Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thanksgiving Picture Books: THANKSGIVING MICE

Earlier this week I visited a local public library to take a look at their picture books with the word "Thanksgiving" in the title. I did not look at non-fiction or poetry, and I looked only at books published from 1999 to 2007 that were on the "easy" shelf. I also excluded books on the easy-to-read shelf and obviously could not read those that were checked out at the time.

I read 18 books. Eleven of them had no references in text or illustration to American Indians. They were stories primarily about families getting together for Thanksgiving (example: Franklin's Thanksgiving by Paulette Bourgeosis); many were about what the family members are thankful for.

Seven of the 18 books included content (text or illustrations) about American Indians. They include:
  • Thanksgiving Mice, by Bethany Roberts
  • Thanksgiving Day, by Anne Rockwell (there were six copies of this one on the shelf)
  • Look Who's in the Thanksgiving Play!: A Lift-the-Flap Story, by Andrew Clements
  • The Memory Cupboard, by Charlotte Herman
  • The Thanksgiving Door, by Debby Atwell
  • Fat Chance Thanksgiving, by Stacey Schuett
  • This First Thanksgiving Day: A Counting Story, by Laura Krauss Melmed

Perhaps the most striking observation is that 3 of the 7 books were about doing a Thanksgiving play. It points to, I think, the degree to which that practice is central to the Thanksgiving lesson plans that teachers do in early childhood and elementary school classrooms. In a series of posts this month, I'll discuss the books I read. I begin with...

Thanksgiving Mice, by Bethany Roberts

As the title suggests, the characters are mice. In the first four pages, they prepare the props for their play. Next, other critters are shown coming in to see the play. The stage has an easel announcing the play: "The Story of Thanksgiving."

The play begins, and we see "Act 1" which is an English street scene. A male and female mouse head for the dock to board their ship. They male is shown in a black hat with a buckle, signifying Pilgrim. The next few pages show the mice being seasick, hungry, thirsty. They arrive at Plymouth Rock, build new homes, but are still hungry and weak.

Spring comes, and Act 2 begins. Here's the illustration:

The text reads:
One day they met some friendly folks, who gave them corn to sow.
The "friendly folks" are represented on that page as a mouse wearing a fringed shirt, trousers, blue beads, and a feather hanging down from beneath his ear (no headband). He has a bowl of corn kernels and offers one to the female Pilgrim mouse.

On the next double-page spread is a four-panel illustration, done that way to show the progression of time. In the first panel the Indian watches/directs the Pilgrim man as he plans the kernel of corn. The Indian is not in the next three panels, or on the next two pages, where the mice are shown in the midst of their abundant harvest of corn, squash, and pumpkins. On the next page the text reads:
And so they said to their new friends, "Let's feast! Let's dance! "Let's play!"
The Pilgrim female and the Indian male dance together. The next page shows the mice actors bowing before their cheering audience. The closing page shows the mice, a squirrel, a bird, and two worms, and the text reads:
Come one, come all, come feast with us---on this Thanksgiving Day!"
Thanksgiving Mice was published in 2001 by Clarion. It's illustrations are by Doug Cushman. The reviewer in The Horn Book Guide gave it a '5' which means "Marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality." Booklist's reviewer suggests it can be used as a "light introduction to the holiday."

I'm not sure what the "redeeming quality" is, and I don't think it should be used as a light introduce children to this holiday. What purpose does it serve to teach young children this romantic story that is little more than myth? All this feel-good stuff is junk that only has to be unlearned later on. And, as I've said before on this blog, the college students I teach feel betrayed by these feel-good lessons. Perhaps James Loewen's book title captures it best. This simplified story about Thanksgiving is among the "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

Some people ask me if I'd prefer to have nothing at all said about Native peoples. My reply? I'd prefer nothing if the 'something' is error, bias, etc. To me, this is akin to "first do no harm." I much prefer books that leave out Native imagery completely, as is the case with Franklin's Thanksgiving.

Children must be provided with honest instruction about the history of this country. Books like this can be used to teach children about bias and perspective.

Update: July 17, 2014

In comments, Allie Jane Bruce notes that Thanksgiving Mice is available now as a "Green Light Reader." To the right is the new cover, showing it as a "Level 1" reader.  Published by Harcourt, the "Green Light" series is:

  • "Created exclusively for beginning readers..." 
  • "Reinforces reading skills..."
  • "Encourages children to read..."
  • "Offers extra enrichment through fun, age-appropriate activities unique to each story."
  • "Developed with Harcourt School Publishers and credentialed educational consultants."

I'd re-write those bullet points! This particular book, we might say, was

"created exclusively to mislead beginning readers"
"reinforces ignorance"
"encourages ignorance"
"offers kids the opportunity to learn how to play Indian in offensive ways"

AND---I wonder about the credentials of those educational consultants!


Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment--Franklin the turtle was created by Canadian author, Paulette Borgeois. In Canada Thanksgiving is not associated with the images of the American Pilgrim/Native American Thanksgiving story.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

THANKSGIVING MICE is now also a "Green Light Reader", Level 1 (NB--different publishers use different leveling systems and it's hard to know exactly what 'Level 1' means in this case).

I'm saddened and disturbed that this book, which I find offensive for the same reasons as Debbie, is still around, and being repackaged for a new learning-to-read audience.