Saturday, April 03, 2010


Before you read Tim Tingle's Saltypie to your child or students in your classroom or library, spend some time studying what Tingle says at the end of the book, on the pages titled "How Much Can We Tell Them?"

There, you'll learn a little about Tim's childhood, and some about his father, grandmother, the Choctaw Nation, and, the rock-throwing incident in the book. Here's an excerpt:
I always knew we were Choctaws, but as a child I never understood that we were Indians. The movies and books about Indians showed Indians on horseback. My family drove cars and pickup trucks. Movie Indians lived in teepees. We lived in modern houses. Indians in books and on television hunted with bows and arrows. My father and my uncles hunted, too, with shotguns, but mostly they fished.
I have similar memories of my own. I watched the Indians on television and thought they weren't really Indians. I knew that we were Pueblo Indians, but we didn't look or live anything at all like the ones on TV, so I figured they weren't real. Tingle's note has a lot of very powerful information in it:
We know our history never included teepees or buffaloes. We were people of the woods and swamps of what is now called Mississippi. Early Choctaws had gardens and farms. For hundreds of years, they lived in wooden houses.
Long before explorers arrived from Europe, we had a government, a Choctaw national government. We selected local and national leaders. We recognized women as equal citizens. 
Did you do a double take as you read his words? I bet your students will! Indian people---prior to Europeans arrival on the continent that came to be known as North America---had governments?! Women were equal citizens?!! Those are powerful and important words for you (the adult) to carry with you every single time you pick up a book that has American Indians in it. We weren't primitive. We weren't savage. 

Tingle's note goes on to talk about things the Choctaw people experienced, such as the Trail of Tears, boarding school and racism. And, he talks about stereotypes in children's books, and he suggests that teachers can use Saltypie to dispel some of those stereotypes.

Turning now, to the book itself. In it are several stories.

The first double-paged spread of the book shows a young boy with bees around him. He's wearing a bright green button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. That boy is Tim, and the stories in the book are from his life.

First up is getting stung by a bee. His opening sentences capture the reader right away:
A bee sting on the bottom! Who could ever forget a bee sting on the bottom?
No doubt, those lines will elicit both laughs and groans from children--especially those who know the throbbing pain of a bee sting!  Obviously in distress, Tim runs to an arbor where his grandmother, who he calls Mawmaw, comforts him, but teaches him, too, when she asks "Didn't you hear the bees?" and says the bee sting was "some kind of saltypie." 

From there, Tingle takes his readers back to his grandmother's early years as a mother, and tells us about the word "saltypie."

The year was 1915, and Tim's grandparents (and Tim's dad, who was then two years old), moved to Texas. On that first morning his grandmother stepped outside her new home, and was struck in the face by a stone, thrown, Tingle writes, by a boy. Covering her face with her hands, blood seeped between her fingers. Not knowing it was blood, Tim's father (then a toddler), thought it was cherry pie filling. He reached up, got some on his fingertip, and tasted it. Course, it wasn't the sweet taste he expected, and he uttered "Saltypie!" and spit it out.  His mother hugged him. Though she was crying and shaken by the incident, she saw humor in her son's unmet expectation of something sweet, and laughed as she held him.

Moving forward in time to 1954, Tim is six years old, and he and his dad are visiting Mawmaw and Pawpaw, who still live in that house they moved to in 1915. Tim asks if he, like the adults gathered around the table, can have a cup of coffee. He watches as Mawmaw pours coffee, and sees that she puts her thumb into each cup before she fills it. He doesn't want her thumb in his cup, and covers it with his hand. Pawpaw and Tim's aunt are surprised by his action, and his aunt takes him outside for a moment, where he learns that Mawmaw is blind.

In a family gathering that night, Tim learns a lot about his grandmother's life. From his uncle, he learns about the stone that was thrown at her, and that people back then didn't like Indians. When he asks his uncle "What is saltypie?" his uncle says
"It's a way of dealing with trouble, son. Sometimes you don't know where the trouble comes from. You just kinda shrug it off, say saltypie. It helps you carry on."
The next story Tingle relates is set in 1970, when his grandmother is hospitalized for an eye transplant through which they hope she will regain her sight. His extended family is gathered round, waiting, telling stories to pass the time. By then, Tingle is a college student.

One of the stories Tim told is about his grandmother's years at Tuskahoma Academy, a boarding school for American Indian girls. The color palette on the page for that story is, appropriately, a somber blue. There, Mawmaw as a young child, stands, looking wistful, stuck at the school at Christmas time. That illustration is exceedingly powerful. Actually, it is only one of many illustrations in the book that are astounding in what they convey.

The illustrator for the book is Karen Clarkson. Like Tingle, she is enrolled with the Choctaw Nation. As I noted earlier, the very first page shows us young Tim, in agony, having been stung by a bee. Page after page, Clarkson's illustrations portray a modern Native family. From bright sunny pages bursting with life to the quiet ones that slow us (readers) down to absorb the stories told on that page, Clarkson's illustrations are terrific.  

I particularly like the one of the family, waiting for news about the operation. The waiting room is crowded with members of their family who catch up on news and tell stories. I've spent many hours with my own family---siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles---as we waited for the outcome of a family members surgery. That large gathering often takes hospital staff by surprise when they first start working amongst Native people.

From Tingle's note at the end of the book, to the stories he tells, and Clarkson's illustrations, this book is exceptional. As I said in my earlier post today, order your copy from Cinco Puntos Press. Here, I'll say ORDER SEVERAL COPIES!  And, learn more about Tim Tingle and Karen Clarkson. While you're at it, order Tingle's other books, too. Crossing Bok Chitto and When Turtle Grew Feathers are gems.

And yes, if you're wondering, Mawmaw does regain her sight:
It was so right that my father, who had given us this word [saltypie] fifty years ago in a moment of childhood misunderstanding, would now take it away in a moment of enlightenment. He lifted his eyes and spoke.
"No more saltypie," he said. "Mawmaw can see."

The closing paragraph in this very fine book is the one I'll end this post with, too:
We all leave footfalls, everywhere we go. We change the people we meet. If we learn to listen to the quiet and secret music, as my Mawmaw did, we will leave happy footfalls behind us in our going.
We can, if we choose, leave happy footfalls, and books like this one can help us do that.

Words about Words

This morning's "Google Alert" (I have one set up to let me know when someone has written about my blog) included a link to Scientist Gone Wordy, where Rachel (the blog owner) talked about the power of words. In her post this morning (April 2, 2010), she pointed readers to my site (hence the alert from Google Alerts).

As anyone that has heard me speak at a conference or invited lecture knows, I have uttered plenty of words that expose my own biases. Paying attention and recognizing the power in the words we use is an on-going process. I self-disclose my own ignorance and examples of offensive speech to demonstrate that I'm just like most people. There's a lot we don't know, and having it brought to our attention is unsettling and embarrassing.

I like to think of myself as being tuned in for bias in the media, but once I started reading NPR Check (now NPR Team), I realized I had not been applying my critical media skills to NPR!. I had assumed (incorrectly) that NPR was more on the liberal and progressive end of the political spectrum.

Towards the end of her post, Rachel ended by talking about gender.  It reminded me of one of the findings in my doctoral dissertation. There, I examined illustrations of American Indians (actual American Indians, non-Native characters playing Indian, images on objects such as the Indian head penny) in children's books recommended in Young Children, the practitioners journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Whether it was an actual American Indian character, or a character playing Indian, or an image on an object, the majority of the images were male.

I'd need to do a study of the gender of the Native people in historical fiction in order to make a definitive statement, but thinking about classics like Little House on the Prairie or Matchlock Gun, most of the portrayals are of Native men...   

New book! Tim Tingle's SALTYPIE

I just read Tim Tingle's new picture book, Saltypie...  First impression? Wow! When people ask me for a short list of recommended books, Saltypie is going to be on that list.

Tingle is Choctaw, and author of the award winning Crossing Bok Chitto. Order your copy of  Saltypie from Cinco Puntos Press.

More soon...

Monday, March 29, 2010


I recently read a galley copy of Nancy Bo Flood's Warriors in the Crossfire (Front Street, 2010). Flood is a gifted writer. Her book is a page-turner and a quick read. 

There are, however, specific parts of the book that give me pause. One example is her descriptions of a dance that Joseph (the main character) does. Given my study of the (inaccurate/romanticized/stereotypical) ways that American Indians are portrayed in most children's and young adult literature, I wondered if Flood's portrayals of the Chamoru (also spelled Chamorro) and Carolinian people---from their dance to their stories---was accurate.

As of this writing (March 29, 2010), reviews from two journals are available. Kirkus gave the book a favorable review, saying
"The understated design, which includes Japanese characters in the chapter titles and brief, impressionistic poems as chapter lead-ins, makes this volume stand out. An important and little-known perspective on World War II." 
while the review in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books was more qualified:
The narration, however, rings with the formal, stilted cadence generally associated with Hollywood portrayals of cultural outsiders in films of decades past: “‘Kento, I must carry my father to the sea. I cannot carry my father alone.’ Kento did not look up. ‘I am sorry, Joseph. I cannot help you’; “You have turned your back on us. . . . You have become . . . Japanese.” Nonetheless, readers who can visualize the living, breathing characters behind the awkwardly mannered voices will be rewarded with a heart-pounding reimagining of desperate times. A historical note is appended Review Code: Ad -- Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area. 
The Bulletin's reviewer zeroed in on cadence, referencing Hollywood portrayals of cultural outsiders. That is similar to my concerns with the ways that Flood describes dance (p. 40):
“I had learned from my father the ancient words of the chants and the ancient movements–the leaping, twisting, striking stick against stick. Gleaming with sweat and coconut oil, we danced, beating the rhythm faster and louder. Slapping, whirling, chanting our battle cries, we called to our ancestors. Guide us! Give us strength to leap, to fly, to defeat our enemies.” 
"Leaping", and "twisting" and "faster and "louder"...  Flood's words and image sound a lot like outsider description. In a lot of children’s and YA lit, outsiders describing Native dance say that Native people “stomp” and “leap” and “hop.” See, as one example, page 8 of Sign of the Beaver, or, the illustrations of dance in Dancing with the Indians, or Peter Pan, or, Little House on the Prairie, or, Touching Spirit Bear, or Walk Two Moons, or.... (you get the picture).

I've seen videos of the stick dancing Flood is describing, and it doesn't match with her description. Maybe it is not the same dance.  Still, though, I can't imagine an indigenous person describing dance quite that way. That whole section of her book could have been done differently. She could have had Joseph telling the reader how the Japanese describe the indigenous dances. She does this a little bit on page 32, when she writes "But to the Japanese, we are all the same, we are natives, barbaric outsiders, gai-jin."

Like Lyn Miller-Lachman, Warriors in the Crossfire inspired me to learn more about WWII, Saipan, the indigenous peoples of Saipan, Japanese occupation of Saipan, and, the samurai.

I have a copy of Chamoru Childhood, a collection of stories written by Chamoru people. I wrote about it a few months ago here. Knowing Keith Camacho, one of the Chamoru authors in the book, also figures prominently in how I'm responding to Flood's book.

From Keith, I learned about We Drank Our Tears: Memories of the Battles for Saipan and Tinian. The latter is a collection of stories told by men and women who lived through the invasion of Saipan. If you wish, you can go here and see a little of what the book contains. The page includes a bit of info about Benita Borja Cepeda's story, as told to her granddaughter, Madisa Lisa Messo Omni. There are photographs of both, and, the art at the bottom of the page is done by Madisa. Here's an excerpt about the book:
A project of the Pacific STAR Young Writers Foundation under the direction of Katharyn Tuten-Puckett, this new book is a moving collection of stories told to CNMI school children by their elders who experienced the war when they, themselves, were children. Each of the 74 stories, related by the students and accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations and photographs of the students and the elder who's story is being told, is a unique and memorable experience. No one who reads these stories can help but be struck with a profound sense of awe, respect and admiration for these families who's courage and perseverance brought them through the war.

We Drank Our Tears is important as a history. But perhaps its greater value is in the sharing of the collective experiences that define modern-day Chamorros and Refalawash people. Whether you live on-island or off, this book belongs on your shelf and in the hands of young readers who can only benefit from knowing something of the recent past that had such a profound affect on their parents and grandparents who lived it. It can go a long way toward bridging the generation gap with appreciation and understanding.
I've ordered a copy of We Drank Our Tears and look forward to it. 

In the meantime, I'll work on my analysis of Warriors in the Crossfire. I've got lots of questions. Like on page 39, the Emperor has ordered a victory celebration, and Japanese officials command the men and women of the village to perform. They do "sacred warrior dances." The Japanese men and women sit in chairs and watch the dance. I'd like to know more about that command to dance.

Update, March 30, 6:52 PM
To see a previous discussion of tribal protocols on intellectual property, go here.