Monday, December 31, 2007

Jan Brett and Sherman Alexie

Today is December 31, 2007. We’re ending one year and starting another. Looking over the NY Times list of best selling children’s books, I note two books that are on the lists. These two books capture all that is good, and all that is not good, about books by and about American Indians.

On the picture book list is Jan Brett’s The Three Snow Bears. It represents all-that-is-not-good. I would not buy it.

On the chapter books list is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It represents all-that-is-good. I recommend it, and I give it as gifts. It is astounding on so many levels.

Before I start this discussion, I want to state clearly that I do not believe Jan Brett (or anyone who likes her new book) is racist or misguided. Mis-informed, or maybe, mis-socialized, mis-educated…. That is the root of the problem.

Both books have been on the best selling list for 14 weeks. As of today The Three Snow Bears is ranked at #4; Absolutely True Diary is ranked at #5.

The accompanying NYT blurb for The Three Snow Bears:
"Aloo-ki and the Three Bears: the Goldilocks tale goes to the Arctic Circle."

The blurb for Absolutely True Diary:
"A boy leaves his reservation for an all-white school."

Jan Brett is not an indigenous person. But like many writers, she has written (and illustrated) a book in which Native imagery figures prominently. A lot of writers retell Native stories, changing values and characters in such a way that the story can no longer be called Native. Pollock disneyfied The Turkey Girl, a story told among the Zuni people. Brett didn’t try to retell a Native story. She told an old favorite classic, and set her story in the Arctic. Her Goldilocks is an Inuit girl she named Aloo-ki.
The book flap for the hardcover copy says that Brett went to the Nunavut Territory in northern Canada, I gather, to climb to the Arctic Circle marker. While there she visited a school and according to the flap (note: authors don’t generally write the material on book flaps), “Jan saw the many intelligent, proud faces that became her inspiration for Aloo-ki.”

Why is “faces” modified with “intelligent” and “proud”? Is it Inuit faces that need these modifiers? Do you see such modifiers about the faces of any-kids in any-school? (I also want to say at this point that Brett's inspiration reminded me of Rinaldi's inspiration when she saw the names of Native kids on gravestones at Carlisle Indian School. Rinaldi was so moved by their names that she used the names, creating characters to go with them.)

The flap also says that she visited a museum where she “marveled at images of Arctic animals in Inuit clothes and felt a door had opened.”

My colleague, Theresa Seidel, addresses problems with the story (and the flaps) in her open letter to Jan Brett. She points out that in The Three Snow Bears, we have another book in which an author/illustrator puts Native clothing on animals, effectively de-humanizing American Indians.
Yes---Beatrix Potter did that in her Peter Rabbit stories, and nobody is making a fuss over that, but there is a difference

The humanity of the people Potter’s bunnies represent is not questioned. Those people are recognized as people. Regular people. Not people (like indigenous peoples of the US and Canada) who are adored and romanticized. And, they're not a people who most others think vanished. Some people might put Princess Di on a pedestal and swoon over who she was, and they might swoon over some part of English culture, but they don’t do that to all of the English people. 

In contrast, far too many people think we (American Indians, Inuits, First Nations) no longer exist. We (or rather, some semblance of who we were/are) do, however, make frequent appearances in fiction, as mascots on sports fields, as inspiration for troops whose helicopters and battleships and missile’s named after Native tribes, and on products from tobacco to automobiles to foodstuffs. For too many, we are an idea, not a living, breathing people whose kids go to the same schools as yours do.

Brett had good intentions. She was inspired by the people, their art, their world. And she she wrote and illustrated this book that subtly and directly affirms problematic notions of who we are. It is a beautifully illustrated book. (As a work of low fantasy, we must suspend our disbelief so we buy into the polar bears living as humans do. Look closely, though... The polar bears wear their parkas when they go out, but leave their boots behind.)

Aloo-ki is surprised to come upon “the biggest igloo she had ever seen.” That’s worth a challenge, because it suggests that Aloo-ki is accustomed to seeing smaller igloos. Problem is, most people think that igloos are cute dwellings, about the size of dog houses. They’re actually quite large. If you saw the film, Atanarjuat (Fast Runner), you saw just how big igloos are. (Go to the movie’s website and view the galleries

In sum, Brett’s book is pretty to look at, a trinket, a decoration, but Native peoples are not trinkets or decorations. 

Turning now, to Alexie’s book…

Alexie is Spokane. He grew up on his reservation. His book is largely autobiographical. It is HIS story, his LIVED story, that he gives us in Absolutely True Diary. He doesn’t retell a traditional story. He gives us a story of a modern day Native boy, living life in these times, not some far-off, exotic place, distant in time and location. His story is note cute or charming. It is gritty.

We can agree that children who read picture books have different needs than those who read chapter books. But it IS possible to write picture books about present day Native kids. Native authors who’ve written precisely this kind of book are Joseph Bruchac, Joy Harjo, and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Today, Diane Chen (a blogger at School Libray Journal) wrote about the need for discussion and growth, so that the children’s book world (and American society) can move beyond the place we are STILL at, where problematic books about American Indians are written, published, favorably reviewed, bought, and read by kids across the country.

We can do better, but the Jan Brett’s and their editors, their publishers, and reviewers, teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers, all have to listen to our concerns. This is not, from my point of view, an issue of racism. It is an issue of not-knowing, and being unwilling to admit errors.
With a new year upon us, can we give it a try?


Anonymous said...

Honestly, you try to find fault and insult in the minutiea of life. the whole world is not against native peoples. I am going to quit reading your posts on the listserve because of the constant carping. Sorry I'm anonymous, but I am afraid you will post this like you did that other person's e-mail. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Debbie,

I just read Sherman Alexie's book and then my 10-year-old son snagged it away from me and devoured it in one day! (He's probably too young, but I couldn't say no once he'd started and was so into it--he literally could not put it down). We both just loved it and wanted more information, so your blog was the first place I went. Thanks for the thoughtful posts and for posting the u-tube of Alexie talking about the book. For the record, I really hope that school libraries will decide to carry it and will not shy away because of its frank discussions of masturbation or alcohol or death -- the valuable things my son learned and the joy he had reading such a well-written novel far outway the moment of embarrassment we both had when he asked me, "mom, what's a boner?" and I blushed a little before explaining, :-) (but I'm glad we got to talk about it.) We talked about the book quite a bit: Will said he liked it because the author "talked about sad things in a really funny way," which I thought was a great analysis.

Happy New Year! And thanks for keeping up the blog -- it's a great resource.

--Annette Wannamaker

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with anonymous as well. Each time your posts pop up on the listserv I know it's going to be something negative. It appears you do more harm than good and that's truly a shame. I too will be deleting your posts from this point on. The listserv shouldn't be used as your personal soapbox. You only alienate people that way.

jpm said...

Afflicting the comfortable must be one of the least-rewarded of human activities.... The two Anonymous comments in response to your Brett/Alexie post notwithstanding, you have made many positive comments about good books with accurate representations of Native people. Those who have been disturbed by negative comments -- have they actually followed up by looking into the many excellent books discussed on Debbie's blog and in her posts to ChildLit and other listservs? I hope curiosity overcomes their worry about challenges to the things that are familiar to them! The children they work with will benefit!

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I appreciate the work you do, Debbie. There are so many things you've brought up that I'd love to talk about with you. In reading your blog, most of the time I feel it most appropriate for me to be in the "listening" role, as it were.

I read Alexie's book in one sitting. He's a good storyteller, and has that gift of making the reader identify with the protagonist even though their personal life experiences may be different.

Pat M. said...

Debbie, your insight on the differences in intelligence of both authors is something that I've faced practicing broadcast journalism in the southwest. As an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, I was the only individual in my journalism classes in college to be able to distinguish the subtle & often times, brutal distinctions made in the media regarding Indian (& other minorities) culture and contemporary life. The mostly, Anglo, students' reactions were quite similar to the anonymous postings that preceed mine.
I also tangled with the Associated Press when they would title a story on the wire beginning with race: "Indian driver killed in head-on" while other stories began with "Driver killed in head-on."
It's kind of like when the non-Native individuals started selling their "Indian" jewelry under the portal in Albuquerque's Old Town then wondered what they were doing wrong.
Thank you for your hindsight and best of luck in your educational endeavors!

k8 said...

I always appreciate your posts both here on your blog and on Child-Lit. The posts are always thoughtful. I worry about those like the two anonymous commenters - they seem to have a problem with open dialogue, something at the very heart of civic discourse. Learning to listen to others is such an important part of this. When they respond this way, I worry that they silence others. (btw, do you know Cheryl Glenn's book Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence?

Anonymous said...

I loved "Absolutely True" - it's a great book. Would it have been any less great had it been written by someone else? I don't think so. Might "Indian Killer" have been considered offensive had it been written by someone else? I think it likely.

Ben said...

I feel a bit dirty posting in the same comment section as the "anonymous" posters who are evidently both unaware of the continuing colonization of Native peoples and disproportionately fearful of critical analyses that might challenge that colonization.

But, as you are discussing Alexie's Absolutely True here, I'll offer my thoughts. While I think the book is well written, as is most of his work, it is an overstatement to claim that Absolutely True represents "all that is good" with books featuring Native characters. Like Debbie, I appreciate the brutally honest portrayal of life on and off the reservation. And the contemporary setting is always a wonderful thing to find in American Indian children's lit. Yet, however honest they might be, I think that many scenes will contribute to white stereotypes about Indians (ie, Indians are alcoholics, savage fighters, etc). Like most of Alexie's books, the intended audience here seems to be largely non-Native. Therefore I'm not so sure that narrative honesty is as important as how these portrayals of Indians will resonate in the collective white mindset. Yes, alcoholism and fighting exist in Native communities. But do we really need to further highlight that fact for an audience that still largely delights in images of the lazy drunk / Indian warrior?

I know that others have already slammed Alexie for these issues. And I know that Alexie has responded by claiming that honesty is his primary concern. I don't want to slam him because I did like the book, but there are far too many issues to praise it without qualification.

Teresa said...

You mention, "in The Three Snow Bears, we have another book in which an author/illustrator puts Native clothing on animals, effectively de-humanizing American Indians." Animals and cartoon characters are constantly pictured in clothing worn by Americans of all races. I don't feel dehumanized by animals in children's books wearing jeans and t-shirts. Nor do I think you would even blink if you saw a book in which animals were dressed in traditional European, African, or Asian clothing. I'm a big fan of Sherman Alexie's books and also of Jan Brett's beautiful illustrations. Your over-sensitivity loses me here.

Claudia said...

I recently read the Absolutely True Diary and found it to be a very good read. YA literature typically deals with multiple issues that teens encounter and Alexie did not let us down. Alexie describes multiple issues that a typical 14 year old boy might experience and relates them with authenticity and compassion. Although when I was growing up masturbation was not talked about, nothing seems taboo for the youth of today. I had no idea what like on a reservation might be like and Alexie provides the reader with a snapshot into that world. The reader also is exposed to what life as an American Indian might be like both on and off the reservation and how Native Americans are still perceived in our communities in the 21st century. His realistic (I assume) depiction will hopefully energize us to action so that we will consciously treat others fairly and equitably.