Friday, July 20, 2007

Beverly Slapin's "How to Turn a Traditional Indian Story into a Children's Book (For Fun and Profit)

Today's post is a provocative essay by my friend and colleague, Beverly Slapin. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

A lot of you may take issue with it. I ask you to consider how it might feel if it were your specific culture, ethnic group, church group, family, whose stories were being turned into a children's book....

And that this practice was happening for--literally--hundreds of years....

And that this was being done without your knowledge or input...

And that those who were doing it were trivializing your most fundamental ways of thinking about the world...

And that through these books, literally (again) millions of children were "learning" about who you are...

And that "learning" led people to love, cherish, honor, respect and emulate you and your ways.


How to Turn a Traditional Indian Story into a Children’s Book (for fun and profit)

1. Go to a special collections library and peruse the traditional Indian stories told to and written down by non-Indian anthropologists. Don’t worry about asking anyone’s permission to use or change the stories you discover—Indians may consider many of them sacred, but according to copyright law, they are public domain and yours for the taking.

2. Choose a particular story that resonates with you. Carefully extricate all of its cultural markers. Be sure to remain oblivious to the language and lives of the people whose story you hold in your hands. That way, you can be more objective.

3. Magnify the details you think are important—and get rid of everything else. Cut out all references to violence, sex, bodily functions, spiritual beliefs, or anything else you don’t particularly like or understand.

4. Belabor the prose to make it seem more authentic. For instance, if the story reads, “There was no fire here then, only far upriver at world’s end,” change it to: “Long ago, the animal people had no fire. Day and night, they huddled in their houses in the dark, and ate their food uncooked. In the winter, they were so cold, icicles hung from their fur. Oh, they were miserable!”

5. Improve on the dialogue. Let your imagination run wild. If the story reads, “I am going!”, change it to: “Farewell, my parents, and do not grieve. I have another home under the sea and I’m going there!”

6. Find a talented illustrator who is good at copying artifacts in a museum. Make sure he has seen “Dances With Wolves.” Or, forget about authenticity altogether—find an artist whose imagination is as fanciful as yours. In any event, make sure that the illustrations match your interpretation—your vision, if you will—of your story.

7. Have your manuscript and illustrations vetted by several non-Indian anthros. Make sure to thank them in the introduction. Call up an Indian, too—any Indian. Even if she hangs up on you, you can thank her in your introduction. After all, she picked up the phone when you called.

8. Think up an imaginative title that will make a publisher see in­come potential. Calling your story a Coyote story is good. Publishers like things called Coyote stories, even if they’re not. If the publisher bites, you can always make your story a Coyote story.

9. Remember to write under your title the phrases, “a Native American legend” (or “myth”) and “retold by” (you).

10. After your manuscript and illustrations are complete, write a short preface about the Indians who “told” this “myth” or “legend.” (Remember to discuss them in the past tense.) Also make sure to refer to Indian spiritual beliefs (even if you don’t really know anything about them) as “superstitions.”

11. Done! Now sit back and collect your awards. Be well praised by reviewers for your warm, sensitive, storytelling and the sympathetic voice you have given to “America’s first people.”

12. Be prepared to sit on multicultural panels throughout the country, educating and enlightening the thousands of eager teachers and librarians who thirst for your knowledge.

(Thank-you to Clara Yen and Katy Horning.)

© 2007 Beverly Slapin


Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I posted Beverly Slapin's review of Where the Great Hawk Flies some time ago, but not as a stand-alone review. It was included in a post about a VOYA article. In case you missed it then, here it is. I use it with her permission. It may not be published elsewhere without her written permission.

Ketchum's book is one of those that gets favorable reviews from the mainstream review journals. Booklist gave it a starred review. Kirkus called it "terrific historical fiction." VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates) said it is "written with beautiful, touching metaphors and authentic speech." I note these favorable reviews, because far too many of the mainstream journals fail again and again to do even an adequate job of reviewing books about American Indians. It is frightening, and outrageous, that the children's book publishing industry continues to give kids awful books like Where the Great Hawk Flies. Writers keep coming up with these messed-up books, editors at publishing houses keep accepting them, reviewers keep on giving them positive reviews, teachers and librarians keep buying them, and all the children who read them are worse off than before! Here's Slapin's review.
Ketchum, Liza, Where the Great Hawk Flies. Clarion Books, 2005. 264 pages, grades 4-7 (Pequot)

It is 1782, two years after British soldiers and their Caughnawaga (Mohawk) allies laid bloody siege to a Vermont settlement. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Tucker and his little sister Rhoda, whose mom is a Pequot doctoress and whose dad is a white farmer, are confronted by the hatred and fear exhibited by their new white neighbors, one of whom is eleven-year-old Hiram Coombs, a survivor of the raid. Hiram’s fears, exacerbated by his flashbacks, are further heightened when the Tucker children’s Pequot grandfather shows up to pass along the “old ways,” that are “sliding away, like currents slipping down the river.”  

In alternating narratives, Daniel’s struggle to “find his own path” offers a counterpoint to Hiram’s racism and fear of Indians. As the two boys come to know each other and their families are brought together by an entirely predictable occurrence, their seething enmity gives way to a tentative friendship. 

Despite Ketchum’s discovery that her great-great-great-great-great grandmother was Pequot, she (Ketchum) shows an appalling lack of understanding of Indian ways. No Indian cultural markers here, not one. Grandpa scolds and lectures the children, handles other people’s medicine, grunts, stomps, chants, and complains about his losing his power—“I am an old man now. My skill is fading.”
“He shook the rattle, drummed the earth with his feet, and began to sing. His voice was high as the scream of the red-tailed hawk, wild as coyotes calling to one another on the ridge….The fire lit the pendant on Grandfather’s chest. He shook the rattle harder, then beat his chest with his fists. Swish. Swish. Thrum. Thrum. His voice rose higher, the drumming came faster, the rattle shivered until I thought it would explode…Grandfather’s mournful cries rang in our ears.”
Turns out all this dancing and drumming and rattle-shaking was Grampa’s death song. Pretty energetic for a dying old guy whose skill is fading. 

So Grampa dies, and Mom lops off her hair and rubs ashes on her arms and face—and then has to explain to her horrified husband and children why she’s doing this. Then she sets in to weave a basket. Although it would be an odd thing for a grieving Indian woman to do, it gives Ketchum the opportunity to write—this:
“Mother’s hands began to move and I watched her for a moment. Her fingers snaked a pale splint into the half-formed basket, twining the ash in and out through darker splints so the pattern alternated, dark, then light. Dark. Light. Mother. Father. A dark splint, a light one, woven together. My sister and me, formed from the two—each one of us a sturdy basket, held by the tight mesh of our parents’ weaving. Each neither Pequot, nor English, but both.”
Holy Belabored Metaphor, Batman! And ash splints are not twined, they’re plaited.
Daniel admires the quilling that decorates the bottom of his new deerskin pouch, and muses that "Mom must have spent long hours softening the hide, collecting the quills, then weaving them into this beautiful pattern." Let's get real here. Quills are not collected. (Can you imagine someone walking through the woods, looking for quills? Does the term "needle in a haystack" ring a bell?) There are three ways to get quills: (1) Find a dead porcupine, remove the quills, (2) Find a live porcupine, throw a blanket over it, remove the quills from the blanket, or (3) Find a porcupine, shoot it, remove the quills.
Grampa verbally instructs Daniel on how to make a dugout canoe: “You must find a straight tree with no branches,” he explains. “A chestnut will last forever….First peel off the bark. Then build a fire inside the log and watch it carefully. Burn it, and scoop out the wood. It takes a long time."

It does take a long time, even if you don’t have to look for a tree with no branches and then wait for the tree to fall. Grampa’s directions are pretty straightforward; he just left out a few steps: You have to chop down the tree, drag it to a clearing (preferably near the water), cut off the bark and shape the outside with an axe, then do slow controlled burning (using wet clay as a barrier) to shape the inside, scrape out the coals, repeat burning and scraping the length of the boat, then scrape the inside and outside smooth. This is not the kind of wisdom an Indian grandfather would pass on to his young grandson—by talking. He would more likely show his grandson how something this complex is done, and he would enlist the aid of other male family or community members. And all the while they were working together, grampa would be telling stories about patience, commitment, and passing down history. 

The red-tailed hawk who flies around, alternately bringing and taking messages and leading people to safety is busier than Rin-Tin-Tin. As the great Cherokee philosopher Tom King said, “the beauty of Native philosophy is that not everything means something." 

Finally, Indians don’t have “gleaming black eyes” or “eyes black as coal.” No one does. Where the Great Hawk Flies is a boring book besides. 
—Beverly Slapin

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Teacher Reconsiders Virginia Grossman's TEN LITTLE RABBITS

"The Miss Rumphius Effect" is a blog maintained by a teacher named Tricia. Yesterday (July 16th), she wrote about Virginia Grossman's Ten Little Rabbits, which is a picture/counting book that features ten little rabbits. She writes about why she no longer uses it with children. Her post is titled "Reconsidering Ten Little Rabbits: Evaluating Books from the Viewpoint of Other Cultures."

The strength of what she says lies in her ability to reconsider the book once she had new information about it, and then, to stop using it. I've certainly had that experience many times.

I remember--vividly--reconsidering The Five Chinese Brothers when I began graduate study at UIUC in 1994. I grew up on our reservation (Nambe) in New Mexico, attending a US government day school in first grade. The librarian from the local public school would drive over to our school every two weeks with a cardboard box filled with books. The fourteen (or so) of us Pueblo kids would choose books from his box. That box of books was our library. [As I write this, I can cynically imagine an author reading my blog and thinking "hmmm... that would make a good story." I hope nobody tries to turn my story into a book or a passage in a book. I can imagine the ways the story would be done wrong, as the author filled in gaps with his/her (likely) faulty knowledge of my life as a kid on our reservation.]

Two books stand out from that time. One is Little Owl Indian. I will write about that one another day.

The second is The Five Chinese Brothers. It carries enormous significance for me---a kid learning to read, and loving that books could take me to other places and times. In graduate school, I gained new information about it, and I let it go. I took it off its pedestal, and now use it in my classes to describe that process... That process of letting go of something with emotional significance. It isn't a bad thing to do, or a sign of weakness. It is called learning.

Update: July 18, 2007
The Spring 2007 issue of Journal of Children's Literature, published by the Children's Literature Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English includes a column called "A Dozen Great Books." On the list is The Five Chinese Brothers, of which the columnist says "Five brothers who look exactly alike use their special powers to save First Brother from being unfairly punished."

In the intro, the columnist says "...I longed to retitle this column 'A Dozen Great Books That Tickled My Imagination, Delighted My Sense of Humor, Taught Me The Power of Language, Encouraged Me To Listen To My Own Stories, Allowed Me To Glimpse The Vast and Varied Word Beyond the Cornfields of Illinois Where I Was Growing Up, Encouraged Me To Go Within Myself And Listen To My Own Stories, Comforted Me, And Basically Changed My Life.'" She also says she came to know the book through Captain Kangaroo's television program.

Below is what I said last August about Ten Little Rabbits, in a post about a book called Brave Bunny. I hope you read what I wrote and also what Tricia has to say at "Reconsidering Ten Little Rabbits: Evaluating Books from the Viewpoint of Other Cultures." The tribes represented (or rather, misrepresented) in Ten Little Rabbits are Sioux, Tewa, Ute, Menominee, Blackfoot, Hopi, Arapaho, Nez Perce, Kwakiutl, Navajo.


Bunnies appear frequently in children's books, and there is at least one very popular book that features bunnies dressing up like Indians. Ten Little Rabbits by Virginia Grossman came out in 1991. The illustrations (by Sylvia Long) are attractive. No doubt, some view the title as a clever take-off on "Ten Little Indians" which many children still sing in their pre-school classrooms.

It is a counting book, so (by definition), each page features a numeral and objects to count. In this case, the objects for counting are rabbits dressed in the regalia of a specific tribal nation. I urge readers---especially Native ones---to take a look at the book. Is your tribe represented? Is it correctly represented?

There is a page intended to show Pueblo Indians. On that page, two male rabbits are shown dancing in Pueblo-like attire, standing in front of an adobe wall. But! They are shown facing each other, and there are only two of them (this is the page for the numeral two). There are no dances at Nambe (my home) that are done that way.

At the end of the book is a double-page spread (two pages facing each other) that have "information" about each tribe depicted in the book. I deliberately put "information" in quotation marks, because the "information" about Pueblo people is wrong. Grossman says that we "stage" a dance in which the male dancers "leap and stamp to wake up the spirits."

Sadly, this "information" makes the book more attractive to parents and teachers who are trying to bring accurate and authentic books to the classroom. I'm sure that Grossman and Long didn't intend to dupe their readers, but I think they've done all children a disservice. Once again, Native people are objectified (one little, two little....), and these gorgeous illustrations and "information" add to the already too-big pile of hooey that passes for knowledge about American Indians.

Next time you're in your local library, see if Ten Little Rabbits is on the shelf. If you're willing, approach the librarian, and point out problems with the book. It has FACTUAL errors. In my view, it should be weeded (pulled off the shelf and taken out of circulation).

If you're interested in reading more about Ten Little Rabbits, see Theresa L. McCarty's article "What's Wrong with Ten Little Rabbits?" published in 1995 in a journal called The New Advocate (volume 8, #2, page 98).

UPDATE, MARCH 26, 2009:
See also the review by Lisa Mitten and Naomi Caldwell Wood, of the American Indian Library Association.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

Joseph Bruchac's Wabi

[Note: This review used with permission of its author, Beverly Slapin, and may not be published elsewhere without Slapin's written permission. Wabi is available from Oyate. ]

Bruchac, Joseph (Abenaki), Wabi. Dial, 2006. 198 pages, grades 5-up.

If you’ve been raised as an owl (even if you find out later that you’re also a human), there’s one thing you need to know: “If you don’t hop off the branch, you’ll never catch anything.” That’s what Wabi finds out from the wisdom of his great-grandmother, who is also a shape-changer. And hop off the branch Wabi does, into the adventure of his life.

As Wabi watches and listens to the people in the village below, he learns what it is to be human. But in his quest to find out who he is and where he belongs, his way of seeing the world remains delightfully ornithno-centric: “If you can hear the deliciously terrified heartbeat of a mouse hiding in the grass far below your treetop perch, it is not at all difficult to make out a human conversation within a nearby wigwam.”

Wabi is at first perplexed by the humans: their physical makeup, with fingers instead of talons and legs that bend forward instead of backward; their homes, built like upside-down nests; their eating habits that eschew “delicious-looking chipmunks” and “yummy and crunchy” baby crows; and their etiquette, which precludes the presenting of one’s beloved with a live rodent.

With Abenaki words sprinkled throughout the narrative and elements from traditional Abenaki tales—and the great Tao interpreter Chuang Tsu—seamlessly woven into the story, Wabi rescues a wolf cub who becomes his devoted companion, falls in love with a human girl, and engages in mortal combat with monsters intent on destroying their world. The sometimes gruesome encounters will resonate with middle readers, as will Wabi’s wry observations (“It is very easy to locate a large, bloodthirsty creature when it attempts to tear out your throat”).

Bruchac’s considerable talents shine through Wabi’s story; There’s not a single wasted scene in this expertly crafted thriller.—Beverly Slapin