Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Cynthia Rylant's Long Night Moon

[Note: This review is used by permission of its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be posted elsewhere without permission of the author.]

Rylant, Cynthia, Long Night Moon, illustrated by Mark Siegel. Simon & Schuster, 2004. Unpaginated, color illustrations; preschool-2.

Rylant begins Long Night Moon with this: “Long ago Native Americans gave names to the full moons they watched throughout the year. Each month had a moon. And each moon had its name…” Together with the artist’s description of the author’s “tribute to the Native American tradition of naming the full moons” as “lyrical” and “magic,” and the CIP data describing Long Night Moon as “Indians of North America—Fiction,” unwary teachers may be led to believe that this book has something to do with Indians. It does not. Rather, Rylant, whose ethnicity we might safely assume is not Native American, assigns her own imaginative names and behaviors to twelve of the full moons in a year: “In January the Stormy Moon shines…on a wild wolf’s back.” “In July the Thunder Moon…listens to the clouds beat their drums.”

In the excitement of writing kiddie-poetry about moons and wild wolves and drumbeats, Rylant may not have noticed that the thirteen full moons in the lunar year—by which traditional peoples reckoned the seasons—do not coincide with the twelve months in the Roman year.

The two-page spreads—charcoal, pencil and pastel scenes of a house and surrounding countryside in blues, purples, greens and grays—contain visual markers to lend continuity to the poem: a woman holding a baby, a small house, gazebo, telephone poles, fence, large tree, smaller trees. So what are we to make of two polar bears sleeping in March in the hollow of the big tree right outside the fence?

I can just see classroom teachers making a list of “Indian moons” on the chalkboard, teaching young students to make paper-and-feather necklaces featuring their favorite “Indian moons” or make up their own “Indian moon” names based on their own experiences (e.g., “rollerblading moon”). This kind of thing gives me a headache.—Beverly Slapin

Friday, October 13, 2006


Across the country, kids know who Clifford the Big Red Dog is. A long-time favorite in a series of picture books by Norman Bridwell, even more kids are meeting Clifford by way of his television program, broadcast on PBS.

In the book Clifford's Halloween, Emily Elizabeth is trying to figure out what Clifford will be for Halloween. One option is an Indian. That page shows him in a large multi-colored feathered headdress, with what Bridwell must have intended to be a peace pipe in his mouth.

Many books about Halloween have illustrations of kids dressed up as Indians, and due to society's embrace of things-Indian and playing Indian, most people don't give it a second thought. 

Let’s pause for a moment, though, and think about this seemingly innocent act of dressing up as an Indian for Halloween.

What else do kids dress up as at Halloween? I don’t mean animals or superheroes, but people-costumes. They can be policemen, firefighters, cowboys, doctors, nurses, pilots, astronauts, baseball players, cheerleaders... All these are occupations or positions one can, in fact, be at some point, with the proper training.

Now---what about an Indian? You can’t train to be an Indian. You can’t become one. It is something you are born into.

Does that distinction matter? A lot of people would say “No. It’s all in good fun, no harm done.” So you help your child apply his/her “war paint” and put on feathers and other items that complete the costume. Can you imagine yourself painting the child’s face so he/she could be a black person? A minstrel performer, or perhaps a slave, or even Martin Luther King? I’m guessing a parent wouldn’t do that. That parent would know it was wrong. (Doing it in another context----a school play, for example, is a different context.)

Another question to consider: What sort of Indian are we encouraging children to be when we endorse an Indian costume, and what does it teach them? Are they savage Indians, the ones who, according to history books, were murderous, bloodthirsty killers? Or are they the tragic ones, heroic, last-stand, looking into the sunset, riding away despondent over loss?

In either case, the costume they wear is stereotypical. And—savage or heroic—both place Native peoples in the past, not the present, reinforcing the idea that we are an extinct people.

If the book you select for a Halloween read-aloud in storytime has characters that dress up as Indians, turn that illustration into a teachable moment with your students. And, if you’re the parent of a child who wants to dress up as an Indian, talk with your child about that choice and what it means.

In choosing NOT to think about this, are you, unwittingly, fostering the development of stereotypes?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Children's Books about Columbus Day

In comments to the poem about Columbus Day (posted on Oct 9th), anonymous said "There are fewer and fewer students these days who aren't aware of the varied opinions which arise in discussion of Columbus' voyages to the Western Hemisphere."

Do others have similar observations? I think anon's comment may be true with older children, but what about younger ones, in elementary school? Do high school students have to unlearn what they were taught in earlier grades? Or are teachers problematizing the teaching they do with young children?

If you're a teacher of young children, I'd really like to know what you're teaching.

I'm also interested in the children's books you have in your classroom (or library) that are about Columbus. And history texts, too, used in elementary school. Do they glorify Columbus? Is he a heroic figure? Do they say that he "discovered" America?

To get a sense of how to look critically at them, read James Loewen's book THE TRUTH ABOUT COLUMBUS. Published in 1992 by The New Press, it is an analysis of history textbooks used with high school students.