Monday, June 07, 2010


I imagine that most of you recognize the illustration above. It appears in Danny and the Dinosaur, an I Can Read book published in 1958:

Do you remember the illustration at top? Like many of you, I read Danny and the Dinosaur as a child. I don't recall if I paused at that illustration. Likely, I passed it over then, but as a person who studies images of Indians in children's literature, I notice it now and view it critically.

Watch the video embedded below. At the 3:35 mark, Frank Ettawageshik of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, talks about the placement of American Indians in museums, and what those placements teach children.

The University of Michigan took a lot of heat for their decision to remove the dioramas from their museum. How many of those people, I wonder, remember Danny's visit to the museum? How many of them got their introduction to Indians in museums from the much-loved Danny and the Dinosaur? Is Danny and the Dinosaur in your collection?

I invite you to consider removing it. Removing it?! Is that censorship? It might be, but, what if the book contains something that is inaccurate?

Look at the illustration. The words say "He saw Indians." But he didn't! He saw a shirtless man with a big nose wearing a headdress. What tribe might that man belong to? We don't know, and, the naked torso/feathered headdress/hooked nose constitute a stereotype.

Course, this IS an easy-reader, so we might think that for Syd Hoff to be tribally specific (name the tribe), it would overwhelm the child. Let's say Hoff said it was a Plains Indian. They wear headdresses like that, but what about the bare torso and the hooked nose? What if Hoff put accurate clothing on the man and did not draw the nose that way? His Indian would still be in a natural history museum, which makes it problematic in a different way...

The book's publication date is 1958. As such, it predates the development of what we now call multicultural literature. Would the book be published today? (Note on July 18, 20140, the answer is yes. Based on what I'm seeing in 2014, it would!) It is, of course, reprinted again and again. You can get it in hardcover, paperback, or in audiobook format.

Hoff sent his manuscript for his first children's book to Ursula Nordstrom. In Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (edited by Leonard Marcus), you can read her letter to Hoff (see page 103). Dated December 4, 1957, she asked him to revise it for the I Can Read series. Studying her letter, I gather that the text for the page above originally read that Danny wanted to "see how the world looked a long, long time ago." She deemed that line "unchildlike" and said that a child would probably want to see specific things. About that page (page 8 of his manuscript), Nordstrom wrote:
You could just say "He saw Indians. He saw bears. He saw..."
That suggestion is followed by this:
On Page 9: "He saw horses and wagons. He saw mummies. He saw cavemen. And he saw...(OK? Roman chariot and Egyptian mummies look too hard for a child who has just learned to read and is excited about reading.)
I find it fascinating to think about what Hoff may have written, and it would be terrific to see his original manuscript! Nordstrom didn't think "Roman" or "Egyptian" were ok. Indians, however, are ok. They wouldn't be "too hard for a child who has just learned to read and is excited about reading."

I hear something much like Nordstrom's words a lot when a favorite book is challenged. Again and again, people say "it gets unmotivated kids to read!" about books like Touching Spirit Bear. Or, they say that I am making a mountain out of a molehill and there are other, more important things, to worry about. I'm glad to point people to new research on the effects of stereotyping. And as before, I'm happy to send you Stephanie Fryberg's article "Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots." (Or, you can download a pdf here.)  With the word 'mascots' in the title, you may think the article is irrelevant, but Fryberg is studying the effects of images that include Indian images used in mascots, but also in film and books. The 'Indian princess' in the title is Disney's Pocahontas.

Watch the video above, read Fryberg's article, and then, consider whether or not you'll leave Danny and the Dinosaur on your shelf.

Bookmark and Share


Anonymous said...

The University of Minnesota's Special Library has a copy of the corrected typescript of Danny and the Dinosaur. Check out the finding aid here.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I'll see if I can find someone up there to take a look.

Jennie said...

There's so much more wrong with this page than just what you mention! Everything you point out that's problematic with the "He saw Indians" sentence and illustration is also true of the "He saw Eskimos" two sentences before (just replace "headdress" with "fur coat.") There is also something very problematic with the fact that they were grouped with a bear (a wild, and ferocious animal.)

Also, thank you. Having read your work here and elsewhere over the past few years has given me a much more critical eye towards these things. I never would have noticed otherwise!

Heather B. said...

I am a 51-yr.-old white woman who had this book as a child and enjoyed it. Years later when my daughters, who are part Ojibwe, were little and I belonged to a children's book club that would send us 2 books/month, this one came in the mail. When I saw the cover, I felt happy and was excited to read it to them, not even remembering what the story was about, just knowing that I had liked the book as a child. However, when I started reading it and came to the page with the "Indian" in the museum, I thought to myself, "There's no way I'm reading this to my little Ojibwe daughters!" and it went into the garbage. That was approximately 1992. In retrospect, I should've written a letter to the book club, telling them how I felt about that book being one of their selections.
I believe it also negatively influenced my concept of Native Americans as a young child. We lived in southeastern Missouri at the time, in a very small town which, as I recall, didn't have people of any minorities living there. The summer I was 3 years old, my family took a big camping trip out west, camping in a different spot every night, seeing the west for a month. When we were talking about the trip when I was a teenager or young adult, my mother told me that when we were at a gas station in Montana, she had told me that a man at the gas station was an Indian. She said I was very surprised and exclaimed, "There are real Indians?" At the time she told me that, I wondered why I would've thought that, how I even knew about Indians at that age and why I would be surprised there were real Indians alive. After I got "Danny and the Dinosaur" in the mail when my oldest daughter was 2 or 3, I realized that it must have been because of that book, seeing an Indian in a museum, that made me think that Indians were extinct.
That just happened to cross my mind again, so I decided to google it to see if any Native Americans had commented on that book. So, as the mother and teacher of Native American children, I am fully in support of what you are doing here to bring this issue to the attention of society. Keep up the good work!