Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gerald McDermott's ARROW TO THE SUN

Gerald McDermott’s Arrow to the Sun won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1978.

Awarded annually by the American Library Association, the Caldecott Medal is given to the most distinguished American picture book for children published in the United States during the preceding year. My guess is that most public and elementary school libraries order at least one copy of every book that has won the Caldecott. Many of these books are also made available in video and audio format. Due to their visibility and award-winning status, teachers use them extensively. For example, I did an internet search using “Arrow to the Sun”+K12. (K12 is one way of locating school web pages.) The search returned 23,200 hits.

Its popularity and acclaim aside, Arrow to the Sun has many problems. For Pueblo people, kivas are places of ceremony and instruction, not places of trial. However, in McDermott’s kivas, the protagonist must prove himself by fighting lions, serpents, bees, and lightning in four different kivas.

I think most teachers, prepping to use this book, would know that kivas are not scary places, but more like a church or temple. Hopefully, that teacher will pause as she reads the story, to tell her students that McDermott’s representation of a kiva is wrong. Fortunately for her students, they will have had a valuable experience, as they learn to question the books they read, no matter how popular they may be.

Course, it is award-winning because the people who selected the book, and the reviewers who gave it a favorable review don't know much, if anything, about Pueblo culture!

What if the teacher does not know anything about Pueblo kivas, and therefore, doesn’t question McDermott’s presentation? I think that her students are harmed by this misinformation. They will come away with a concept of kivas that is incorrect.

If one of her students should visit a pueblo on a vacation, he or she might express fear upon seeing a kiva.

And, what about Pueblo Indian children in this or any classroom where the book is used?

They, too, are harmed, but in a different way. Most likely, they know the story is wrong. How might they grapple with the error? Will they challenge or question the teacher, who is an authority figure they’ve been taught to respect? How might they feel, when asked to participate in a small group discussion on “how do you think the protagonist felt going into the kiva?” Will the child be distracted and unable to focus on school assignments in general?

Another problematic area of Arrow to the Sun is the status of the protagonist. In the story, the protagonist is mocked and chased away by other boys in the pueblo who say to him “Where is your father?” and “You have no father.” This conflict is the impetus for the boy’s journey to the sun. However, the conflict is one that does not reflect Pueblo family structure and values. The concept of illegitimacy does not exist. Children in Pueblo communities are born into large extended families. The stain of illegitimacy is European, not Puebloan.

If there is a copy of Arrow to the Sun in your school or classroom library, read it, and think about what I’ve shared here. I know some will reject what I’ve said as unimportant. It is, after all, a great story, but I hope others will reconsider using that book as “a great story” and use it as a tool in educating children about how authors and illustrators can get things wrong.


Anonymous said...


Just wanted to let you know I'm really enjoying and appreciating your blog. Thank you.

Rebecca Rabinowitz

Carol said...

I think most teachers, prepping to use this book, would know that kivas are not scary places, but more like a church or temple.

Debbie, are you hoping that they do, or is there enough prep material out there that is specifically geared to this book that would feature counterpoints to the inaccurate ideas in the book?

My experience with our local school system's attempt to deal with its Indian mascot led me to feel that most of the teachers in our school were cowering in terror at the idea of engaging those teachable moments when faced by the political pressure of the Indian mascot supporters.

Excellent blog!

Christine Doyle said...

I think your characterization of the kiva experience in Arrow could be looked at a little differently. I've never looked at it as a "fight" (notice that he doesn't "kill" any of the creatures; he tames the lions and snakes, and gets the bees to cooperate in a working hive), but as a learning experience so that he can take his place as an adult in his community. I read an article long ago that talked about how all of those elements were symbolic in Pueblo culture. He doesn't "fight" lightning, either; it is his transformative experience from child to adult. My understanding of kivas is that instruction about taking one's place as an adult in the community took place there. I do see there is a difference between the boy being instructed and learning by himself, but it doesn't seem to me that it would be likely to engender fear. I also know that McDermott is quite well-liked by some of the pueblo people and works with the kids a lot, and not by others, so clearly there are a number of perspectives on these issues among native people as well.
Just want you to know I always find your observations quite interesting.

Fern said...

I've always assumed that part of the popularity of this book comes from the obvious parallels between this version of a Pueblo myth and the Christian myth of a virgin birth producing the "son of God." It's a beautiful book, and potentially useful in talking about symbolism and myth, but I've been suspicious about its cultural authenticity since it seems set up to allow non-Pueblo readers to believe that all religions are, at base, the same. This is a comfortable conclusion, but not one in keeping with the goals we most often articulate when using "multiculture" literature, which include coming to a better understanding of a culture with distinct beliefs and practices.

Anonymous said...

Debbie - I am new to your blog, but I'm wondering if you have any opinion on the depictions given in Tomie dePaola's "Legend of the Bluebonnet" and "Legend of the Indian Paintbrush." "Bluebonnet" was one of my favorite picture books for many years when I was younger. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

In the book, it refers to the Kivas as ceremonies. It doesn't necessarily mean that he is fighting and killing the animals in the Kivas. It can be interpreted as something cultural, such as a ceremony. It may also be considered a trial because he has to complete it and go through with it, like any task one would have to do in order to get to their end goal. As long as you emphasize that to your students, I don't think there is anything wrong with reading this book to them and teaching them about the Pueblo culture.

Debbie Reese said...

Christine and Anonymous on Feb 3, 2009:

Both of you disagree with my critique of the way that McDermott presents a kiva and what takes place in kivas.

Christine says "your characterization of the kiva experience in Arrow could be looked at a little differently."

The difference in me and McDermott/Christine is that I am Pueblo Indian. For me, the kiva is not an abstract idea, it is a lived experience. I go there several times a year.

Sure, a reader could look at the kiva a little differently, perhaps from a non-Pueblo-Indian perspective. From an outsider perspective.

Christine notes that some pueblo people like McDermott. Can you say more about that? Where? What pueblo? What kids?

As an update to my work on this book since posting this in 2006, is that McDermott made up the dance at the end of the book. That's not ok!

Making stuff up, getting things wrong.... Do you (Anonymous on Feb 2, 2009) really still think it is ok to read this book?

How would you do it? What would you say to the children. Seriously, I'd like to know how you would read this book, page by page to the children, with follow-up, etc.?

(And note to Anonymous on March 10, 2008, both of the dePaola books are favorably reviewed in Slapin and Seale's THROUGH INDIAN EYES.


Chris Doyle said...

Sorry for not responding before this. I didn't realize you had responded with a question to my comment. Anyway -- McDermott for several years lived in Albuquerque and had a close relationship with the people at Zuni. He was working with the children there, developing art education, which is really his field. I believe he's back living in California now.
Chris Doyle

Anonymous said...

The main problem I see in this story is the obvious parallel to the virgin birth/Christianity. It's problematic because such a parallel did not exist before Spanish contact. If such parallels exist today in Pueblo religion, it is due (most likely) to the influence of Catholicism. I don't understand why the author wrote the story in the way that he did: Pueblo religion is full of stories upon which he could have based a book.

A clear giveaway that this is not based upon a Pueblo tale is the fact that the boy had to fight lions. Lions are not an animal that is indigenous to New Mexico.

Anonymous said...

It's just a children's book, who cares if it is not 100% accurate. It is still a great story, I highly Mcdermott is aiming to be disrespectful of the culture by, as you say, "making stuff up, getting it wrong". This book does not serve as a historical text, it is a children's book. Write your own book with everything being exactly accurate if that is what you want. Your interpretation of the kiva is your own, and I think some of the comments here provide a much better interpretation. Also have kiva always been the same way for the history of the culture? I don't think this book should be dismissed at all, in fact I think that is completely foolish. It is a great story and the art is highly enjoyable.