Saturday, July 19, 2014


In the last few days, I've been looking at picture books about Christopher Columbus. Peter Sis did one, titled Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus. 

Sis has won a lot of major awards for his work in children's literature, but none (that I know of) for his biography of Columbus.

Published in 1991 (likely timed to coincide with the 500 year 'anniversary' of Columbus landing in the New World) by Alfred A. Knopf, the reviewer at Publisher's Weekly called it flat, while the one at Kirkus called it uncontroversial, and the reviewer at School Library Journal said to "make room on your crowded Columbus shelf" for this one.

Sis grew up in Czechoslovakia. In a 2009 article in Bookbird, Sis wrote (p. 45):
I grew up with the myth of Columbus's voyage and his discovery of the "new world." I thought I had found a perfect explorer in him. Someone who was determined to find the way, just like me. I remember how surprised I was by the voices raised against Columbus and against the consequences of his "conquest." It sounded especially strong on the 500th anniversary of his voyage and it scared me. I was not used to this "free" discussion and I still have to remind myself that everyone has a point of view, even today. 
His use of quotes around the word 'conquest' suggests he doesn't agree with the people who raise voices against Columbus. He probably wouldn't like what I have to say about this illustration (I took this photo with my phone today while at the library reading books about Columbus):

The page on the left shows Columbus when he "landed on a beach of white coral, claimed the land for the King and Queen of Spain, knelt and gave thanks to God, and expected to see the treasures of the Orient..." While the people he's looking at are standing (rather than crouched, hiding behind bushes as is typically shown), the way the illustration is done makes it look like they're idolizing him.

He juxtaposes that illustration with the one on the right. It is a statue of Columbus (I think it is the one in Barcelona). Looking closely, I think the figures gathered 'round the statue are schoolchildren.

The juxtaposition bothers me. On the left are Native people. On the right are children. Is Sis equating Native people with children? That is, unfortunately, all too common in children's literature and society, too. Surely you're familiar with the phrase "wild Indian" as used to describe children who are out of control.

Peter Sis equates Native people with children.
Bad move, Mr. Sis!

Needless to say, I don't recommend Sis's book about Columbus. If you want to read the article in Bookbird, its title is "My Life With Censorship" and it is in volume 47, issue #3, in 2009. And take a look at Desai's article on books about Columbus.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Picture Books about Christopher Columbus

Earlier this week, a colleague wrote to me about a new picture book about Christopher Columbus. This morning, I was e-talking with Annette Wanamaker, editor of Children's Literature in Educationabout an article in CLE about Columbus! I read it right away.

In "The Columbus Myth: Power and Ideology in Picturebooks About Christopher Columbus," Christina M. Desai shares results of her analysis of depictions of Columbus in picturebooks published since 1992. She looked at a representative sample of over 30 books and found that little has changed. Native peoples are still being misrepresented and stereotyped.

She also points to something very troubling:
In her defense of humanities education, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum (2010) warns that, as emphasis on the humanities declines in the U.S., curricula are increasingly designed to advance economic growth. She posits that such curricula will "present national ambition, especially ambition for wealth, as a great good, and will downplay issues of poverty and global accountability" (p. 21). The books examined here certainly exemplify such a curriculum and promote its agenda, by glorifying conquest and profit at the expense of ideals such as human rights and self determination.
That paragraph reminded me of Floca's Locomotive. Though his picture book is about early trains in the US, it is also about conquest and profit at the expense of Native peoples. Locomotive won the Caldecott Medal this year. I found it lacking. Floca responded to my critique.

I think Floca's win and Desai's article tell us how little we've come in terms of a humane society. If you don't have access to Children's Literature in Education, ask your librarian to get a copy of Desai's article. It has a lot to mull over for those of us who read, review, and recommend children's books.

Here's the citation:
Desai, Christina M. (2014). "The Columbus Myth: Power and Ideology in Picturebooks About Christopher Columbus," Children's Literature in Education. DOI: 10.1007/s10583-014-9216-0.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

E.B. White "Did you ever see an Indian..."

A few days ago (June 11) was E.B. White's birthday. Most people know--and love--Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. 

Do you remember his reference to Indians in Stuart Little, published in 1973 by Harper Row?

It is that part where he's fixed up a birchbark canoe and plans to take Harriet out for a ride in it. There's a string tied to it, though, that he can't untie. He's really annoyed. Harriet says they could go anyway and let the string drag behind them. Stuart is not keen on that at all. On page 122, he says:
"Did you ever see an Indian paddling along some quiet unspoiled river with a great big piece of rope dragging astern?"
Harriet says that they could pretend they are fishing, but Stuart says
"I don't want to pretend I'm fishing."
What does he want to pretend? Does his "Indian paddling along some quiet unspoiled river" tell us he was imagining them as Indians?

Curious if he'd written anything else about Native peoples, I started digging a bit and found a poem called "An Indian Burial Mound" published in 1922 in Art and Archeology. It is as follows:
The sculpted buttes cut cameo-wise
Against the bold blue skies,
Above the grave.
No catafalque, no lordly marble tomb;
But,--in his native hill side carved,-a room
His bones to save.
The tomb profaned, simple would show his needs;
A shard or two, a strand of turquoise beads
The spirit crave.
Here ruled his tribe before we bade them go.
Here buffalo and deer paid tribute to his bow.
Here lies a brave!
Time for some analysis! That'll come. Later. Gotta run for now!


Back (on Monday, July 14th)!

Some things White says in the poem suggest he's thinking of the southwest ("sculpted buttes"), and the room carved in a hill suggest Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Here's a photo of those bold blue skies and what could be the buttes:


And here's a photo that shows the caves:


Bandelier, Mesa Verde, and similar sites are ancestral sites of Pueblo peoples. My village, Nambe, is about 30 miles from Bandelier. At one time, the information provided at the park said that the people who lived there disappeared, but now, the information states that Pueblo peoples lived in those sites and moved elsewhere (like Nambe).

If E.B. White visited Bandelier and didn't know the descendants of the people that lived there now live elsewhere, the lamentable tone of his poem makes sense. We could also say that his use of "Indian" rather than a specific tribal nation reflects a lack of knowledge, too.

His poem reflects romantic stereotypes but it also has the vanished Indian theme. In the conversation on Facebook, I noted that it reminds me of the "End of the Trail" statue at the Cowboy Hall of Fame. It depicts a tragic Indian.

Curious (again), I wondered if Trumpet of the Swan (another of his books for children) had any Native content... and it does! In it, Sam (the main character) has "black hair and dark eyes like an Indian" (p. 1). When he leaves the spot from which he watched the swans, he "walked slowly and quietly away, putting one foot in front of the other, Indian-fashion, hardly making a sound" (p. 22).

White did not denigrate Native peoples by using derogatory images, but romantic images are just as bad in terms of providing children with knowledge of who Native peoples were, and who we are, too.

And while most of us love White's writings for children, we ought not shy away from pointing out these stereotypes when we use the books with children. Letting them stand, unchallenged, is not educationally sound.