Saturday, April 09, 2011

Did you see... PaperTigers post about Larry Loyie's books?

Larry Loyie's As Long as the Rivers Flow: A Last Summer before Residential School is on my list of recommended books. It is nice to see other bloggers who write about his books, too. Case in point is Larry Loyie's Work at PaperTigers.

Do you read CYNSATIONS? And have you read JINGLE DANCER?

Yesterday I was at Urbana Free Library (my local library) and was happy to see Cynthia Leitich Smith's new novel, Blessed, on the TEENS NEW FICTION shelf. See it on the third shelf? It is Smith's third gothic fantasy. The first one was Tantalize. Next was Eternal. It debuted at #5 on the New York Times best-seller list. The reviewer at The Bloomsbury Review said that "Cynthia Leitich Smith is the Anne Rick for teen readers." Pretty cool, eh?

I'm glad Cynthia's gothic novels are well-received. She is a terrific writer. She's one of my favorite authors. Get her books! And read her blog, Cynsations. It is a great place to read about authors, new books and general news about literature for children and young adults.

Cynthia is a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and the author of one of my favorite books, Jingle Dancer. It is the book I wish I had when my daughter (Liz, who is now in her 20s) was dancing for the first time at home (Nambe Pueblo)...

Shown here on the left is the cover of Jingle Dancer. It is the story of a young Muscogee girl named Jenna who wants to do the Jingle Dance at the upcoming powwow. Family members help her get ready. Getting ready means learning the dance and her regalia ready. Note that I didn't say "costume." A lot of people think we wear costumes to do these dances. Like a Jewish prayer shawl, the items we wear are worn at a specific time for a specific purpose.  With the help of her family, Jenna dances at the powwow.

If you're looking for romantic or noble Indians who wear feathers 24/7, you won't find them in Jingle Dancer, and you wouldn't find them in my house either. That sort of thing is stereotypical and gets in the way of seeing us as people of today who---like other people---have ways of doing things that are specific to our heritage and yet, live lives like other people of the present day. Most of the time I wear shoes I buy at the mall, but that doesn't make me less-Indian because I'm not wearing moccasins.

Back in 1994, we were getting Liz ready to dance for the first time. "We" is primarily the women in our family: my mom, my sister's, and my nieces, but it also includes men who help us get items we don't have within our own families. Liz was three years old. It was right around this time of year (spring). I remember that period with great warmth. Those are powerful memories! It was the first time we were both dancing. Two of her older cousins, Berna and Brooke, also danced that day.

Over on the right is a photo of Liz at the end of that day. (Note: We were doing a ceremonial dance that is best thought of as prayer-in-motion. It wasn't dancing for fun, or to entertain anyone, or to perform for anyone, either.) Liz is standing in front of our kiva (like a church). She's danced many times since then and we often tell the story of the day. When she was in elementary school during the mid to late 90s, I'd go in to her classrooms and the two of us would tell part of the story there. It would have been cool to give her teachers a copy of Jingle Dancer, but it came out in 2000.

As we're all aware, the economy is hitting us in many ways. People are being furloughed and laid off, and budgets for buying books are almost nonexistent in many schools. If you've got $20 to spare, get a copy of Jingle Dancer and donate it to your local library.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Unexpected intersections: Thanksgiving and Karen Russell's SWAMPLANDIA!

Earlier this week a reader wrote to ask me about Karen Russell's Swamplandia! Not familiar with it, I read reviews and learned that it is the story of a not-Native family who uses Native names to pass as Native people who run an alligator-wrestling theme park. I've got a copy on order so I can read it.

Here's what I know so far (reading from the "look inside" option at Amazon):

Swamplandia! is the name of the theme park. It is run by the "Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers." The star of their show is Hilola Bigtree. She is described as being "brown-skinned" and muscular. She's married to "Chief Bigtree" and their children are Kiwi (a boy), Osceola (a girl) and the protagonist, Ava. In the billboard promoting the theme park, the family is shown gathered round an alligator. On page five, Ava tells us that they:
"are wearing Indian costumes on loan from our Bigtree Gift Shop: buckskin vests, cloth headbands, great blue heron feathers, great white heron feathers, chubby beads hanging off our foreheads and our hair in braids, gator "fang" necklaces.
The text continues:
Although there was not a drop of Seminole or Miccosukee blood in us, the Chief always costumed us in tribal apparel for the photographs he took. He said we were "our own Indians." Our mother had a toast-brown complexion that a tourist could maybe squint and ball Indian--and Kiwi, Grandpa Sawtooth, and I could hold our sun.
Osceola, we learn, is "snowy white" and that getting her ready for the photos required that she be "colored in with drugstore blusher." Later we learn of Ossie's boyfriend (Ossie is short for Osceola), Louis Thanksgiving.

I'm guessing you can see why I ordered the book. The family, calling itself Bigtree, is posing as Indians. They're playing Indian. Ava tells us so. It isn't something that is hidden from readers, but I'm guessing the visitors at the theme park have no idea the Bigtree family is not Native.

Identity and race seem to figure prominently in the book. On page 166, we learn that when he was 14, Kiwi (Ava's older brother) declared:
"I'm a Not-Bigtree. A Not-Indian. A Not Seminole. A Not Miccosukee."
We're given that information because in that part of the story, Kiwi is keenly aware that he is white and in the minority of his mostly not-white class of students in a GED class. On page 191, we learn about Seminoles ghosts who "haunt" the swamps, and, that Ava's father (Chief Bigtree) envied
...the "real" Indians... in a filial and loving way...
I wonder if there are any Seminole characters in the book? I'll let you know when I get the book. It got rave reviews. RAVE reviews. At the Amazon page, there are blurbs from everyone from Stephen King to the reviewer for Oprah's magazine. I don't see any comments at all about the fact that the family is playing Indian. If they were playing Black, would that be noted?

Two of my recent reviews are about Thanksgiving picture books: The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks, and, Jon Scieszka's Trucksgiving. (Note: A reader wrote to chastise me for having a myopic viewpoint, saying there are more important things to worry about. In a response to that sort of criticism, I've written 'why it matters' as part of the "ABOUT AICL" page.)

Given those two reviews, I've been doing a bit of reading about Thanksgiving and how it is taught. I came across "On Education: Pilgrims, No Thanks in Mohawk County," a terrific article published in the New York Times on November 26, 2003.  (If the link doesn't work, send me an email and I'll send it to you directly.)

In the article, a 6th grade boy says that Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday. That boys name leaped out at me because I've been reading and thinking about Swamplandia! The child's name? Gage Bigtree. He goes to school at St. Regis Mohawk Elementary, a public school near the Canadian border where all 450 students in the school are Mohawk. Here's an excerpt from the article:
It is a fine balance, teaching American history at a public school so different from the mainstream, a place where so much American history is taken personally and negatively. These are young children, and while their teachers -- many themselves Mohawk -- do not want them to be naïve about history, they do not want them embittered, either.

And so a fair amount of time is spent focusing, not on what the Pilgrims did, but on the richness of the Indians' own culture and history. When Mrs. King and Carole Ross attended this school as children in the 1950's and 1960's, students were barred from speaking Mohawk; today, the two women work full time teaching the Mohawk language to every child.

Students learn that centuries before the Europeans arrived and held the ''first Thanksgiving,'' the Mohawks were celebrating nine Thanksgivings a year, commemorating the first running of the sugar maple sap; the first thunder (and warming) of spring; the first strawberries; and the great harvest -- the ninth Thanksgiving and the one that coincided with the Europeans' Plymouth celebration.

This week, each class, from kindergarten to sixth grade, went over the Thanksgiving Address, recited at the start of all ceremonies and played each morning at dawn on the Mohawk Reserve radio station, CKON. They give thanks for the earth, the plants, the fish, the waters, the birds, the nighttime and daytime suns. In first grade, Mrs. King had them name all the types of water they could give thanks for, from bottled water to the St. Lawrence. At Gage's Thanksgiving celebration, his family will recite the address together. ''If we make one mistake -- like my sister messing up, we have to start all over,'' he said.
So. Lots of interesting intersections this week... Thanksgiving, names, playing Indian, real Indians. All of it in the world of children, young adults, their books, and their education. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

2011 New Mexico Library Association Annual Conference

On April 26th I'll head home (yeah!) for the 2011 New Mexico Library Association Annual Conference. It will be in Albuquerque. I'm doing a pre-conference workshop there on evaluating books with American Indian content, and a session the next day about books specific to Native peoples in New Mexico.

I'm looking forward to it, and to green chili at the Frontier Restaurant!

Monday, April 04, 2011

A reader writes to me about Jon Scieszka's TRUCKSGIVING

Amongst the email I received this morning is one from Danielle, who wrote to ask if I'd seen Jon Scieszka's Trucksgiving.  While at the local library earlier today, I picked up a copy of it.

Like The Berenstain Bear's Give Thanks, Scieszka's Trucksgiving is new; the publication year is 2010. The illustrators are David Shannon, Loren Long, and David Gordon.  Trucksgiving is one book in Scieszka's "Ready To Roll" series of easy readers published by Simon and Schuster.

On the back cover is the website for the series:  I typed it into the search window on my computer, and WOW! Way cool. I can see lot of kids really liking the site. Truck horns blare, and Jack greets me, saying welcome. Constantly playing in the background is the low sound of a motor. Rolling my cursor over the other trucks on the page, Jack introduces each one.

If you study gender, you might want to take a look at the gender of the trucks. The pink garbage truck is "Gabriella Garbage Truck." She picks up garbage. The blue dump truck is "Dump Truck Dan." More analysis might not hold up, but some of it looks to me to be rather....  stereotypical.

The white ambulance is "Rescue Rita." There's a green wrecker (truck with a wrecker ball) named "Wrecker Rosie" (her wrecking ball is pink). There's bios for each truck, and a lot of things kids can do... listen to sounds, print out coloring pages...

Clicking on the "Parents Section" opens a "Grown Ups Section" that says the site is about fun and games, and that there is little to read on the site.

Some might say the title of the book "Trucksgiving" is clever. It reflects Scieszka's play with words. I like word play, but not in this case. The word play is at the expense of a specific population. Scieszka did that before in Me Oh Maya, one of the books in the Time Warp Trio. I've written about two other books Long illustrated. If you're interested, see what I said about his illustrations for Barack Obama's Of Thee I Sing, and, Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could.

On the first double-paged spread of Trucksgiving, we learn that many years ago, "the first trucks came to Trucktown" (part of the spread is used on the cover). In the foreground are two trucks: Jack Truck (the star of the series) and Gabriella Garbage Truck. He's wearing a black hat with a buckle on it and she's wearing what I think is supposed to be a white bonnet. They've just come off a ship. Beside the ramp is a rock---Plymouth Rock, perhaps?

On the next double-paged spread, we see Payloader Pete and Dump Truck Dan scooping and dumping dirt. They're both wearing black hats with buckles. Turning the page, we see Cement Mixer Mike in a black hat and Grader Kat (she's described on the website as "sensitive, creative, and mature") in a bonnet. They are making roads. On the next double-paged spread we see four cabins on a scroll. Above the scroll the text reads:
They built Trucktown. And they saw that it was good.
Somehow, "they saw that it was good" reminds me of Genesis. Was that deliberate on Scieszka's part? A gesture towards the Puritan's spirituality?

On the next double-paged spread, the trucks wanted a way thank every truck that helped. On that page, the trucks are gathered around a long table that is set with plates full of nuts and bolts and oil cans. Here, for the first time, we see a truck wearing feathers:

"Big Rig" is the truck chosen to be an Indian. His bio page (on the website) says:
Big Rig is a bully. He's a tailgating, horn blasting, black exhaust spewing, license expired, outlaw. And those might be the nicest things you could say about him. The best thing to do with this guy is steer clear.
Gabriella and Big Rig
Instead of round eyes like all the other trucks have, he's got rectangular ones with orange instead of white eyeballs.

On the next two double-paged spreads, Big Rig glares at Lucy the fire truck when she suggests they spray water to celebrate, and, he glares at Gabriella when she suggests they smash garbage.

On the next double-paged spread, Izzy the ice cream truck suggests they eat ice cream. Next to him is another truck wearing feathers. This is Monster Truck Max. His bio (on the website) reads:
Max is everything you would expect a monster truck to be. Especially ACTIVE! He is oversized, jacked up, and nitro-boosted to the MAX! He's always getting his wild self into trouble and it's a good thing he's got friends like Jack and Dan to help him along the way. 
On that page, Izzy is shown on the table. The plates of nuts and bolts are flying about. Was it Max's nitro that upset things?!

For the sake of comparison, I'm including bios for Jack Truck:
Jack is a prankster action hero! He is active, rowdy, messy, loud and goofy. He is the fastest truck and the best-at-truck-sports truck. Jack's work is to play. And he plays, and plays, and plays, and plays.
And Dump Truck Dan's bio...
Dan is Jack Truck's best friend. He is one strong truck and loves to show off that strength, whether its pushing rocks, loading up dirt, or getting into trouble with Jack. 
Max doesn't have the scary appearance that Big Rig does. Max has eyes like the others (round and white).  He is "wild" and perhaps it is his "wild" characteristic that led the illustrators to put feathers on him. Feathers on the bully, and feathers on the wild guy.

The story continues with Jack suggesting they have a race each year instead of the ideas posed by others. Big Rig and Max aren't shown objecting. The final page shows Rita (the ambulance) crossing the finish line, dressed as a turkey.

Overall, the book is stereotypical.

Scieszka's language play is troubling, and the story itself doesn't quite make sense to me. The trucks want to do something to say thanks to all the trucks who helped build Trucktown. The two Indian characters object to ideas put forth. Why? I'm stretching to say that maybe these two "Indian" characters are making a statement about the entire idea of Thanksgiving and how it is observed in the United States.

But, that is wishful thinking. Instead, we have two male trucks. One is a bully and the other is a wild guy. They shut down options put forth by the two female trucks.  

On the website, Szieszka says that the stories are ones that reflect the ways that 4 year old kids act. Perhaps, but it still doesn't make sense to me. Have you read it? Does it work for you?

Letter from reader about THE BERENSTAIN BEARS GIVE THANKS in which the Bears fatten up Squanto (their turkey)

Last week, Kim in Canada wrote to me...

Hi Debbie,

Here's another book to add to your poison pile of inappropriate, misleading Thanksgiving resources (if it's not already there).

I found it on my nephews' bookshelf when I was reading them bedtime stories a couple of weeks ago. I was immediately suspicious as soon as I saw the cover, but before I could talk my nephews into reading another book, the 6-year-old caught a glimpse of one of the illustrations inside and the first thing out of his mouth was "That's a First Nations bear!" (he's in the middle of a unit on treaties at his school). At 6, he's apparently already absorbed the dominant society's misconception that all Aboriginal peoples in North America are signified with headdresses. Sigh.

I asked my sister where she got the book, and she said the boys chose it from a book fair at their school. I explained to her why I didn't want to read it to my nephews, and she donated it to the library where I work so we can include it on our shelf of "not recommended" kid lit (our main clientele are Metis and First Nations students studying to be elementary school teachers).

I just assumed that a book this bad (it manages to include every single bit of American Thanksgiving misinformation and stereotyping out there; to add insult to injury, the turkey in the book is named Squanto) would have been written in the 1970s or 1980s with all of the other Berenstain Bears books I grew up with, so I didn't give it much thought. As I was cataloging it today, though, I was shocked (well, more dismayed than shocked, I guess, as I'm a regular reader of your blog) to see that it had been published in 2009. And in a series of books called "Living Lights," which professes to "help children learn how God wants them to live every day,"  no less.

Sorry to go on for so long. Thanks so much for your blog. Reading it has been a big part of my education over the last couple of years.


I read Kim's email and clicked on the link she provided. On that page you can read most of the book.


Well. I have literally been stuck on that "I..." ever since I got Kim's email and looked at the book. I don't know what to say. I'm shocked, and not shocked. I'm surprised, and not surprised. Maybe the right word is disgusted.

I'm disgusted.

They named the turkey Squanto! And they're fattening him up so they can KILL him and EAT him. In the end, he is saved and turned into their PET. Kristina Seleshanko, managing editor of the Christian Children's Book Review, writes on Amazon that:
when Mama calls "Dinnertime!", Sister suddenly remembers Squanto. But she's relieved when Papa points out the window at the pen he's made for the family's new pet: the turkey Squanto. A fine salmon is the center of the family's Thanksgiving dinner and when prayers of thanksgiving to God go round, Sister adds, "And I am especially thankful for my wonderful new pet, Squanto the turkey!" "AMEN!" everyone cries. 
Amen?! Can you see why this book is problematic? Are Jan and Mike Berenstain that obtuse?! Or do they know perfectly well what they're doing???

Is The Berenstain Bears Give Thanks in your library?  If it is, can you move it, as Kim is doing, to a place where it can be used as a teaching tool?

You can also write to Jan and Mike Berenstain at this email address: Or directly to Zondervan (the publisher) at

Note: Sunday, March 11, 2012
See the follow-up at Update on Berenstain Bears Give Thanks
You might also be interested in the stereotyping in Berenstain Bears Go to Camp. 

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Dear Mr. Goble: Questions for Paul Goble about THE GIRL WHO LOVED WILD HORSES

Paul Goble's The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses was published in 1978. It won the prestigious Caldecott Medal.

Due to the popularity of his style, and the Caldecott, too, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses has been printed and reprinted lots of times. The copy I'm looking at right now (dated 2001) indicates I have one that was in the 12th reprinting.

As we saw in the discussion of Robert Lawson's They Were Strong and Good, books can be revised, with problematic language removed in the process.

I'm wondering if Paul Goble or an editor at Simon & Schuster might do some revising of The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses?

Well---maybe not revising, but an addition to the book. By that, I mean information about the story itself. I mean a source note!

Let's look at his book, using criteria developed by Betsy Hearne in her "Cite the Source: Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, Part 1" article. It was published in 1993 in School Library Journal. Betsy called her criteria "A Source Note Countdown."

Before I start, I'll say I find the book as problematic as the other "Native" book that won the Caldecott in the 70's: Gerald McDermott's Arrow to the Sun. The subtitle for McDermott's book is A Pueblo Tale. There are nineteen different pueblos... which one does he mean? Does he think we're all the same? What is the source for the story he tells? Does McDermott know that the pueblos in the northern, mountainous part of New Mexico are not the same as the ones located in more southern areas of the state, where the geography is not as mountainous? There are significant differences, in fact, even within a single pueblo, from one society or clan to the next one...  Without providing a source, McDermott introduces the chaos Betsy points to by being non-specific. An elementary school teacher who chooses to use his book to supplement teaching about Pueblos people heads down a rather risky road...

Course, his book---and Goble's, too---were written in the 1970s...  Because of that, some might argue that it isn't fair to judge them by today's standards. Still, given their status as Caldecott books, maybe we can ask them to be updated with a solid source note...

In her source note countdown, Betsy writes about five ways an author can acknowledge his or her sources. Worst case is #5, "The nonexistent source note." Next is #4, "The background-as-source-note." Number 3 is "The fine-print source note." At #2 is "The well-made source note." And the best note, #1, is "The model source note."

In Betsy's countdown, the worst note is "the nonexistent source note."  In this case, the subtitle or jacket copy makes a vague claim that is, as Betsy writes, "faithfully picked up and authoritatively echoed in the Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication statement." To the right is the cover of The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses. No subtitle. The text on the jacket book flap, however, says "In simple words and brilliant paintings that sweep and stampede across his pages, Paul Goble tells of a Native American girl's love of horses."  And here's the CIP info:
Summary: Though she is fond of her people, a girl prefers to live among the wild horses where she is truly happy and free. [1. Fairy tales. 2. Indians of North America-Fiction. 3. Horses-Fiction] 
I'm guessing the Library of Congress cataloger used the jacket copy to assign the book its 2nd category (Indians of North America-Fiction). There isn't an author or source note anywhere in the book. The only information we are given is the Library of Congress summary. No "background as source note" or "fine-print source note" or "well-made" or "model" note. In interviews, Goble says he does extensive research. So...

April 3, 2011 

Dear Mr. Goble, 

Can you tell your editor at Simon and Schuster that you'd like to add a well-made source note to this book? One that tell us the specific source (or sources) you used to tell this story? Can you give us a description of the cultural context in which this story was/is told? And, can you tell us what you've done to change it, and why you've changed it as you did (if you did)? 

Debbie Reese

(I'll send this on to Simon and Schuster, and to Mr. Goble, too, if I can find a way to contact him. I'll let you know if I hear back from either one.)

Update, June 11, 2014:
I did receive a reply to my letter. In it, Mr. Goble said that I could not quote him. The gist of his short letter is that publishers cannot afford to add pages like the one I requested. I find that answer curious because his later books include that information.