Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Teacher Reconsiders Virginia Grossman's TEN LITTLE RABBITS

"The Miss Rumphius Effect" is a blog maintained by a teacher named Tricia. Yesterday (July 16th), she wrote about Virginia Grossman's Ten Little Rabbits, which is a picture/counting book that features ten little rabbits. She writes about why she no longer uses it with children. Her post is titled "Reconsidering Ten Little Rabbits: Evaluating Books from the Viewpoint of Other Cultures."

The strength of what she says lies in her ability to reconsider the book once she had new information about it, and then, to stop using it. I've certainly had that experience many times.

I remember--vividly--reconsidering The Five Chinese Brothers when I began graduate study at UIUC in 1994. I grew up on our reservation (Nambe) in New Mexico, attending a US government day school in first grade. The librarian from the local public school would drive over to our school every two weeks with a cardboard box filled with books. The fourteen (or so) of us Pueblo kids would choose books from his box. That box of books was our library. [As I write this, I can cynically imagine an author reading my blog and thinking "hmmm... that would make a good story." I hope nobody tries to turn my story into a book or a passage in a book. I can imagine the ways the story would be done wrong, as the author filled in gaps with his/her (likely) faulty knowledge of my life as a kid on our reservation.]

Two books stand out from that time. One is Little Owl Indian. I will write about that one another day.

The second is The Five Chinese Brothers. It carries enormous significance for me---a kid learning to read, and loving that books could take me to other places and times. In graduate school, I gained new information about it, and I let it go. I took it off its pedestal, and now use it in my classes to describe that process... That process of letting go of something with emotional significance. It isn't a bad thing to do, or a sign of weakness. It is called learning.

Update: July 18, 2007
The Spring 2007 issue of Journal of Children's Literature, published by the Children's Literature Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English includes a column called "A Dozen Great Books." On the list is The Five Chinese Brothers, of which the columnist says "Five brothers who look exactly alike use their special powers to save First Brother from being unfairly punished."

In the intro, the columnist says "...I longed to retitle this column 'A Dozen Great Books That Tickled My Imagination, Delighted My Sense of Humor, Taught Me The Power of Language, Encouraged Me To Listen To My Own Stories, Allowed Me To Glimpse The Vast and Varied Word Beyond the Cornfields of Illinois Where I Was Growing Up, Encouraged Me To Go Within Myself And Listen To My Own Stories, Comforted Me, And Basically Changed My Life.'" She also says she came to know the book through Captain Kangaroo's television program.

Below is what I said last August about Ten Little Rabbits, in a post about a book called Brave Bunny. I hope you read what I wrote and also what Tricia has to say at "Reconsidering Ten Little Rabbits: Evaluating Books from the Viewpoint of Other Cultures." The tribes represented (or rather, misrepresented) in Ten Little Rabbits are Sioux, Tewa, Ute, Menominee, Blackfoot, Hopi, Arapaho, Nez Perce, Kwakiutl, Navajo.


Bunnies appear frequently in children's books, and there is at least one very popular book that features bunnies dressing up like Indians. Ten Little Rabbits by Virginia Grossman came out in 1991. The illustrations (by Sylvia Long) are attractive. No doubt, some view the title as a clever take-off on "Ten Little Indians" which many children still sing in their pre-school classrooms.

It is a counting book, so (by definition), each page features a numeral and objects to count. In this case, the objects for counting are rabbits dressed in the regalia of a specific tribal nation. I urge readers---especially Native ones---to take a look at the book. Is your tribe represented? Is it correctly represented?

There is a page intended to show Pueblo Indians. On that page, two male rabbits are shown dancing in Pueblo-like attire, standing in front of an adobe wall. But! They are shown facing each other, and there are only two of them (this is the page for the numeral two). There are no dances at Nambe (my home) that are done that way.

At the end of the book is a double-page spread (two pages facing each other) that have "information" about each tribe depicted in the book. I deliberately put "information" in quotation marks, because the "information" about Pueblo people is wrong. Grossman says that we "stage" a dance in which the male dancers "leap and stamp to wake up the spirits."

Sadly, this "information" makes the book more attractive to parents and teachers who are trying to bring accurate and authentic books to the classroom. I'm sure that Grossman and Long didn't intend to dupe their readers, but I think they've done all children a disservice. Once again, Native people are objectified (one little, two little....), and these gorgeous illustrations and "information" add to the already too-big pile of hooey that passes for knowledge about American Indians.

Next time you're in your local library, see if Ten Little Rabbits is on the shelf. If you're willing, approach the librarian, and point out problems with the book. It has FACTUAL errors. In my view, it should be weeded (pulled off the shelf and taken out of circulation).

If you're interested in reading more about Ten Little Rabbits, see Theresa L. McCarty's article "What's Wrong with Ten Little Rabbits?" published in 1995 in a journal called The New Advocate (volume 8, #2, page 98).

UPDATE, MARCH 26, 2009:
See also the review by Lisa Mitten and Naomi Caldwell Wood, of the American Indian Library Association.


Tricia said...

I spent three weeks in China recently, and while I was gone, my in-laws presented my son with a copy of The Five Chinese Brothers. When I returned to find it, I was not very happy, but I embraced the moment as one to teach to my 6-year old why this book did not present a true or kind picture of the Chinese people.

Thanks again for highlighting my article and including a link to it.


Elaine Magliaro said...


I've never read TEN LITTLE RABBITS--but I have read THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS. I bring it in to show to the students in the children literature course that I teach. In addition, we look at the illustrations in a much better version entitled THE SEVEN CHINESE BROTHERS, which was written by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Jean & Mou-sien Tseng. I also show them an illustration of an Oompa-Loompa from the original version

Anonymous said...

I visited the National Museum of the American Indian while at ALA in June.

I was surprised to find that the most well-stocked children's book in the gift shop was - you guessed it - TEN LITTLE RABBITS in board book.

Anonymous said...

I understand the concern regarding Ten Little Rabbits. As an education student (an adult with children of my own) I believe that using this book to teach counting while discussing the attire of various Native Tribes does not do 4 years olds a disservice. I do not intend to teach them at this age about the different tribe names and customs I just want them to learn to count while opening their eyes to this wonderfully diverse country that we live in.

Ginnie said...

I recently bought this board book for my 14 month old daughter as I was captivated by the beautiful illustrations. It makes a terrific bedtime book, and she loves it. I don't think that I need to worry too much about giving her false information about Native Merican tribes just yet - I am sure that when she reaches a stage when she is ready to learn about the tribes, I will be able to find other literature to inform her. However, for now, I have no intention of removing the book from the shelf - we both derive far too much pleasure from it. In my view, it's a great shame that books can't simply be enjoyed for their own sake, and while I understand the concern with the book being used as a reliable teaching aid, I do feel that it's rather po-faced to propose that it should be removed from shelves altogether.

Anonymous said...

I think the point a few of the responders have missed is that since this book has some misrepresentation of native peoples culture it is not actually eye opening about the diverseness of the U.S. but it is eye opening to the white washing that happens to non white peoples cultures in this country. While a small child may not appreciate more than the pretty colors in the pictures, ask yourself this question before you continue defending why you will continue reading this (or other racially/culturally misrepresenting books) to you kid: When you child reaches an age where they have questions about other peoples cultures will you be able to answer those questions knowledgeably or will you draw from your storage of misrepresented facts?

Anonymous said...

I understand the reasons for wanting to remove Ten Little Rabbits from libraries, which until I the grad class I'm taking on Multiculturalism in Children's Literature included it on our reading list, BUT if the libraries in my area had not had the books in their collections I would not have the ooportunity to examine the title myself making the lesson more personal. I agree that the book can full readers into thinking it is a quality book with its presentation information on various tribes, BUT if that information is incorrect then the book has indeed done a disservice by duping readers. How much of this is the author's, illustrator's and publisher's responsibilty to make sure that the books accurately present facts and do not prepetuate negative stereotypes.