Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An Open Letter to Jan Brett

Below is a letter to Jan Brett regarding her new book Three Snow Bears. The letter is written by Theresa Seidel.

An Open Letter to Jan Brett

I met you over twenty years ago when my daughter was in kindergarten and you visited her school during a young author conference. I became an instant admirer of your books. They are always beautifully done and your work as an illustrator is second to none. The use of borders to tell “the rest of the story” is a feature I always look forward to seeing. Your joy for writing shows through when you work with children.

As an Indigenous woman and a worker in a public library, I find your newest book, The Three Snow Bears, bothersome on many levels. I don’t feel honored when someone not of a culture appropriates elements of an indigenous culture for their own gain.

My red flag was:

I first saw the book when a mother and daughter picked it up and the mother said that she could use it to read as a “Native American” story to her daughter’s class. After reading the cover flaps of the book, I could see why. You do not claim to be Native American. You had traveled to Baffin Island to study the people and animals. You go on to explain how you looked at the faces of the children and got the character, Aloo-ki. The book is not a Native American story. It is a story of the three bears and Goldilocks done with an Inuit twist.

You went to the museum and studied the displays and artwork. You say that you saw traditional clothing on animal artwork in a museum and that was the inspiration for your book. I do understand that the people you visited have this depicted in THEIR artwork. But it belongs to them. They shared their culture with you. Did they do this with the intention that you would take it and make it into a book?

I was holding your book and seeing snow bears wearing traditional Inuit clothing. For hundreds of years Native people have been treated as less than human. This book immediately brings to mind another book done to “honor” Native people, Ten Little Rabbits,” by Virginia Grossman. Ten Little Rabbits is just a remake of Ten Little Indians with rabbits wearing Native attire. Depicting minority populations as animals in children’s books has long been used as a de-humanizing tactic.

I could not believe that you, Jan Brett, would do this, so I turned to your website for more information. Upon looking at the mural page, I had my answer. This page describes the outfits on each of the bears and tells about those items of clothing in Inuit life. I am not Inuit so I cannot speak to whether the information presented is accurate. The Goldilocks character’s outfit is not mentioned, but rather how she drives a sled team.

Another concern that I have about the book is that Aloo-ki steals boots. The children ages 3-6, to whom I read, would catch this almost immediately. They know that you don’t take something that belongs to another and keep it without asking. Aloo-ki took the boots not because she needed them, but because they were prettier than the boots she was wearing.

This book could have been nicely done without a Native twist. I am really trying to understand your motivation for using an Inuit theme for this book. Do you feel you are promoting a culture by showcasing it to the world? Did the people you visited ask you to do so; or did you assume that by them sharing culture with you that you had the right to use it? Are you going to give back to the community something for appropriating their culture?

Is this something you will continue to do as you travel? I did have some qualms after reading your {Jan Brett} book “Honey…Honey…Lion” as it took a story from an Indigenous culture to use. It was nice to see money from this book supporting a local foundation. Does giving back to the locals after cultural appropriation make it okay?

Here are the criteria I used for judging The Three Snow Bears:

Is the book written by a Native author or with a Native author?

Is it using another culture to gain financial rewards?

Is the book depicting Native people as less than human?

Could you remove the Native aspects and still have a good book? If so, what was the motivation to include them?

Is the culture being portrayed correctly?

Please explain how this book should make an Indigenous person feel “honored.”


Theresa Seidel

Note: I did send a letter to Jan Brett on her “contact the author” portion of her web page, so that she could reply to me in private. She did not reply to my letter.


Rob said...

Good letter. But a question: Is it always "cultural appropriation" if a non-Native author writes about Natives?

Anonymous said...

Why do we have to over-analyze everything? It's a book for children that has animals that wear clothes. There are other books that do that. If someone doesn't like it, then don't read it.

Theresa said...

To anonymous:
You are right other books do that. However, the book came to my attention because a parent was going to use it as a "Native American" story based on the jacket flaps and what she'd read on Jan Brett's website. It is not a Native American story. It is the three bears and Goldilocks.
If you look at the website under the mural page, you'll see that the clothing of the bears is described as Inuit. The Goldilocks character's clothing is not described at all.
If the author had just said she'd gone to the Arctic, saw what was there and was inspired all would have been good. There was no reason to use the Inuit culture in this book.

Anonymous said...

It may not be a Native American story, but that was the culture Jan Brett saw on her trip. She even states on the mural page: "At the arts center in Pangnirtung, a town in Baffin Island, some of the Inuit art pictured wild animals in traditional Inuit clothes." She was emulating what she saw. Why is it okay for Inuit artists to draw animals in Inuit clothing, but not a non-native person?

Joan Raphael said...

It seems to me you are guilty of what you accuse Jan Brett of doing. You state you are not Inuit, so how do you know that they would find the book offensive?

I have not read the book, and am not defending or criticizing the book. I am simply pointing out that you are not following your own standard of criticism.

saloliust said...

I haven't seen or read the book so I can't comment on that. However, I do want to comment on the dehumanizing factor of animals wearing people's clothing. I think in some books this is quite true, such as the ten little rabbits book, and possibly this book as well. However, one of my friends Murv Jacob and his wife Debbie Duvall's children's book on traditional Cherokee stories has come under the fire in either Library Journal or Public Libraries for dehumanizing Indians because they have animals wear traditional clothes and do "human-like" things. However, in our stories, our animals did these things. Our animals held stompdances, played stickball, etc. etc. So to a traditional Cherokee person, this does not seem like such a wrong Jacob and Duvall's stories. In other stories, well those native people would have to judge for themselves. Hope that makese sense and I'm going to have to go check out this book you mentioned and see what I think....

balloon said...

One thing to keep in mind is that children do not read and understand books in the same way that adults do. When children read that book, they aren't debating Native American vs. Inuit, they are relating to the characters and the storyline. Children are very good at knowing the difference between a story and real life. Also, I think it's entirely appropriate for an author to write about a life experience that is not their own. That's what authors do. What a limiting world it would be if you could only write books about your own culture/experiences.

Len said...

I would say that if an author gives the impression that a story is "Native" when it is not, then you have to consider whether there cultural appropriation going on.
The idea that someone could write an authentic Native story after looking at a museum display sounds ludicrous to me. Can you imagine writing a "Christian" story after touring a couple Churches? How accurate would it be? It seems possible that you may miss a few of the basic tenets of Christianity, or perhaps completely misinterpret other portions.

Kate said...

No author could ever meet your standard of purity. Of course, any book is technically for "financial gain." It's for sale.

Authors need to do research to write. Did Jan Brett do enough research to tell a good tale? That's up for debate, but saying that the author had no right to write the story is rather appalling. No one wins with this scenario. Isn't diversity in literature supposed to be a good thing? To follow your formula, only Cherokee authors may write Cherokee books, etc., unless you believe that all Native American stories and tribes are exactly the same, which can't be the case.

Or, are you saying that there is a cultural prohibition against sharing Native American stories with outsiders, that any storytelling is a violation?

People are often depicted as animals in children's books. It's not an insult, typically, unless they are using animals with negative connotations to deliberately insult an individual or culture.

I'm also an artist - may I only draw self-portraits? How could I "truthfully" depict anyone but myself? Right? Oy vey. Ooops, I'm only half Jewish. Just "oy."

There is a balance between research, empathy, and storytelling. I hoped this blog was more "critical" in the literary sense - of analyzing literature and raising awareness of language, imagery, and history. Unfortunately, it's not a teaching tool. It's an axe to grind.

doug said...

You raise some interesting points but I think you are being hard on Jan Brett. She never claimed it was a Native American story, at least according to my copy of the book. That was the interpretation of the mother you met. Why do you assume that the Inuit she met wouldn't want Brett to share their art and design with a wider audience? Most artists like having their work shown far and wide. She treated the designs with as much respect as the Ukrainian ones in The Mitten. You worry about people in animal clothes but the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears has the bears dressed as well in many many versions, this was not a slight at anyone, it was following the tradition of the fairy tale. It fits right in with her goal of showcasing the beautiful designs she apprecaites so much. The back flyleaf even comments on her seeing Inuit art of animals in clothes. You use the word appropriating - very strong since artists have been using inspiration from other cultures for a long, long time. Many 20th century modern European art has African influences and before that contact with Japan had a huge influence on art in the Western World. Take a step back and maybe you will see that Brett was showing respect of one kind of art through her own and not trying to offend anybody.