Sunday, October 12, 2014

AS AN OAK TREE GROWS, written and illustrated by G. Brian Karas

In early October, over on Twitter, Jillian asked me if I'd seen As An Oak Tree Grows, by G. Brian Karas. She noted the wigwam in it, and that a "big stopping point" for her and her students was the page where the text says that the little boy "grew up and moved away."

As An Oak Tree Grows was published in September of this year (2014) by Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers).

Below are photos (apologies for them being kind of blurry) of the first three double-paged spreads of As An Oak Tree Grows. 

First, we see "a young boy" planting an acorn on a late summer day. See him in the middle of the double-paged spread?

At the bottom left corner of the next page (see enlarged photo to the right), we see a year (1775) and on that page, we read "later that year" the tree sprouts. So, the time when the boy plants the acorn is meant to be summer, 1775.

Go back to the page (above) with the little boy in the center. Notice there's nobody there except for the boy and someone on the water, in a canoe. They're obviously meant to be Native. Karas includes a wigwam, so he must know a little about the people he is showing us on this page. But! Karas doesn't say anything about the boy's tribal nation. That omission matters to a Native reader, and it ought to matter to every reader. Without that information, readers are kept ignorant of who Native peoples were/are in terms of our distinct identities as nations. And, the omission obscures the fact that European and Native leaders engaged in diplomatic negotiations (treaties!) about the land and its use.

One question you could ask about the boy (as Jillian did), is where are the rest of his people? This "empty land" image is a big part of the justification for colonization. Unused land! There for the taking! Wrong. 

On the second page we see the boy taking his dad to see the little tree (question for botanists: I think the time sequence for the acorn sprouting is off a bit). See what has changed on the shoreline? Karas shows us that someone (Europeans) have established themselves and, as the two ships in the water show, more are coming. The page suggests a rather idyllic life with two cultures co-existing, but it was far from that! Tribal nations along the northeastern coast had, by 1775, been fighting to protect their homelands for over 100 years. 

The third double-paged spread (below) is the one that tells us "The boy grew up and moved away. Farmers now lived here." That page was the "stopping point" for Jillian and her class. She and her students know, I think, that it was more than simply a boy growing up and moving away. An uncritical reader likely wouldn't notice the problems in those two sentences, but there are, in fact, many things to note. The boy and his nation were likely forced off the land that they had been farming. Yes--they were probably farmers, too, but the pervasive image of "primitive Indians" usually pushes that fact off to the side.  

With the Indians conveniently out of sight and therefore, out of mind, Karas can show us what happens to the tree and the lands around it as time passes. That is the purpose of the book, and I'm certain lot of people are going to love this book, but...

When will we see an end to stories where Indians just go away? We didn't go away.

Update, Sunday October 12, 5:59 PM:

I tweeted a link to this review to Nancy Paulsen, of Nancy Paulsen Books (publisher of As An Oak Tree Grows. Here's a screencapture of our conversation:

For those of us who have trouble reading the screencaptures, here's the text of that series of tweets:

Debbie Reese@nancyrosep Good morning, Ms. Paulsen. FYI: my review of AS AN OAK TREE GROWS: [link to my review]
Nancy PaulsenKaras showing changing landscape; not passing judgement abt ills of citification @debreese AS AN OAK TREE GROWS [link to my review]
Debbie ReeseWas there any discussion re boy leaving land for white farms/prosperity? @nancyrosep
Nancy PaulsenThis bk abt revealing changing landscape; maybe for another bk @debreese: ...any discussion re boy leaving land for white farms/prosperity?
Nancy Paulsen& hopefully teachers will discuss terrible cost of "progress" @debreese review of AS AN OAK TREE GROWS: [link to my review]. 

Thankfully, Jillian (the teacher who brought this book to my attention) has a critical eye. Several people on Goodreads do, too. That is encouraging! I wonder if Paulsen or Karas are reading those reviews? Might they do something different (if they reprint it later), in light of this reception to that part of the book? 

Or--maybe they're focusing on reviews at review journals which either didn't see or didn't think it important to note the problems with the opening pages... 

Update: August 13, 2015

Allie Jane Bruce at Bank Street College Center for Children's Literature shared a discussion she had with students about the book. Take a look: Rewriting History: American Indians, Europeans, and an Oak Tree.


Beverly Slapin said...

My review: "As an oak tree grows, time marches on, the seasons change, progress and civilization take hold and the landscape is developed. This beautifully illustrated little book for very young children, along with its spare prose, exemplifies Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery without bothering with the gory details, which children will have plenty of time to learn, if they ever do."

Anonymous said...

I, too, was stopped cold by "The boy grew up and moved away." I realize this is not the book to get into the horrors perpetrated on the native peoples but, come on, that sentence is probably a bald-faced lie. Just sweep the Indians under the rug, no problem. There are many lines that would have been better. How about, "European settlers stole the land."