Sunday, January 12, 2014


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A friend (you, Diana!) asked (on Facebook) for books that a first grader could read on Kindle. Several people suggested Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Treehouse Series. I chimed in to let Diana know that Osborne's Thanksgiving on Thursday is one that I do not recommend. Here's why.

In the series, the two protagonists travel here or there to find a message of import to their lives. They do this traveling at the direction of Morgan Le Fey, a magical librarian of King Arthur's court. She owns the tree house that magically appears in the woods near their home in Pennsylvania. In the tree house are lots of books. When they read one, they are transported to the setting of that book.

In Thanksgiving on Thursday (published in 2002 by Random House), Jack and Annie are instructed to look for magic that will "turn three worlds into one" (note: I'm reading a Kindle version without page numbers and cannot provide page numbers for excerpts I use in this review). The place and time they go to find that magic is Plymouth, 1620. Having performed in Thanksgiving reenactments at school, both kids are happy to be in Plymouth where they hope to meet Squanto, Governor Bradford, and Miles Standish, and of course, they do. Here's the illustration for the moment when Jack and Annie meet up with Pilgrims and Squanto:

Because the kids aren't known to that group, Miles Standish asks them where they're from. Jack tells him they live up north and that he and Annie, as babies, had come to America with John Smith.  Standish says that he thinks Squanto knew John Smith and that perhaps he remembers them. He turns to ask Squanto and Jack panics because what he's said isn't true. Squanto looks closely at Jack and Annie and says "I remember."

Jack and Annie then help the Pilgrims get ready for their mythical Thanksgiving Feast with the Indians. They're working hard and talk about how hard Pilgrim children have to work in comparison to their modern-day lives in Pennsylvania. When they're with Priscilla, she tells them about how sickness killed half the people in their village. It is a tear-filled account, as it should be, but that emotional regard for loss of life is not applied to Squanto's people, as we'll see in the closing pages of the story.

When Annie and Jack join the Pilgrims at their table, Governor Bradford says
"At this moment, three worlds--your world, our world, and the world of the Wampanoag--are not three. They are one. 'Tis the magic of community."
That is precisely what Morgan Le Fey sent them to find. I suppose we could focus on that one moment and say something positive about community, but for me, the larger story is one of colonialism. What does community mean in the hear-and-now when that community includes populations that are marginalized by the majority White population? Wouldn't the manifestation of respect for all members of that community result in concerted efforts amongst racism directed towards those marginalized communities?

When their meal is over, Jack and Annie have to leave. Squanto offers to walk with them. Annie asks why he said he remembers them, and he tells her that he didn't say he remembered them. He said "I remember." He elaborates, saying:

"I remembered what it was like to be from a different world. Long ago, I lived with my people on this shore. But one day, men came in ships. They took me to Europe as a slave. In that new land, I was a stranger. I felt different and afraid. I saw the same fear in your eyes today. So I tried to help you."

Annie thanks him, and he says:

"And now you must always be kind to those who feel different and afraid. Remember what you felt today."
Jack and Annie return home, then, with two messages. The first is about the magic of community, and the second is to be kind to those who are different. Both, of course, are important, but the narrowness by which the messages are presented is, to me, troubling, particularly when I read the closing pages of the story:
"You know, Pilgrim kids had a really hard life," said Annie.
"Yeah. They did as much work as the grown-ups," said Jack. "Maybe more."
"Worst of all, lots of their friends and family members died," said Annie.
"Yeah," said Jack.
Both were silent for a moment.
"If they could be so thankful," said Annie, "we should be really thankful."
"No kidding," said Jack. "Really, really thankful."
And they were.
No mention of the death of Squanto's people? No mention of the slavery he endured? What happened to him or Native people of that time and place is, according to Osborne, part of what Jack and Annie need to reflect on. Perhaps she felt that kids don't need to be dealing with such things, but that means (to me) that Wampanoag children are not who she imagines as her readers. That omission tells me that community does not include them, and that is why I cannot recommend Osborne's book.

To do a fact-check of the content of this or any book on what is generally called "The First Thanksgiving," see "What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tale." (If the link doesn't work, let me know and I'll send you a pdf of the article.)


Anonymous said...

So when an author writes a book, they have to imagine every single person who might read it? That's ridiculous. The author is writing the story she wants to tell. Those who want to read it will and those that are "offended" don't have to read it.

Anonymous said...

The author is whitewashing history.....

Anonymous said...

Hi! Where can I find the PDF of the article? (What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving? The Wampanoag Side of the Tale)

Thank you!


Debbie Reese said...

Try this link, Kate:

Library Lynn said...

I just want to thank you for this post. I'm trying to be more aware and sensitive to others' cultures, and as a children's librarian, more concerned about how my library collection portrays historical events. I had never thought about this book as insensitive, but having read it a second time, I see your point now. Most all of the books I enjoyed as a kid are insensitive to the realities of Native people and I thank you for challenging my old ties and for giving me new titles that ARE inclusive, sensitive, and accurate. I'm doing my part to help the healing and hope to always do more.