Sunday, November 07, 2010

International Books at the Kalamazoo Youth Literature Seminar 2010

Thursday of last week, Jean Mendoza and I drove to Kalamazoo for the Kalamazoo Youth Literature Seminar. I was looking forward to it because we'd be spending time with Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of Jingle Dancer, a book I feature in every presentation I give. Cynthia gave an outstanding talk. I'll write about it in another post.

The theme for the seminar was "Crossing Borders." It opened with an introduction to international picture books, given by Elizabeth P. Amidon and Maria A. Perez-Stable. I was (and am) unclear whether or not the books being discussed are ones the presenters recommend, or are meant to be a sampling of what's available.

I say that because the presenters talked about stereotypical images of Indians in three of the books. After the third one, she (can't recall if it was Amidon or Perez-Stable) said something like "what IS it with Europeans and stereotypes of Indians?" I didn't get a chance to talk with them later, but I did take a couple of photos of the images they were referencing. I'll write to them and see if they can clarify for me. Anyway, here they are.

The first one is from Heleen Van Rossum's Will You Carry Me?, illustrated by Peter van Harmelen. Written in Dutch, the story itself is about a little boy who, after a morning of play in the park, is too tired to walk home. His mom won't carry him, but comes up with ideas to get him there (jumping, swimming, flying...). I really wish (now) that I'd had more time and could have read the book so I could see why this child is shown in with paint on his face and a feathered headband. The book has been selected for distinction. It is a "Children's Book Sense Pick" and it is a "New York Magazine Top 5 Books for Summer Reading" (this info from the website for the US publisher, Kane/Miller. From the author website, I see that it was one of the top ten best picture books of the year (2004) in the Netherlands.  I'm also quite disappointed to see that it is recommended in Early Childhood Education Journal, (Volume 34#1, August 2006) in an article titled "Building Literacy Links for Young Children." In the introduction, Zeece, Harris, and Hayes write that children's books can help parents and teachers cope with transitions. Children's books can---and do---many wonderful things, but I wish that the authors of this article, and the presenters at the Kalamazoo conference had said "let's NOT use this book with young children."

The second book is And What Comes After a Thousand? by Anette Bley. In this book, it is a little girl and an elderly man who are shown wearing feathers in their hair. She imagines herself to be shooting buffalo with a slingshot. This one is originally published in Germany. In her review in Booklist, Hazel Rochman wrote "The vague references to Native American traditions are superfluous." Then she writes "What will hold and comfort even young preschoolers are the honesty of the loss and the enduring love, expressed in the exuberant pastel pictures of Lisa and Otto in the garden they both love." Hold and comfort WHAT preschoolers? My daughter would likely have enjoyed the book until she came to that page. I recall vividly the day I picked her up at kindergarten and she insisted on showing me, right then and there, George (of George and Martha) dressed as an Indian...  I eventually wrote about that experience in an article published by Horn Book: "Mom, Look! It's George, and He's a TV Indian!"  And What Comes After a Thousand may be a touching book about death, but from my perspective, it's just another book that uses stereotypical Indian imagery as a convenient vehicle to tell a story that really has little to do with actual American Indians.

If I was writing the Horn Book article today, I'd include Stephanie Fryberg's research study about the effects of stereotypical imagery on the self-esteem and self-efficacy of Native children, and, I'd include Faircloth and Tippeconnic's study, too, where they talk about the high drop out rates of Native students, and how their degree of engagement with the school decreases with each year. Starting them off in kindergarten with books like these two would---I think---start them on that road of disengagement with school.  If you want either Fryberg's article write to me (dreese dot nambe at gmail dot com) and I'll send it. If you want to see Faircloth and Tippeconnic's study, it is part of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and is available online here.

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