Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jodi Lynn Anderson's TIGER LILY - Part 2

Back in June, I read part of Jodi Lynn Anderson's Tiger Lily. I didn't like what I read and posted my thoughts. The book is now on School Library Journal's "Best of 2012" list, so I got it out of the library and read it today. These are my initial thoughts.


  • The story is set in the time prior to Wendy's arrival at Neverland. 
  • The narrator is Tinker Bell. 
  • There are tribes. They live in these three villages: SkyEaters, Cliff Dwellers, and Bog Dwellers.
  • I don't think Anderson uses the word 'Indian' anywhere in the book. She uses 'tribe' and 'warrior' and 'warriors' and 'shaman.'  

What I don't like:
Here's what stands out to me right now. I've got lots and lots of notes, but as I close the book and set it down, this is what is in my mind.

First concern: the names Anderson created for the Native characters. For years and years, non-Native writers have created outlandish names for their characters. In the process, they intentionally or not, trivialize and mock something that matters to us a great deal. Russell Hoban did it in Soonchild. Jon Scieszka did it in My Oh MayaHere's the names in Tiger Lily:

Pine Sap
Moon Eye
Tik Tok
Magnolia Bud
Aunt Fire
Aunt Sticky Feet
Bat Wing
Silk Whiskers
Red Leaf
Bear Claw

Tik Tok is the name of the village shaman. We don't know what his name was to start with, but once he finds the clock and hears its tick tock, he decides to have a ceremony and change his name to Tik Tok. It makes him seem a foolish and silly person.

Tik Tok finds Tiger Lily under a tiger lily flower and names her after it. Aunt Sticky Feet was named that way because of the time she had walked through hot tar and then got her foot stuck to a chicken that ran into her path.

Some of you may have heard the crass joke about how an Indian is named after the first thing the person bestowing the name sees in the morning, or just at the moment he/she is about to give a name to someone. It is a racist joke, and as such, it isn't funny, and neither are the humorous names authors create for their characters (whether they directly call their characters Indian or not).

Second concern: Tik Tok is a transgender character. He wears purple and raspberry colored dresses. Once I got past the name, I liked him. I liked him a lot. But then, the Englander named Philip moves into the village and turns the people against him. Instead of listening to Tik Tok, they cluster around Philip and stories of his god. In Anderson's story, the villagers are simpletons. Though, by the end of the story, they've rejected Christianity and returned to their own ways, Anderson's characterization of them is troubling. This may be Neverland to her, but to me, she's playing with very painful history in which Indigenous peoples fought very hard to defend their ways of life.

It was very hard for me to read the pages about what happens to Tik Tok. Because of pressure from Philip and the villagers rejection of him in favor of Philip, he decides he cannot live his life as a man who wears dresses and long hair anymore. He lets Philip cut his hair. It was painful to read that part, and I'm not sure that Anderson knows just how that scene will impact Native readers.

Not long after that, Tik Tok commits suicide. That was painful to read, too, though it isn't spelled out as graphically as the hair cutting is. Same thing with Moon Eye's rape. It is not graphically laid out, but there is enough there that it is painful to read.

Reviewers note that Tiger Lily is very dark, but for me, its darkness is one of ignorance--not the ugly racism Anderson seeks to expose--but the exposure of her own ignorance of what certain things in history might mean to a Native reader. As for the naming, I don't know how to characterize it. When I've had time to think about Tiger Lily a bit more, I'll likely write some more, but that's what I've got for now.

Update, Thursday, December 13th, 10:12 AM

Picking up where I left off last night... I have additional concerns.

The tribal people, obviously, had their own language prior to the arrival of the Englanders. But, when the Englanders first arrive (prior to the setting of Tiger Lily), they brought their language with them and gave it as "a gift" (page 10) to the Bog Dwellers, who in turn, gave it to the other tribes. Remember, it is Tinker Bell who is narrating, and it is she who calls English a gift. Maybe Tiger Lily has a different view of English, but we don't know.

Stepping into a broader context, Native peoples in the U.S. who were sent to boarding schools were beaten when they spoke their own language. The result is that Indigenous languages are in decline. In that context, it is callous to see English called "a gift." I assume Anderson needed to insert English into the narrative because Tik Tok and Pine Sap read books written by Englanders. One is Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. On page 64, Pine Sap is reading "Song of myself" aloud to Tiger Lily. Ironically, I imagine that Whitman is one of the poets Native students had to read in the boarding schools. On page 33, Anderson's reference to an old mission tells us she must have some knowledge of missionary activities. Perhaps she views missionaries as benevolent, and that's why she calls English a gift. Anderson is a gifted writer. Couldn't she have figured out a way to problematize English as "a gift"?

On page 84, when Tiger Lily first meets the Lost Boys, Tootles tells her that she has hairy arms, and that girls aren't supposed to have hairy arms. Tiger Lily is embarrassed and thinks about "photos of the English ladies she'd seen, smooth and white, and for a moment, it made her sad." We know Tiger Lily's thoughts because Tinker Bell can hear them. Was Tiger Lily sad that her skin wasn't smooth and white? Later in the book, Wendy's skin is described as "cloudlike with whiteness." Wendy showers Peter and the boys with admiration. They "can't take their eyes off her" (p. 235). In the end, Peter chooses Wendy. We know he chooses Wendy---it is, after all---Barre's story that Anderson is working with. I don't know what to make of all this. It is more complicated than a simple elevation of white over dark skin, but the messages it imparts are troubling.

A few words about the photos... We aren't told where she saw those photos. Are they in books left behind by the missionaries? Leaves of Glass was published in 1855, which is right around the time that it was beginning to be easier to reproduce photographs. I don't know about the dates at which books with photographs in them would be circulating. Course, Tiger Lily is a work of fantasy and we can't really say what time period it is set in, but the reference to Whitman and a later reference to the end of sailing and steamships (in favor of "newer and quicker machines" (p. 279) do give us a time period to work with. She probably was seeing photographs of English ladies, if not in books, then actual photographs.

Do I find anything to like about Tiger Lily? I'm reluctant to say, because I don't want my comments taken out of context to indicate that I recommend the book. I don't recommend it. I find Tiger Lily very troubling, and I find it troubling that reviewers are praising it. Didn't any of them have a niggling of any kind that might suggest it isn't deserving of all that praise? I suppose they like her writing. She is a good writer. I just wish she had not used her art in this book.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

James and Joseph Bruchac's RABBIT'S SNOW DANCE

Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

Have you heard Joe Bruchac tell a story? He's got a terrific voice for telling stories. As I read Rabbit's Snow Dance, I was able to play that voice in my head as Rabbit says:
"I want snow," he said. "I want it, I want it, I want it right now!"
Rabbit's Snow Dance is by Joe and his son, James. And, I gotta say, it is absolutely delightful!

Rabbit's Snow Dance is absolutely delightful!

Rabbit, you see, wants the tasty leaves and buds at the top of the trees. He can't reach them, but he knows that if there was a lot of snow on the ground, he could stand on it and get those tasty treats. He knows a snow dance, too, and thinks he'll sing the song and do the dance, even though it isn't the right season to do it...

The combination of the Bruchac's storytelling and Jeff Newman's illustrations works perfectly. Here's the cover:

On the cover, Rabbit is playing a hand drum. Notice the drumstick in his left paw? Newman obviously did some research, or, maybe he knows from experience that Native peoples do not play a drum with a bare hand. So many illustrators get that wrong! Newman got it right.

Rabbit's Snow Dance, we learn on the title page inside, is a traditional Iroquois story. Back in 1993, Betsy Hearne developed a Source Note Countdown as part of her article, "Cite the Source: Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, Part 1." In model source notes, we'd learn just where the story came from, when and how it ought to be told (its cultural context), and, how the teller changed it from the version he or she heard/read it from. We don't have any of that in Rabbit's Snow Dance. Joe has provided it for other books. I wrote to a storyteller a couple of years ago. He told me that publisher's don't want to give authors space for that information. If that is the status of model notes right now, I think we're all losing out. There are, for example, six different tribal nations within the Iroquois: Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Tuscarora, Mohawk, and Cayuga. Do they share this story? Or, does it belong to one in particular?

That said, I do think Rabbit's Snow Dance has a lot to offer as a read-aloud and highly recommend it. I'll look around for some source info and share it when I get it. Perhaps you can print it out and insert it yourself.

Rabbit's Snow Day
As told by James and Joseph Bruchac
Illustrated by Jeff Newman
Published by Dial, in 2012.

Order it from your favorite independent bookseller right away so you'll have it for the snowtimes that are upon us---not because of Rabbit's dance, but because its Wintertime. Snowtime!

Update, December 20, 2012:

Thanks to Beverly for writing to Joe to get the background of the story...  It will appear in the subsequent printings of the story. Here it is:

"Rabbit's Snow Dance" is a story that I first heard more than 50 years ago from several different Native elders. The first of them was my friend Swift Eagle, a Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache artist and storyteller (whose own life would make an interesting story) who lived in Schroon Lake, New York and spent many years working in a tourist attraction called Frontier Town. Swifty had been in the movies, friends with Jim Thorpe, traveled all over the country and seemed to know just about everyone in Indian country, including many Iroquois folks of his generation. There are more than a dozen Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) stories that Swifty often told, including this one, the story of how Bear Lost his tail, Turtle's Race With Bear and others. I heard him tell that story when I was a little boy visiting Frontier Town in the early 50s. (Swift Eagle also was known as a Pueblo culture bearer. He is mentioned in at least one ethnologist's work as perhaps the first Pueblo person to produce artwork as a painter. In 1955, Swifty recorded THE PUEBLO INDIANS IN SONG STORY AND DANCE for Caedmon.)

I also heard a version of the story from Maurice Dennis/Mdawelasis, an Abenaki elder who lived in Old Forge, N.Y., also working in a tourist attraction called The Enchanted Forest. (By the way, a book should be written about Indians playing Indian for tourists in such locales during the middle decades of the 20th century.) Maurice also knew the Abenaki snow dance and famously performed it one snowless winter for the town of Old Forge to help the economy by providing snow for the trails to attract snowmobilers. It worked and a storm swept in that blanketed Old Forge, the only Adirondack town with deep snow that winter. It made the national news that year of 1980 and the town of Lake Placid then tried to hire Maurice to do the snow dance for the Winter Olympics. But he refused, saying he did it for his town and couldn't do it for money. (That dance, by the way, was given the people by the rabbit or snowshoe hare, who is a very important figure in other Abenaki traditional tales.)

The earliest published version of Rabbit making it snow appears to be the one in STORIES THE IROQUOIS TELL THEIR CHILDREN by Mabel Powers (American Book Company, 1917). It is titled "Why the Hare Has a Split Lip and Short Tail." The Hare sings:

Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
dah gen, dah ton
Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
Ah gon ne yah--yeh
which is translated as;
Snow, snow, snow
How I would run if I had snow
Snow, snow, snow
How I would run if I had snow

Powers was not Native herself, but cites 23 different Iroquois storytellers as sources, including their names, Indian names, tribal nation and clan. (Many of them would later be mentioned as sources by Arthur Parker in SENECA MYTHS AND FOLK TALES (Buffalo Historical Society, 1923) Her book also included a Foreword endorsing her tellings and signed by Chiefs from all Six Iroquois Nations.

The next published version can be found in the Seneca artist J.J. Cornplanter's LEGENDS OF THE LONGHOUSE (J.B. Lippincott, 1938) and titled "Rabbit and Pussy-Willow, a Seneca Just-so Story." Written in the form of a letter to a friend, it includes that same song, as well as commentary about the place of such stories in Seneca life. 

My own first published version of the story is in my book IROQUOIS STORIES, published in 1985 by the Crossing Press. There have been other published versions since, such as the one called "The Rabbit" in TYENDINAGA TALES (McGill-Queens, 1988) collected by Rona Rustige. 

The telling that James and I chose to do is both drawn from and different from those previous versions. It came to be as a result of both of us telling that story to audiences over the years. In my case, more than 40 years of telling it (first to Jim and his brother Jesse when they were children). In Jim's case, more than 20. 

Before I go further I should mention that it has become increasingly clear to me over the decades how much and how often stories travel. . .not just within a tribal nation, but beyond its traditional boundaries. It's impossible to count how many thousands, perhaps millions, of people have heard or read versions of this one story alone over the last century. It's sometimes hard to know when (and where) a traditional tale was first told unless it deals with very specific historical events or cultural practices. 

Animal stories--like those of Aesop (the Greek Ethiopian)--may travel the best. Here in the northeast, a number of our Wabanaki stories have clearly been influenced by Iroquois traditional tales. And vice versa. And the Algonquin peoples and our languages have roots rather deeper than those of the Haudenosaunee, who migrated into our region a thousand or so years ago. It means that sometimes we have new or different insights into a story. For example, one thing I have heard from Abenaki people--such as Maurice Dennis--was that the tree which holds those pieces of Rabbit's tale are not pussy willows at all. The pussy willow is a short bush, not the tallest tree in the forest that would stick up above the deep snow. Instead, it is the poplar, a tall growing tree that produces catkins that fall to the ground in early spring.

That is why in our telling we used an Abenaki language version of the song and say near the end "Since then, at the time of year when the snow goes away, you can see those little furry pieces of Rabbit's tail stuck on certain trees. Some call them pussy willows, but those who know about Rabbit's snow dance know what they really are." Honoring the tellings of those in the past and bringing our own voices and experience into this version which is not wholly traditional, but our own, unique retelling. 

There's a lot more that could be said, but this tale of a tale of a tail is already too long, so

I'll cut it short here,

Monday, December 10, 2012

Russell Hoban's SOONCHILD

Ummm... Russell Hoban, author of some terrific picture books, wrote this on page 6 of Soonchild: 
John came from a long line of shamans. His mother was Stay With It and his father was Go Anywhere. His mother's mother was Never Give Up and her father was Try Anything. His father's mother was Do It Now and his father's father was Whatever Works. His mother's grandmother was Where Is It? and his father's grandmother was Don't Miss Anything. His mother's grandmother was Everything Matters and his father's grandfather was Go All The Way. 
John's full name, by the way, is Sixteen-Face John. His wife's name is No Problem.

Want some more excerpts from this novel based on Inuit stories? Did you say 'hell no'?! That's what I'm saying.

Say 'hell no' to Hoban's Soonchild.

Calling it playful, challenging, profound, and glib, the reviewer at Booklist gave it a starred review and categorizes it as appropriate for grades 9-12.

The reviewer at VOYA says the Native names (really, Voya? You think those are "Native" names?!) give the story "unexpected depth" and recommends it for readers who are 11 to 14.

The Kirkus reviewer says it is "based on paternalistic and romanticized notions about Native peoples." Quoting from the book, the Kirkus reviewer demonstrates that Hoban is addressing non-Inuit readers:
"Maybe…there isn't any north where you are. Maybe it's warm….There aren't any Inuit or dogsleds, nothing like that."
Some (obviously) think Hoban is clever. I think he is ignorant and insensitive, and I wouldn't recommend his book for anyone at all!