Monday, March 17, 2014

2013 CCBC Data on Fiction by/about American Indians - US Publishers

I studied the 2013 list of books received by the Cooperative Center for Children's Books (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that CCBC lists as being by/about American Indians/First Nations/Latin America.

CCBC is careful to note that the list means nothing about quality. It is just a tally of books they received. In total, the list they shared with me has 34 books on it. I am going to analyze the books on the list. I am grateful to CCBC for sending me the list, and I'm grateful to them for compiling this data every year. This is the first year I'm doing this analysis.

To start with, I am limiting my analysis of the list to works of fiction published by U.S. publishers, which means 13 books (I am excluding Little Red Riding Boots, which is on the CCBC list for its illustrator; the book itself has no cultural content specific to American Indians).


The "Big Five" publishing houses and/or their imprints published four works of fiction. None of them are by Native writers.

I do not recommend Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper or Crazy Horse: Brave Warrior by Ann Hood because there is a great deal of stereotyping in both. From the way the Native characters behave to the way they speak... stereotyping. Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon and Schuster)

I do not recommend Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost because I find it problematic to look for Indian people, make friends with them, and report that they asked you to write a book about them. And then, that book turns out to be a not-plausible work of historical fiction where White people and Indian people, before and after intense war, were friends. Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan)

I do not recommend Written in Stone by Rosanne Parry, partly became she writes at length of "Chief Lelooska" and the Lelooska Foundation which perform and stereotype rather than educate, and, she sends her young readers to Lelooska, too. Though she taught children at the Quinault school, Parry's book echoes stereotype rather than reality. Publisher: Random House.

The fourth book is Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill. Set in a gold mining camp in Alaska, the author tells us it is from her memories of living in a mining camp when she was a child. At her site, she says "Gold rushes are inherently sexy, with lots of wild, death-defying activity, over-the-top characters, and some dazzling rags-to-riches stories." It fails in the same way that Locomotive did. It celebrates something that has a very dark side to it, with that dark side having a negative impact on Indigenous people. Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (Macmillan)

These writers meant well. Each one of them has written about their motivation for writing these books. Each one, however, approached the project from a well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed, desire to tell a Native story, from a Native perspective (the exception is Bo at Ballard Creek, which does not take a Native perspective). To varying degrees, they are the white person so enchanted by our spirit or culture, or so infuriated by how we and our Nations are treated historically and in literature, that they decided to write these stories. Many readers--reading from that same position--feel very moved or inspired by their motivation and their books. There are others, however, who do not feel that same inspiration. Some (like me) are often more than a little irked that we keep getting books by white writers who just recycle stereotypes and biased stories. It plays to the mainstream expectation of what Native peoples are supposed to be, but that expectation is so far from what Native and non-Native readers ought to get, especially in books for young people.


Nine works of fiction by smaller publishing houses are on the CCBC list for 2014. One is by a writer who is not Native; eight are by Native writers.

The one by a writer who is not Native is Rob Owen's Spy Boy, Cheyenne, and 96 Crayons. It is published by Pelican Press. I am not able to get a copy of it and can't say anything about it.

The other eight? I recommend them. They don't stereotype. As far as my research has determined, they don't err with cultural material.

Joseph Bruchac's Killer of Enemies is published by Tu Books of Lee and Low. It is a post apocalyptic story with a female protagonist named Lozen who is a descendent of a noted Chiricahua Apache woman. Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

Art Coulson's The Creator's Game: A Story of Baaga'adowe/Lacrosse, published by the Minnesota Historical Press, is about Travis, a present-day boy sixth-grade Ojibwe boy who is getting started as a lacrosse player.

Eric Gansworth If I Ever Get Out of Here is one of my all-time favorites. I highly recommend it. No stereotyping in it. No romanticizing of a Native identity or history in it, and no performance of a not-legit Native identity, either. Elsewhere on AICL I've written about it, so won't go on and on here. It is by Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic).

Gary Robinson's Little Brother of War, published by 7th Generation, is about a present-day Choctaw boy who thinks he's not an athlete like his big brother who was killed in Iraq. At a Choctaw gathering he finds himself playing stickball (a traditional game known as Little Brother of War), at which he excels.

Tim Tingle's How I Became a Ghost is published by Road Runner Press. It is set on the Trail of Tears, but in Tingle's deft storytelling voice, the story is more about the humanity and perseverance of the Choctaw people than the tragedy of removal.

Tingle's Danny Blackgoat: Navajo Prisoner is published by 7th Generation. This is the only book of Tingle's in which he writes outside of his own people (Choctaw). Though his storytelling skills are present, it doesn't have the depth that his Choctaw stories do. Even so, it is far more commendable than Cooper, Hood, Frost, Parry, or Hill.

Richard Van Camp's Little You, published by Orca, is a delightful board book celebrating a child's birth and childhood. Coupled with art by Metis artist Julie Flett, this book is gorgeous.

Richard Wagamese's Him Standing, published by Orca, is not--in my view--meant for young adult readers who are at the younger end of that scale (the range of YA is 12-18). A very dark thriller, the protagonist in Wagamese's book is 20 and living with his girlfriend.


The comparison between the two sets of books is lopsided in terms of quality. Really lopsided. The problematic books from the Big Five are doing well in the marketplace, which is no surprise. They have the marketing force of a major publisher, and, the stories cater to mainstream expectations of what stories about Native people will be about, and that's too bad! How are we going to get that depiction off of center stage?

My answer is:

1) Reject those problematic books. Tell others what is wrong with them.

2) Buy and recommend books that provide readers with stories that accurately present Native characters and culture. Tell others about them.

Bottom line of my analysis? Of the 13 books that I was able to read, I recommend 8 of them.

On March 16th, 2014, The New York Times ran an opinion piece by former children's literature ambassador, Walter Dean Myers. Titled "Where are the People of Color in Children's Books?", Myers pointed to the CCBC data. Of the 3,200 children's books published in 2014, 93 were about black people. I'm curious about the 93 books. What genre? What quality?

In 2013, CCBC received 34 about American Indians. In the analysis above, I looked only at fiction by US publishers. I have not yet looked at fiction by Canadian publishers, and nonfiction by US or Canadian publishers. Here's the numerical breakdown of that:

Fiction - US publishers = 14
Fiction - Canadian publishers = 8
Nonfiction - US publishers = 7
Nonfiction - Canadian publishers = 3

In 2013, CCBC reports that:

5000 books were published
3200 of those 5000 were sent to CCBC
13 of them were works of fiction about American Indians/First Nations/Latin America

Of those 13 works of fiction, American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) recommends eight. As a society, we need those eight works of fiction in every school and public library, and in every classroom. Buy them. Booktalk them. Promote them every chance you get.

We need to buy those eight works of fiction so that the publishers and editors who worked on them will be encouraged to seek out additional manuscripts by those writers.

We need to thank editors like Cheryl Klein who worked with Eric Gansworth on If I Ever Get Out of Here, and Jeanne Devlin who worked with Tim Tingle on How I Became A Ghost, and Stacy Whitman who worked with Joseph Bruchac on Killer of Enemies for the care they took in bringing those books to us.

We thank those individuals by buying the books. 

By buying more than one copy of the books.  

*On April 10, 2016, I edited this post. Though Scholastic is a major publisher, it is not considered to be one of the Big Houses.


Stacy Whitman said...

Thanks for mentioning <a href=">Killer of Enemies</a>, Debbie! I appreciate all the work you do to find good representations that you can recommend, and happy to do my part in bringing to the forefront the ones I can.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Great piece, Debbie! People need to get over their prejudice of small presses, which is reinforced by the trade reviewers. One avenue for further research, I think, is to determine which of the small-press-published books got fair treatment from reviewers--that they were reviewed, that their reviews were respectful, and that they had the same opportunities to receive starred reviews and consideration for "top books" lists.

Oroklini said...

The book by Rob Owens, "Spy Boy, Cheyenne, and 96 Crayons," is not about American Indians, but about Mardi Gras Indians - African American carnival groups in New Orleans. The categorization by CCBC is incorrect.

KT Horning said...

Oroklini, I am writing on behalf of the CCBC. We also have "Spy Boy, Cheyenne, and the 96 Crayons" logged under African Americans. We understand the concept and history of Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, but we noted this in the American Indian log, too, because Spy Boy and his "Injun tribe" and father "Big Chief" represent a picture book treatment of a cultural ritual of playing Indian that might be of interest to a researcher like Debbie Reese. In fact, I would love to know what Debbie thinks of it so I hope she has a chance to evaluate it.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your expertise! I appreciate this information and will use it when I am purchasing books for my middle school.

Oroklini said...

KT Horning - Thanks for your reply. I'd be very interested to see Debbie's take on the book, too.

Nic said...

Having just finished House of Purple Cedar - the first book I'd read by Tim Tingle - I am ordering How I Became a Ghost for our library's teen section right this minute. Ooh, and it says "Book One"! Is there going to be a series?

Debbie Reese said...

Nic--yes, I understand there's more to come of Isaac (How I Became a Ghost). And PURPLE CEDAR is exquisite, isn't it?

Debbie Reese said...

Oroklini and KT--

There are, in fact, a great deal of African Americans who have Native ancestry. I would not be surprised to learn that some of the people who parade in New Orleans as Mardi Gras Indians are among those who do have that ancestry. Having lost a substantive tie to that ancestor, people often say they're part Indian but can't say what tribal nation because that part of the story was lost. Lost, sometimes, because the ancestor hid that identity for his or her own protection from racist activity of that time period.

What I say next sounds awfully arrogant and judgmental on my part...

Sometimes when people do not have a substantive connection to that tribe, all they have to go on is mainstream representations of Native, which are romantic/tragic stereotypes that are linked with Plains peoples cultural materials and artifacts. It is why there are a lot of people who say they "part Indian" and that they love this or that mascot because it honors them.

I do think CCBC is correct in classifying the book with both American Indians and African Americans. If we were to find out that the people in Spy Boy are simply playing Indian and not claiming Native identity, I still think it should be part of the CCBC tally of books by/about American Indians. We need to track--in my opinion--the degree to which playing Indian occurs in children's books.

Linda said...

Thanks, Debbie, your analysis again is invaluable information to share with teachers and librarians. I will forward those with whom I come in contact to this site.

Anonymous said...

Of course, there is another way to construe this analysis. All the titles by Native authors are recommended, while all the titles by non-Native authors are not recommended. Any student of statistics would see this kind of binomial distribution and want to examine the stance of the investigator on the issue at hand, because of the significant possibility of confirmation bias.

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, Anonymous, confirmation bias could be at play. We are all human being with biases. I'm very clear on my site about who I am. I think it is a flaw to assume that reviewers/readers don't have biases that inform their readings.

That said, I trust you are involved with children's literature, and that's why you found my site. I invite you to read all the books, too, and tell me what you think and why. I'd also need to know who YOU are, too.

Anonymous said...

I'm so pleased you liked the book from my publisher, Orca. Like many Canadian publishers, Orca are pro-active in diversifying their content to include First Nations writers and stories. The book "Him Standing" by the way, is not published as YA. It's part of their Rapid Reads line which is quick and easier reads for adults.

Debbie Reese said...

Yes, HIM STANDING is meant for adults. I could have removed it from the analysis but thought it fit in the category of cross-over books (published for adults but that work for older teens).

Orca does publish some great books!