Monday, April 12, 2010

In the early 1950s, Ann Nolan Clark said...

This morning, Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal posted the book that is at the top spot in her series of Top 100 Children's Novels. To prepare the series, she asked her readers to submit a list of their favorite novels. Up top is Charlotte's Web. In her discussion of the novel, she notes that it did not win the Newbery Medal. The following paragraph prompted the title for my own blog post today ("In the early 1950s Ann Nolan Clark said...):

The book won a Newbery Honor in 1952, losing out the gold to The Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark. To determine why this might be, the blog Heavy Medal decided to conduct a formal reading of Clark's book. In Part One they simply discuss the decision to read it. In Part Two and Part Three they really pick it apart and thoroughly consider it. From my own point of view, and as I understand it, the simplified reason for why Clark beat White may have something to do with the fact that the librarians on the Newbery committee were tired of handing out medals to books about middle American white kids. The Secret of the Andes took place in Peru! It was new and exciting. And to steal from Nina Lindsay, this is what Clark said in her Newbery acceptance speech, "I have worked with Spanish children from New Mexico to Central and South America, with Indian children from Canada to Peru. I have worked with them because I like them. I write about them because their stories need to be told. All children need understanding, but children of segregated racial groups need even more. All children need someone to make a bridge from their world to the world of the adults who surround them."

Notice that? Ann Nolan Clark, speaking in the early 1950s, said "I write about them [Spanish and Indian children] because their stories need to be told." Clark was not Spanish or American Indian. She was an outsider to the people she wrote about. Like many, she meant well. Today's writers mean well too, just as Clark did, over 50 years ago. But why aren't today's non-Native writers helping Native people get published?

I am one amongst many that ask that question. Connie A. Jacobs asks that question in her review of Native American Picture Books of Change. Here's an excerpt of her review, published in Studies in American Indian Literature, (Volume 17.3, 2005, 123-126):

Central to Benes's study is the work of Clark who taught for the Indian Service and worked at Zuni and Tesuque Pueblos and who retold oral tales and wrote stories about life on the Navajo, Lakota, Taos, Picuris, and Blackfeet reservations. Benes claims Clark's authority to tell these stories as she quotes from the dustcover of Clark's award-winning book In My Mother's House, 1941: "'Clark found there was a need in Indian schools for books written from the Indian point of view.' It explains that the stories she tells took form in children's notebooks, capturing the original rhythm and pattern of their thinking" (43). It is statements like this that call into question how much Benes really understands about the validity of non-Native writers telling and retelling tribal stories and legends. How could Clark, who is not Native, claim the need for books written from a Native point of view and then tell the stories herself?

Non-Native people who, for what ever reason, find themselves working with Native people today could do more than "tell their stories" the way that Clark did. I wish they would.

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