Friday, June 11, 2010

Children's Literature Association 37th Annual Conference

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I'm in Ann Arbor for the 37th annual conference of the Children's Literature Association, enjoying listening to others talk about their research. I was headed to the 10:00 session, "Telling Tales" but so were a lot of other folks. I arrived a few minutes late, opened the door, and saw no empty seats. So, I'm taking a break and hope to hear from other conference-goers about papers given by Catherine McKenna paper and Kay Weisman.

At 8:00 I went to a session chaired by blogger, friend, and scholar, Sarah Park. It was called "Constructing the Author and/as Celebrity".  Papers were given by Sara van den Bossche (Ghent University) on Astrid Lindgren's work, Camille Parker (independent scholar) on blogging and author blogs, and, Maria de Guadallupe Serrano Diez (University of Winnipeg) on the works of Mexican Francisco Gabilondo Soler, a Mexican writer who created and performed as Cri-Cri: El Grillito Cantor (in English, the Little Singing Cricket).

I enjoyed all three immensely and hope that each paper evolves into a publication. There were interesting points made about what gets canonized (most people know Lindgren's work while few outside of Mexico would know Soler's work), and how writers today use blogs.

Yesterday afternoon, I went to a session called "Playing Indian" that was also quite good. Both, Alan Scot Willis (Northern Michigan University) and Kay Harris (University of Southern Mississippi) cited Native scholars, specifically, Philip J. Deloria and Rayna Green. It is very important that people studying depictions of American Indians read the work of Native scholars and apply that work to their analysis of children's books. I look forward to reading more from Willis and Harris.

At the books exhibit, I bought two books. One is Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. I bought it because of one name on the cover.... Durango Mendoza. The volume includes one of his stories. This one is "The Passing". Durango is husband to my dear friend, Jean. First published in 1966, it would be interesting to compare how the volume evolved over time, what authors were added and when. The copy I bought also has a story by Louise Erdrich, and one by Ralph Ellison... The Ellison story looks intriguing. It's title is "A Couple Scalped Indians".

I also bought Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to be American. I'll have to study the stories, and think about the collection and the title of the book. "Learning to be American". It includes several stories I want to read: Tiffany Midge's "A Half-Breed's Dream Vacation", Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible", Diane Glancy's "Portrait of the Lone Survivor", Sherman Alexie's "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" and Simon J. Ortiz's "To Change in a Good Way".  They are all Native writers. Would they say their stories are about "learning to be American"?

Enough for now... going to gather my things and head for another session.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Roger Ebert on the Arizona Mural and Race..... but...

On his blog, Roger Ebert posted a long, thoughtful essay that starts out with him imagining he's a brown-skinned child in Arizona who learns that a mural that reflects his skin will have to be be changed so that the skin of the children in the mural is not so dark.

Ebert grew up in Urbana, Illinois, where the University of Illinois is located (it actually straddles Urbana and Champaign). In his essay, he talks about African American children in his school and in his childhood.

He understands racism where African Americans are concerned, but he seems to be conflicted over stereotyping of American Indians. In a 2009 essay at his blog, he said that "Chief Illiniwek" is "the world's greatest sports symbol". Following his essay is a video of the mascot's "last dance".

In the comments section (he got LOT of comments), he says:
The Chief. *Sigh* I understand intellectually why Chief Illiniwek was retired. I agree with the decision ideologically. But my heart cries out, as in my memory he stands proudly on the 50 yard yard line and the Marching Illini conclude the school Song, Illinois! Illinois! Illinois! He was so much more dignified than a buckeye, a wolverine, a badger, a boilermaker, a spartan. He was greatness. I'm glad I was there.

His emotions and his intellect are at odds.  He can't condemn "Chief Illiniwek". Based on my understanding of all he says in the post itself about African Americans and race, I don't think he'd say that his heart cries out for the old black and white minstrel shows. I wish he had that same insight for American Indians and our objections to stereotypical depictions like "Chief Illiniwek".

Update: I'm adding another comment from Ebert that pre-dates the others above. The comment below is from  "Noble Spirit, More than Just a Mascot" dated 2001 the Chicago Sun Times.
"Chief Illiniwek, for nearly a century the symbol of the University of Illinois, was until recently seen as a positive image of American Indians. The Chief never was a 'mascot,' and indeed goes back so far that he pre-dates the use of "mascots" for most sports teams. ... In recent years, however, Illiniwek has been under attack from a small, self-righteous coalition that wants to wipe him from the university's history."

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.

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