Sunday, April 10, 2011

Update on Berenstain Bears Give Thanks

Last week I published an excellent letter from Kim, a reader who wrote to tell me about The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks.

I ordered a copy from the library. It arrived Thursday. I read it the next day. (My thoughts are in italics.)


The book begins by telling us "It was autumn in Bear Country" with leaves turning colors, cooler air, geese heading south, and Farmer Ben harvesting his crop. Papa Bear had made some furniture for Farmer Ben, and Papa, Brother, and Sister Bear were delivering it. In payment, Papa was going to get something from Farmer Ben's farm. Papa Bear thinks about some honey, but Farmer Ben suggests his tom turkey, Squanto. Sister Bear asks why he is named 'Squanto' and Ben tells her:
"That was the name of the Native Bear who helped the Pilgrims plant their corn when they settled in their new home. Squanto celebrated the first Thanksgiving with them after their harvest. I couldn't think of a better name for a turkey."
Debbie's thoughts: Native Bear? But not Pilgrim Bear? Why the difference?

Sister Bear doesn't like the idea and asks Papa Bear if she can keep Squanto for a pet. Papa tells her no, that turkeys don't make good pets. Sister Bear likes Squanto and visits him every day, growing more and more attached to him, and sadder over what is going to happen to him. Mama Bear consoles and distracts Sister Bear by suggesting they put on a Thanksgiving show. It works. Sister Bear throws herself into writing a script for the show. They make "Pilgrim and Native Bear" costumes using Squanto's feathers.

Debbie's thoughts: The text doesn't say "Pilgrim Bears" anywhere, but "Native Bear" appears several times. 

On Thanksgiving Day, they perform the play. Sister kicks it off, dressed as a "Pilgrim maiden."

Debbie's thoughts: Not a Pilgrim Bear maiden---just a Pilgrim maiden. 

Brother Bear says:
The Pilgrims lived in the Old Country. They wanted to worship God in the way they believed was right. But the rulers of the Old Country would not let them do this. The Pilgrims wanted to leave their home and seek a new land where they could worship in freedom.
Debbie's thoughts: Ok, but what did the people seeking freedom from persecution do once here?! In case you don't know... they set out to "civilize" and Christianize the Indian people here who were living in well-established societies with religious practices of their own.  

The show continues:
After going to shore, they found a good place to live. They called it Plymouth.

They gave thanks to God for bringing them safely to the new land. Then they got to work building houses for their village. Finally it was finished. Everyone had a home.
Then, Sister Bear points to a doorway where the illustration shows a silhouetted figure on all fours. Sister Bear's line is:
Look, who is that coming into the village? It is a Native Bear. I hope he is friendly!
Turning the page, we see a bear in the turkey feather headdress. This bear is on hands and knees, but raises one paw up.

Debbie's thoughts: I could say she's waving, but it is also likely she was raising that paw to say "How" (because pop culture has persuaded us that is the way Indians say hello). 

The "Native Bear" doesn't actually say "How." Instead, she says "ME, SQUANTO." Her line is in caps. All other dialogue (in voice balloons) are in lower case.

Debbie's observations: I gather we're meant to understand that she speaks loudly. I'm saying "she" because this Native Bear is wearing a headband with a heart on it. On one of the last pages in the book, she is shown in a high chair. Given her age, I could say that she entered the room on all fours because she doesn't yet walk. But let's consider some larger context.  Native characters are often "less than" other characters, and they're often portrayed as animal-like.

The dialogue continues, with Brother Bear saying:
Squanto was friendly. He helped the Pilgrims grow more food. He showed them how to plant corn. Without Squanto, they would have starved.
The show continues with the Thanksgiving feast. Squanto came to it, too, joining all of them in bowing their heads and giving thanks to God for their new home "where they could live in peace and freedom."

Debbie's thoughts: Who is "they" that lives in peace and freedom?

The show is over, and it is time to eat. Sister Bear suddenly remembers Squanto. Papa Bear tells her that he changed his mind. She can keep Squanto as her pet.

Debbie's thoughts: As I noted last week, the Squanto storyline is very troubling. This Squanto lives in a pen, is traded as a foodstuff, fattened up, saved from death, and then turned into a pet. And who does all of that to him? The Bear family who is meant to be the Pilgrims. They've got full control over his life and his death---a life meant to represent Indians.

In the story, the Pilgrims are never called Bears, but Squanto the Native is always a "Native Bear." Isn't that a double standard? They're ALL bears, right?!

And why is this Squanto played by a baby who has no name of her own? Why does she speak that way ("ME, SQUANTO")??? In caps??? Overall, the book is worse than any other book about Thanksgiving that I can think of. I hope it isn't in your home or your library.


jpm said...

Gosh, it just gets more and more problematic. Irony is another level in the Squanto-as-pet-turkey situation, given what was apparently involved in the story of the real "Squanto" (Tisquantum): kidnapped as a very young man, exploited, rescued (more or less), learned English (at a higher level than "Me Squanto"), finally returned home only to find his community wiped out by disease.... And in this book, the turkey "Squanto" is saved from execution (and one account of Tisquantum's life suggests that he may have also been saved from execution.) Either the authors are really well-informed about Tisquantum's life and have found a handy hideously ironic metaphor for it (tidily leaving out the messier details) or they have made one of those remarkably uninformed-though-intentional choices that promote continued misunderstanding and misinformation.
Let's say it must be the latter. The Bears series is known for low fantasy, not allegory.... They could have known better; that is, there's better information out there. What a mess.

Jennie said...

I don't want to detract from the points you made here, because they're important and I fully agree with them.

But to add some context, the bear that played Squanto in the pageant is Honey Bear, who is a new bear sibling. In all the books I've just flipped through, she doesn't walk yet and rarely talks--when she does she's usually just parroting someone else's last word, but she at least does it in lower case letters.

So what does it say that they had the baby play Squanto but the two older kids play Pilgrims?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. I saw the title & was about to order... then used the "look inside" feature & was really troubled by the first few pages (all that was available, but introduced "squanto" - enough to raise my flags), so went searching for more info. Sounds like it just gets worse from there. Yuck. Won't be ordering that... for SOO many reasons. Thanks for making this info available for parents to find!