Monday, May 19, 2014

Dear First Book: Step Up Your Game!

Editor's note, May 22, 2014: In response to concerns I raised about the information on First Book's Native American Heritage Month page, First Book removed the page. I look forward to one with accurate information about Native people. Thanks, First Book!

May 19, 2014

Dear First Book,

I've been tweeting at you over the last week or so, especially in the last 24 hours. Some might think I'm being unfair to an organization that is doing good work.


I agree that you are doing some pretty good work. The list of books you have on your "Native Interest" page? For the most part, it is an impressive list. It includes a good many Native authors. That, in and of itself, is unusual. So, I am very glad to see it. It isn't perfect, though, and I'd really like to see some books come off that list, including:

Island of the Blue Dolphins --- Yeah, I know. It won the Newbery and is on umpteen lists of favorite books. It isn't on my list of favorites. Far from it! It has stereotypes, bias, and misinformation. I'm sure Scott O'Dell meant well, but he goofed. Given its ubiquity in American society, I am concerned that teachers, parents, librarians---whomever it is that orders books from your site---will see it and spend their precious dollars on it because they recognize the title. They may have fond memories of it that prompt feelings of nostalgia. But! I think it ought to be set aside in favor of books that do a far better job of providing children--via fiction--information about Native peoples.

Starfish --- I was astounded when I read that new book. The stereotypes and sensationalism in it are evidence, I think, of how powerful stereotypes of Native peoples are within the minds of writers (like Crowley) and editors at big publishers (like Hyperion).

You, First Read, are a non-profit. You're not trying to make money, right? You're trying to give kids good books, and you're especially interested in diversity. Seems logical to me that you'd stay away from books like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Starfish. 


Your page on Native American Heritage Month needs some work. You link to New Age music. Not cool. You feature Pocahontas: Princess of the New World. She was not a princess! The whole idea of royalty is European. Promoting that book, you promote misinformation! There are far better choices, many of which you actually have on your Native Interest list! Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, or Kunu's Basket are both excellent.

That page links to New Age music rather than Native music. In a tweet, I suggested you use the Black Lodge Singers instead. Their kid pow wow songs are terrific!


Your CEO, Kyle Zimmer, gave an interview to NPR this weekend. Zimmer noted that the We Need Diverse Books is the most recent effort to call attention to what some of us call 'the all white world of children's books.'

I wish that Zimmer had named the men and women who created this latest effort. Most of them are people of color. (For the record, I'm not one of the creators of WNDB.)

In an earlier blog post and in a twitter chat with First Book, I advocated for Native writers/illustrators because I think the identity of an author/illustrator makes a difference. It presents a child with a possible-self, which is a phrase used in psychology. It means 'what I imagine as being possible for myself as an adult.' That idea is more commonly known as a role model.

Imagine what a boost it would be for the children of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, if they'd heard the name of their mom or dad on the radio! White kids hear the names of people that look like them all the time. They get that in books, too. All the time. Lot of possible selves.

That is not the case for children of color. You can do that, First Book. You can offer lots and lots of possible selves.

I want First Book to use their power and influence to do precisely that. Feature and promote writers and illustrators who are outside what we call 'the mainstream' or 'the norm.'

As reported on your website, First Book, you are making a difference. Step up your game. You have nothing to lose and the entire country as everything to gain by such a move.

First Book! Step up your game!


Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

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