Editor's note, March 1, 2014: The book discussed herein won the 2014 Caldecott Medal. Its win signals how much work there is ahead of us in terms of diversity and representation of everyone who "We the People" references.
Among the books that has gotten some buzz this year as a frontrunner for major book awards is Brian Floca's Locomotive. Published in 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, it is a celebratory treatment of the transcontinental railroad presented in a travelogue style. That railroad was completed in 1869.
In Locomotive, a white woman and her two children board the train in Omaha bound for San Francisco. As they get off the train at San Francisco, Floca's text reads:
Now your days on the train are done.Turning the page, one sees a man, arms outstretched. I assume he is the children's father and the woman's husband. The text on that page is:
You are tired and dusty,
the smell of smoke in your clothes.
But now you are here!
Here where you needed to go,
here where you need to be...
...here with the peopleI won't deny the need and joy of any family's reunion, but in this review essay, I use Floca's text to pose some questions, particularly as people in children's literature take up the word "diversity" or "diverse books." So far, I haven't seen anyone say that his book is a "diverse" book, but I can see how it might garner that sort of characterization, because the first full page of the book shows Chinese men. For Locomotive to succeed as a "diverse" book, however, its readers need to see far more than Floca gave us.
and needed to see.
On the page "The Great Plains" (the book is not paginated; the words "The Great Plains" are on the bottom right corner of the double-paged spread), the illustration is of a vast sky and an expanse of grassland. Moving through it is the train. Here's what Floca wrote:
The hours and miles roll by.I paused when I read "empty as an ocean." Describing land as empty is something that Laura Ingalls Wilder did, too. Describing a place as empty depends on the person using that description. Some years ago, I took my laptop in for servicing. The screen background I had at the time was a photograph I took of the view from my house on the reservation. The technician looked at that photo and said something about how empty it was and how it should be developed. To me, it wasn't empty. To me, it is my homeland. If the Great Plains were my homeland, I wouldn't call it empty. But that's what Floca's white family sees. I think that is what they want and need to see in order to be able to celebrate that railroad and their travels across those plains.
The country opens,
empty as an ocean.
Floca's text on that page continues with this:
Here the bison used to roam,Again, I paused.
by the hundreds, by the millions.
Here the Cheyenne lived,
and Pawnee and Arapaho.
Will Floca tell his readers that the railroad played a role in the demise--or rather, slaughter--of the bison? Will he tell them, for example, that white hunters shot buffalo from open train windows? Or that millions of hides were shipped on those trains by hunters who left bison carcasses to rot? (The answer to those questions is no. He doesn't. Is it fair to expect him to? Could he include it in the notes at the end of the book? Whether he should or not is debatable. More on that later...)
And what about the use of "lived" to describe the Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Arapaho. Does that sentence suggest to a reader with "vanished" Indians as part of his or her knowledge base that the Cheyenne, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho no longer exist at all? Will Floca say more about this? (The answer is no.)
On the page with "The Forty-Mile Desert" in the bottom right corner, we learn that the train is now in the Great Basin:
On the train rolls,I like what he says there, "home of the Paiute and the Shoshone" much better than his use of "lived" regarding the Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Arapaho. I like that he names specific tribes, too, but that isn't enough--in my view--to make this a book that would appeal to a diverse audience that includes children of those Native Nations, or children who have learned a more critical history and view of history.
down through the desert,
the home of the Paiute and the Shoshone,
It's a land of dust and bitter rivers,
rivers that never reach the sea--
they sink away,
Let's flip to the end papers that open the book. I like that Floca has used them, too, to pass along information by way of his illustrations. There's a map showing the transcontinental railroad and all the states it passes through. There's some people drawn on the map, but none of them are Native. In fact, nowhere on the end pages do I see illustrations or references to Native people at all. The small illustrations that frame the map on the top of the page show what I take to be the Mayflower and a wagon train. Beneath the map is one that shows workers making a tunnel, one that shows them laying track, and then, one that shows the meeting point for the tracks the two companies built (the two companies were the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific).
If I was advising Floca, I'd have suggested--at the very least--that he add homelands of Native Nations to that map.
Let's turn now, to "A Note on the Locomotive" at the end of the book. There, Floca tells us about the thousands of Chinese who worked for the railroads in the West, and he tells us of the waves of European immigrants who settled along the railroads. Then, there's a long paragraph about Native peoples. All of the following excerpts are in that paragraph. He begins with this:
If the railroad offered change to some, it imposed change on others, none more so than American Indians, who variously accepted, cooperated with, and fought the railroads as the railroads pushed across the continent. In the West, the Central Pacific made agreements with the Paiute and Shoshone of the Great Basin, some of whom worked alongside Chinese laborers to help build the road. (The groups worked well together, although there is a story of the Paiutes alarming the Chinese by telling them that the desert was inhabited by giant, man-eating snakes.)"[A]s the railroads pushed across the continent"? How about "as the railroads and the federal government did what they wanted to take Native land." And what are we to make of the story in parentheses? That the Paiutes were mean to the Chinese? Or, maybe we're meant to think of the Chinese as simple minded? Or maybe, superstitious? Maybe this is Floca's attempt to inject a bit of levity?
Floca goes on to say that Pawnees also chose to work with the Union Pacific, and it was when the railroad "pushed" through Nebraska that there were problems because it
disrupted the grazing ranges of the bison, or American buffalo, the animal at the center of the diet, economy, and culture of the Plains, and the Cheyenne responded with attacks on surveyors and work crews.There's a section in the book that shows things that did not happen to the train the family was riding on. One is a train going too fast on a curve and derailing. Another is of the crew letting too much water boil away, leading to an explosion. I think Floca could have shown one of those Cheyenne attacks on that page. What he says next tells us that he has a good sense of the reason for those attacks. He could have used that information alongside an illustration of Cheyenne's attacking the trains:
(General Phil Sheridan, although as ruthless a campaigner in the Indian wars as any, observed that "we took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this that they made war. Could anyone expect less?")The parenthesis in that excerpt are in the book. Parentheses are generally used to set off supplemental information that is an aside, or an afterthought, or something that is tangential to the information being presented. Seeing Floca's use of it in this instance sort of reflects his treatment overall of Native people in Locomotive. We're an aside. An afterthought. What happened to Native people is tangential to the information he wants to share in Locomotive. Therein is the problem. Did he not imagine us as his readers? And let's not forget that Sheridan said "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead"
Next is this:
The attacks were recurring and deadly, but the railroad--backed by the U.S. Army--could not be stopped. Once the line was completed, portions of it in Nevada were sometimes used by the Paiute and Shoshone, who through their treaties with the Central Pacific were entitled to rides on the train through their territories.First thing to note: tribes didn't make treaties with railroads. Treaties are agreements made between governments. The treaty Floca may have had in mind is the US government's 1863 Treaty with the Western Shoshone in which the Shoshone agreed to stop attacking the existing trains and also agreed not to attack the construction of "a railway from the plains west to the Pacific ocean."
Second, that excerpt tells us that Floca knew that Native people rode the trains. Could he have included illustrations of Paiute or Shoshone people riding the train? There's a page in the book that shows the interior of a train. A boy is walking down the aisle selling newspapers. In the foreground is a man reading Harper's Weekly. What if that was a Paiute or Shoshone man, looking askance at this illustration from an October 1874 issue?
The point I wish to make with this essay is that Locomotive is a one-sided presentation of history. It has to be, I suppose, in order for it to be celebratory, but shouldn't we be beyond one-sided celebrations?
A few years ago, the Children's Book Council established its CBC Diversity Committee. Among its goals are a dedication to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children's literature. The experience that is missing in Floca's book is that of Native peoples. Including us probably wasn't his intent. Maybe one of CBC's actions towards diversity could be to ask authors to be more inclusive in what they create. Maybe another one could be to ask reviewers to note absences in books like Locomotive.
There are other absences in Floca's book. He includes an illustration of Chinese laborer's on the first page, but doesn't say much about them in the text or in the Note at the end of the book. Though they constituted 90% of the work force, they weren't invited to that celebration of the railroad being completed. How, I wonder, does a child descended from one of the Chinese laborer's feel about so little of their experience being included in Locomotive?
And, there's more to say about San Francisco and Native peoples of California, too. Am I asking for too much? Some would say yes, others would say no. Some would be critical of me for criticizing the book for what it leaves out, but I'll say, again, we have to provide books that are more inclusive of all the peoples that live in the United States. Without them, we're still stuck in an all-white world of children's books, and demographics show---the United States is not an all-white world.
Editors note: My apologies for inadvertently using Locomotion instead of Locomotive in four places. That error has been corrected.
For further reading:
American Indians and the Transcontinental Railroad
Update: Jan 21, 2014, 5:15 PM
Brian Floca submitted comments to my critique. I am pasting them here for the convenience of readers of AICL and will respond once I have studied his comments. Here they are:
Update, Monday January 27, 2014
A few hours ago, your name was read as the winner of the 2014 Caldecott. While I'm trying to make myself feel joyful--because I love books, too--I'm not joyful. I'm angry. But my anger isn't necessarily at you. It's more at the status quo than anything. Your response indicates to me that you gave a lot of thought to what you included and how and why, and I'm glad of that. I'll address your comments in a moment.
For now, I'm addressing the whole-ness of children's literature. Or, maybe, the Caldecott committee. And maybe all those who cheered when your name was called out. Given all the attention to diversity of late, it seems LOCOMOTIVE is a choice that says "we don't care about diversity." Course, that assumes that people who are on the committee know and care about diversity in the first place, and I'm not privy to that information.
Some people are paying attention. Betsy Bird and Lori Ess held a "pre-game" event during which they noted the importance of my critique. Others are tweeting and sharing it via Facebook, so that's good, too.
So here I am, angry. It feels small and petty to be raining on your parade. Perhaps a bit later you can return here and we can continue to talk, because there is much to do, I think, and your assistance in helping us get a bit further down that road would be invaluable.
So. On to your comments.
I imagine you feel damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't when considering how you might illustrate anything to do with Native people. Myself and many others are deeply invested in those images being right, and you're right to be wary. Source material is highly problematic! Seems that Dee Brown is the go-to person for information about American Indians. Reading Brown's books can give some insight so that people avoid making certain kinds of errors, but goodness! There's so much better material available! I strongly urge authors/illustrators to move beyond Brown to Native sources.
The first place I'd go is right to the website of the tribe I was trying to illustrate. Lisa Mitten of the American Indian Library Association has a list of websites by tribe. Sites created by the tribe (rather than a company) are marked with a drum. Once at the site, I'd look for a tribal historian or tribal museum. I'd absolutely stay away from standard encyclopedias. Perspective in them is so biased! So---to authors and illustrators out there---your first stop ought to be a tribe's website. That's not saying someone there will talk to you. Some will, some won't. Some will be too busy helping tribal leaders who are defending the land and resources -- both of which are constantly under assault.
Some will be delighted that an author/illustrator wants to feature their tribe, and they'll be glad to help, but they may not know much about children's literature and critical analysis of image. Or they may not know how important it is to get it right. I'll use myself as an example. Before I started graduate school at the University of Illinois, I knew image was important, but leaving my reservation and living amongst a white population with white perspectives really made it clear to me how damaging stereotypes can be. To them, we didn't look "Indian" because we weren't wearing buckskin and feathers. I kid you not! As you travel in the coming year, talk to kids and teachers. See what they know about American Indians. I'm working with a teacher in a school in the Midwest who is dumbstruck by the things the gifted children she works with "know" about American Indians. I expect that the conversations you have will be similar to that. Her reports affirm what I said in my critique about "lived" and undergird my concern with the use of past tense. So--if you do find someone at the tribe who will work with you, be mindful of the need to triangulate with others, too. This isn't easy--I know--and though it'd be easier just NOT to depict Native people... we've got to try! And if your source is critical and asks you to change something, do it! Ann Rinaldi is Exhibit A in asking for and then disregarding input.
In your response about "lived" you noted that the book cover is a herd of bison. I had no idea. I only saw the jacket. And it is the jacket that is being shown on all sites. Everyone who is reading this conversation between me and Brian---look under the jacket. It is startlingly different in impact. You said you hoped that the line "The railroad and the men who built it--they have changed it all" would convey destruction and triumph. I haven't seen any reviews that say anything at all about destruction of land, killing of bison, or the taking of Native lands for the railroads and towns along them. If you had included---maybe on that page with the wreck and explosion---an illustration of bison dead all along the railroad, shot from train windows, that'd have made destruction very clear. I understand it may have taken you, in part, in a direction you didn't want to go, but I think it would have made your book so much more informative and inclusive if you had. Teachers and librarians reading this conversation--I'd love to know if you take up the destruction, or if you see it referenced in a review.
The anecdote about Paiute and Chinese: Right! Both populations are too often portrayed in stiff ways. Hence, your surprise at the story is understandable AND points to why it would have been great for you to have included illustrations that would counter that depiction.
The Cheyenne attack: Ok, they didn't attack the transcontinental railroad, but the wreck and explosion you showed on that double-paged spread weren't about the train the family was on. So--I think it could have been included. Your text could explain the attack, just as you explained the wreck and explosion.
Paul Goble's book? You see it as being paired with yours. I'll get it and see. I'm not optimistic, though. Native critics are not at all happy with his trickster books: About Paul Goble and his books.
Front endpapers: You write that you wanted to show motives for the railroad and its construction, but I'm not sure I see what you were getting at. I understand that there was a desire to have that railroad, but why? Saying the journey was "expensive, difficult, and often dangerous" describes the travel, but not why the travel was being done. Who was trying to get to California? Why were they trying to get to California? What did their desire to get there mean for the Native peoples who were already there?
Treaties: When looking for information on treaties, I generally turn to Native scholars. I pointed to one in my critique. Here's another one, which is the one you referenced in your comment. You cite the author of A Great and Shining Road as saying tribes made a treaty with the railroad company. The Treaty with the Western Shoshone starts out like this: "Treaty of Peace and Friendship made at Ruby Valley..." That treaty is between tribes and the US government, not the railroad. I don't have Hoyt's book, and maybe there is a treaty between the tribes and the railroad, but I kind of doubt it. I don't have Brown's either. Can you tell me what they cite?
Chinese and celebrations: Right. They were 90% of labor on the Central Pacific workforce. Thanks for sharing the info on Chinese being at the celebration. My info came from Gallery2 of the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Studies page, in the caption for the photograph "Joining the Tracks" which is the photo that I think you used for your illustration of that celebration. Their source is Lisa Yee's book, On Gold Mountain.
Well. That's all I've got for now. Thanks, Brian, for your response, and I look forward to a continuing conversation. And do ask kids and teachers and librarians what they know about American Indians and see what they say.