Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Instead of Virginia Grossman's TEN LITTLE RABBITS, read Michael Kusugak's MY ARCTIC 1, 2, 3

[Note: This review is used with permission of Beverly Slapin and may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.]


Grossman, Virginia, Ten Little Rabbits, illustrated by Sylvia Long. San Francisco: Chronicle Books (1991). Unpaginated color illustrations; preschool-grade 1 

Kusugak, Michael (Inuit), My Arctic, 1, 2, 3, illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka. Toronto: Annick Press (1996). Unpaginated, color illustrations; preschool-up; Inuit

Although both of these are counting books, they are very different from one another.  Ten Little Rabbits has received several awards. It has been favorably reviewed in all of the major journals, can be found in most bookstores, and is featured on many “multicultural” lists and in catalogs. Long’s earth-toned ink-and-watercolor pictures are pretty and her rabbits look like rabbits. 

But it shouldn’t be necessary to tell people that counting rabbits dressed as Indians is no different from counting Indians. It objectifies people. Same faces, different blankets. As Teresa L. McCarty writes, 

The book’s implicit suggestion that children will learn to “count by diminutive-ethnic-group characters” is perverse and patently racist. That the author and the illustrator appear completely unconscious of this and choose to portray their characters as “cute” little animals reveals an especially insidious and societally acceptable form of racism. It is difficult to believe any writer, illustrator, or publisher today would accept or promote equivalent portrayals, for instance, of American Jews or African Americans. [1]

There are some who would ask, “but are the pictures authentic?” They’re neither authentic nor accurate. There’s no cultural relevance, no connection between each illustration and a people’s way of being in world. Even if the pictures were not contrived, the impact of this book—“rabbits as Indians”—on impressionable little kids is what makes it toxic. 

Neither Long’s lifelong “fascination with Native American cultures” nor her reading of Watership Down, which together “inspired a series of Native American rabbit illustrations that later became the basis for this book" [2] excuses what she and Grossman have done. On the other hand, My Arctic 1, 2, 3 is an example of a counting book that simply and beautifully reflects a people’s connection to the land. “I grew up in the Arctic Circle,” Michael Kusugak writes.
When I was a little boy we hunted seals, caribou and whales….We do not hunt animals all the time. Mostly, we watch them. We look at their tracks. We see how their coats change with the seasons. We watch what they hunt for food. We see how they hunt. In this book I want to show you some of the animals we have watched and the other animals that they hunt. Watching animals is fun.

My Arctic 1, 2, 3 is clearly more than a counting book. Unlike Ten Little Rabbits, it shows the relationships between the humans and the animals and between the different animals in an environment that demands that this relationship be understood. Each two-page spread, in luminous watercolors and ink, shows a certain number of animals on the left, and the animals they hunt on the right. The story comes full circle at the last spread that shows, on the left, Kusugak’s extended family picking “millions of berries (that) ripen in the fall” and on the right,
One lone polar bear walks along the shore, thinking of seals. It sees the berry pickers and says, “Never mind. They do not look like very good meals.” It continues on its journey, looking for what it might find…

There are words in Inuktitut for the animals themselves, and the last four pages, “The Arctic World of Michael Kusugak and His Family,” place all of the Arctic animals in the context of their relationship to the humans and each other. From start to finish, this is a beautiful book.
—Beverly Slapin

[1] Theresa L. McCarty, “What’s Wrong with Ten Little Rabbits?,” The New Advocate, vol. 8, no. 2, 1995, p. 98.
[2] from the Endnote.

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