Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rosemary Wells illustration in MY VERY FIRST MOTHER GOOSE

In 1996, Iona Opie edited a collection of Mother Goose rhymes. The title of the book is My Very First Mother Goose. Illustrations are by Rosemary Wells. For the most part, I really like her work. Some books by her are among our family favorites.

My Very First Mother Goose is one of those books that got starred reviews, won some awards, and ended up on a great many recommended-books lists. Here's the cover:

When I saw the book that year, I pointed colleagues to page 60 and 61:

Let's look at those illustrations. On the left side, the text reads "Up the wooden hill to Blanket Fair, What shall we have when we get there? A bucket full of water and A pennyworth of hay. Get up, Dobbie, All the way!" We see a bunny lying down, covered with a blanket. See the designs on the blanket?

Now, look at the illustration beneath the text. There's two bunnies in a cart. To me, they seem kind of affluent, perhaps like tourists out west, going to visit a store, or gallery, or museum, or some place where they will "see the Indians!" and maybe purchase Native-made art.

Now look at that full-page illustration on the right. It is the Indians! Maybe, they're even meant to be Navajos. Anyone 'in the know' about American Indian tapestries would know that the Navajo, or Dine, people are well known for the rugs or blankets they weave.

But if we conclude that the bunnies are meant to signify Navajos, what is that thing that kind of looks like a tipi doing there?! Tipis are not used by Navajos...  In short: Wells is stereotyping... big time.

The rhyme (of the blanket fair) has nothing in it about Native peoples. My guess? Rosemary Wells has a Navajo blanket in her home and wanted to depict Native people for this rhyme about a blanket fair. Good intentions fueled by lack of knowledge = stereotypical illustration.

I wonder how parents, teachers, or librarians use that page?

*Updated for clarity and format on August 28, 2016.


Jane Hathaway said...

Oh, no! How terrible.

Anonymous said...

One more reviewer did pick up on the "Navajo" rabbits. Nancy Willard, in The New York Times Book Review (Nov. 10, 1996, p. 38) also remarked that:
"The one regrettable lapse in taste is the illustration for a going-to-bed rhyme, 'Up the Wooden Hill to Blanket Fair,' which shows six very white rabbits in Native American dress and headbands, surrounded by geometrically patterned blankets and gathered around a tepee."

I probably would have used stronger language than "lapse in taste," but at least the reviewer mentioned it -- probably thanks to the awareness that you and others like you, Debbie, are raising through your work.

Paul said...

If you can show European people as animals, there should be no reason why you shouldn't show Indians as animals, as long as everyone else is. They aren't even black (like Asians, Aborigines, and Maoris) so why is there even a race problem? If you were to show a religious figure as an animal, that would be controversial, but native Americans is different.

I don't know if Nancy Williard or you, Anonymous are of Native American stock, but I believe the so called 'white man' did more terrible things to Native Americans than just use their clothes to dress rabbits. Get a grip.

Anonymous said...

Paul, don't think the problem here is that the "Native Americans" are portrayed as bunnies. The problem is of cultural appropriation...which is using things native to a culture you're not a part of without appreciating or understanding it. The problem is that Wells depicts bits and pieces of different cultures..such as having a Navajo print blanket and a teepee together. It just shows the kind of insensitive and rash "lumping" of Native Americans into one group. Imagine if an artist depicted, say a bunny dressed in traditional Scottish kilts and placed them in front of Big would just be silly and we'd laugh at her for not knowing better. But ...we don't really notice or care when it's done to other cultures.