Friday, November 16, 2007

Where is your copy of THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE?

That isn’t a trick question, but it is an important one. Where does your library shelve its copy of Forrest (Asa) Carter’s The Education of Little Tree?

Published in the 1970s, and passed off as autobiography, it was exposed as a work of fiction in 1991. It’s author, “Forrest” Carter was not Cherokee. He was Asa Carter, member of the KKK, and the person who wrote George Wallace’s “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech.

The Education of Little Tree was in the news last week. Around 6:00 AM on Sunday, November 11th, I did a Google search using [Oprah +”Education of Little Tree”] and got 572,000 hits that include news outlets in Canada, Ireland, the UK, and China. Obviously, Oprah is a person with international fame.

Oprah pulled The Education of Little Tree from her list of recommended books. She was a fan of the book, but decided, given its author, she could no longer keep it on her list. I wish that she knew there are additional problems with the book. It isn't only a hoax, it's deeply flawed in its presentation of Cherokee people and their ways.

As a person who studies children’s and young adult books about American Indians, I’ve known for a long time that the book is a hoax. A best-selling hoax. Curious about its reception, I logged on to Amazon to read some reader reviews there.

When I clicked on the link to customer reviews, the page that came up had a different format than what I’m used to seeing on Amazon. On the left side of the page is “The most helpful favorable review” and on the right side of the page is “The most helpful critical review.” The critical review is titled “Should not be shelved as Non-Fiction.” I like this dual presentation, and hope to see it more often.

I wanted to read more reviews, so clicked on the “Newest First” button. Scrolling down, I saw one titled “The WORST book I’ve ever recorded…” posted on June 6, 2006, by J. Woodman. The person named J. Woodman, apparently, recorded the audio book version: In his review, Woodman says

Reading the book to myself in order to prepare to record it, I found it annoying in the extreme -- the so-called prose is precious and poorly written, and the allegedly authentic colloquialisms are grating. When it came time to say it all aloud, for the first time ever (and I've narrated upwards of 200 audiobooks) I found it impossible to invest this piece of literary flotsam with any emotional content whatsoever. As declining the job was no longer an option, I merely tried to stay out of the way and give it as simple and logical a performance as I could, but I was unable to compensate for the God awful writing, and unable to disguise my contempt for the entire enterprise. It remains the worst recording I have ever done, and I was, for a time, quite ashamed of it. Now that I discover more about its hate mongering author, I'm actually quite pleased that the recording stinks. I now believe I gave this garbage exactly the reading it deserved.

Woodman’s remarks aside, review after review describes the story as “heartwarming” or “well-written, compelling” or “entertaining and thoughtful.” Many say they’ll pass it along to their children and grandchildren.

The thrust of the mainstream criticism of the book is about the author, about the hoax. Many say we should not discard a book because of its author, that it should be considered on its own merits. To many, it is a well-written book, and therefore, much-loved.


There are a lot of well-loved children’s books that miss the mark when viewed for the accuracy of presentation of Native content. These books are, in my view, bogus. A good example of this is Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, illustrated by Susan Jeffers. It is an award-winning, best-selling book that purports to be a speech given by Chief Seattle, who was the leader of a west-coast tribe, but Jeffers illustrations are the usual (stereotypical) Plains Indian-like items (fringed buckskin, tipis). Books like this do nothing to interrupt the cycles of misinformation circulating throughout mainstream America---and indeed---the world, about who American Indians actually are. Instead, they affirm stereotypes, of savage, heroic but always tragic Indians.

While those with little or no factually based knowledge of the Cherokee people think The Education of Little Tree is a wonderful story, those who are Cherokee find it deeply flawed. In his article “A Lingering Miseducation: Confronting the Legacy of Little Tree,” Daniel Heath Justice writes:

…Carter’s Indians live apart from their tribal community as much in spirit and philosophy as in geographic proximity. Grandpa, Granma, Little Tree, and Willow John are the only Indians around; reference to “the Nation” in Oklahoma is always with scorn or sadness. No mention is made of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina. Carter’s Indians claim to carry the memory and “Way” of their people, but only as a vanished or vanishing memory. The tribal community is dead in Little Tree, and none of the so-called Cherokees seem interested in reclaiming it.

On the authenticity in the book, Justice says:

Granpa is the Noble Trickster, Grandma the dignified Indian Princess (and a Cherokee Princess, no less!), and Little Tree is just what so many generations of Boy Scouts have dreamed themselves to be: the Little Brave roaming wild in the forest, with few rules and all sorts of generic “Indian” woodlore to consume and exploit. In most ways they are generic Indians, with few if any attributes that are distinctly Cherokee. None of them have any connection to the Cherokee clan system, which would have been quite unusual for Cherokees like Granma and Granpa during that time period….


This fictionalization of Native lives and histories poses a very real threat to Native America, for it creates powerful stereotypes of Indians (what Anishinaabe writer and critic Gerald Vizenor calls “interimage simulations”) that take on a white cultural reality that is seen as a more “authentic” than the realities of living, sovereign American Indians.

Justice opens his article by speaking of reading it himself, as a young boy, and how it affected him. He is Cherokee, or as he prefers, Tsalagi. He closes his article with this:

Many generations have suffered from the stereotypes that Little Tree draws upon, stereotypes that find their deepest grasp in the minds and spirits of the children. We have spent many years resisting colonialist intrusions into our lives, histories, and identities, to varying degrees of success, sometimes with strategies that would make true understanding more difficult for the children and grandchildren who would follow. Until 1996, my parents and I didn’t know that The Education of Little Tree was a fraud; three generations of removal kept us ignorant of who we are among our people. But we know now. We’ve reclaimed the story from Asa Carter and others like him who would define Indians out of existence and take their places as the indigenes of the Americas. We’re reestablishing connections with our kin in the Nation and beyond, and we’re reading authors like Cook-Lynn, Vizenor, Owens, Wendy Rose, Diane Glancy, Marilou Awiakta, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Sherman Alexie, D’Arcy McNickle, and other Indians hwo tell their own stories. The time of Little Tree is at an end; the voices have escaped. We know the truth: the stories are ours, and we will be the ones to tell them. That’s where the real education begins.

Justice’s article came out in a journal published by the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures. Published since the 1970s, it is among the handful of academic journals created by American Indians for the purpose of publishing research articles that provide American Indian perspectives on, in this case, literature. Older issues of the journal are on line at

Other journals like it include American Indian Quarterly, Wicazo-Sa Review, the Journal of American Indian Education, and American Indian Culture and Research Journal.

The Library of Congress classifies The Education of Little Tree as fiction but at least 20 libraries in Illinois have it shelved as non-fiction. Opening the book and looking at the CIP information, it is clear that---at one time---LOC had it categorized as biography. When did they change its category from biography to fiction? Does LOC have a mechanism for letting libraries know when they make such a change?

The case of The Education of Little Tree illustrates the many problems in children’s books about American Indians. From writers who claim a Native identity, to the differences in reviews by mainstream and Native critics, to the problems involved in shelving books.

Things can be better, but only if teachers and librarians have time to do some professional reading in journals that aren’t necessarily among their regular readings. This blog is an attempt to help you find those articles. When they’re available on-line, I link to them (see column at right called ARTICLES.)

So…. I close this blog post with the question I started with: Where is your copy of The Education of Little Tree shelved?

[Note: Thank you, readers of YALSA and ISLMANET, for providing feedback on an earlier draft of this post.]


Anonymous said...

I just checked my library system's catalog (several public libraries and one academic), and even within this system, it's in nonfiction in about half the libraries and fiction in the other half. I'm saddened to hear that it was exposed as a hoax as far back as 1991, because it was assigned to me in school (as non-fiction) in the mid-1990s, and I would have hoped that my teacher would have known better.

Paige Y. said...

I don't have it in my media center and quite frankly don't want it. I checked the schools in my district and found the following:
4 at 921 (biography)
4 at 813 (literature?)
2 at Fiction
3 at pb (paperback)

Anonymous said...

Hi Debbie- I was able to get the children's librarians at my local library to read your post about The Education of Little Tree and they were thankful for the information. I will check on them and make sure it ends up in Fiction. Hopefully, they will also read the rest of your blog and start looking at books with Native Americans with a new eye.
Jennifer Porter

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks for writing, Jennifer. I do hope others are doing what you did. The book may be engaging and entertaining, but that entertainment comes with a price. I'd rather books like this end up in that circular file, but at the very least, it should not be shelved in biography.

Anonymous said...

I just had a look at its classification in my local public library. It's shelved as Dewey 818: "jokes and riddles."

I about fell over laughing.

(Okay, if you go to SERIOUS and GROWN-UP explications of the Dewey Decimal System, 818 is "American Literature, Miscellaneous Writings." And if I use the "search by call number" function, I can see that the things shelved near it are stuff like the notebooks of Raymond Chandler. But I still very much enjoyed the joke.)

Debbie Reese said...

I wish there was a "Jokes and Riddles" or some place where "Fakes and Frauds" could be shelved.

It is shelved with Chandler? Interesting. You could ask the librarians there how they decided to put it there.

Claudia said...

I was working as a children’s librarian for a small publicly operated library in the mid 1990’s when I ordered this book for the library. I thought that I was ordering something to add to the non-fiction or biography juvenile collection. There was a huge discussion about where to shelve this book when our cataloger started to process it. I can remember having to talk to the library director about it and we ultimately decided to shelve it in the young adult fiction collection. Too bad that I didn’t know about your site/blog then as I seldom ordered anything without reading a review. It sure is a great resource now. I would have liked to know about the author’s background then as it certainly would have influenced my decision on whether to purchase the book for the library. I believe that library collections should reflect both sides of the issues in order to account for bias and stereotypical depictions. It is important to encourage readers to explore all viewpoints in order to form their own opinions, foster critical thinking and discussion.

Unknown said...

I, too, would have liked to know the author's background before adding this book to the library. As it is, I discovered one copy in Biography (which I changed to Fiction some time ago) while the other copy was already in the Fiction collection. I prefer to see the reviews of items I'm considering for the library but the reviews available for this book until just a few years ago were all positive recommendations. Even checking reviews does not always guarantee that the best selections will be added to any library collection.

Unknown said...

I just checked our library too - it is located in fiction I'm happy to say. But, it really does mess with my head that for so long this author got away with fraud and profitted from it AND that so many other libraries have this book still located in the non-fiction or biography section. As a seventh grade teacher, I teach my students to be careful of their sources. It is so hard for them to find appropriate and accurate sources to begin with (let alone accurate sources on American Indians) as the internet is not as reliable as it could be. I always thought books were a safer bet. I guess I was wrong. The overarching lesson of this American Indian Literature class I'm taking seems to be to analyze and question EVERYTHING!

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Mindy,

Yes, I have come to that same view. Question everything.

In fact, when I do workshops, I ask participants to treat this body of work as though it is a work of non-fiction. It must be evaluated for accuracy.