Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Arigon Starr's SUPER INDIAN

If you're Kickapoo author/illustrator Arigon Starr, you gotta be dancing every time you pick up Super Indian and read what Charlie Hill, one of the best Native comedians ever (sadly, he passed away a few weeks ago), had to say about Super Indian:
"Great Scott! The long awaited indigenous super hero has arrived."
If you never saw Charlie Hill perform, those words probably don't move you the way they do me. His humor was perfect. His voice as he told jokes and stories? Perfect.

In Super Indian, Starr's own wit shines. From minute details in the art to the words on the page, I found a lot to like about Super Indian.

Starr opens with a jab at those who create The White Man's Indian. By that, I mean prose riddled with "ancient" and "proud" and "noble" and "fierce" and "sacred quest" and "mystical knowledge." Those words and more are on the very first page, but they're there to tell you that you will not find that guy in Super Indian. Instead, we have Hubert Logan who, as a boy, "attended a birthday party for the local bully, Derek Thunder." At that party, the boys "consumed mass quantities of commodity cheese tainted with "Rezium," an experimental element developed by Government Research Scientist Dr. Eaton Crowe."

My guess is that most readers of AICL are going "huh?" because they don't know what commodity cheese is, but I guarantee that Native people on reservations know exactly what that is, and they're laughing (like I was) as I read that part of the intro.

Cheese aside, Hubert is kind of like Clark Kent: a studious guy in glasses and braids. He works at the Leanin Oak Bingo Hall. "Leanin Oak" is another joke, by the way! It is a poke at a line of over-the-top greeting cards with bogus Native proverbs and the like. Hubert's alter ego is Super Indian. He's got some side kicks, and a dog, too that lends his own thread to the stories in volume one.

Volume one has three different stories in it. After introducing us to the characters we'll meet as we read Super Indian, we begin with "Here Comes the Anthro." It is a perfect opening. The art shows a scary looking anthropologist on the cover, about to grab Super Indian.

Yep--that title is another jab. This one is at the discipline that has been causing Native people headaches (to say the least) for a very long time. I gotta pause here, and drop in Floyd Crow Westerman's song, "Here Come the Anthros" so that you get a full sense of what anthropologists mean to Native people:

Starr's anthropologist is German. I think him being German is a jab at Karl May, a German writer who wrote a bunch of novels about Native people. Goofy ones, that is, that--unfortunately--people don't see as goofy. Starr clearly had a good time writing Super Indian. If you're Native or well-versed in Native life as-it-is (not as outsiders imagine it to be), you'll like Super Indian. One of the characters is a blogger! How cool is that?

Back in 2012, Indian Country Today published an interview with Starr. Check it out. It has good background info. Go to the Super Indian website. Order a copy of Super Indian, and if you're a fan of comics, keep an eye on the Indigenous Narratives Collective of Native American comic book writers and artists. Good stuff.

Published by Wacky Productions Unlimited in 2012.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

SWEETEST KULU by Celina Kalluk

Sweet! Sometimes, that exclamation (Sweet!) means something is endearing, and sometimes, it means something is way cool. Both meanings apply to Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis.

Kulu is an Inuktitut term of endearment. The babe who is the sweetest kulu in this book is Inuit (Inuktitut is one of the languages spoken by Inuit people). I got it yesterday. The sense of peace and promise in Kalluk's book was just what I needed on a particularly trying day. See the cover?

Kalluk's words and Neonakis's art work beautifully together as we learn Inuit values in which people and animals coexist as caretakers of the land. In Kalluk's hands, this is not the stereotypical one-with-the-animals story that we see all too often.

This is a terrific book for those who have a newborn in the house... And for those of us who just need a book that rights the world for us, that reminds us of that world in all its richness.

Sweetest Kulu is another great book from Inhabit Media. By the way! If you're interested in Native music, you ought to add Kalluk to your playlist. She is a throat singer. Check out this video. She was performing in New York with a cousin. You MUST ALSO watch the set of short videos here.

Note (added May 27, 2014): Sweetest Kulu will be available in October. I reviewed it from a bound galley.

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