Saturday, January 18, 2014

2013: Best Books for Elementary School

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If I was starting a library in an elementary school or if I was ordering books for an elementary school library, these are ten books I'd buy right away, along with the ten listed in 2010: Top Ten Books Recommended for Elementary School.

With these books, students will read the works of Native and non-Native writers who know what they're talking about. The books include picture and chapter books, traditional stories, contemporary and historical fiction, and, biography and autobiography, too.
  • Edwardson, Debby Dahl. Whale Snow.
  • Erdrich, Louise. Chickadee.
  • Francis, Lee DeCora. Kunu's Basket: A Story from Indian Island
  • Galvan, Glenda. Chikasha Stories, Volume One: Shared Spirit
  • Jordan-Fenton, Christy and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. Fatty Legs: A True Story
  • Nelson, S.D. Greet the Dawn: The Lakota Way
  • Nelson, S.D. Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story
  • Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk. The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood
  • Tingle, Tim. Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light
  • Uluadluak, Donald. Kamik: An Inuit Puppy Story

For brief annotations, see my 2013 article in School Library Journal, "Resources and Kid Lit about American Indians." (Note: this is a list compiled in 2013, not a list of books published in 2013.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

About "diverse" books and inclusivity in Brian Floca's LOCOMOTIVE

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Editor's note, March 1, 2014: The book discussed herein won the 2014 Caldecott Medal. Its win signals how much work there is ahead of us in terms of diversity and representation of everyone who "We the People" references. 

Among the books that has gotten some buzz this year as a frontrunner for major book awards is Brian Floca's Locomotive. Published in 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, it is a celebratory treatment of the transcontinental railroad presented in a travelogue style. That railroad was completed in 1869.

In Locomotive, a white woman and her two children board the train in Omaha bound for San Francisco. As they get off the train at San Francisco, Floca's text reads:
Now your days on the train are done.
You are tired and dusty,
the smell of smoke in your clothes.
But now you are here!
Here where you needed to go,
here where you need to be...
Turning the page, one sees a man, arms outstretched. I assume he is the children's father and the woman's husband. The text on that page is: with the people
you've waited
and wanted
and needed to see.
I won't deny the need and joy of any family's reunion, but in this review essay, I use Floca's text to pose some questions, particularly as people in children's literature take up the word "diversity" or "diverse books." So far, I haven't seen anyone say that his book is a "diverse" book, but I can see how it might garner that sort of characterization, because the first full page of the book shows Chinese men. For Locomotive to succeed as a "diverse" book, however, its readers need to see far more than Floca gave us.

On the page "The Great Plains" (the book is not paginated; the words "The Great Plains" are on the bottom right corner of the double-paged spread), the illustration is of a vast sky and an expanse of grassland. Moving through it is the train. Here's what Floca wrote:
The hours and miles roll by.
The country opens,
opens wide,
empty as an ocean.
I paused when I read "empty as an ocean." Describing land as empty is something that Laura Ingalls Wilder did, too. Describing a place as empty depends on the person using that description. Some years ago, I took my laptop in for servicing. The screen background I had at the time was a photograph I took of the view from my house on the reservation. The technician looked at that photo and said something about how empty it was and how it should be developed. To me, it wasn't empty. To me, it is my homeland. If the Great Plains were my homeland, I wouldn't call it empty. But that's what Floca's white family sees. I think that is what they want and need to see in order to be able to celebrate that railroad and their travels across those plains.

Floca's text on that page continues with this:
Here the bison used to roam,
by the hundreds, by the millions.
Here the Cheyenne lived,
and Pawnee and Arapaho.
Again, I paused.

Will Floca tell his readers that the railroad played a role in the demise--or rather, slaughter--of the bison? Will he tell them, for example, that white hunters shot buffalo from open train windows? Or that millions of hides were shipped on those trains by hunters who left bison carcasses to rot? (The answer to those questions is no. He doesn't. Is it fair to expect him to? Could he include it in the notes at the end of the book? Whether he should or not is debatable. More on that later...)

And what about the use of "lived" to describe the Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Arapaho. Does that sentence suggest to a reader with "vanished" Indians as part of his or her knowledge base that the Cheyenne, the Pawnee, and the Arapaho no longer exist at all? Will Floca say more about this? (The answer is no.)

On the page with "The Forty-Mile Desert" in the bottom right corner, we learn that the train is now in the Great Basin:
On the train rolls,
down through the desert,
the home of the Paiute and the Shoshone,
It's a land of dust and bitter rivers,
rivers that never reach the sea--
they sink away,
they vanish.
I like what he says there, "home of the Paiute and the Shoshone" much better than his use of "lived" regarding the Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Arapaho. I like that he names specific tribes, too, but that isn't enough--in my view--to make this a book that would appeal to a diverse audience that includes children of those Native Nations, or children who have learned a more critical history and view of history.

Let's flip to the end papers that open the book. I like that Floca has used them, too, to pass along information by way of his illustrations. There's a map showing the transcontinental railroad and all the states it passes through. There's some people drawn on the map, but none of them are Native. In fact, nowhere on the end pages do I see illustrations or references to Native people at all. The small illustrations that frame the map on the top of the page show what I take to be the Mayflower and a wagon train. Beneath the map is one that shows workers making a tunnel, one that shows them laying track, and then, one that shows the meeting point for the tracks the two companies built (the two companies were the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific).

If I was advising Floca, I'd have suggested--at the very least--that he add homelands of Native Nations to that map.

Let's turn now, to "A Note on the Locomotive" at the end of the book. There, Floca tells us about the thousands of Chinese who worked for the railroads in the West, and he tells us of the waves of European immigrants who settled along the railroads. Then, there's a long paragraph about Native peoples. All of the following excerpts are in that paragraph. He begins with this:
If the railroad offered change to some, it imposed change on others, none more so than American Indians, who variously accepted, cooperated with, and fought the railroads as the railroads pushed across the continent. In the West, the Central Pacific made agreements with the Paiute and Shoshone of the Great Basin, some of whom worked alongside Chinese laborers to help build the road. (The groups worked well together, although there is a story of the Paiutes alarming the Chinese by telling them that the desert was inhabited by giant, man-eating snakes.)
"[A]s the railroads pushed across the continent"? How about "as the railroads and the federal government did what they wanted to take Native land." And what are we to make of the story in parentheses? That the Paiutes were mean to the Chinese? Or, maybe we're meant to think of the Chinese as simple minded? Or maybe, superstitious? Maybe this is Floca's attempt to inject a bit of levity?

Floca goes on to say that Pawnees also chose to work with the Union Pacific, and it was when the railroad "pushed" through Nebraska that there were problems because it
disrupted the grazing ranges of the bison, or American buffalo, the animal at the center of the diet, economy, and culture of the Plains, and the Cheyenne responded with attacks on surveyors and work crews.
There's a section in the book that shows things that did not happen to the train the family was riding on. One is a train going too fast on a curve and derailing. Another is of the crew letting too much water boil away, leading to an explosion. I think Floca could have shown one of those Cheyenne attacks on that page. What he says next tells us that he has a good sense of the reason for those attacks. He could have used that information alongside an illustration of Cheyenne's attacking the trains:
(General Phil Sheridan, although as ruthless a campaigner in the Indian wars as any, observed that "we took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this that they made war. Could anyone expect less?")
The parenthesis in that excerpt are in the book. Parentheses are generally used to set off supplemental information that is an aside, or an afterthought, or something that is tangential to the information being presented. Seeing Floca's use of it in this instance sort of reflects his treatment overall of Native people in Locomotive. We're an aside. An afterthought. What happened to Native people is tangential to the information he wants to share in Locomotive. Therein is the problem. Did he not imagine us as his readers? And let's not forget that Sheridan said "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead"

Next is this:
The attacks were recurring and deadly, but the railroad--backed by the U.S. Army--could not be stopped. Once the line was completed, portions of it in Nevada were sometimes used by the Paiute and Shoshone, who through their treaties with the Central Pacific were entitled to rides on the train through their territories. 
First thing to note: tribes didn't make treaties with railroads. Treaties are agreements made between governments. The treaty Floca may have had in mind is the US government's 1863 Treaty with the Western Shoshone in which the Shoshone agreed to stop attacking the existing trains and also agreed not to attack the construction of "a railway from the plains west to the Pacific ocean."

Second, that excerpt tells us that Floca knew that Native people rode the trains. Could he have included illustrations of Paiute or Shoshone people riding the train? There's a page in the book that shows the interior of a train. A boy is walking down the aisle selling newspapers. In the foreground is a man reading Harper's Weekly. What if that was a Paiute or Shoshone man, looking askance at this illustration from an October 1874 issue?

The point I wish to make with this essay is that Locomotive is a one-sided presentation of history. It has to be, I suppose, in order for it to be celebratory, but shouldn't we be beyond one-sided celebrations?

A few years ago, the Children's Book Council established its CBC Diversity Committee. Among its goals are a dedication to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children's literature. The experience that is missing in Floca's book is that of Native peoples. Including us probably wasn't his intent. Maybe one of CBC's actions towards diversity could be to ask authors to be more inclusive in what they create. Maybe another one could be to ask reviewers to note absences in books like Locomotive. 

There are other absences in Floca's book. He includes an illustration of Chinese laborer's on the first page, but doesn't say much about them in the text or in the Note at the end of the book. Though they constituted 90% of the work force, they weren't invited to that celebration of the railroad being completed. How, I wonder, does a child descended from one of the Chinese laborer's feel about so little of their experience being included in Locomotive?

And, there's more to say about San Francisco and Native peoples of California, too. Am I asking for too much? Some would say yes, others would say no. Some would be critical of me for criticizing the book for what it leaves out, but I'll say, again, we have to provide books that are more inclusive of all the peoples that live in the United States. Without them, we're still stuck in an all-white world of children's books, and demographics show---the United States is not an all-white world.

Editors note: My apologies for inadvertently using Locomotion instead of Locomotive in four places. That error has been corrected. 

For further reading:
American Indians and the Transcontinental Railroad

Update: Jan 21, 2014, 5:15 PM

Brian Floca submitted comments to my critique. I am pasting them here for the convenience of readers of AICL and will respond once I have studied his comments. Here they are:


I appreciate your thoughts on “Locomotive,” critical and otherwise. “Locomotive” was always intended first and foremost as a book about what it was like to operate and travel behind a steam locomotive in 1869. The most difficult stretches in the making of the book were spent thinking about how best to handle the many people and stories connected with the first transcontinental line without taking the book too far from that core concern, from the book I most wanted and felt most able to make, and no story was more difficult to try to get right than that of the Native American relationship to the line. The balances I struck with all those stories will be right for some readers and not for others, I recognize. I appreciate your perspective on those choices, and would be glad for the chance to share a response to a few of the questions you raised.

I had text and illustrations to work with while making this book, and you’re right of course that the Native American material ended up represented in the text and not the drawings. Many factors led to the final shape of this information in the book, including pacing and availability of reliable visual reference material for particular moments and periods. I knew any images would be looked at critically, and I didn’t want to include them if I wasn’t sure I could get them right. I also had to consider the choice of scenes that might accurately and representatively be shown given the setting and period of the book. One thing I had to consider, for instance, was this difficult and restricting paragraph from Dee Brown’s “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Railroads in the West”: “The universal desire of all pioneer travelers on the transcontinental was to see a “real wild Indian.” Few of them did, because the true warriors of the plains hated the Iron Horse and seldom came within miles of it…. The Indians whom the travelers saw were mostly those who had been corrupted and weakened by contacts with the white man’s civilization—scroungers, mercenaries, or beggars by necessity.” It was also hard to find reference for the sort of interaction I would have wanted to show between the Paiute and Shoshone who rode with white passengers on the Central Pacific in Nevada, and this felt like another imposed limit. Your post makes me wonder again what other options I had and what else I might have done, but I assure you the effort was there as I was making the book.

Some of these questions about presentation and what’s included and what’s not are simply matters of taste and tone. The emptiness of the Plains is, of course, one of those matters of perspective, but it’s not described as empty for no reason. In various accounts, train passengers on the Plains in the 1860s were overwhelmed by an expanse so different than the forests, hills, valleys, mountains, or cities that many were used to. To Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, the Great Plains were “a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board…. The train toiled over this infinity like a snail….” I wanted that feeling in the book. 

When it comes to word choices, the use of the word “lived” on that page was not meant to imply “vanished,” and I hope that for readers it won’t. I also hoped that “The railroad and the men who built it—they have changed it all” would indeed convey who was behind these changes, and that the herd of bison covering the land on the book’s cover, beneath the jacket, would suggest the destructive as well as triumphant nature of the rail line. 

On the front endpapers, the drawing of a clipper ship is there to illustrate the passage of text immediately to the right of the drawing, the description of trips taken by ship around Cape Horn. Across these endpapers I wanted to show the motives for the railroad and its construction and in the end, for better or worse, these filled the page. 

In the note at the back of the book, what I liked about the anecdote about the Paiute and Chinese was the surprise, humanity, and unexpected humor in the story. I often see stories about these workers presented rather stiffly, in my opinion; this story was a break from that tone. 

No Cheyenne attack is shown in the book for a few reasons, but the foremost is that the Cheyenne weren’t really attacking the first transcontinental railroad after it was constructed. In “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow,” Brown writes of passengers who were worried about such an attack: “Such perturbed passengers might better have been fretting over Anglo-Saxon train robbers, such as Jesse James, who were far more likely to wreck and rob a train in the 1870s than were the Indians.” One of the consolations of not being able to fit everything in a book is knowing that you’re surely not making the only book on the subject, though. I wonder what you think of Paul Goble’s “Death of the Iron Horse,” depicting the Cheyenne attack on a train at Plum Creek, Nebraska, in 1867? I can imagine “Locomotive” and “Death of the Iron Horse” paired together.

The parentheses around the Sheridan quote were a way of giving that quote, a change of tone from the rest of the note, a bit of its own space. Possibly they were unnecessary, and if because of them the quote reads as less important than it would otherwise, then they were a mistake. Sheridan’s ruthlessness, also mentioned in the note, I thought only added to the sting and surprise of the remark, and that was one of the things I found remarkable and provoking about it.

As for the treaties with the Paiute and Shoshone, while an agreement with a government may be one definition of a treaty, I don’t believe it is the only one. In “A Great and Shining Road,” John Hoyt Williams describes the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863 and then continues, “The Central Pacific, which was granted permission by the Nevada legislature to build through the state only in 1866, was taking no chances. In that year the company signed its own treaties with the dreaded Apache subtribes, Paiutes, and others.…” And here is Dee Brown again: “To avoid conflicts with Indians—such as had hampered the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific on the Great Plains—the Central Pacific offered some of the [N]ative Americans employment and then signed a special treaty with the Paiutes and Shoshonis.” 

Finally, it’s incorrect to say that Chinese workers made up 90% of the workforce that built the transcontinental line. As is stated in the front endpapers of “Locomotive,” Chinese workers constituted up to 90% of the Central Pacific workforce, but the Union Pacific half of the line was built largely by Irish immigrants and former soldiers. It is also, happily, incorrect to say that no Chinese were invited to the celebration of the railroad’s completion. A. J. Russell’s stereograph “Chinese at Laying Last Rail UPRR” shows Chinese workers laying the last piece of rail at Promontory Summit, and a contemporary account tells us that “J.H. Strowbridge [sic], when the work was all over, invited the Chinamen who had been brought over from Victory for the purpose, to dine in his boarding car. When they entered all the guests and officers present cheered them as the chosen representatives of the race which have greatly helped to build the road—a tribute they well deserved, and which evidently gave them much pleasure.” This was surely less than they warranted, but is worth remembering. More about the Chinese and Irish in this book might have been better, but there are other books the cover building the line, and the heart of this book is about traveling the line—thus the low proportion of attention given to the line’s builders (to say nothing of those who first envisioned the transcontinental railroad, advocated for it, legislated it, financed it, surveyed it, and engineered it). 

Like every book, “Locomotive” has its limits. I wouldn’t be able to and I haven’t tried to tell and show readers everything that I might, but I’ve hoped to make a book that will interest them and, ideally, make them want to know more. I hope that for most readers the book makes a contribution to their understanding of the period, events, and people it describes, including the Native Americans. I’m aware that no book will please all readers, though, and I appreciate your thoughts on my effort. Certainly working on the book was a learning experience for me, and indeed I feel like I’m still learning from the book and where it’s led me, this conversation included.

Brian Floca

Update, Monday January 27, 2014


A few hours ago, your name was read as the winner of the 2014 Caldecott. While I'm trying to make myself feel joyful--because I love books, too--I'm not joyful. I'm angry. But my anger isn't necessarily at you. It's more at the status quo than anything. Your response indicates to me that you gave a lot of thought to what you included and how and why, and I'm glad of that. I'll address your comments in a moment.

For now, I'm addressing the whole-ness of children's literature. Or, maybe, the Caldecott committee. And maybe all those who cheered when your name was called out. Given all the attention to diversity of late, it seems LOCOMOTIVE is a choice that says "we don't care about diversity." Course, that assumes that people who are on the committee know and care about diversity in the first place, and I'm not privy to that information.

Some people are paying attention. Betsy Bird and Lori Ess held a "pre-game" event during which they noted the importance of my critique. Others are tweeting and sharing it via Facebook, so that's good, too.

So here I am, angry. It feels small and petty to be raining on your parade. Perhaps a bit later you can return here and we can continue to talk, because there is much to do, I think, and your assistance in helping us get a bit further down that road would be invaluable.

So. On to your comments.

I imagine you feel damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't when considering how you might illustrate anything to do with Native people. Myself and many others are deeply invested in those images being right, and you're right to be wary. Source material is highly problematic! Seems that Dee Brown is the go-to person for information about American Indians. Reading Brown's books can give some insight so that people avoid making certain kinds of errors, but goodness! There's so much better material available! I strongly urge authors/illustrators to move beyond Brown to Native sources.

The first place I'd go is right to the website of the tribe I was trying to illustrate. Lisa Mitten of the American Indian Library Association has a list of websites by tribe. Sites created by the tribe (rather than a company) are marked with a drum. Once at the site, I'd look for a tribal historian or tribal museum. I'd absolutely stay away from standard encyclopedias. Perspective in them is so biased! So---to authors and illustrators out there---your first stop ought to be a tribe's website. That's not saying someone there will talk to you. Some will, some won't. Some will be too busy helping tribal leaders who are defending the land and resources -- both of which are constantly under assault.

Some will be delighted that an author/illustrator wants to feature their tribe, and they'll be glad to help, but they may not know much about children's literature and critical analysis of image. Or they may not know how important it is to get it right. I'll use myself as an example. Before I started graduate school at the University of Illinois, I knew image was important, but leaving my reservation and living amongst a white population with white perspectives really made it clear to me how damaging stereotypes can be. To them, we didn't look "Indian" because we weren't wearing buckskin and feathers. I kid you not! As you travel in the coming year, talk to kids and teachers. See what they know about American Indians. I'm working with a teacher in a school in the Midwest who is dumbstruck by the things the gifted children she works with "know" about American Indians. I expect that the conversations you have will be similar to that. Her reports affirm what I said in my critique about "lived" and undergird my concern with the use of past tense. So--if you do find someone at the tribe who will work with you, be mindful of the need to triangulate with others, too. This isn't easy--I know--and though it'd be easier just NOT to depict Native people... we've got to try! And if your source is critical and asks you to change something, do it! Ann Rinaldi is Exhibit A in asking for and then disregarding input.

In your response about "lived" you noted that the book cover is a herd of bison. I had no idea. I only saw the jacket. And it is the jacket that is being shown on all sites. Everyone who is reading this conversation between me and Brian---look under the jacket. It is startlingly different in impact. You said you hoped that the line "The railroad and the men who built it--they have changed it all" would convey destruction and triumph. I haven't seen any reviews that say anything at all about destruction of land, killing of bison, or the taking of Native lands for the railroads and towns along them. If you had included---maybe on that page with the wreck and explosion---an illustration of bison dead all along the railroad, shot from train windows, that'd have made destruction very clear. I understand it may have taken you, in part, in a direction you didn't want to go, but I think it would have made your book so much more informative and inclusive if you had. Teachers and librarians reading this conversation--I'd love to know if you take up the destruction, or if you see it referenced in a review.

The anecdote about Paiute and Chinese: Right! Both populations are too often portrayed in stiff ways. Hence, your surprise at the story is understandable AND points to why it would have been great for you to have included illustrations that would counter that depiction.

The Cheyenne attack: Ok, they didn't attack the transcontinental railroad, but the wreck and explosion you showed on that double-paged spread weren't about the train the family was on. So--I think it could have been included. Your text could explain the attack, just as you explained the wreck and explosion.

Paul Goble's book? You see it as being paired with yours. I'll get it and see. I'm not optimistic, though. Native critics are not at all happy with his trickster books: About Paul Goble and his books.

Front endpapers: You write that you wanted to show motives for the railroad and its construction, but I'm not sure I see what you were getting at. I understand that there was a desire to have that railroad, but why? Saying the journey was "expensive, difficult, and often dangerous" describes the travel, but not why the travel was being done. Who was trying to get to California? Why were they trying to get to California? What did their desire to get there mean for the Native peoples who were already there?

Treaties: When looking for information on treaties, I generally turn to Native scholars. I pointed to one in my critique. Here's another one, which is the one you referenced in your comment. You cite the author of A Great and Shining Road as saying tribes made a treaty with the railroad company. The Treaty with the Western Shoshone starts out like this: "Treaty of Peace and Friendship made at Ruby Valley..." That treaty is between tribes and the US government, not the railroad. I don't have Hoyt's book, and maybe there is a treaty between the tribes and the railroad, but I kind of doubt it. I don't have Brown's either. Can you tell me what they cite?

Chinese and celebrations: Right. They were 90% of labor on the Central Pacific workforce. Thanks for sharing the info on Chinese being at the celebration. My info came from Gallery2 of the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Studies page, in the caption for the photograph "Joining the Tracks" which is the photo that I think you used for your illustration of that celebration. Their source is Lisa Yee's book, On Gold Mountain. 

Well. That's all I've got for now. Thanks, Brian, for your response, and I look forward to a continuing conversation. And do ask kids and teachers and librarians what they know about American Indians and see what they say.


Thursday, January 16, 2014


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Recently, a teacher wrote to ask if I'd reviewed Rush Limbaugh's Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims. I haven't reviewed it, but I do know about it. And, this morning in my email cue, there was one from Goodreads. Once a week I get an email telling me what people I follow have read or reviewed. Today's email included what K8 said about the book. With her permission, I'm sharing some of what she wrote about Native content in the book.

There is a character in Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims named Freedom. Though he apparently does not identify her as being Native, what he says tells us that she is.  From K8's post at Goodreads:

On page 117:
It was hard not to look at her black hair. It was silky smooth, as if she brushed it a thousand times. This morning there was a yellow feather clipped in it.
Earlier, when we first meet Freedom, on p. 39
Freedom smiled and replied, "I've had lots of practice tracking animals with my grandfather."
On page 59:
"I like him, too," said Freedom. "But he is more than a horse. He must be a spirit animal. There is an Indian legend about animals that can talk to humans."
On page 146 is Samoset, saying:
"Me learn English from fishing men who come for cod."
On page 190 when Rush meets Massasoit:
"He smiled and spoke a language that was complete gibberish."

Why bother, you might be thinking, with Limbaugh's book? Well--because one person wrote to ask me about it, and I assume there are others out there who wonder about it, too.

Another reason?

Take a look at the rating at Goodreads and at Amazon. Four and five stars?! While it would be tempting to just turn away, I think we have to pay attention to what people embrace and give to their kids. Describing a Native language as "gibberish" and attending to a Native girl's hair as he does tells me that kids are getting a very narrow--and frightening--view of Native people.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


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In December of last year, I passed along a portion of Erin Hollingsworth's review of The Giant Bear: An Inuit Folktale, by Jose Angutinngurniq. Earlier this week I was at the local library and, happily, found the book on the new books shelf. Of course, I checked it out and read it. I think it is terrific!

For starters, the book opens with a two-page foreword about Inuit stories that tell of giant creatures of long ago. One of those giant creatures is nanurluk, which means giant bear. The story in The Giant Bear is about how a hunter kills a nanurluk. The foreword provides a lot of context for the story, situating it within the people from whom the story originates.

Second is the word iglu. It is one of four words (nanurluk is another) included in a Pronunciation Guide that follows the foreword. It means "A winter dwelling made with snow blocks" (n.p.). In parenthesis we see how the word is pronounced. For iglu, we see "igloo."

I'm taking time to point out iglu/igloo because this tiny bit of information is one of the reasons I think The Giant Bear is terrific. I'd love to see every book use iglu instead of igloo. If I was still teaching, in fact, I would physically alter "igloo" in books I had in my classroom, and I'd make sure I taught my students to use iglu instead of igloo.

Third is Eva Widermann's illustrations. Here's a gorgeous illustration from the book. It is the third reason that I'm so taken with The Giant Bear:

See how big the iglu is in comparison to the man and woman? That iglu is where they are living for this story. In another illustration, you see them inside where she is cooking and he's stretched out on a bench. Next time you see an illustration or a toy iglu that is out-of-scale, you could take a minute and point out that error. Below is an example from a Sesame Street coloring book. See what I mean?

Fourth is the story Angutinngurniq (the author) tells. The Inuit man in the story is out hunting one day and comes across what he recognizes as an aglu, which is a breathing hole in sea ice that is created or kept open by a marine animal. He knows that the nanurluk comes out that hole to hunt, too, and decides he has to take action to protect his winter camp (the iglu) from the nanurluk. His plan is a clever one that gives him an edge so that he can kill the nanurluk.

The method by which he kills the bear is what some people find troubling about the book. Using his harpoon, he stabs the nanurluk's eyes and nose when it starts to emerge from the hole. Without its ability to see and smell, it dies. Widermann accurately depicts that part of the story. Some think it is too graphic for a young reader, but that depends on the reader. Those for whom hunting is part of their experience won't struggle with it. That is precisely what Erin said in her review of the book at the Goodreads site. Here's her review again:
This book combines a great story with terrific art. I cannot praise it enough. As to the reviewers who found it too violent, the polar bear is the largest land carnivore and it hunts and eats people. Polar bears are not cute cuddly animals; they are man killers. I think it is perfectly appropriate to share this fact with children. So many of them have had their brains addled by modern Coca Cola culture that it might do them some good to realize that the world around them is an all too real, and sometimes unfriendly place.

She's right. Bears are dangerous! And, they are in danger due to climate change, which brings me to the fifth reason I like The Giant Bear.

Inhabit Media prepared a study guide (if that link doesn't work, try this one: It consists of a series of lesson plans teachers can use along with the book. I especially like the one about Climate Change. It starts on page 27 of the guide and includes watching a PBS Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures video called "A Warmer World for Arctic Animals."

All in all, The Giant Bear is outstanding. The depth of its content and its ready-made connections to a science curriculum make it a fine addition to any library. I highly recommend it. The Giant Bear: An Inuit Folktale Told by Jose Angutinngurniq Illustrated by Eva Widermann Published in 2012 by Inhabit Media

Monday, January 13, 2014


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Editors note on Jan 16 2014 at 9:53 AM: The publisher responded to this critique. See comments.

While reading about children's books this morning, I came across some peculiar reviews of Children of the Tipi: Life in the Buffalo Days by Michael O. Fitzgerald. His book was published in 2013 by Wisdom Tales Press.

What is peculiar about it is the reviews of the book in the review section of the website. As some of you know, I taught in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois for many years. I'm familiar with Native writers and scholars. When I read the review of Children of the Tipi by Polingaysi Qoyawayma, I paused because I know she passed away several years ago in the early 1990s. I wondered if the 2013 edition was preceded by one that she might have seen prior to her death, but didn't find an earlier edition at the Library of Congress. Same with Maria Chona. She passed away in 1936.

Then I looked closer at Maria Chona's review. This is what the paragraph says:

Children of the Tipi: Life in the Buffalo Days, edited by Michael Oren Fitzgerald will tell you how The People lived, worked, played, hunted, told stories, and shared with one another. Maybe the sacred days of long ago are gone. Maybe not. Maybe they live on in beautiful books like this one where the days stretch endlessly before us and people of wisdom speak knowingly of the world they inhabit. Wisdom shines forth like this: ‘Women have power: Children. Can any warrior make a child, no matter how brave and wonderful he is?’ —Maria Chona (Papago).

When I looked at the book itself, I found a quote from Maria Chona on page 4. It is the last couple of lines from the review! What it seems to me is that the publisher's website is either poorly formatted, or the webmaster does not know how to properly use citations.

So, I took a closer look at the part of the review with Qoyawayma's quote. Here's a screen capture:

See how it looks like the whole paragraph is her words? Well.... I paged through the book to see if I'd find "We prayed that we might be beautiful...." in it, and sure enough! Her words are on page 19.

Then I got to wondering why Chona's (she was Tohono O'odham) and Qoyawayma's (she was Hopi) words are in a book about Plains people. And then I wondered why the author used "Papago" instead of Tohono O'odham when identifying Chona's tribe? Years ago, they started to use Tohono O'odham because it is their own name for themselves. They're among many tribes who've rejected an outsider's name for them, preferring their own name. It is a common error but certainly not one I'd expect to see in a book by someone who says they've worked extensively with Native peoples over a long period of time, writing books, making documentaries. And again--why are the words of a Hopi woman in this book?

As I have the book in front of me, I see other problems.

On the page with Chona's quote, there is a cradleboard just above her quote. Beside the cradleboard is the word "papoose." Here's a screen capture of that part of that page:

It would be far more useful to see the word 'cradleboard' and the nation that particular cradleboard belongs to beside the cradleboard rather than the word 'papoose.' Maybe we (readers) are expected to understand that the cradleboard shown is used for a "papoose" but there again, I have a concern. Papoose is a Native word, but it isn't the word used by Chona's people. Will people come away thinking (erroneously), that papoose is the Indian word for baby? Will they think that cradleboard is one that belonged to Chona's people? Does it?! We don't know!

In the Editor's Note, Fitzgerald says

The majority of these photographs are rare. Most of them are taken from several thousand photographs that I have collected over almost forty years, including research done in the Library of Congress in 1974. All of the photographs ever submitted for copyright protection are in that facility, and at that time it was still possible to roam freely through the stacks and to easily obtain copies of those photographs whose copyright had expired. 

With that statement, he apparently doesn't feel it necessary to provide photo credits, or any sort of bibliographic information for any of them. They're just there. There are no captions other than, sometimes, short ones like "pounding corn" and "drying meat" and "Cooking meat with heated stones in a buffalo-stomach container."

In short, the quotes are surrounded by old photos and photos of objects that may or may not have any connection to the tribe of the person being quoted.

As an educator--in particular as an early childhood educator--that renders this book worse than worthless because it suggests that specifics about tribe don't matter. In this kind of book, artifacts from one nation can be sprinkled anywhere you want because Indians are all alike... which of course, we're not!

Last, I went to Amazon to see what reviews there say... The reviewer at School Library Journal included an important note about the quotes being tangential at times. In the end, that reviewer says the book is useful for the art it has in it. Taking a wild guess, I suppose "art" means the photographs, but as I noted above, without attribution or meaningful captions, these photographs are worthless as an educational tool.

I really object to books like this. The photographs and quotes play right into mainstream expectations of Indians having great wisdom. Indeed, when I asked for help in finding the book at my local library, the librarian who handed it to me sighed as she did so, saying how she loved old photos. She looked at me, and I'm sure she wondered if I am Native (I am), and may have wanted to say more but chose not to.

In conclusion? I do not recommend Michael Oren Fitzgerald's Children of the Tipi: Life in the Buffalo Days. Published in 2013 by Wisdom Tales, I'd see if I could get my money back if I'd bought it.

I wonder what else Wisdom Tales has published???

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.)