Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Elizabeth Bird's survey of Top 100 Children's Novels

A while back, SLJ (School Library Journal) columnist Elizabeth Bird invited her readers to send her a list of their top ten children's novels. She asked them to rank the books, in terms of "biggest impact" and "second biggest" and so on.

She compiled the information she received, and on Feb 8, 2010, she started blogging her findings on her blog, "A Fuse #8 Production." On that day, she presented books #100 through 91. She's done a terrific job presenting the books. Quoting from people who submitted them, reviews of them, criticism, discussion guides, and, providing book covers (some books have had many covers over the years) and links to videos of those that were made into films. As she posts over the next couple of weeks, I'll respond as I can.

In the opening paragraphs to her Feb 8 post, she said there "are heroes and villains" in the list, and she guarantees that

"you will see one book that makes you boo, and another that makes you cheer, perhaps in the same post. There are books included here that I adore and there are definitely books here that I abhor. My job is to never show the difference. So sit back and get ready to complain or cheer in turns. It's totally within your rights."

I don't like her use of "complain." Especially as the flip side of cheer. The word "complain" (for me) has negative connotations. It suggests a whiny orientation that lacks in substance. Instead of thinking about negative criticism, people are prone to wave it off as "politically correct." 

Anyway, it is no surprise that Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks is on this list. Bird quotes Eric Carpenter, one of the readers who submitted his list of top ten books:
My third grade teacher read this one to the class. Three years later I remember scraping my birthday money together to order the 3 book set from Scholastic. I read these books until the covers came off. Rereading this brought me right back to those childhood days when I would challenge myself to read all three in a weekend (cold central NY winters made such feats a necessity.)
I like that Bird provides her readers with links to the Oyate critique of the book, and that she quotes  from the Oyate review.  Here's what Bird used:

"The object here was not to draw an authentic Native person, but to create an arresting literary device. Although the little 'Indian' is called Iroquois, no attempt has been made, either in text or illustrations, to have him look or behave appropriately. For example, he is dressed as a Plains Indian, and is given a tipi and a horse. This is how he talks: 'I help... I go... Big hole. I go through... Want fire. Want make dance. Call spirits.' Et cetera. There are characteristic speech patterns for those who are also Native speakers, but nobody in the history of the world ever spoke this way."  

I wish, however, that she had used the excerpt below instead of, or in addition to, the one she chose (by the way, Bird's post is missing a paragraph break after "spoke this way." Her "School Library Journal ascribed this in part..." are Bird's words and are not part of the Oyate review). Doris Seale wrote the Oyate review, and it it includes an except right out of the book.

He saw an Indian making straight for him. His face, in the torchlight, was twisted with fury. For a second, Omri saw, under the shaven scalplock, the mindless destructive face of a skinhead just before he lashed out... .The Algonquin licked his lips, snarling like a dog... .Their headdresses... even their movements... were alien. Their faces, too—their faces! They were wild, distorted, terrifying masks of hatred and rage.
See the difference? The part Bird used is about stereotypes. That is important information about the book. But, the one I wish she had used is about the way the Indian is characterized as animal-like. I wonder if there were any Native children in Eric Carpenter's 3rd grade New York City classroom? I wonder how they may have felt, reading that passage in the book?

The book in spot #93 is Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink. In discussing Caddie Woodlawn, Bird links to "Reflections on Caddie Woodlawn" posted on American Indians in Children's Literature in March of 2007, where I recount my daughter's experience with the book. Please click on Reflections and read Jeff Berglund's comment.  I saw Jeff just last week. We were both at the American Indian Studies conference at Arizona State University.

Bird includes links for teachers. Among those links is a bibliography of "books on American Indians to help young people develop an awareness of an alternative point of view" and to "broaden cultural understanding."  I looked at the books on there and, while I was glad to see Birchbark House at the top, the point of view it offers is overwhelmed by most of the other books on the list, including a book by Kathy Jo Wargin. If you're interested in a Native critique of Wargin's work, read Lois Beardlee on Mackinac Island Press. Beardslee writes
Lewis’s business, Sleeping Bear Press, produced several books that profoundly offended the local Native American community and received scathing reviews by Native American scholars, including me. Among the offending books are: The Legend of Sleeping Bear (1998), The Legend of Mackinac Island (1999), The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper (2001), The Legend of Leelanau (2003), and The Legend of the Petoskey Stone (2004) all written by Kathy-jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuysen. All of these “Indian legends” were either manufactured by the author and publisher or based upon the historically tainted writings of nineteenth century ethnologist/Indian agent/wannabe-writer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. All are written in the style of Schoolcraft’s nineteenth century syrupy language and all promote nineteenth century stereotypes of Native Americans as simple, docile, primitive people—motifs that were used to justify the usurpation of Native lands and resources through the near extirpation of aboriginal residents.
The bibliography also includes Douglas Wood's The Windigo's Return, a book that Betsy Hearne took to task in "Swapping Tales and Stealing Stories" and one of Paul Goble's books. Goble's books have been soundly critiqued by a leader in American Indian Studies, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. For details, see "About Paul Goble and his books..."

In addition to Birchbark House, the bibliography does have some books that I, too, would recommend. Patty Loew's Native People of Wisconsin is an excellent book that I've not yet written about.

At the end of the Feb 8 post is a link to the next set of books. I wonder what I'll find there?


Fuse #8 said...

Should you wish to link from the comment section of my blog to your own you need only remove the "http" portion of your URL and it will allow the website to post.

The paragraph break has been restored after the quote from the Oyate review.

I attempted to find more than one critical interpretation of each of these two books for the post. My readers may have voted for them, but I felt it was necessary to offer an alternative point of view in spite of their preferences.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks for that tip (removing the "http" portion of a link).

You're doing a pretty thorough job with the series. I was hoping (perhaps naively) that some of the comments would note the alternative point of view, but didn't see any.

It is very hard to get people to step back from a book that held positive emotional value for them...

Debbie Reese said...

Lisa Mitten, a long-standing member of the American Indian Library Association, and the author of several items I link to in the "Full Text Articles" section of the blog (top right column), posted this to Elizabeth Bird's column:

"Very disappointed to see INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD on this list. Well-written and exciting, yes, but not enough to redeem the horrendous depiction of Native people. I AM Iroquois (Mohawk), and my daughter and I were appalled, insulted, and ridiculed at the offensively-depicted character of Little Bear. And you wonder why Indians get upset about sports team mascots? Books like this feed the ignorance people still have about Native peoples and make the world an uglier place for Native people."

Saints and Spinners said...

Speaking of The Birchbark House, I just finished reading it aloud to my 6 year old daughter. I'd read it some years before she was born, but it made more of an emotional impact on me this time around. My daughter really enjoyed it too. We're looking forward to reading aloud the sequels. I wish I'd had Birchbark House as a child.

Amy said...

Thanks for the recommendation on Native People of Wisconsin. I had been looking at that in the Wisconsin Historical Society Press catalog and wondering about it. I'm adding that to my next order from Follett.

Eric Carpenter said...

the 3rd grade class where i was captivated by my teacher's reading of The Indian in the Cupboard was in Onondaga County New York and while there were not any Native Americans in my 3rd grade classroom, there was a Native American (Mohawk) 4th grade teacher just 2 doors down the hall. I've always found it problematic to judge art based on content, racially insensitive or otherwise. Bank's books have inspired readers for decades and if the books make life long readers out of children who might not otherwise be so then i believe they are worthwhile. It is perfectly acceptable to loath the content of a piece of art yet still find aesthetic value in it. I do not think anyone has the right to whitewash or censor art to make it more pleasing to your modern palates. Perhaps reading TIINC to a class today might inspire conversations about prejudice that might otherwise not take place.

Color Online said...


Thanks for the post. I'm linking this to RAWW.

And to answer your question you posted at POC challenge, the reality is the majority of readers aren't interested in working at understanding. They want to escape and feel good and participating makes them feel good enough.

You and I feel differently and I'm so glad we connected. We are in the minority in more than one way.

Thank you.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Eric,

You adored the books. So much so that you scraped together money to buy them. That's a powerful statement of the book's power and allure. It had that effect on you, and obviously, millions of others.

I don't think you're racist, Eric. Your embrace of the book reflects American society and its embrace (and British society, too, to say the least) of stereotypical Indians. Mostly, people just flat out don't see the problems because they were never taught to see these problems.

I'm guessing that your teacher in 3rd grade did not use it, as you suggest, to teach about prejudice. She may not have known or recognized its problems, but I'm guessing (again) that you read the links Elizabeth included, and that you have far more information than your 3rd grade teacher did.

Would you give it, as a gift, to a Native child in 3rd grade?

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

To suggest that one can judge art without reference to content is absurd. The author/painter/photographer,etc chose the content and chose a certain approach to the content, a certain perspective on the content.
The content is inseperable from the entire work, otherwise we are looking at decorative craftsmanship, not art. I have read nothing in the various critiques of IITC that suggest it is not well written, merely that the content presents images deliberately chosen by the author which are offensive. In light of available literature that is aestetically pleasing AND accurate in portraying Native Americans, African Americans etc, why stick with something that villifies a people? Would you stick with 'Little Black Sambo' because it was loved by millions of children?
Mr. Carpenter suggests these efforts to educate parents and educators to the problems with this and other books are an attempt at 'whitewashing'. This is an ironically ill chosen term which suggests that by presenting positive and truthful alternatives to this offensive portrayal they are seeking to cover something up. Is that what he actually meant to say? If so, what are they seeking to cover up? Does he really believe the Algonquins were bestial savages?
Finally, no single piece of writing has the power to "make life long readers out of children who might not otherwise be so". To suggest such a thing in defense of this slight piece of kiddie lit is disingenuous and simpleminded. Lifelong readers are born out of a complex welter of factors, including exposure to a wide variety of reading materials and any educator or educated person with a lick of common sense knows this.

Anonymous said...

I must disagree with the following statement that Big Bear made: "Finally, no single piece of writing has the power to "make life long readers out of children who might not otherwise be so". To suggest such a thing in defense of this slight piece of kiddie lit is disingenuous and simpleminded. Lifelong readers are born out of a complex welter of factors, including exposure to a wide variety of reading materials and any educator or educated person with a lick of common sense knows this."

Being an educated person and an educator, I have come across students that have turned into readers by getting that one particular book that caught their interest. It doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen. One book can open reading to a child that maybe wasn't a reader before.

I think your tone with the comment was a bit offensive.

Eric Carpenter said...

Re: lick of common sense.
Reading researchers such as Stephen Krashen have labeled such books "home run books" see articles such as:
Joanne Ujiie and Stephen Krashen, "Home Run Books and Reading Enjoyment" Knowledge Quest 31(1): 36-37, 2002


Debra Von Sprecken, Jiyoung Kim and Stephen Krashen "The Home Run Book: Can One Positive Reading Experience Create a Reader?" (2000; California School Library Journal 23 (2): 8-9)

Debbie Reese said...

I understand your argument, Eric, about the effect of a single book.

But aren't you a bit unsettled by the fact that the single book you are arguing for is rather messed up in terms of its depictions of American Indians?

You're pointing us to research studies about books, and I'd like to point you to a research study on the effects of stereotypical images on the self esteem and self efficacy of American Indian students and students who are not American Indian. Go here to see it:

And, Eric, I am going to push you to answer my question. Knowing what you know NOW about the book, would you hand it to a Native child?

Anonymous said...

I had quite the negative experience after our class read "Indian and the Cupboard" while I was in elementary school. I am Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and it was a well known fact around school that I'm Native and because of it a lot of kids in my class began speaking to me in broken sentences. It was horrible and for a while I tried to keep the fact that I'm Native a "secret" because I was afraid of other people doing the say thing.

I currently work in a library as a senior page and always find it very difficult to check out/request this book for people because of the negative affect it had on me growing up. However, I also don't believe in censorship, so I'm caught between a rock and a hard place.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

there are virtually as many theories on reading and education as there are educators. Anonymouds founfd my comment offensive and I find defense of racist stereotypes offensive, so that's a wash of sorts. I was a teacher as well. Although i taught HS English, I did take several classes on teaching reading because my goal was to work with students from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds(the sort I came from).
With all due respect to the "Home Run Book" theorists and anonymous's anecdotal evidence, I disagree. And even if I DID agree, does every book that might capture a young person's imagination weigh in at equal value? Suppose the book was pornographic instead of racist, would you still laud it for its salutory effect on the reading habits of young people?
I maintain that writing which harms one group is a poor educational offering. I don't believe it should be pulled from libraries. I don't think Mein kampf shou;ld be pulled either. But i sure wouldn't offer it or "The Elders Of Zion" to kids!
And lest anyone feel I am trying to write anonymously, my name is Roger Nehring.

Rosa said...

Sigh, as soon as I saw "Indian in the Cupboard" I knew it would get a critical review (hoping not but...) Fair enough, Fair enough.

My mom read this to my brother and me. We both loved brother for weeks tried to put his army men in various cupboards to see if they would come to life.

What I remember most is the WWI guy not returning when the kids tried to bring him back he was just a pile of clothes.

It is important to note when authors use stereotypes I agree and through the diligent work of sites like this I can find better ways of talking about them.

Do you think the book should not be read or just that people should be made aware of the criticism?

Anonymous said...

In response to Big Bear:
I wouldn't offer Mein Kampf to a child either. It wasn't intended for that audience. That's a ridiculous comparison. I would offer Indian in the Cupboard to a child if I felt it was a good fit for them.