Tuesday, March 18, 2008

McDermott made up the "Dance of Life" in ARROW TO THE SUN

Sharing some new (to me) information about McDermott's deeply flawed award-winning book, Arrow to the Sun.

On page 27 of Gerald McDermott and YOU, written by Jon Stott, published in 2004, Stott says:

"Although the Dance of Life depicted on the final page of the story is McDermott's own creation, it is true in spirit to the agrarian culture he depicts in the story."

Stott suggests students in middle/upper elementary grades who are studying the book consider researching traditional Pueblo ceremonies, but, he says (bold text is his):

It is extremely important, however, that students realize that these were and still are sacred ceremonies and that photographing or drawing dancers is permitted only with specific permission from the various Pueblos. Therefore, teachers should not encourage the drawing or photocopying or representations of these sacred ceremonies."

I find Stott's words somewhat hypocritical. How can he praise the book in the first place, knowing McDermott made up that dance, and go on to tell students not to draw, photocopy, or represent sacred ceremonies?

That he provides this caution tells us he knows very well that Pueblo people object to the appropriation and denigration of our stories. It seems to me Stott ought to be using what he knows to critique the book. Instead, he says students can create "written narratives about the Boy's experiences in the kivas..."

You may want to read what I've written about McDermott's presentation of kivas. In short, McDermott portrays them as places of trial. In fact, they are places of learning and gathering.

Given its made-up and erroneous information, this book is best shelved in the fantasy section. It certainly does not belong in the non-fiction section! And it certainly does not merit it's Library of Congress subject line "Pueblo Indians--folklore."

I recommend it be weeded. Can you, will you, weed a Caldecott book?


jpm said...

Thanks for posing an important question. Just where DO they belong, these books that have won awards but misinform readers? Misinforming not with outrageous and obvious-to-everyone-who's-been-to-school statements but with falsehoods and inventions embedded in a pretense of having insider knowledge? I'm sure librarians struggle with this sometimes, especially with past award winners such as Arrow, or They Were Strong and Good, which we've discussed on your blog before. The difference between Arrow and TWS&G is that the latter makes no claim to an indigenous perspective, while Arrow purports to be authentic -- a Pueblo folk tale. As an educator and grandparent, I wouldn't share either one with children unless we were having a critical discussion such as "Here's how not to approach writing about other cultures". Some award winners must be getting culled; one has a hard time finding them on library shelves or in schools, especially some of those older titles.

Anonymous said...

As a school librarian, my answer is easy. I weed them. I have removed The Matchlock Gun and the Courage of Sarah Noble. I don't want children to pick up these titles on their own and think they are reading great literature. In a public library, the audience is different; and adults might be looking for examples of stereotypes for a children's literature class.

Anonymous said...

It is too bad the Caledcott committee wasn't aware of the issues McDermott's book have raised when time came to hand out the prize. Those who publish books and those of us who purchase them for the library shelves tend to trust the authors of these books, sometimes to our dismay; A Thousand Little Pieces and The Education of Little Tree are two examples of books believed to be truthful that turned out to have been written by authors who, essentially, lied to us. I work in a public library and believe passionately that we must provide access even to books that clash with my personal beliefs. I won't recommend these books and if someone were to ask me my opinion, I'd pass on what I've learned about them: that James Frey has written a work of fiction, that Forrest Carter is certainly not who he would have us believe, and that Gerald McDermott took the sacred ceremonies of a people lightly without respect for their beliefs and customs. I can imagine the up roar that would ensue if Christian practices were so lightly treated. Thank you for raising our consciousness once again--I'm glad I read your blog!

Anonymous said...

I have this book on my school library shelf and actually just purchased it. We have a teacher that does a unit on Caldecott Medal winners and I ordered all the ones iI didn't have. THe award is for the pictures not the text, so I will be keeping it and using it during Caldecott lessons.

Rob said...

I'm not sure if you were joking or not, Debbie, but putting Arrow to the Sun in the fiction section sounds like a good idea. It's a possible compromise between throwing it out and keeping it in "Folklore."

I don't know for sure, but I bet the Caldecott award is for a book's entire content: the text as well as the pictures. Given the controversies over some of the winners, I wouldn't teach any of them uncritically.

Anonymous said...

From the ALA website regarding the Caldecott Award :"The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration..."

Anonymous said...

"Can you, will you, weed a Caldecott book?"

We can and we have (and it felt good!) However, as a university library that primarily serves Metis students enrolled in a teacher education program, we feel that these books are better kept in the collection and used as teaching tools (i.e. here's what NOT to use) than relegated to the recycling bin. We've kept them, but have started shelving them in a new section for "not recommended" books rather than leaving them interfiled with the rest of the collection where they could be grabbed by someone in a rush and used in the classroom without a full understanding of the criticisms raised about their content. Where possible and as time allows, we're collecting reviews of the items in this "not recommended" section (both from the mainstream book review journals and from other sources like your blog and Oyate) and compiling them in teacher's guides which will be shelved alongside the items. The contrast between the reviews can be a real eye-opener at times, and only serves to highlight the importance of the work you and others are doing by raising these criticisms, Debbie.

We're still working out the logistics of how we decide whether a book ends up on the "not recommended" shelf, so I'd be interested in hearing from other librarians who may have grappled with some of the same issues in their libraries.

In the meantime, thank you so much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking posts on this blog, Debbie. You and the dedicated people at Oyate are doing some very important work and we're all richer for it.

dot said...

Is it possible that an author can use these sorts of illustrations to show the idea of the cermonial dances without depicting the actual sacred ceremonies?

I read some of the other posts and understand that McDermott's title has more inaccuracies than just this one, but it seems that there's a Catch-22 to using illustrated literature about these topics for children.

Debbie Reese said...


Yes, it can seem as if he's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't, but what if he just didn't do the book, period.

There's no damning in that.

BUT!!! He is an established author. I'd have many wonderful things to say about him if he was using his network to get a Native writer published....

Fırat said...

I'm a student in American Culture and Literature Department in Turkey tomorrow ı have an exam and the lecturer gave a question: How does the children story "Arrow to the sun by McDermott" reflect the dominant cultural, religious and communal values of the pueblo people? comment by referring to the text as well as to the pictures?"... after reading your comment i decided not to deal with the Pueblo's values and consult a native Pueblo like you sir. may you help me and my colleagues in class? thanks a lot.

Debbie Reese said...


Excellent decision on your part! McDermott's book does not, in fact, reflect Pueblo peoples.

First thing: the subtitle is "A Pueblo" story. I gave a lecture two nights ago to an audience of Pueblo people at Northern New Mexico College. They immediately knew the problem with that subtitle. Which Pueblo is McDermott talking about? There are 20 different ones today, and prior to contact with Europeans, there were a great deal more.

In that 20 of today, there are four different languages groups. Those 20 are all across what is now the state of New Mexico, and one is in Texas. Within those 20 are distinct villages. As you might expect, our stories and ways of doing things vary, simply due to our locations. Some are closer to water than others. Some are in higher mountain areas. Our resources differ. Some build with stone, others with adobe bricks.

That's the very first problem, but there are many others. I'd love to talk with your class. Ask your instructor to write to me. dreese.nambe at gmail.com

Debbie Reese said...


A primary value is commitment to our community and its well-being rather than an emphasis on the individual and an individual success.

Our elders are treasures. Their counsel is sought and respected.

Though we are living today in family structures that resemble other American homes (nuclear family, mother/father and children), in a Pueblo home, the mother/father's parents will move into the home when they are no longer able to live alone.

Ok... I gotta go for now.


Fırat said...

thank you for your patience and kindness.this will really help me.