Sunday, November 07, 2010

Kalamazoo Youth Literature Seminar 2010 - Cynthia Leitich Smith and Gillian Engberg

Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of several terrific books and short stories, was the keynote speaker at the Mary Calletto Rife Youth Literature Seminar. The seminar was started in 1978 by Rife, and named after her when she retired in 2001.

At every step of the way, Sue Warner at the Kalamazoo Public Library and her staff went above and beyond the norm to welcome and help me with anything I needed.  I had never been to Kalamazoo, but had been looking forward to it for some time because of a news story I heard a few weeks ago about the Kalamazoo Promise. Basically, students who start kindergarten and then graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools are eligible for a scholarship covering 100 percent of their college tuition (as long as they maintain a 2.0 GPA)!

First stop on Thursday evening was a visit to the library where Cynthia Leitich Smith was giving a talk. The library is one of the most beautiful places I've been to! On her blog, Cynthia shared several photos taken at the library and the next day at the Fetzer Center on the campus of Western Michigan University.

I think it was in 2002 that I met Cynthia at an NCTE Convention in Atlanta. In Kalamazoo, I was engrossed by her presentation. I tried to take notes, but was so taken with the remarks, that I don't have much on my notepaper! She gave us context for the places and times she was born and grew up, and how reviewers and fans, too, characterize the stories and histories of Native peoples as ones best described as a "plight" and "caught between two worlds." Both are (using my words, not hers), a "deficit model" of framing who we are. Both rely on a romantic, tragic framework, rather than one of resilience and strength. She pointed to publication numbers (referencing the CCBC stats) and how very little growth we see in terms of publication of books by or about American Indians.

One phrase that I underlined is that certain things in a book can "undermine the magic" of the story. Though she wasn't necessarily talking about depictions of Native peoples in children's books, that is what happens to me, and to Native children, way too often. We may be happily reading a children's picture book or a young adult novel, and suddenly there's a word that breaks the magic of the story. Earlier today I pointed to that sort of thing...  Stereotypical images in picture books, and a few months ago, I pointed to the frequency of that sort of thing when I did an analysis of Indian imagery in Elizabeth Bird's Top 100 Novels list. Cynthia said that she read just about every Newbery Award winner, but that she very deliberately avoided ones like Sign of the Beaver...  Ones that, I think, would undermine the magic for her---a Native reader. Cyn also referenced RaceFail --- a conversation that mostly took place in LiveJournal, but I don't recall why she mentioned it. If you're interested, this is a good compilation of posts about RaceFail. 

In her session Gillian Engberg opened by talking about language and translation. She read from a May 22, 2000 New York Times article in which Louise Erdrich (author of Birchbark House) talked about learning Ojibwe. Erdrich wrote that her English and her Catholic training touched her intellectually and symbolically but never engaged her heart. Does reading that last sentence make your heart twist somehow? It does mine, and, listening to Gillian read these words at the conference, I felt that same sensation in my heart then. Erdrich wrote:
Ojibwemowin is also a language of emotions; shades of feeling can be mixed like paints. There is a word for what occurs when your heart is silently shedding tears. 
I'm really grateful, Gillian, that you pulled from Erdrich's article in your talk. Hearing (in my mind) your voice, quietly reading those words to us in Kalamazoo, and then reading them again today in my office, I'm so moved by words and what words can do, on many levels, in many languages...

The symposium was about borders, and, what is possible when we're willing to do more than simply cross a border, but to know what it really means to cross borders, and what it means to be amongst people on the other side of those borders. In my presentation, I placed my discussion of Little House on the Prairie in historical context, arguing that it is factually inaccurate in its portrayals of Native people. I showed a clip from the Trail of Tears segment of the We Shall Remain series on PBS.

So much is possible if we're willing to think about words and how they touch all of us. I'll close with two questions. Can you imagine knowing the word for what occurs when your heart is silently shedding tears? And can you imagine being a Native child for whom a story's magic is broken by a word like "squaw"? 


For further reading: "Two Languages in Mind, but Just One in the Heart" by Louise Erdrich.  

Update, November 9, 7:07 AM
I just read Elizabeth Bird's Fusenews: "swinish Milneish parts" post at SLJ. She's from Kalamazoo, and, in her post, notes that both Cynthia Leitich Smith and I referenced her SLJ blog. She wrote:
Debbie Reese made reference to the Top 100 Children’s Novels Poll and the stereotypical images in some of those books.  All well and good, and we will assume that she made it clear that this was a poll I conducted and not my own personal list conjured out of my own head.  It’s more interesting when you take into account the number of folks who voted.
I did talk about the list, but as I commented on her post a few minutes ago, I don't know if I said it was the outcome of a poll, rather than her own personal list.  Because I think it important to be clear with words and ideas conveyed, I'll certainly pay attention to precisely what I say about it--and other things--in lectures, writing, etc. 

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