Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Chief Read Heap Much"

I'm doing some research on Caldecott Medal books that include images of American Indians. Today I'm looking at The Rooster Crows: A Book of American Rhymes and Jingles by Maud and Miska Petersham. Published in 1946, there's one rhyme in it that shows a kid wearing an Indian headdress. I came across an article from the September 29th, 1947 issue of Life magazine...

On page 140 is "Feathers for Reading." The subtitle is "To win Indian headdress, children of an Iowa town wade through a record number of books." The program started when the librarian, Mary Woodward, ran a contest to get kids to read. For each book a child read, they'd get a turkey feather from Woodward. The article highlights Leo, the kid who read the most books and therefore has the most feathers for his headdress. He read 136 books in 1947, and had read 157 the summer before...  That's Leo on the right. The caption for the photo is "His summer's reading, piled on the grass, towers over Leo, although he is 4 feet 4 inches tall. His dangling champion's headdress gives him the right to the title, "Chief Read Heap Much." All these honors are beginning to pall on Leo, however. He is tired of competition and the necessity of always picking out thin books. "Next year I'm going to read thick ones," says Leo.  I wonder how he got that name, "Chief Read Heap Much"? Did he choose it? Did the librarian choose it? Maybe the person who wrote the article?!

And here's Leo reading one of those thin books. The book is Mei Li, by Thomas Handforth. I haven't read Mei Li but am surprised to learn it won the Caldecott in 1939 to serendipitously run into another Caldecott winning book. (Edits due to KT Horning's question in comments.)  I'm wondering if there are critical essays on it? I think Cai may have written about it.  I'm including the photograph here for colleagues studying representations of Chinese in children's picture books.

Leo isn't playing Indian in these photographs, nor does the article say he or any of the other children do that. It was, however, quite the thing-to-do back then...  Philip Deloria's Playing Indian (1998) is a good source for information about playing Indian.


KT Horning said...

Debbie, why does it surprise you that Mei Li won the Caldecott in 1939?

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks for asking, KT. I didn't state that well. I'll go revise it.

What I meant was that my current project is on Caldecott medal books with images of Indians, and, by coincidence, I run into another book that won the Caldecott. It was more of an "Oh! A Caledecott book" than surprise at the book itself and its depictions--good, bad, or in between--of Chinese culture.

Debbie Reese said...

KT---is the revision any better?!

This past February, I gave a talk at the Children's Literature Symposium that Thomas Crisp organizes at the University of South Florida-Sarasota. The theme was developments and innovations in illustrations.

I've long wanted to do something on images in Caldecott books and decided to do that for the symposium. With the semester over, I'm back into the research on the books.

I was trying to find examples of the headdresses kids could get in the 1940s and 1950s. Leo Politi's dad got him an "Indian chief suit" that he is wearing on the cover of LITTLE LEO, published in 1951. My search led me to that issue of LIFE.

KT Horning said...

Thanks for the background info, Debbie. So interesting!

Where did you get the story about Leo Polit's dad giving him the "Indian chief suit"? I'm just curious because his father was an Italian immigrant, and the family returned to Italy when Leo was 8. He didn't come back to the U.S. until he was an adult.

The reason I find this interesting is that it seems Europeans have a particular fascination with "playing Indian." In most of the picture books we see today, like the one Egmont just published last year, they originate from outside of America. Sure, American kids did plenty of "playing Indian" through the 1950s, even in library-sanctioned programs -- and this is reflected in books from the time.

But have you looked at how often more recent books come from outside the U.S.? I'd be curious to know if European artists find "playing Indian" to be cute, exotic and/or quintessentially American, in a way few American artists under the age of 70 do. I don't even know of any American kids who still "play Indian" so artists who show contemporary kids doing this are out of touch, at best.

Debbie Reese said...

The info on Politi is in LITTLE LEO. It is about them living in California when he was a kid. He gets the suit, and the family moves back to Italy. He wears the suit as they travel, and once in Italy, he wears it at the village they live in. Kids like it so much that the moms help them make suits so they can all wear them.

And yes, Europeans do have that fascination. It is especially big in Germany due to the Karl May books.

My impression is similar to yours. The play Indian bks come primarily from Europe. I agree--as a childhood activity, it seems to have declined.

You might recall that back in the late 1990s when I was reviewing for Horn Book, I was reviewing an import called BIRTHDAY BEAR that had kids playing Indian. I said it was stereotypical, and Roger gave the review to someone else because my criticism was extra literary. Killen's book was reviewed by Hazel Rochman. She did not note the playing Indian part of it. Because that isn't generally noted in a review, it is hard for me to gauge how much it appears in current or new books. I just know about it when someone says "hey Debbie, did you see..."

Are you reading Nicola Killen's blog? I think the amount of push-back on the book over the last few days must have caught her by surprise.

Salix said...

@KT, unfortunately, if Toy R Us is still selling stuff like this (the description even predicts the "hours of fun that your little Indians will have"), non-Native U.S. kids are still 'playing Indian'.

Debbie Reese said...

The degree to which kids play Indian today (in the U.S.) is something someone ought to study.

There are toys like Salix pointed to, and there are plastic cowboy/Indian sets, too, but they're not as ubiquitous as they used to be.

I think they were everywhere. Easy to get. Now, when I want something to use in my Intro to AIS courses, it is hard to get them. I could order them online, but they're not on the shelves at local stores.

And when I ask my students if they played Indian when they were kids (I do this sort of data-gathering in ways that protect their identity), I don't have anyone reporting that they played that way.

There's lot of camp stuff, and of course boy scout stuff, but plain old everyday 'playing Indian' doesn't seem to have the currency it once did.

There's also another way to look at it... a lot of that stuff, when on a shelf, is in the dollar store, or in a touristy curio store.

Beverly Slapin said...

Hi, KT--

In LIBRARY PROGRAMS FOR CHILDREN by Taffy Jones (McFarland, 1989, yes, 1989, no typo), there's a really disgusting chapter called, I think, "Library Indians." I no longer have this book, but I remember there were several activities and plays built around "playing Indian."

KT Horning said...

Salix, thanks for the link to the Toys R Us site. That's a pretty amazing product for 2011, but I would still be surprised to see a store like Toys R Us selling the sorts of feather headdresses that were prevalent in toy stores, and even grocery stores, when I was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s. But maybe I'm naive -- I am still shocked to see Little Black Sambo for sale in book stores in 2011.

Where you can find them today is on eBay:

Wendy said...

Have you all read the latest Alvin Ho book? There's an almost astonishing "playing Indian" theme. I can't understand it on multiple levels. Why did the author think this is something kids still do? As an Asian American didn't it seem at all "off" to her? And how on earth did it get past the editors and readers at the publisher? It's a major part of the plot. (My review:

Sarah said...

Wendy, I have only the first 2 Alvin Ho books, and I just looked through the *Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking and Other Natural Disasters* because I thought that's what you meant, but no, it's not in here (plus, there are newer books, as you said.) I find really interesting when one non-white group performs the stereotypes of other non-white groups and cannot make the connections or commonalities of mockery, bias, oppression, etc. My fellow graduate students and I at Illinois worked hard to show the undergrads that the Chief mascot was not entirely unlike the Pekin Chinks mascot at a high school only a couple hours from town in an effort to form some pan-ethnic solidarity around the Chief issue, and I guess I should not have been surprised at how resistant some of them were to seeing the connections.

I think what surprises me most is that given all the dialogue we've been creating around these sorts of issues, there still isn't ONE person at these publishing houses that says, "Now hold on a minute, shouldn't we think twice about xyz before we publish this?" Not even one?

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Wendy, for asking about Alvin Ho. I went to the library, got a copy, and wrote about it today.