Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE GUARDIAN errs in its list of 50 best culturally diverse children's books

Yesterday (October 13, 2014), The Guardian ran an article titled Diverse voices: the 50 best culturally diverse children's books.

I don't know all the books on the list, but I do know two that shouldn't be on any list of culturally diverse books.

Culturally diverse books must not have stereotypes!

Amazing Grace is in the Early Years section of the article. Its selling point is its theme: "we can be anything we want to be." Many find that theme disingenuous. While we want to encourage children to persevere, we also must be mindful of realities. We live in racist societies. Studies show that African American or Latino names, for example, can be the basis on which someone's application for a job or mortgage is denied--unconsciously--but denied, nonetheless. A second problem with Amazing Grace is this image from the book:

That illustration, unfortunately, perfectly reflects several stereotypical ideas about Native peoples.

  • She's sitting "Indian style." 
  • She's holding her arms crossed and away from her chest as shown in countless statues (that's the pose, by the way, that students at the University of Illinois assumed when the now-retired mascot came onto the playing field at halftime to do his "dance")
  • She's barefoot. You know that Native people wore shoes, right?
  • She's wearing what we might generously call a Plains headdress--the item that shouts INDIAN to the world.
  • She's not smiling, because, as everyone knows, Indians don't smile. 
  • Hiawatha. There was an actual person named that, but the one she's portraying is a character created by a non-Native person. 

The second stereotypical book on the list is Tanya Landman's Apache. In its description, the article says:
Following the vicious murder of her brother, orphan Siki vows to become an Apache warrior to take revenge upon her brother, Tazhi's, killers. 
Page after page, Landman feeds the perception of mindless, bloodthirsty Indians. She sets us up to think this relentless killing is justified by Tazhi's murder, but goodness! It goes on and on and on. For details on problems with it, see the three posts AICL did on it:

I don't know who put the list together for The Guardian.  The problems with these two books are blatant. Or, they should be! That they're not is an indicator of how much we have yet to do with regard to Native imagery. I'll tweet my post to them and others who are tweeting/retweeting it. Please share it with others in your networks.


Miranda said...

I don't quite understand the objection to "you can be anything you want to be" as a message (except that, obviously, or it should be obvious, "Indian chief" is not one of those "anythings"). Why isn't this a message we want children to hear?

Debbie Reese said...


There are studies that show that if you apply for a job and the person reading materials sees that you have an African American name, they'll more likely to put your application in the reject pile than if you had an English sounding name.

Yesterday on NPR, there was a story about politicians responses to e-mails (this, too, was a study). If the email came from someone with a Spanish name, the response rate dropped significantly than if you had an English name.

So--if your name is Rodriguez, it wouldn't matter that you have a degree from an Ivy League school. Your parents may have told you that you could be anything you want, the reality is that societal bias will close doors to you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link and comments. The list does say who compiled it, though it's easy to miss (Julia Eccleshare, Jake Hope, Sarah Smith and Katherine Woodfine, with possible unnamed others at the Seven Stories National Centre for Children's Books).

Miranda said...

No, I understand what you're saying about subconscious (or conscious) discrimination based on perceived race. But that doesn't mean any individual can't be anything s/he wants or that s/he shouldn't be told that. I think Condoleeza Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, and Rahm Emanuel might take issue with the idea that "reality is that societal bias will close doors to you". Does it happen, YES, and likely all three of the individuals I mentioned experienced some prejudice based on their names alone (as well as prejudice based on other things), but does that mean parents shouldn't be encouraging children by telling them they can be anything they want to be?

Debbie Reese said...

Any parent can/will/should encourage their children to do all they can, and support them in what they seek.

My comment shouldn't be taken to read as a parent saying "don't even bother" or "forget it, racism is gonna kick you to the curb."

Candy Gourlay said...

Your comments do not even spare a thought to the efforts behind this campaign. I hope they do not discourage people from exploring this list, a first in the UK, backed by a newspaper campaign to begin a conversation about the need for cultural diversity in books. I for one am honoured that my book is represented in it, having grown up without seeing people like me in the books I loved.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Candy,

Like you, I didn't see people who looked like me in books I read as a child.

I did, however, see a TON of stereotypes of Native peoples.

Did you see stereotypical or erroneous depictions of Filipinos in books you read?

If your answer is yes and one or more of those books (or books with similar errors) were on a 50 best books list, wouldn't you want people to know?

Candy Gourlay said...

I commend your efforts to expose every stereotype. I urge you to also celebrate what is a step in the right direction. There is so much joy in that list.

Debbie Reese said...

From what I've seen on social media, there are plenty of people celebrating the list.

My objection to two books isn't going to undermine the entire list or the effort being made to promote diversity. If my objection makes someone (author, illustrator, reviewer, consumer) pause to think about stereotyping of Native peoples, that is a plus for all of us.

Janna said...

It's too bad there is that image in Amazing Grace, I didn't remember that. I do like the book otherwise. Maybe time for a new version?

Rosie H said...

I agree with you about Apache, but not Amazing Grace. Grace is seven years old, she has presumably read, or had read to her, the poem Hiawatha, and she is *pretending*. I pretended to be a Roman slave as a child, based on my reading; it doesn't mean I think, or thought then, that slavery was a good thing. If a child pretends to be a nurse, is that disrespectful to nurses?

Debbie Reese said...

Let's say that, when Hoffman and Binch created this book, they had no idea it was problematic for a kid to imagine herself playing Indian in the way that is shown in the book.

Plenty of authors/illustrators have developed an awareness of problematic depictions in their books, and they've changed them in subsequent printings.

That has never happened to this book.

The fact remains, the way she is shown reflects stereotypical ideas about Native peoples.

What is alarming is that the people who created the list either did not know that image is in there, or, do not recognize the image as problematic.

To answer your question, though, a nurse is an occupation. One chooses to be a nurse. One cannot choose to be a Native person. You're born that way.

Would Hoffman/Binch have included a page in which Grace imagines herself to be a golliwog? The answer is probably no, because they know that is inappropriate. We could imagine that a kid like Grace wouldn't know better, but Hoffman and Binch DO know better, right?