Saturday, July 08, 2006

All-Time Best Selling Paperbacks

In December of 2001, Publisher's Weekly published a list of all-time best selling paperbacks. The list, compiled by Debbie Turvey, lists 376 books that had (by 2000) sold over a million copies. The list was created based on information provided by publishers, and represents actual sales (domestic sales only; does not include book clubs and international sales).

On one hand, it is great that there are a lot of children's books that have sold over one million copies. On the other hand, a close look at those books---with American Indians in mind---is troublesome.

Here, I list some books from that list that I have studied over the years that include problematic representations of American Indians, in text or illustration. None of the books on my recommended list are on the all-time best selling list, and, to the best of my knowledge, none of the books on the list are by American Indians. (Note: Hal Borland's When the Legends Die is on the list, but as noted in an earlier post, I haven't read it. )

#10 The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks.
Copies sold: 6,394,587

#12 Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Copies sold: 6,172,525

#95 The Return of the Indian, by Lynne Reid Banks.
Copies sold: 2,357,061

#101 The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare.
Copies sold: 2,259,190

#128 The Secret of the Indian, by Lynn Reid Banks.
Copies sold: 2,059,126

#140 The Berenstain Bears go to Camp, by Stan and Jan Berenstain.
(Grizzly Bob tells stories around a fire, dressed in stereotypical buckskin and feathers.)
Copies sold: 1,945,447

# 245 Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink.
Copies sold: 1,442,225

#273 The Mystery of the Cupboard, by Lynn Reid Banks.
Copies sold: 1,369,456

A chilling thought: 23,999,617 readers (children, presumably) have read about savage, primitive, heroic, stealthy, lazy, tragic, chiefs, braves, squaws, and papooses.

If you'd like to see the list, go to

Thursday, July 06, 2006


One area of my research is the analysis of American Indian folktales that are marketed as picture books for children. I submitted an article on that topic to Language Arts (a journal for elementary school teachers). It will come out in their January 2007 issue.

The article title is "Proceed with Caution: Using Native American Folktales in the Classroom." It features in-depth analysis of two picture book folktales: Turkey Girl by Penny Pollock and Dragonfly's Tale by Kristina Rodanas.

In the multicultural fervor, we seem to think that folktales are the best way to go. It might be, if the folktales were accurate in their presentation of Native cultures, but as I demonstrate in the article, it isn't easily done and the final products can be deeply flawed.

I strongly urge teachers and librarians and parents to get books that are about modern day Native people. Those that incorporate elements of traditional culture can do a lot to help children know that Native people are still here---that we didn't vanish.

An excellent example is Cheryl Savageau's book Muskrat Will Be Swimming. It is about Jeannie, a modern day Native girl whose family lives by a lake in what is called a "shanty town" and how she feels about being called a "Lake Rat" by kids in her school who live in "big white houses uptown." One evening when she is feeling especially blue about being called a Lake Rat, her grandfather tells her the traditional Haudenonsaunee creation story about Skywoman. In the story, Muskrat (a lake rat) brings earth up from the bottom of the lake to put on Turtle's back so the Woman who fell from the sky would have a place to stand. This moment with her grandfather strengthens Jeannie.

Read more about Muskrat Will Be Swimming at this site: Today (July 6, 2006) it is featured in the top left corner of their website.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Teaching about Indians, Part I

I often get private emails from teachers asking about best practice in terms of teaching about American Indians.

Over a series of blog posts, I'll answer some of the more common questions.

Question: Is it ok to dress up in Indian costumes and dance to teach about Indians?

Answer: No. Let's break the question down a bit and look at its parts:

"Costume." The clothing that we wear when we dance is not a costume. It is traditional clothing that isn't worn everyday.

"Dance." We dance---not as performance or entertainment---but as a form of worship. It is best to think of Native dance as prayer in motion. There are exceptions to this, of course. There are social dances, too, and there are performances of Native dance, but even with them, there is a lot of significance that distinguishes them from things like hip-hop or square dancing.

"Dressing up (like Indians)." We don't "dress up" for our dances. We get dressed. I put on my traditional clothes to take part in a traditional dance.

" Indians." As a society, we've been dressing up like Indians for such a long time (birthday parties, scouting, Halloween) that we rarely (if ever) pause to think about that activity. If you consider dressing up like a different group, perhaps you can see why this is not a good idea. Would it be appropriate to dress up like Japanese? Africans? Latinos? And do a dance that you think is Japanese, or African, or Latino?

Monday, July 03, 2006


In my "links" I include links to Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog and her website. She's got some terrific books (Jingle Dancer, Rain is Not My Indian Name, Indian Shoes).

Today I want to point readers to Joy Harjo's blog.

Harjo is an accomplished writer, singer, and musician. Though her work is primarily for an adult audience (and in some cases young adults), she does have a wonderful children's picture book out.

Take a look at The Good Luck Cat. Published in 2000, it is about a cat named Woogie who brings good luck to its family. The story is about the cat---not about the Native family it lives with. In a beautiful and subtle way, this book tells readers that American Indians live in today's modern society, that our lives and homes are not exotic. We're just people.