding up the building in the illustration we mentioned? We ended up down a research rabbit hole, wondering if that’s a real statue. It turns out it’s a real monument -- Washington in white marble, seated on a throne and half naked, holding a sword. Right behind him, Rex shows a strange, smaller figure which, it turns out, is literally the only representation of Native people in the entire book.

Deb, do you want to say more about what we found out about the statue and that figure? 

Debbie: The sculptor’s name is Horatio Greenough. As we dug in that rabbit hole we learned that the statue has two small figures behind the seated Washington. From a Smithsonian page about the statue, we learned that those two figures are an American Indian and Christopher Columbus, and that they represent the Old and New World (see the side-by-side comparison of the Greenough's "Indian" with Rex’s representation of it, below). I was already annoyed with the endpaper, and so, realizing that the only Native image in the book was presented in that particular context added to my disappointment.  

Jean: That statue has a strange history. When the work was unveiled in 1840, public opinion was strongly against it. People hated that it showed Washington partly clothed, and made him seem king-like. I have a negative reaction, too, for a different reason: unlike every other statue I’ve seen of a Native person created by a white person, this figure conveys purposeless, indecision, and maybe even laziness. The subject kind of leans forward and stares into the middle distance, and looks to be scratching his ear. Definitely not the heroic noble savage trope there, but definitely not any better. Think of how much time and effort went into creating a lackadaisical, confused Native man in white marble. I’d love to know the sculptor’s decision-making process. (Source for image of Rex's illustration is Debbie's camera; source for the photo on the right is George Washington Unclothed.)


Debbie: And I want to know why Rex included it! I hope teachers would want to dig in like we did but am not sure they’ll be able to do that, given the incredible demands on their time overall. A teacher could do a lot of fascinating research with students--just on that statue especially now, during a period when people are asking important questions about statues across the US and around the world. Who commissioned them, when, and why? As I did research on Greenough’s statue, I read Monument Wars: Washington D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape by Kirk Savage. He said that initially, Greenough meant to include a small statue of “a negro” (Savage used quotation marks around the word) to represent plantation slavery as the engine of U.S. expansion across the continent. But, someone argued that it would connect Washington to slavery and the role of slavery in national expansion. No monument had done that before. So he decided to use Columbus instead.

In Greenough’s statue, there was a desire to hide some truths about Washington. I wonder if Adam Rex found that out, too? I’ve been having so much trouble trying to figure out why he put this statue in the book, at all. Then I saw on Twitter that Rex said “[W]e get all these ancient Greek-looking Presidents because we like to imagine our country is the Platonic ideal of democracy.” Is the statue--and that Indian--there to invite kids to think about the failings of our democracy and how statues contribute to those failings? 

I wish there was a page of “why we did this” information in the back of the book. It would have been so useful! You and I come into this book with a lot of knowledge about imperialism and how that plays out in children’s books with the endless mythologizing of American exceptionalism. I took a look online to see if anyone noted anything remotely like that in their review of the book, and nobody has. Perhaps that points to the need for a “why we did this” page. 

As our deep-dive into the statue shows, we tend to ask a lot of questions and we wish we didn’t have to do that! I think picture book teams have a terrific model for what-to-do with respect to providing readers with information. That model is Kevin Maillard and Juanita Martinez Neal’s Fry Bread. It has eight pages of notes! I think that’s the first time I’ve seen that, and it would help tremendously with books like The Next President. As we read the book we saw many places where we thought more information would have helped us understand what Messner and Rex were doing. Like with the page on President Buchanan. Can you tell our readers what we wrestled with there, Jean? 

Jean: The text about James Buchanan states that he was the only president who never married. The illustration shows him walking in close, if not intimate, conversation with another man. There’s a long history of speculation about whether Buchanan was gay. When we looked for photos of the man who was his partner, it was clear to us that Rex had drawn a likeness of William Rufus King. We think it would be especially helpful for LGBTQ+ readers to be aware that there’s some convincing scholarship that says Buchanan was gay, and that King, who served as a US Senator, was his long-time partner. We imagine a teacher thinking that a child can go find the information on their own, but that suggestion is fraught with peril. Some contemporary sources, and others from Buchanan’s time, contain expressions of homophobia that could be harmful. 

Debbie: Yes! The goal should be affirmation, right on the page! I think of the article, “The All Heterosexual World of Children’s Nonfiction: A Critical Content Analysis of LGBTQ Identities in Orbis Pictus Award Books, 1990-2017 by Thomas Crisp, Roberta Price Gardner, and Matheus Almeida. They have a section in their article called “Give Us Names: Looking for Queerness in LGBTQ-Identified Focal Subjects” where they write that heterosexual identities are promoted explicitly, while “a code of silence and invisibility often surrounds any inclusion of queer-identified people.” In their study of all those Orbis Pictus Award books, they also write (p. 260):
While it is not impossible for readers to recognize the codes embedded in these depictions, the authors of these children's books squarely place the burden on their readers, and ultimately reinscribe queer invisibility for those who are not able to decipher the textual clues, would rather not acknowledge, or who are unaware there is a need to acknowledge queer existences.
Those are powerful passages, and if Messner and Rex read this post, I hope they address the way they may be contributing to the invisibility that Crisp, Gardner, and Almeida note! I am guessing that Messner and Rex felt that Buchanan’s identity as a gay man is not universally seen, at present, as a fact and that may be why they did not include it explicitly in the text, but that decision is contradicted by the illustration of that very man, William Rufus King.

Jean: We also wonder what scholars, or parents, or children who are Asian American or Latinx wish had been included in the book, or whether lives of Black people could have been depicted outside of enslavement and work. But we’ll return now to our original goal of analyzing the absence of Native content in The Next President. As parents, aunties, and grandmothers of Native kids, we want books like this one to show Native people as more than just part of a statue onto which a white sculptor projected his dream of a White republic. We know teachers are going to be using this book to support social studies curricula. We also suspect that publishers will want more books like this one, on different topics. So we are at work on two resources that we think would be useful in providing historical facts while acknowledging the influence of Native people on US history. 

One is a series of land acknowledgements -- one for each president’s birthplace. We’re finding this one to be challenging for a variety of reasons. But we think it can support any curriculum about US presidents. The second resource is a kind of rejoinder to The Next President -- we’ll have brief facts about each president’s dealings with Native people (pre-Presidency, if possible, in keeping with Messner’s approach). We plan to have those available as soon as we can.

A brief note: we are aware that many people feel that Messner and Rex left out President 45, but he's shown on page 33 as a teenager.

As always, we welcome your comments.

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Note: "The All-Heterosexual World of Children's Nonfiction: A Critical Content Analysis of LGBTQ Identities in Orbis Pictus Award Books, 1990-2017" by Thomas Crisp, Robert Price Gardner, and Matheus Almeida came out in Children's Literature in Education (2018), 49, pages 246-263.