Saturday, June 01, 2013

American Indians in Children's Literature's "Show Me The Awesome" post

Design by John LeMasney via
Launched by Liz Burns (she blogs at A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy at School Library Journal), Kelly Jensen (she blogs at Stacked), and Sophie Brookover (she's over at Sophibiblio), Show Me The Awesome is a month-long series in May of 2013 in which people in library land write a post that promotes something about their work that they're especially proud of.

I began my post on Thursday (May 30), but storms that made their way across the nation interrupted me by messing with my electricity and the trees in my back yard, too. So, I'm loading my contribution to Show Me The Awesome today (June 1, 2013)

The storms, in their own way, mark what I try to do with American Indians in Children's Literature, and with my lectures and publications. Storms uproot trees. They change the landscape.

In significant ways, the landscape of children's literature changes organically, as society changes. There are exceptions, of course, and that's what is at the heart of my work.

I've been working in children's literature since the early 1990s. I started publishing American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) in 2006. It has steadily garnered a reputation as the place that teachers and librarians can go for help in learning how to discern the good from the bad in the ways that American Indians are portrayed in children's books. People who sit on award committees and major authors, too, write to me. So do editors at the children's literature review journals, and, editors at major publishing houses.

Right now, I'm very proud to have played a role in getting a certain book published. That book is Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here. Its publisher is Scholastic, and its editor is Cheryl Klein. It is due out in a few weeks. In it, you'll read this in the acknowledgements:
Nyah-wheh to Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) and her essential work at American Indians in Children's Literature for her courage, kindness, activism, and generosity, and for introducing me to my editor at Arthur A. Levine. Thank you to Cheryl Klein, that very editor, for actively seeking out indigenous writers, and investing in my work over the long haul.
The introduction took place over email a few years ago. Once it was made, I was out of the picture. I wondered, though, if the introduction would bear fruit. And when I learned a book was in the works, I wondered what it was about. Would I like it? Would I be able to recommend it? Now, I know. With Eric's book in my hands, I can Show YOU The Awesome. 


My essay about why it is awesome is here: What I Like about Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE. 

Years ago, illustrator James Ransome was asked (at a conference at the Cooperative Center for Children's Books at the University of Wisconsin) why he hadn't illustrated any books about American Indians. He replied that he 'hadn't held their babies." I've written about his remark several times because it beautifully captures so much.

Lot of people write about (or illustrate) American Indians without having held our babies. They end up giving us the superficial or the artificial. They mean well, but, we don't need superficial or artificial, either. We need the awesomes. Yeah--I know--'awesomes' isn't a legitimate word, but I'm using it anyway. We have some awesomes. I've written about them on AICL, but we need more awesomes. Lots more, so that we can change the landscape.

Won't you join me in promoting 
Awesome Books about American Indians? 

Order Eric's book, and those I mark as 'Recommended' on AICL. You could also check out the short lists (by grade level) at the top of the right-hand column of AICL. Join me. Let's change the landscape together.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Not-Recommended E-Book: THROUGH THE HIDDEN DOOR by Rosemary Wells

You know how kids can be cruel? Cruel kids are the opening for this novel. A group of cruel boys is throwing rocks at a dog that belongs to the headmaster of their ritzy private school in Massachusetts. Barney Pennimen, the novel's protagonist, isn't quit the bully the others are and yells at them to stop. They don't, of course. Their cruelty ends when a guy named Snowy charges through the bushes and helps the dog. The gang hopes Snowy, who has lost his glasses at that point, can't tell who they are. Course, the gang of boys is caught.

As you may have noted, the title of this post is "Not-Recommended" (and as you can see, I've put a 'not recommended' banner over the cover). As you read about the cruel boys, you might think that is why I've given it a not-recommended tag, but that's not why I'm giving it a thumbs down...

Through the Hidden Door was first published in 1987. It was a nominee for a prestigious award. I've read reviews online in several places, but haven't seen a single reference to the fact that Wells incorporates quite a bit of information about American Indians in the first chapters, let alone reference to the errors and biased information about American Indians in those chapters.

Through the Hidden Door is now available in e-book format, which is why I'm writing about it today, and because it is an e-book, I can't give definitive page numbers for the quotes I use below. I'm reading a copy of the e-book that I got from NetGalley.

Like I said, the boys get caught because Snowy heard Barney yelling. Barney is called to the headmaster's office. His name is Finney. While there, Barney sees an "Indian mask with a horsehair mustache" and wonders if it is real. As the son of an antique dealer, Barney knows a lot about old things.

Part of Barney's punishment is to write long research reports in the library (kind of twisted, eh?). Snowy is there every day, doing research, too, but not due to punishment... He's doing research on a bone that is "no bigger than a joint on one of his fingers." Snowy is trying to figure out what kind of bone it is.

Snowy shows the bone to Finney, who sends it off to the University of Massachusetts for testing. Turns out, it is over 50,000 years old! Who or what it came from is unknown. Finney thinks Indians carved it for some kind of ritual.  

Snowy finds out where the bone came from - a cave. By the time he takes Barney to the cave, he's moved in with Finney, but he hasn't told Finney much.

Once they descend into that cave, they find a tiny set of marble stairs, "each no more than half an inch high and two inches wide." Barney says:
"It must have been an Indian toy, a game, maybe an Indian ritual of some kind... Just like Mr. Finney and the guy at U. Mass. said. Maybe it's what kept the squaws busy when the braves were away hunting. Maybe they made sort of architectural models of things before they built them full scale." 
Squaws? Braves?! Both those terms are problematic because far too many people use them instead of women or men. Read that sentence again, substituting women for squaws and men for braves. It might seem inconsequential, but it goes a long way to humanizing American Indians. Words like squaw and brave only summon stereotypical images that frame Indian people as not-like-us-white-people. While there are differences, one fundamental similarity is that we are all human beings. It seems silly, doesn't it, to have to assert that fact, but for me---that is a starting point. So many children's books describe Native people in derogatory and animalistic ways. Too many have illustrations that show Native people in animalistic poses.

Snowy replies:
"Except Mr. Finney told me about the Indians who lived here before the white man came. They were Mohicans. They built wigwams. Nothing like this." 
The boys decide they have to dig to find out more. After many days of digging they find two stone figures that are almost two feet tall, tiles that form a miniature road, and carved markers along that road. Barney makes a rubbing of the carving on one of the markers.

By the time we get to chapter ten, Barney decides he's got to ask Finney about Indians who "were here long ago." Finney says there were:
Wampanoags, some Mohicans from the north. None of the more famous tribes like the Apaches or the Mohawks. These were peaceful people. They were hunters. They grew some corn, and they were set upon and lost everything to our white ancestors. That was a great shame because they were far ahead of our ancestors in some ways. They were not greedy, and they did not make war. It was the end of them. Our ancestors were greedy, and did make war, and that will be the end of us."
Did you notice all the past tense verbs in what Finney said? I sure did, and I'm guessing that any Wampanoags who read the book will notice them, too! We can also read what Finney says as anti-capitalism, which is fine by me, but "the end of them" is definitely incorrect. There are two federally recognized Wampanoag nations: the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

Barney asks Finney if the Indians wrote, and Finney unloads more misinformation:
"No. They did some painting. Animals on hides. But no native North Americans had written language whatsoever. They didn't need it. [Finney puffs on his pipe and then continues.] They didn't trade."
Finney is wrong about trade amongst American Indians and he's wrong about written forms of communication, too. He goes on to talk a bit about clay tablets, and that people learned to keep accounts, write history, etc. because of business. He says:
"The original occupants of this continent did not trade in volume, in other words run businesses like the Egyptians or the Greeks. They never started any written languages whatsoever, although some Missouri Mound Builders came very close."
Barney asks whether or not they did any stone carvings, and Finney says that other civilizations did that, but not Indians. Is Finney (Rosemary Wells?) really that ignorant?! Barney asks about roads, and Finney says:
"Roads! No! What on earth would they need roads for? They didn't have wheeled vehicles. No regular going from town to town. No towns." 
Sheesh! The more Finney says, the more his ignorance shows! Or, should we say arrogance! When Barney shows him the rubbing, Finney says
"This has nothing to do with Native American history, early, late, or in between. They did not make this. They did not know about roads. And this is a primitive language, hieroglyphics..."
The reference to hieroglyphics is the turning point for what Snowy and Barney have been exploring in that cave. Can't be made by primitive Indians, Wells tells us. She's wrong about all of that. The depth of her stereotyping is seen in the next part.

Finney points to the curly hair of the figure in the rubbing and says:
"This man or god has a curly beard. Every American Indian ever born had hair as straight as a die."
Imagine me sighing. Deeply sighing. As the synopsis for the book says, the boys find artifacts buried for centuries. And because of the character of the artifacts, Finney can't imagine them being created by American Indians. So---at this point---the story veers sharply away from anything at all to do with American Indians.

Readers are left with incorrect and stereotypical information. With this book, Wells has merely affirmed misinformation. Through the Hidden Door was first published in 1988. It came to my attention because it is now available as an e-book. Given the factually incorrect information, I do not recommend it. Spend your library resources on something else.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What I Like about Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE

America--or any nation--celebrates moments and events in its history that show that nation in a good light. Noting those moments is important, but so is noting that there is not a single story within any nation. Not everyone celebrates those same moments. Some people have a different view of those moments.

Take, for example, the celebration of United States Bicentennial. In the opening pages of his If I Ever Get Out of Here, Eric Gansworth's protagonist looks down the street at his elementary school. He imagines teachers getting ready to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial, and notes that the teachers would be puzzled that the celebrations would not be a priority on the reservation.  

Knowing that Gansworth pokes at that celebration might turn you off. You might think that his book is an anti-American screed. 

Rest easy. It isn't. 

It also isn't one of those 'eat your veggies' kind of books...

It is, however, a rare but honest look at culture and how people with vastly different upbringings and identities can clash. And dance. And laugh. Gansworth informs readers about cultural difference, but he doesn't beat anyone up as he does it. 

Gansworth's novel is told in three parts. Here's my thoughts on Part 1, Chapter 1. I've got lots of notes on the rest of the book and will share them later.

Part 1 – If I Ever Get Out of Here

Do you remember the photo on the album sleeve for Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run? A group of people, clad in black, is standing and crouched in front of a brick wall. Caught in a spotlight, they are ‘on the run.’ 

That album cover is the inspiration for Gansworth’s graphic introduction to part one of his novel, but Gansworth’s group is facing the wall. What, I wondered, does that suggest to us about his novel? 

Of course, each reader will answer that question in a different way, based on what he or she brings to the reading itself. Our baggage, so to speak, impacts how we read. 

The image is provocative. So are the people we meet when we start reading part one. In the first chapter, Gansworth introduces us to key people in the story, telling us just enough about them to know how they'll figure in this story about a Native kid named Lewis and his friendship with George. He's the son of a guy in the Air Force. George is not Native. In fact, George's mother is German, which adds a lot to the story.

Meet Lewis Blake. He’s a smart kid. He lives on the Tuscarora Reservation. He’s just about to start seventh grade in one of the “brainiacs” sections set aside for the above-average kids.  As the only Native kid in the brainiac classes the year before, Lewis had been lonely.

The teasing ways he made friends at the reservation school didn’t work when he tried them out with the white kids in his class at the middle school. He thinks he might have a better year if he cuts the braid he has worn since second grade and tries harder to fit in. He enlists the help of Carson, a Native kid he’s known all his life, but Carson’s cousin, Tami—who doesn’t know tribal ways—takes the scissors and makes the cut before Lewis and Carson have tied off both ends in the way such cuts are customarily done.  Dejected, Lewis leaves Carson’s house and walks home.

On the way home, he passes the reservation’s elementary school, where the teachers are getting ready to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. Lewis thinks about how the families on the reservation aren’t impressed by the 200th birthday of the United States, with good reason!  “[W]e’d been here for a lot longer than two hundred years" (p. 5).  He thinks back to third grade, when his teacher asked him to demonstrate his fluency with the Tuscarora language at Indian Culture Night. The memory is packed with conflicting emotions. Lewis was happy at the recognition, but history made his mom cynical. She is dismissive of the event and the motivations for it, too. 

I understand her cynicism.

Lot of people think educational programming at schools can help tribes recover what was lost in the boarding school period, when the educational policy was to ‘kill the Indian,’ to ‘save the man.’ Erase their culture, that is, and replace it with ‘the man’ who happens to be the white man.  Lewis's mom is right to be cynical. Teachers in reservation schools and elsewhere have good intentions, but for those of us who have lost language and culture, it is going to take a lot more than Indian Nights at school to recover language and traditions. Too much of what is done to address treatment of American Indians in law, policy, and education--is a band-aid that just won't work. Lewis is fortunate that he knows more than most, but his mom asks, with whom is he going to speak Tuscarora? Other kids on the reservation don’t know it… Deftly and succinctly, Gansworth is hinting that we've got a long way to go in the U.S., with regard to the well-being of American Indians. 

While giving us a lot of information about American Indians, Gansworth also taps into our love of music. 

While he was at Carson’s house, Lewis spied a guitar. He longed to pick it up, but Carson won’t let him. 

That guitar echoes what the book title, and the chapter titles tell us, too: music is a significant part of Lewis’s life. When he gets home, we have another reference to music when his older brother takes one look at his shorn hair and says that Lewis looks like David Bowie on a bad night. Reading that made me laugh out loud. I love Bowie's music. The persona and images he puts forth are always mesmerizing. I'm sure you've got your favorite Bowie pic and song! 

The title for each chapter in the book is the title of a song. At the end of the book, Gansworth provides a discography, which is way cool, but even better than that is knowing he's going to have that discography online! 

Facts of life: being in the armed service, being poor 

On seeing Lewis's bad haircut, his mom gives him a buzz cut, which introduces us to another significant thread: military service. Lewis’s uncle, Albert, was in Viet Nam. He remembers getting a buzz cut, too. Albert lives with them, sharing a room with Lewis. They have a strong relationship that figures prominently several times in the novel. And remember, too, that the relationship at the heart of this novel is between a Native kid and a kid whose father is in the Air Force. 

Last thing to note about the first chapter is that after Lewis’s mom gives him the buzz cut, she says he looks like a Welfare Indian. He replies that they are, in fact, Welfare Indians. As you read, you’ll learn about how poor they are in material things, and how that poverty plays into Lewis’s thinking and experiences as he develops a friendship with the son of a serviceman from the local air force base. And, you'll learn that things like poverty itself is a relative term. People can look like they live in poverty, but there's more to life than things. 

Oh. One more thing before I hit 'upload' on this post: Lewis loves comic books.

So, what do I like about the novel? 

Within children's literature, there's a metaphor about how literature can be a mirror or a window. For some readers, the novel is a mirror of the reader's own life. For another reader, the novel is a window by which the first reader can peer in and see what someone else's life is like. Gansworth's debut novel is  more than a mirror or a window. 

Reading If I Ever Get Out of Here, I sometimes felt it was a mirror. As a Native kid meeting non-Native kids from really different communities than my own, I identified with the things Lewis went through. 

But as a Pueblo Indian woman who grew up on a reservation in northern New Mexico, the novel was more than a window onto the life of a Native family on a reservation hundreds of miles from my own. With his writing, Gansworth brought me inside Lewis's home and heart. Does that mean it was a door that I entered? I don't know. 

Certainly, the music played a part in how he managed to bring me inside. As I read his book, the songs in it played in my head, and when I hear those songs now, on the radio, I'm back in Gansworth's novel. As research studies show, music is a powerful thing. It taps into a part of us, makes us feel things, and know things... 

That's what Gansworth's novel does. I feel and know things I didn't feel or know before. That's what I like about If I Ever Get Out of Here. Thanks, Eric. Thanks, Cheryl, Thanks, Arthur. And thanks, Scholastic, for getting this book in our hands. 

Update: 12:20 PM, Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Praise for Gansworth's novel:

On the cover of the ARC (advanced reader copy), Francisco X. Stork says: "The beauty of this novel lies in the powerful friendship between two young men who are so externally different and so internally similar. Wonderful, inspiring, and real."

Online, Cynthia Leitich Smith writes that it is a "heart-healing, moccasins-on-the-ground story of music, family and friendship."

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Books by Native Authors at Bus Boys and Poets

I was in Washington D.C. last week. When I'm there, I try to get over to Busboys and Poets and check out the books they have in the bookstore. Deborah Menkart of Teaching for Change was with me and snapped this photo of me holding up Richard Van Camp's Little You. His words, partnered with Julie Flett's art, make for a spectacular board book.

As I browsed the Children's book section, I saw several books I adore on their shelves. I took photos of them.

Tim Tingle's Crossing Bok Chitto and Saltypie are in the picture books section. So is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer but my photo of it was far too blurry to use here. On the shelves with books for older children, I spotted Louise Erdrich's The Game of Silence and Chickadee, and Smith's Indian Shoes. And on the shelf where the board books are, is Richard Van Camp's Little You. Here's my cropped snapshots of them:

I gotta say---I was tickled as can be to see all these books! In one place! And there were others, too. Many others. They were featuring Diverse Energies, which includes a story by Cherokee author, Daniel H. Wilson:

If you're in Washington D.C., put a trip to Busboys and Poets on your list of places to go. While there, buy some books and have something to eat. If you can't get there, visit the website and... buy some books that way.

Very soon, they'll have Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here, too.

Course, I focused on books by Native authors, but they've got a wide range of books by a wide range of authors whose books fit the theme of social justice. Stop by! Check out their website! Support independent bookstores! And always--support social justice.