Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Elizabeth Bird's Survey of Top 100 Children's Novels, #90 thru #66

A week ago (Feb 10, 2010), I wrote about Elizabeth Bird's survey at SLJ. She asked readers to send her a list of their all time favorite novels. With that info, she's compiling a list, providing quite a lot of information about each book that is on the list of Top 100. On Feb 10, I wrote about two of the books on the list: Indian in the Cupboard, and, Caddie Woodlawn. Today, I'm taking a quick look at books between #90 and #66.

Number 94 is Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransom, published in 1930. (Note, April 17, 2010: I'm adding this book today.)
  • On page 16, Roger is "keeping a sharp lookout lest he should be shot by a savage with a poisoned arrow from behind a tree."
  • On page 137, the children come across what they call a "Red Indian wigwam" from which emerges "a very friendly savage".  Ransom's use of "Red Indian" was (is?) common in the United Kingdom.
  • On page 231, Nancy shouts "Honest Injun" .
  • On page 267, Nancy writes that John had "come at risk of his life to warn you that savage natives were planning an attack on your houseboat."
I think I'll have to find some time to study Swallows and Amazons.... 

Number 85 is On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The word "Indian" appears 12 times in the book, most of them about their time in Indian Territory. 
  • On page 143, Mary tells Laura to keep her sunbonnet on or "You'll be as brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?"
  • On page 218, Laura says "I wish I was an Indian and never had to wear clothes!" Course, Ma chides her for saying that, especially for saying it "on Sunday!"
I've written a lot about Wilder's books (see set of links at the bottom of this page), specifically, Little House on the Prairie, which I expect will be in the top tier of Elizabeth's survey. 

Number 78 is Johnny Tremain, written by Esther Forbes, published in 1943.  I'm going to have to reread that one...  I pulled it up on Google books and it looks like Forbes may have done a reasonable job describing the way the colonists dressed for the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773. The popular perception in America (thanks to a lithograph titled "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" done in 1846, 73 years after the event took place) is that the colonists dressed in fringe, face paint and feathered headdresses, but they did not do that. Here's what Forbes wrote in Johnny Tremain about the colonists getting ready (p. 140):
...they started to assume their disguises, smootch their faces with soot, paint them with red paint, pull on nightcaps, old frocks, torn jackets, blankets with holes cut for their arms...
See? No fringed buckskin. On page 141, Forbes writes that Johnny "had a fine mop of feathers standing upright in the old knitted cap he would wear on his head..."

I have notes on this somewhere....  I don't recall red paint and feather caps, but the rest of what Forbes writes matches what I recall. I'm mostly glad to see the accuracy of her description of the disguises, but disappointed when I get to page 143:
"Quick!" he [Rab] said, and smootched his face with soot, drew a red line across his mouth running from ear to ear. Johnny saw Rab's eyes through the mask of soot. They were glowing with that dark excitement he had seen but twice before. His lips were parted. His teeth looked sharp and white as an animals.
The character, Rab, in his painted face, becomes animal like. That is a familiar frame: Indian people and animals, very much alike. And of course, it is wrong.

In her discussion of Johnny Tremain, Bird includes a clip from the 1957 Disney film of the movie. In the clip, the colonists, some in fringed clothes, some in knit caps with feathers stuck into them, some with headbands and feathers, and some with painted faces, sing "Sons of Liberty."

Number 66 is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. On February 5, 2007, I published Beverly Slapin's review of the book here. In a nutshell? Not recommended! [Note, April 16, 2010: Also see my review essay, "Thoughts on Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons", published on Feb. 25, 2010.]

Number 63 is Gone Away Lake written by Elizabeth Enrich in 1957. I did a search of content (used Google Books) and found four uses of "Indian" in the book.

  • Page 141: "Now and then (unnecessarily since they never looked back), he would freeze and stand still as an Indian in the shadows."
  • Page 198: "She just sat there, Baby-Belle did, with her arms folded on her chest staring at Mrs. Brace-Gideon severely, like an Indian chief or a judge or somebody like that."
  • Page 217: "the pale little crowds of Indian pipes and the orange jack-o'-lantern mushrooms that pushed up the needles."
  • Page 756: "in the distance, by the river's edge, a tiny Indian campfire burned with the colors of an opal."

In Gone Away Lake, one of the characters is named Minnehaha, which is from Longfellow. I don't know why she's named that. It is commonly regarded as an "Indian" name, but it is not. We can thank (or blame) Longfellow for so much of the mistaken information that circulates!


Wendy said...

So what, exactly, are you getting at here? What do we learn from these passages taken out of context--especially the ones from Gone-Away Lake? While I think it's interesting to note the pervasiveness of the "stoic Indian" in children's literature, what are you wanting us to think about the author using the common name of a plant or describing a painting (that's the context of the last quote)? Minnehaha is named after the Longfellow poem, by the way, simply because her father liked literary names.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Wendy,

I want you to see what I, or what a Native reader, sees, and how often we see it.

And I want you to think about how often those words and images are not ones that function as a mirror for a Native child, or a window for a non-Native one (to use that metaphor).

And I want you to think about what that must feel like to a Native reader. Recall Stephanie Fryberg's research on the effects of stereotypical imagery.

And think about the graduation rates of Native children in this country.

It is all connected. It all fits together, in ways that I am sure you and anyone else WANTS to see happen. There's no malice intended, but the outcome is not good.

Debbie Reese said...


This morning as I read Native news, I find a new report has been published. The authors are educational researchers at Penn State, and the study is about graduation rates of American Indian Students.

"Many American Indian and Alaska Native students face a wide variety of challenges including attending schools in rural and isolated areas, high teacher and principal turnover, lack of relevant curricula and assessment practices, inadequate funding, and other health, social, and economic disparities. Effective leadership at the local, tribal, state and national levels is essential to addressing these challenges," said co-author John W. Tippeconnic, III, the director of the American Indian Leadership Program and Batschelet Chair of Educational Administration at Pennsylvania State University.

"American Indian and Alaska Native students continue to graduate at alarmingly low rates across the nation. With the exception of Arizona, California, Montana and Oklahoma, on average, less than 50% of Native students in the states included in this study graduate each year," said co-author Susan C. Faircloth, also at Penn State. "Failure to respond to this crisis will have devastating effects on the educational, economic, health and social well-being of Native peoples and communities."

Tippeconic and Faircloth point to many problems. In children's literature, a lot of people want to defend books like Indian in the Cupboard and Little House on the Prairie. Those two books are used a lot in schools.

The nightly newscasts, for several weeks now, have lauded the U.S. for how much money Americans have sent to Haiti. It makes Americans feel good to help others who are far away.

I want that same generosity of spirit to take place in all of you who work with children's books, in whatever capacity. In the report, Tippeconic and Faircloth specifically point to curriculum. We, in children's literature, CAN DO SOMETHING about that curriculum. Instead, the majority defend Wilder and Banks as writers, creating fiction. As long as we continue to do that, we are contributing to the conditions of Native children. Surely we don't want to do that. Right?

Click here to see the entire report.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Haiti, one of the frightening things about the images in the books you mention is how wide-spread their impact is. I am in Haiti doing relief work. I attended a training at a school that had drawings of three children on the gate. One was caucasian, one was an offensively stereotyped Chinese child, and one was a Native American child in buckskinned clothes and a headband with a feather. Do children in Haiti have any images of Native American people aside from drawings like this?

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks for sharing what you saw on that gate in Haiti...

If we were able to go into a school library, or a public one, or a bookstore there, it would be interesting to see what sorts of images of American Indians books meant for children have in them.

Anonymous said...


It is inane, I agree. Like telling a child, "Eat your vegetables. Don't you know children are starving in X (whatever X of the moment is)."

What possible difference could it make to the graduation chances of a Native American in Alaska to point out that the name of a plant has "Indian" in it? No more difference than it makes to a child with no food to eat, that somewhere some privileged child has or has not eaten his peas.

What I tell myself is that being reminded of his privilege might help that child, somewhere down the road, to be more aware and willing to take action to afford those privileges to others. That's the best I can make of what Debbie does here in her blog.


Wendy said...

I just think, Debbie, that when you provide quotes like these, they're totally meaningless without context or commentary. You know I'm basically onboard with your general mission, but I almost think it trivializes it to give the same amount of attention, even within one post, to "Indian pipes" as to "You'll be as brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?".

Jean Mendoza said...

It might be helpful to some readers to substitute "Caucasian" or "Euro-American" for "Indian" in some of the passages, especially those that puzzled Wendy and anonymous/Swift. For example, What on earth would "Euro-American pipe" be, and what might have been involved in bestowing that name on a plant? What parallels might one then make with the process of naming a plant Indian-whatever (pipe, paintbrush, or grass, to list 3 that I know of.)What does the naming process say about the position of the group (Euro-Americans, "Indians") in the consciousness of the one/s doing the naming? as a namer, I would have had to look at the plant and say, "Gosh, that reminds me of the kind of pipe euro-americans use. If I name it Euro-American pipe, everybody will be able to tell something about the plant just from the name."

So -- what does that leave me with? More questions, really. I don't think such lines of thought are "inane". It's all data, and it all bears consideration. Not all of it is earth-shaking information, though it is all food for thought. As
Debbie points out, the key is to notice when such things are done; to consider trends & patterns; and to do whatever it takes to make the familiar strange. "Look at that field of Whiteman's paintbrush." "I saw a Caucasian pipe plant in the woods." "The painting showed the light of a white settler's campfire." The fact that it feels weird to make statements like that means (to me anyway) that Something is Going On. It might not be overt oppression, but it's ... Something.

hschinske said...

Elizabeth Enright's _Then There Were Five_ has a fairly extended passage on a girl thinking romantically about what kinds of Indians might have lived near her home in upstate New York. While the passage contains any number of stereotypes (and certainly shows no awareness that any Iroquois still exist), Enright does show awareness that they are stereotypes and that her character is being a bit silly: "At this point Randy sighed. It would be a poor huntress, for heaven's sake, who stalked her prey singing at the top of her lungs; besides, there wasn't any lake for miles around. Randy was shamefacedly aware that Little Birch Bark's place was on the cover of sheet music, or on a drugstore calendar, and not in the history of this valley."

Which all invites the question, how *would* you write about a character whose head is filled with stereotypes (as any white child's in 1940s New York would be), without invoking those stereotypes in a maddening way? Because I don't think Enright manages it, though she gets a bit closer than lots of her contemporaries would have.

Helen Schinske

Anonymous said...

Jean Mendoza,

Liz Burns (I think) made a very well reasoned argument a few weeks ago that it isn't anybody's prerogative to tell her what she "should" do with her blog. I really appreciate that Wendy (whose blog I also read from time to time) didn't sail in to say what Debbie "should" do. She just asked "What do you see this accomplishing?"

Debbie answered with a strongly worded explanation of Why It Is Important. But that isn't an answer to the question Wendy asked.

I am not confused. Wendy asked what Debbie thought this sort of post accomplished. I answered, in itself, it accomplishes almost nothing. What I *hope* is that people put some thought into what Debbie has highlighted. Which is what you did. You gave an example of the sort of thinking that might be prompted by a post like Debbie's.

Do I wish that Debbie put more thought into her posts? Well, what I really wish was that I knew of ten times as many bloggers covering this ground.