Saturday, April 04, 2009


On Thursday, I was in La Crosse, Wisconsin to give a couple of lectures in the Curriculum Center at the university. It was a great visit, and I especially enjoyed meeting the people that work in the library. (Thanks again, Michele Strange, for arranging my visit.) We had an engaging conversation at lunch. The warm welcome was continued later in the day by faculty in the College of Education, Peg Finders and Richard Gappa. If you were in the audience and have a question, please do write to me or use the Comment option below.

The next day, I was at the Cleary Center on campus to participate in the Act 31 conference, which is a 2-day symposium about Wisconsin Indians. The conference is designed for teachers and takes place every year. If you're in Wisconsin, I urge you to attend next year. It is a valuable opportunity. Children from a local elementary school are brought in as part of the conference for some mini-sessions geared toward them. So, in addition to the session where I worked with teachers, I spent the morning visiting with 4th and 5th graders, talking about Wisconsin Indians, stereotypes, and books.

Many hands eagerly shot up when I asked if any of them had read Birchbark House. It was wonderful to see their enthusiasm for the book.

I also asked them if they had read Little House on the Prairie. Again, several hands went up. I asked if they remembered that the phrase "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" is in the book three times. They shook their heads. I asked them to imagine how a Native girl might feel when they read that phrase, or heard the teacher read those words. One boy said "She'd feel horrible." I asked "Why would she feel horrible?" And he said "She'd feel worthless."

Powerful words "she'd feel worthless." Obviously, he understands.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Dear Penny....

Dear Penny Pollock,

I have some questions about your book, When the Moon is Full: A Lunar Year.

On the page for January, you say it is "The Wolf Moon." Beneath the poem on that page, you say "Native Americans believed that wolves became restless in January."

I see at least two problems with that statement.

Do you mean to tell us that all Native Americans call January "The Wolf Moon?"

You use a past tense verb. Do Native Americans (whichever ones you're talking about) no longer believe that wolves become restless in January?

I see on the book flap that you are "a descendant of Wyandotte Indians." Why did you not write a book about the Wyandotte people?

I'd like to know more about your life as a Wyandotte woman...


My letter to Penny sounds mean, doesn't it? I ask Penny some pointed questions, and, I question her claim to Wyandotte ancestry. Penny may, in fact, have Wyandotte ancestry, but it seems to me that her identity as a Wyandotte is not a lived one. It's an imagined one, informed by romantic notions of who American Indians were. Contrast who she is with the people in this video clip, posted by my colleague, Tracy Peterson, on his Facebook page. It is an exerpt from the upcoming PBS series "We Shall Remain." The series promises to be outstanding. It's consultants are the most esteemed scholars in American Indian Studies.

UPDATE, APRIL 5th, 2009

Beverly Slapin sent me her review of Pollock's book. I'm pasting it below. Her review may not be published elsewhere without her written consent.

Pollack, Penny, When the Moon Is Full: A Lunar Year, illustrated by Mary Azarian. New York: Little, Brown (2001). Unpaginated, color illustrations; kindergarten-grade 3

A lunar year has 13 full moons, but Pollack’s “lunar year” has only 12 full moons, to correspond with the months of the Roman calendar. If this isn’t confusing enough, she bestows so-called “traditional Native American names” on each of the 12 full moons, to five of which she adds sometimes bizarre, always sweeping, generalizations about Native peoples. For instance, January is allegedly called “the Wolf Moon,” which Pollack explains by saying, “Native Americans believed that wolves became restless in January.” Where did she get this?

Tying this all together is an assortment of stupefyingly amateurish short poems. For example,

Full moons come,

full moons go,

softening nights

with their silver glow.

They pass in silence,

all untamed,

but as they travel,

they are named.

Now, the idea of wild untamed moon(s) seems a little incongruous, since our moon is a large hunk of rock, so it has to be assumed that Pollack just needed something to rhyme with “named.” Also, we only have one moon, so this “full moons come, full moons go” just adds to the confusion.

Azarian’s hand-colored woodcut illustrations feature big-eyed animals with human expressions in contemporary scenes. Only one shows humans—two generic figures, facing away from the reader, holding hands and looking at the moon.

Bringing up the rear is a question-and-answer section, framed by a generic “Indian” design. One wonders, for instance, where Pollack got this one:

Why do full moons have names? The Native Americans kept time by the Moon. They knew that every month had a full moon, so “many moons” meant many months. They chose names that reflected something special about each of these time periods. The elders passed along the names, mainly through storytelling.

The question-and-answer format here is especially misleading because it carries a false sense of authenticity. So young readers, rather than being motivated to think critically, are simply handed questions and—wrong answers. They are being told what to think, rather than being taught how to think.

—Beverly Slapin

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

SLJ Article: "Straight Talk on Race" by Mitali Perkins

April 1, 2009. A new issue of School Library Journal is up. It includes "Straight Talk on Race," by Mitali Perkins.

There's much to think about (and respond to) in her article. For now, I point you to this portion of the article, where Mitali discusses her novel, The Sunita Experiment.

After the novel was published, a reviewer chastised me for the “unnecessary exoticization” of my protagonist. Here’s how I ended the story, with Sunita championing her South Asian heritage by trying on a saree and modeling it for the guy she likes:

“You look… just like I thought you would, Sunni,” he whispers when she reaches him. “Are you sure you’re still Sunita Sen and not some exotic Indian princess coming to cast a spell on me?”

“I’m sure, Michael,” she tells him, giving him one of her trademark smiles just to prove it.

I fumed, but, dang it, the reviewer was right. Exotic Indian princess? What was I thinking? Enduring a twinge of shame, I moved on and tried to learn from my mistake.

When my publisher decided to reissue the book in 2005, I was asked if I wanted to make any changes. “Yes!” I shouted, pumping my fist.

Here’s how the book, renamed The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, ends now:

“You look… just like I thought you would, Sunni,” he whispers when she reaches him. “Are you sure you’re still the same Sunita Sen? The California girl?”

“I’m sure, Michael,” she tells him, giving him one of her trademark smiles just to prove it.

Thank goodness for second chances.

Mitali's self-disclosure is important. And rare. For her disclosure, I am grateful. I can point to it as an example of an author accepting and incorporating criticism, using that criticism to grow. To make the book better. To give the reader something better than was there before.

Years ago when Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is On the Ground came out, I approached her at an NCTE conference, introduced myself, and started talking. I wanted her to revisit that book, rethink it, maybe even rewrite it. I wanted her to join me in a conference panel where we could talk about mistakes and growth. I imagined how much the industry could change. Ann Rinaldi is a leading writer. She's got lot of fans. It seemed to me such a wonderful opportunity.

She didn't see it that way. She drew back from the table where she was sitting, pulling away from me. She listened to me and said no, and, that she'd never write another book about American Indians again.

Part of me was really glad that she said she would never write another one, but part of me was disappointed over a lost opportunity.

That Mitali is openly writing about her decision means a lot. Thank you, Mitali.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Research Study on Effects of Subtle Discrimination

Yesterday, a comment was submitted to "Jan Brett and Sherman Alexie" posted here on December 31, 2007. In that post, I compared Brett's The Three Snow Bears to Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both were on the New York Times best seller list. Brett's book objectifies and dehumanizes American Indians; Alexie's book does not. In his book, readers come to know the life of a Native teen, with its ups and downs, its richness and its hardships. Beautiful, brutual, honest.

Teresa (the person who submitted the comment yesterday) did not like the critique of Brett's book. Here's what she 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.

Her comments reflect how difficult it is to recognize subtle forms of racism. I hasten to say that I don't think Teresa is racist. She is not able to see what I am trying to help her see, but that does not mean she is racist.

This morning in ScienceDaily I read an article about a study on subtle discrimination that may help understand why it is hard for some to see problematic depictions of American Indians as inappropriate or hurtful. The article is called "Racism's Cognitive Toll: Subtle Discrimination is More Taxing on the Brain." It summarizes research done by Jessica Salvatore and J. Nicole Shelton, two psychologists at Princeton. Here's a couple of key excerpts:

The problem is that we have limited cognitive resources, so when we are solving one problem, we have difficulty focusing on another at the same time. Some psychologists reason from this that subtle racism might actually be more, not less, damaging than the plain antipathy of yesterday, sapping more mental energy. Old-fashioned racism--a "No Negroes Allowed" sign, for example--is hateful and hurtful, but it's not vague or confusing. It doesn't require much cognitive work to get it. But if you're the most qualified candidate for a job, and know it, and still don't get the job for some undisclosed reason--that demands some processing.

That last line, about being qualified for a job, points to the research study itself. Participants in the study were either black or white. The researchers created a situation in which participants observed fair and unfair hiring decisions and then took the Stroop test that tests capacity for mental effort. Salvatore and Shelton's research question was to see if experiencing subtle racism interfered with mental capacity:

It did, at least for blacks, and more than the overt racism did. As reported in the September issue of Psychological Science, black volunteers who had witnessed unfair but ambiguous hiring decisions did much less well on the Stroop test, suggesting that they were using all their mental resources to make sense of the unfairness.

Interestingly, white volunteers were more impaired by overt racism than by the more ambiguous discrimination. Salvatore and Shelton figure this is because whites rarely experience any racism; they do not even notice the subtle forms of racism, and are thrown off balance when they are hit over the head by overt acts. Many blacks, by contrast, have developed coping strategies for the most hateful kinds of racism; it's the constant, vague, just-below-the-surface acts of racism that impair performance, day in and day out.

So. Let's go back to Teresa's comment, and let's think about children in classrooms, observing racism in books, classroom materials, etc.

Teresa can't see the problems in Jan Brett's book. It takes work to subtle forms of racism. Again, this is not an attack on Teresa. Her comments are representative of a lot of people (I'd say the majority of people) who resist critiques like those found on this site.

Racism, whether it is overt or subtle, is costing us in ways we may not realize. Research studies like the one by Salvatore and Shelton may help us revisit and rethink our views about books like The Three Snow Bears.

What does this mean for the classroom?

A lot of people argue that we should teach books like Little House on the Prairie because it allows us to talk about attitudes people had "at that time." I think that is a good use of the book, but only with students who are much older. I suggest that book be read in high school and college, not elementary school. And I will also note that the majority of lesson plans on LHOP do not address the racist attitudes in the book.

I do wonder, though, if upon the conclusion of a discussion of LHOP, the Stroop test were given, how the students would fare?

UPDATE, MARCH 31, 2009 - 4:30 CST
Mitali Perkins has an article about race in the April issue of School Library Journal. Anticipating push-back on her article, she blogged about it today, referencing my post. If her article is accessible online, I'll link to it here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Erdrich's PORCUPINE YEAR in SLJ's "Battle of the (Kids') Books"

School Library Journal launched their first annual "Battle of the (Kids') Books" today. Among the contenders for "the Baddest Book of Them All" is Louise Erdrich's The Porcupine Year. The judges selected sixteen books they deem "the very best" published in 2008.

I'm not at all sure how this will work. Take a look at the bracket. Porcupine Year is matched up with The Hunger Games.

NOTE: Hunger Games is not about King Arthur as previously said here. That was an error on my part, pointed out in a comment (below). Hunger Games is "a gripping story set in a postapocalyptic world where a replacement for the United States demands a tribute from each of its territories: two children to be used as gladiators in a televised fight to the death" according to the Publisher's Weekly review.

According to info at SLJ, the pairings are random. Forgive my lack of sports knowledge. Is that how the Sweet Sixteen is done? Random?

So... in that bracket, it looks like author Ellen Wittlinger will choose between Porcupine Year and The Hunger Games. Reading through the blogosphere, there's a lot of cheering going on for this Battle of the (Kids') Books competition. There is some resistance, too. One blogger writes that the same books are getting more attention, that there are other books that could benefit from attention.

I'm glad Louise's book is included. It is definitely a terrific read. If you want a signed copy, order one from her store, Birchbark Books.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


[Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission from its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]

Rumford, James, Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing, illustrated by the author and translated by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby (Cherokee). Houghton Mifflin, 2004; unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 1-4.

On a family road trip to California to visit the redwood trees called Giant Sequoia, a father relates the story of the origins of the Cherokee syllabary and the perseverance of its creator, Sequoyah. Sequoyah is portrayed as an otherwise ordinary man, a metalworker, who undertook the daunting task of setting speech to paper so that the Cherokee language would not “fade away.” Neither ridicule nor harassment from his contemporaries—not even the destruction of his home by arson—could stop Sequoyah from creating the syllabary widely used in Cherokee writing today.

Rumford’s text, reminiscent of traditional storytelling, is concise and evocative. Each paragraph in English is followed by a parallel in Cherokee by Anna Sixkiller Huckaby. The book design, format and illustrations are a thing of beauty and perfectly complement this story within a story. The tall, slim format and mostly dark brown and forest green accents honor both the stately Giant Sequoia trees and the man, Sequoyah, whose name they bear. The bold-lined artwork—done with ink, watercolor, pastel and pencil on drawing paper adhered to a rough piece of wood, then “rubbed” with chalk and colored pencil—remind one of 19th-Century woodblock prints. The Cherokee writing serves both as an example of what Sequoyah accomplished, and as a beautiful design element that completes the wholeness of the book.—Beverly Slapin


This book is available from Oyate.

The Cherokee Nation website has a page about Sequoyah.