Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kanell response to Slapin's Open Letter

In response to Slapin's Open Letter (click here to read it), Kanell wrote to her webmaster (Alexie) saying:

Hi Alexis,

Beverly Slapin, copied above, has provided strong reasons for removing the original questions 10 and 11 from the discussion questions for The Darkness Under the Water, immediately. I suspect it works better for you to have the entire list at once, to replace the page -- yes? So I'm pasting a revised list onto here. Beverly, if you have time and energy to add to these, or adjust them, I'd value your experience in making the list both wiser and stronger. Thank you.

Appended to her note was a list of questions. The two that Slapin discussed in her Open Letter are gone from the new list.

Alexis posted the new list right away, and Kanell wrote to Slapin by email to let her know of those changes. She copied me on that email and followed it with another email, asking me to post her questions to my blog as a stand-alone post, giving them the same exposure that I gave to Slapin's.

I've given her request a lot of thought because one of the new questions is no better than the ones she took off. The new question reveals, to me, a lack of insight to the reasons Native people object to the ways that we and our histories are presented in children's books. She wanted to do good with her book, but she missed the mark. She's stated that her own Jewish history makes it possible for her to present a Native story. But, over and over, there are examples that her Jewish identity did not translate to insight to Native story.

Do I post her questions, as she requested, and address the new problem she created? If I do, am I being mean to her?

On the one hand, it feels mean and aggressive to keep pointing out that lack of insight. On the other hand, each new instance provides an opportunity for me to point out how lack of insight results in a problematic passage.

By 'each new instance' I mean each time she posts to the child_lit listserv. On that listserv, a contentious dialogue has been taking place for almost two weeks. Each time she posts to child_lit, her response contains errors.

For example, she has argued there that the state of Vermont has recognized the Abenaki. In fact, the state of Vermont has recognized the Abenaki as a minority. That's very different from being recognized as a tribal nation. I don't think Kanell understands the distinction. Native peoples across the country know the difference, and, I wish more citizens of the U.S. did, too.

This blog exists to provide my perspective on the words others write. My responsibility, as I see it, is not to any author, but to what he or she writes, and, to the readers of that author's words. My goal is not to beat up on an author, though it will feel that way to the author. My goal is to educate the author, the publisher, the reviewer, the teacher, parent, and librarian so that the entire field of children's books that have images of American Indians moves from one that is fraught with error to one that is does an accurate job of presenting who we are.

With that as my framework, here is question #11.

11. If you have studied World War II or the history of the Jews in the world, you know about an even more frightening and terrible project that began in the 1930s to eliminate one group of people and to make another group of people more powerful. Where did this happen? Do you think there is a connection to Molly's story? How could you find out more about this?

" know about an even more frightening and terrible project..." she wrote.

Hitler was defeated. As a result of that defeat, we know the horrors of the Holocaust. A lot of allies stepped in to stop what he was doing.

Nobody stepped in to stop what was happening to American Indians in what became the United States. There are no museums that document what happened to us in the way that Holocaust museums do.

I read question 11 and think back to my own history as a Pueblo Indian. Slaughter, persecution, efforts to "kill the Indian and save the man."

Though I'm sure it is not her intention, Kanell writes as though there are none of us left that would object to question 11. Surely she doesn't mean to do a hierarchical presentation of genocide. But just as surely, she doesn't understand how a Native person would read that question.

I object. And, we object. Thanks to electronic listservs and blogs--we can reach people we couldn't reach before.

January 18, 2009 - Note:

There are several posts here on this blog, about DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER. I'm arranging them here, chronologically. Be sure to read comments to each entry.

December 5, 2008 - Seale and Dow essay on DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
December 6, 2008 - A reader responds to Seale/Dow review
December 17, 2008 - Slapin's Open Letter to Kanell
December 18, 2008 - Kanell's Response to Slapin's Open Letter
December 19, 2008 - I read Beth Kanell's DARKNESS UNDER THE WATER
January 3, 2009 - "Darkness Under the Water: Questions and Comments" by Beverly Slapin


Beth Kanell said...

Ms. Reese, thank you for your input on the current question 11; this too can be readily revised. You're right -- although none of the people who reviewed the questions originally (of varied backgrounds) read it the way you do, the fact that you do so does indicate the question should be revised. Would you please provide your suggested rewording to invite readers (of any age) to see the parallels between the Vermont Eugenics Project and the German one? As you may already know, Edwin Black's research team located Vermont records of sterilization -- not in Vermont, but in Germany. It is tragic that widespread condemnation of what took place in Europe has not extended to condemning what took place here.

It appears that my full response to Ms. Slapin's open letter, which included an introduction of my own heritage (Jewish of course, with losses like Ms. Slapin's, as well as Quaker and Yankee). That was the actual material I'd asked you to post as a response. I won't go over it again at this point; I think it's more important that the community of children's literature professionals contribute to the discussion questions at this point. I look forward to your revision of the American/European comparison question, and any other contributions you'd care to make to the web site resource list.

Debbie Reese said...

Thank you for the invitation to write questions for your site, but I decline that invitation.

It isn't necessary. My blog exists to provide background, critique, and questions about children's books.

I encourage you to put links on your website and blog to my blog, especially the pages herein about your book. You might also want to read other things I've written, particularly those about claims to identity and discussions of federal/state recognition.

Years ago, I talked with Ann Rinaldi about problems with her book (set at Carlisle Indian Industrial School). I asked her if she was willing to do a re-write of her book.

Are there things about your book that you would change if you had a do-over on it?

Beth Kanell said...

Would I change things if I were writing the book all over again? Of course! I hope I learn more each day. In the same way, I'd raise my kids differently, too, especially that first one.

I will place links to your work on the book's web site as I rework the entire Resources section, and also on the blog. Bear with me please, as I have the next two weeks overbooked; expect changes and additions to the online material by January 15.

Debbie Reese said...

What would you change in the novel?

Beth Kanell said...

I can't give a thorough answer yet. But I'm listening.

Ask me again in mid January, please.

Anonymous said...

It would be hard to write discussion questions for a book you haven't read yet.

You gave Ms. Slapin space to present her comments in full, yet you don't give Ms. Kanell the same courtesy. How is that fair?

Debbie Reese said...

Ms. Kanell,

Several days ago, you asked people to read your novel and the Seale/Dow essay and make up their own mind.

If I was in your shoes, I'd be devastated by the Seale and Dow essay. Both are Abenaki women whose families were directly impacted by the sterilization project.

In your last comment, you say that you are "listening." In the one prior to that, you say you will be are going on a book tour.

I wonder what it means to listen, and how that translates to what you will say when you're giving talks and readings from your book.

Debbie Reese said...


Ms. Kanell has her own blog and website where she can provide her comments in full.

The purpose of my blog is to provide a specific perspective on the ways that American Indians are portrayed in children's books.

For the most part, that is a Native perspective. The majority of what you read here is written by me. Other pieces are written by individuals who are not Native, but who have studied the topic and share my concerns that Native peoples and history are misrepresented in children's books.

Through that misrepresentation, children who read those books are misinformed.

Ms. Kanell's book misinforms. She may defend it on her own site, but on this one, I and others will critique it.

Wendy said...

Debbie, I'm curious about your conversation with Ann Rinaldi--have you written about it anywhere? Would you really have welcomed a rewrite of her book, or was that a rhetorical question? It seems like a rewrite, even a careful one, would have still had some appropriation and trivialization issues (that second is a problem with all the Dear America books, of course).

J. L. Bell said...

You wrote: For example, she has argued there that the state of Vermont has recognized the Abenaki. In fact, the state of Vermont has recognized the Abenaki as a minority. That's very different from being recognized as a tribal nation. I don't think Kanell understands the distinction.

According to the Seale/Dow review of Darkness Under the Water below, “In an author’s note, Kanell says that recently, ‘Vermont gave state recognition to the Abenaki people,’ but that ‘their “disappearance” for so many years has prevented the federal government from recognizing the tribe.’”

Obviously Kanell’s note made a distinction between state recognition (and the law uses that word) and federal recognition. Why do you believe that she doesn’t understand the difference?

Debbie Reese said...

Mr. Bell,

The distinction is between "minority" status and state or federal recognition.

Debbie Reese said...


My question to Rinaldi was not rhetorical. I felt then (and now) that a re-write would be instructive to her, myself, readers, critics, writers, etc. Especially because of her prominence as a writer with a huge fan base. It seemed to me the strength of her name would mean an even wider audience for learning about Native history, why we care/react as we do.... The potential for this body of lit was/is high.

Beverly Slapin said...

Hello, J.L.—

Here are the relevant portions of S. 117, entitled "An Act Relating to State Recognition of the Abenaki People [sic],” which was passed by the Vermont House and Senate (Sec. 1, 1VSA, chapter 23, § 853, “Recognition of the Abenaki People [sic]”):

“(a) The state of Vermont recognizes the Abanaki people [sic] and recognizes all Native American people who reside in Vermont as a minority population.”

The limiting language can be found in the next subsection:

“(b) Recognition of the Native American or Abenaki people [sic] provided in subsection (a) of this section shall…not be interpreted to provide any Native American or Abenaki person with any special rights or privileges that the state does not confer or grant to other state residents.”

What Beth Kanell failed to mention in her book—and perhaps failed to understand—is that recognizing the Abenaki peoples as “a minority population” is not the same as recognizing the Abenaki peoples as Native American tribes. State tribal recognition provides a legal relationship that recognition as a “minority population” does not. State tribal recognition is an alternative tribal status to formal federal recognition, and Congress has authorized state-recognized tribes to participate in Indian health care, housing, and education programs, to name a few.

By stating that "[r]ecently Vermont gave state recognition to the Abenaki people [sic]," without adding "only as a minority population," Beth Kanell infers recognition with tribal status.