Monday, December 14, 2015


I find Danielle Daniel's Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox unsettling.

In a 2013 article in The Sudbury Star, I read that she is Métis, but that she wasn't raised knowing anything about her Métis heritage. She didn't want her son to grow up without knowing something about that heritage, so she wrote and illustrated Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox as a self-published book that is out this year in hardcover from Groundwood Books (House of Anansi Press). Here's an excerpt from the article (from October 28):
For first-time author and local artist Danielle Daniel, her new children's book Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox was a way to help her 10-year-old son connect to his Metis roots. Daniel, who stopped working as a teacher full-time last year so she could pursue her art, said she was not encouraged to learn about her Metis heritage when she was growing up. "I didn't want that to be the same for my son," she said. "I wanted him to feel proud about it and to celebrate it. "She dedicated the book - which explores 12 different totem animals -to her son and all the Metis and Aboriginal children who never had a chance to know the totem animals because of the residential schools.
The article suggests that residential schools are the reason she didn't know her culture and that this book can help her son and others, but I'm not sure it can. Daniel says she started dreaming about bears and so feels that a bear is her totem animal. That lines up with what I see in new age writings, and not with what I understand about the ways that Anishinaabe people view any of this. 

In the Author's Note, Daniel writes:
The word totem, or doodem in Anishinaabe, means clan. 
From my reading of key writings, and conversations with Ojibwe friends, I know that clans hold tremendous significance. 

That significance is lost in Daniel's treatment of them in the book. The words on each page start with "Sometimes I feel like..." There are 12 different pages for 12 different "totem animals." On each page, is an illustration of a child whose head/face are modified to look like the animal. This is done with a paper mask tied onto the child's head, or a headpiece that fits entirely over the child's head, or with some aspect of the animal being shown as though the child were part it and part human (the page about a beaver has a child with beaver ears, nose, and teeth). 

That treatment of the clans trivializes the importance of the clan system. Someone who lives with that system doesn't shift from one to another in the way Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox suggests. Daniel's book feels more like playing at being Indian than something that her son or any child can actually learn from. 

That's one part of why I'm unsettled but the other is because I have so much empathy for Native people who lost culture because of the boarding schools in the US (and the residential schools in Canada). Those "educational" systems were--and are--devastating to Native people and our cultures and respective nations. I support efforts to learn, but it must come by way of being with the people one identifies with. Artistic efforts to reconnect will fail without the teachings that come from being with the people you're trying to connect with. 

Not recommended.  


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Cover of Parent Magazine's December 2015 issue

On Thursday, December 10, I learned about the cover of the new Parents magazine (h/t Heid and Allicia). Both are Native women and mothers.

Like them, I found the depiction of a little girl, in that toy headdress, screaming in an out-of-control way, as a play on the "wild Indian" stereotype. You know the phrase, I'm sure: "stop running around like a wild Indian." In 2006, AARP's magazine had a full-page Tylenol ad showing a kid, similarly clad, with a grandparent holding the child's hand and glad that she had Tylenol on hand.

I shared the image on Twitter, questioning editors at Parents directly, and asked others to ask, too. Their Twitter account was inundated. A few hours later, Parents issued an apology.

Here's the apology on Twitter:

And here's the apology on Facebook:

There are a lot of comments to their Facebook apology that suggest that readers are as ignorant of the problem as the editors and designers who put the cover together. Those comments indicate the tremendous need for the editors at Parents to do some follow up articles to help their readers understand the issues at play in their depiction of that child in that toy headdress.

In short: a headdress is not a toy. It holds tremendous spiritual significance to those who have them and to their families and tribal nations. That kind of headdress is specific to some tribes but not all of them, but the general public believes it to be something all tribes use, as if we are a single, monolithic entity.

In comments on Facebook and Twitter, I saw some people making comparisons between the "Bored No More" caption for that photo and the "Idle No More" movement of First Nations people. I think that is a valid point.

I hope the editors at Parents read all the comments and respond in an educational way. In my comment to them on Facebook I invited them to share books with their readers, books drawn from my list of Best Books.

In many places, I saw people appalled that Parents would do that cover in 2015, but we can point to many places in which similar imagery is used, uncritically. Mascots for sports teams is one example. A lot of this imagery is in children's books that I write about here, in the illustrations or in the text. I hate cliched expressions but they do have their place. There is much work to do.

Saturday, December 05, 2015


Editor's note on Dec 8 2015: Perry Nodelman's comment and Philip Nel's response are now in the body of the original post. 

December 5, 2015

Dear Phil,

I read your post about your new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. On one hand, I want to say congratulations, because I know that people buy/read/teach your books, and as such, books that look at racism in children's literature are important.

On the other hand, as an activist scholar from a marginalized population, my thoughts and emotions since reading your post include me uttering "WTF." As I write that last sentence, I imagine a lot of my colleagues in children's literature rolling their eyes--not at you--but at me. The truth is, though, that my WTF won't hurt your career. You're a white male, tenured, at a Research I school. You have all the cred in the world. You also have many books published--books that have been very well received.


I have some questions. I could raise them in an email and thereby have a private conversation with you, but, those private conversations tend to be helpful to those who already have power, so I've chosen to do this publicly.

In your blog post, you said that
"The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children's books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry." 

Let's start with structural racism.

You know We Need Diverse Books is trademarked, right? And you know that the organization itself is a grass roots effort comprised largely of people of color who object to the ways that structural racism consistently rewards white, and specifically white males, for the work they do--over the work of people of marginalized communities, right? Are you in conversation with anyone at WNDB about your book, and/or have you had conversations with anyone there about using that phrase in the title of your book?

I hope so, because if not, you might be rendering them invisible and thereby contributing to "invisibility as a form of racism."

Let's look at that invisibility you reference, next. In your post, you offer
"a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I've presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I've learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book's Acknowledgements!) I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you."
Given your status, it seems to me that you could have done more than list people in the Acknowledgements. This is a huge presumption on my part, but my guess is that I am one of the people who may get listed in your Acknowledgments. Maybe I am, and maybe I'm not, but either way, your hearty thank you--though you mean well--will not be received in the way you might think it would be. There is a robust conversation online about people in privileged spaces being informed by the work of people of color--and using that work with little to no acknowledgement. Being listed in an Acknowledgement is not what people want to see.

Do you quote from Twitter, Tumbr, and various blogs, and do you cite the individuals? I hope so! In a way, this ask is similar to my asking about your use of the We Need Diverse Books phrase. By that, I mean that it is hard to say when a bit of information or knowledge ought to be attributed to a specific person. With social media, the voices we read are much more diverse than they've ever been before. It can mean that ideas and points of view seep into our own heads and shape our thinking and then become our thinking, and then it seems unnecessary to cite a specific person who was instrumental in ones own thinking! But it IS necessary. The community of people participating in conversations about children's books is larger than it has ever been before--thanks to social media--but scholars should not replicate injustices of the past wherein white males profit through the work of those who they and their ancestors, overtly and subtly, oppressed and oppress.

Actually--I think people could fairly wonder about the project itself. It could have been an edited volume, with you using your stature as a means to lift the names and work being done by people who aren't white males.

Course, in wondering that, I make some assumptions that you and I see things from a similar vantage point! Our conversations on your blog suggest that isn't necessarily the case. But you also said in your blog post, that some of those posts (where we conversed via the comments) contain "admittedly flawed" thinking, so maybe you're in a different space today than you were then and could, therefore, lift those voices.

You said that your book is:
"attempting to do for children's books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system." 
We do need to get more people to think about racism in children's literature, and there's a lot of people who have been doing that for a very long time. You say that it is a "tall order" to do for children's literature what Michelle Alexander's book does for the justice system.


You're inadvertently placing yourself on the same plane as a Black scholar like Michelle Alexander? I'm stuck right there. Stuck without words to capture what that feels like to me. A huge problem in children's literature is white saviors sweeping in to help or rescue characters of marginalized populations. And here you are, doing that very thing. Did you realize what that would feel like to people of color? Did you imagine any of us, reading those words, as you wrote them? Did you imagine us as your audience?

You say that you'll also look at institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. Seems to me that gives you space to write about institutional discrimination within the academy, too. I'm guessing you've read the various articles online about the experiences of people of color in the academy. We both know how white our field of study is, so it seems that your book might address barriers we face, as scholars. Does it?

My sense from that line in your post about flawed thinking in earlier posts suggests to me that you're in a more reflective space than you've been in the past, but the things you said also suggest that the flawed thinking is still there. We care so very much about children's books, and the work we do. In that care, we are often blind to what we say and how we say it. Maybe it is the flow of a new project that inadvertently blinded you to the way your words in that post read? Indeed, there are likely things I've said in this letter that are similarly blind and I hope that people will note them in comments.

All that said, I look forward to your book but hope that it is a bit more... reflective of your own privilege than your blog post about the book is.



Perry Nodelman's (Nodelman is amongst the key scholars in children's literature) comment, submitted on Dec 5, 2015 at 1:21 PM:

You raise important concerns here, Debby--ones that are constantly on my mind these days as I continue to think about and write about children's literature. I recently became painfully aware of my own unconscious expression of white privilege as I looked through old articles I was considering uploading to, and came upon one on Scott O'Dell's Sing Down the Moon which was published in Horn Book in 1984. It's full of praise for a novel about the “Long Walk” of 1863, in which American soldiers forced the entire Navajo nation to relocate after destroying their villages and crops. Among other things, I say in this essay that I admire O'Dell's choice of not providing his young Navaho narrator with a name for much of the book--a choice which I saw in 1984 as universalizing her and making her a sympathetic and believable character, and which I now see as a commentary on the deprivation of her personhood that in fact confirms and reinforces that deprivation. I also celebrate O'Dell's depiction of the Navajo stoicism and refusal to express anger at what is happening to them--another confirmation of a hoary stereotype.

Worst of all, it become apparent to me as I read through this old essay that I simply took it as an absolute truth that no one who was Navajo or even remotely like a Navajo would ever be part of the audience of the book: "Sing Down the Moon is about people unlike ourselves," I conclude, clearly and unconsciously assuming that all the readers of this book would all be white like me. I am wrestling now with whether or not I should upload this essay as evidence of how ignorant I was and much I've learned about these matters in the last three decades--much of it from you, Debby. Uploading it would have to potential to be very embarrassing; not doing so would misrepresent who I once was. I’m tending to choose to upload it.

At any rate, I find these issues of unconscious racism--my own and that of other white people, especially other white men--deeply troubling. I don't want to have to remain silent about the racism that I find so troublesome, but I'm also aware of the troubling aspects of my choosing to speak about what so troubles me. My own solution to this dilemma is to forefront in anything I write about these topics my awareness of the potentially poisonous aspects of my speaking about them—to acknowledge my white male privilege and to attempt to become aware of how it might be distorting how I see things and read texts before and during and after my readings of those texts. I want to acknowledge and accept the possibility that I might yet once more be seriously embarrassing myself, in the faith that even if I do, my doing so will help to further a cause I profoundly believe in by confirming the blindness of my privilege. And I would hope that any discussion of these matters by other white men like me would be equally aware of and forthright about the minefield they enter in writing about race, equally open to exploring the possibility of their blindnesses, and equally unwilling to assume a kind of authority that unconsciously replicates the very kinds of unconscious repression they want to argue against.


Philip Nel's response, submitted on December 7, 2015 at 3:35 PM:

Dear Debbie,

Thanks for your critique of my unpublished manuscript. Here are some responses to your queries.

Yes, I cite We Need Diverse Books in the manuscript, and in the conclusion (a manifesto for anti-racist children’s literature) recommend WNDB as a resource. My hope is that citing WNDB several times in the manuscript, and in the title, will draw attention to the excellent work they do. I did not know that the phrase is copyrighted. Prompted by your query, I have sought their permission to use it in the subtitle and, if they prefer it not be in the subtitle, will remove it. (The original subtitle was "Structures of Racism in Children's Literature." I changed that after being told that it was too academic. I thought the current subtitle more clearly expressed the idea to a general audience.)

As is the case in all of my scholarship, this book builds on a lot of research, all of which I cite. I’ve learned from books, scholarly articles, blog posts, tweets, journalism, conference papers, and more. There are children's literature scholars, critical race theorists, children's & YA literature authors, theorists of affect, among many others. Then, in the Acknowledgments, I name people who have been especially helpful. But I haven't finished compiling the Acknowledgments yet, and I didn't want to publish an incomplete Acknowledgments on the blog — so, that's why I left that part of the blog post deliberately vague.

Michelle Alexander's work is amazing. The New Jim Crow should be required reading for every citizen. Even approaching her level of brilliance would be a tall order. So, if the blog post implied that I'm in her league as a writer or scholar, that's not my intent. I aspire to her level of work, which — to be frank — is how I approach all book projects. I want to write something better than I'm capable of, and so I look to other, better scholars as my role models. There are several such models for Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Alexander's The New Jim Crow is one. Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence is another.

I do address my Whiteness in the book, yes. Indeed, I've been deeply concerned about how my subject position (straight White male) may impair my thinking about racism. I wrote a little about that here:

In conclusion, I think that the book will address your concerns. I’d be glad to send you a copy when it comes out.

Thanks for writing.

Best regards,


Thursday, December 03, 2015

E. K. Johnston's PRAIRIE FIRE

E. K. Johnson's Prairie Fire is the sequel to The Story of Owen. Both are works of fantasy for young adults that are also described as alternative histories. Here's the synopsis for The Story of Owen:
"Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival. There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition. But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected. Such was Trondheim's fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds—armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard. 

Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!"

Henry Ford hiring dragon slayers! Cool? I don't know because I didn't read The Story of Owen. I did, however, read the sequel, Prairie Fire. Here's the synopsis for it:
Every dragon slayer owes the Oil Watch a period of service, and young Owen was no exception. What made him different was that he did not enlist alone. His two closest friends stood with him shoulder to shoulder. Steeled by success and hope, the three were confident in their plan. But the arc of history is long and hardened by dragon fire. Try as they might, Owen and his friends could not twist it to their will. Not all the way. Not all together. The sequel to the critically acclaimed The Story of Owen.
Prairie Fire is primarily about Owen and Siobhan (who tells the story). Their assignment as dragon slayers is to guard Fort Calgary. As I started to read, I saw a lot of place names specific to First Nations but... no people who are First Nations (that comes later).

Early in the book, there's a reference to Manitoulin, a place that (I think) was destroyed in The Story of Owen. I read "Manitoulin" and right away wondered if that is a Native place. The answer? Yes. According to the Wikwemikong website, Manitoulin is home to one of the ten largest First Nations communities in Canada. I understand--of course--that in stories like Prairie Fire, writers can write what they wish--including wiping out existing places--but when the writer is not Native, and one of the places being wiped out is Native, it too closely parallels recent and ongoing displacements and violence done to Indigenous peoples. As such, I object.

We learn a bit more about Manitoulin when we get to the chapter, The Story of Manitoulin(ish) (p. 55):
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island where three Great Lakes met. Named for a god, it could well have been the home of one: rolling green hills and big enough that it was dotted by small blue lakes of its own. It was the biggest freshwater island in the world, and Canada was proud to call it ours.
Named for a god? I don't think so. From what I'm learning, it means something like 'home of the ancestors.' I also wondered, as I read that line, who named it Manitoulin? Canadians? Canadians who are "proud to call it ours"? Another big pause for me. I doubt that First Nations people reading Prairie Fire would be ok with that line.

In Prairie Fire, we learn that the island, situated between the US and Canada, is inhabitable due to American capitalism (p. 55):  
Two whole generations of Canadians grew up, never having set foot on that pristine sand, never staying in those quaint hotels, and never learning to swim in those sheltered bays, but always there was hope that we would someday return.
Hmmm. That sounds to me like White people who are lamenting loss of pristine sand and quaint hotels. Again, no Native people. Kind of shouts privilege, to me. Another place named is Chilliwack, home to the Sto Lo people, but no Sto Lo people are in Prairie Fire. 

The chapter, Totem Poles, is unsettling, too. These poles are at Fort Calgary. Siobhan and Owen get there, via train. As they traveled, Siobhan worried that they'd be attacked by dragons (p. 69):
There are any number of American movies about dragon slayers fighting dragons from the tops of trains, but I was quite happy not to be reenacting one. We made it all the way to Manitoba before we even saw a dragon out the window, and it was far enough away that we didn’t have to worry about it.
That reminded me of westerns in which Indians are attacking the trains, and while I don't think Johnston intended us to equate dragons with Indians, I kind of can't help but make that connection when I read that passage. Anyway, as the train nears Fort Calgary, they see a row of metal teeth that stretch up into the air (p. 71):
The metal teeth were the tops of stylized totem poles, taller than the California Redwoods on which they were modeled, and thrusting jagged steel into the bright prairie sunset. Though most of the poles were around the wall of the fort, they were also scattered throughout the city itself, to prevent the dragons from dive-bombing any of the buildings. 
One of the dragon slayers thinks they are beautiful, but another says (p. 71):
“They’re probably covered with bird crap up close,” Parker pointed out.
Totem poles hold deep significance to the tribes who create them. I haven't studied Parker as a character, and it may be that he's an unpleasant sort who we readers are expected to dislike, but still... Was that "bird crap" line necessary? And why are totem poles cast as tools of defense in the first place? It reminds me of the United States Armed Services use of names of Native Nations and imagery for weapons of war (examples include the Apache attack helicopter and the tomahawk cruise missile). They--like mascot names--are supposedly conveying some sort of honor, but with victory over a foe the goal, are these honorable things to do?

The book goes on and on like that...

In Disposable Civilians, we read about a dragon called the Athabascan Longtail. Athabascan's are Native, too. And then there's the chapter called The Story of the Dragon Chinook. For those who don't know, Chinook is also the name of a First Nation. In Prairie Fire, the Chinook dragons are especially vicious. Their attacks are preceded by smoke. There's more railroad trains in this part of the story. To get railroad tracks laid, the government brings Chinese workers to Canada, "paying them just enough that they might forget about the dragons in the sky" (p. 124). And yes, those Chinese workers are amongst those disposable civilians.

In the Haida Welcome chapter (Owen and Siobhan are visiting Port Edward, on the coast), we get to know a character named Peter and his family. They are Haida. They play drums made of dragon's hearts. There's a stage where they dance. The stage has a row of waist high totem poles (p. 221):
These were wooden poles, traditional and fierce looking, each with painted white teeth inside a grinning mouth and an odd crest upon each head.
Owen, Siobhan, and the others gathered there watch the dancers on stage move in ways that suggest they're in a canoe. Siobhan remembers that the Haida are a sea-going nation. The person in front is their dragon slayer. She throws a rope with a large ring on its end to a dragon. On the fourth throw she catches it, the song and dance change, and the dragon is brought to the totem poles where it lies down, defeated. Owen wonders aloud if the dragon had drowned, and Peter laughs, telling him (p. 222):
“No,” Peter said. “The orcas took care of it.” “The whales?” Owen said. “They’re not called Slayer Whales for nothing,” Peter reminded him.
That part of the story makes me uneasy. What Johnston has done is create what she presents as a Native ceremony or dance. It reminds me of what Rosanne Parry did in Written In Stone. 

After that dance part, I quit reading Prairie Fire. Though I can see why it appeals to fans of stories like this, the erasure of Native peoples, the weaponizing of Native artifacts, and the creation of Native story are serious problems. I cannot recommend Prairie Fire.

Lynne Reid Banks - In the News

Back in November, The Guardian awarded David Almond its children's fiction prize for his novel, A Song for Ella Grey, which is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.  

I haven't read that novel, but I learned about it earlier this week when colleagues in children's literature began talking about a letter Lynne Reid Banks had written to The Guardian, objecting to the book being selected for its prize. (Banks is the author of The Indian in the Cupboard and its sequels. Readers of AICL likely know that there are many problems with that book. From the idea of a white child having life/death power over a Native person and responsibility for the care of that person, to the stereotypes that are throughout the book, the list of what-is-wrong with the series is long. I've written a little about it but am, today, thinking that I ought to do a chapter-by-chapter look at it.) 

Subsequent to the letter Banks wrote to The Guardian, BBC's Radio 4 invited Almond and Banks to be on its Today program. I listened to, and transcribed the program, for those of you who might want to know what was said but are not able to listen to the archived segment. 

Yesterday, The Guardian published a handful of letters others wrote in response to Banks. Among them is one by Perry Nodelman, who wrote:
But some people not yet 12 experience lesbian desire, and/or swear or drink; and others live with older people who drink, swear, and feel no need to hide their lesbianism. I assume, then, that what Banks really objects to is fiction for young people that diverges from a supposed norm of ideally innocent (and heteronormative) childlikeness. Such fiction rarely represents anything like what most young people experience, and exists mainly to assure adults that childhood is actually more innocent and ideal than it usually is. Those who chose Almond’s more honest novel as a prizewinner should be lauded for not sharing in this sad game. Perhaps novels about younger young people might win more prizes if writers could figure out how to make them less dishonest about the lives of “people up to the age of 12”.
Early in graduate school, I read Perry's books and articles on children's literature. His thinking has been important in my thinking, precisely because of what he said in his letter above about honesty and the lives of children. 

As I think about what Banks said, I think she's stuck in that dishonest space Perry writes about, and in some way that I've yet to put into words, it echoes Meg Rosoff's objections to Myles Johnson's Large Fears. Here's my transcription:

BBC Radio 4
Audio available till 12/31/2015: 
Banks/Almond interview begins at the 2:45 hour mark

Moderator: David Almond is a celebrated writer for children and teenagers and he’s just won the Guardian children’s book prize, which is a big prize, for his novel, A Song for Ella Gray. Now, the novelist Lynne Reid Banks, first famous for The L-Shaped Room and then, author of many books, including The Indian in the Cupboard, for children, that sold many, many copies, went out and bought the book, as a result of that winning The Guardian children’s book prize. In fact, she bought two copies for her twelve-year old grandchildren. Then, having looked at them, she went back to the shop and handed them over because, and she said this in a letter to The Guardian itself,
In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children.”
Well, Lynne Reid Banks is with us, and David Almond joins us from our Newcastle studio. I suppose, David, to defend yourself, we’ll talk to you in a minute. Lynne Reid Banks, were you surprised? Were you shocked? And if so, why?

Banks: Well, I was surprised because I’d read David Almond’s really beautiful description of how this book was inspired by the Odyssey and how this had worked in schools and I’m certainly not…

Moderator: And you’re an admirer of David’s writing…

Banks: A great admirer. He wrote Skellig. He’s done some wonderful books. What I’m quarreling with is The Guardian, for giving this prize under the name of a children’s book award. If only there were a separate award for teen aged, young adult writing, then he should have won it, I’m quite sure. I haven’t read the book yet because I am so disappointed that its obviously not suitable for what I call and categorize as children, which are people up to the age of 12.

Moderator: I suppose we’re getting into a categorization argument, aren’t we, David Almond, but just explain who you were thinking of when you wrote the book, what kind of age? I know you don’t target it in that way but what kind of age do you think the readers would be?

Almond: When you write you really don’t think about the target age. You think about the characters you’re writing. You think about the drama that’s involved in the story. The drama is described, narrated, by a teenager of about 17. So I had a sense that yes, maybe the main readership would be of that kind of age.    

Moderator: What they call young adults in bookshops?

Almond: Yes, young adults. But this book is being read by 12-year olds, 13-year olds, and I’m getting fantastic responses from them. They recognize something about the beautiful troubling drama of growing up.

Moderator: Give us a little extract. Could you? Just to give us a feel and then we’ll talk to Lynne Reid Banks again about her feelings. Just tell us where we are in the story and just give us a few lines.

Almond: This is right at the start, where Lynne wrote about and Claire and Ella are on a sleepover together and Claire is telling the story. 
“We were in bed, the two of us together. Ella turned to me, and she was smiling. “Claire! I’m in love with Orpheus." "But he hardly even knows you bliddy exist!" She pressed her finger to my lips. "I keep on hearing his song! Its like I’ve known him forever! Oh, Ella, it's destined! I love him and he'll love me. And if you hadn’t called me that day and told me to listen," she kissed me, "none of this would have happened, would it?" I pulled me clothes on. She kissed me again. Thud went my heart. Thud.

Moderator: Well, that’s pretty powerful writing, Lynne, isn’t it?

Banks: I think David Almond is one of the best writers for young people that we have. But 17 year old adults are not children and although, of course, I didn’t expect him to say ‘thank you so much Guardian, I reject the prize’ because this book is not for children…

Moderator: Let’s not have an argument about The Guardian. Its quite interesting… What are the problems. If you go into a bookshop these days and people often comment on this, is that books are categorized by age.

Banks: No, they’re not. Are they?

Moderator: Yes, I’m afraid they are and it drives authors mad because 10-12, 8-10, 12-15…

Banks: Oh I see what you mean…

Moderator: Children’s don’t think like that, do they?

Banks: No but I think if you would append the word children to a prize as is also with the Carnegie Medal which is the highest award we give here for children’s writing, and if year after year you give it to dark, dystopian, violent, in some cases, downright cruel books, I don’t know quite where people who are writing for children, which of course David Almond has also done, where do we come in? We don’t seem to have a prize of our own anymore.

Moderator: Well, David, you’ve won the Carnegie Medal yourself, for Skellig, I think, what would you say about a parent who is listening to this who may have an 11-12-13 year old who reads a lot and is quite emotionally secure as you can be at that age, and hear this discussion and say ‘hmmm this is the rewriting of the Orpheus story by you, its pretty steamy for a 12 year old… Should I buy it or shouldn’t I?”

Almond: Well of course I’d say… (laughter)

Moderator: Asking an author to say ‘don’t buy my book' yes, tricky one but you know what I’m asking you…

Almond: Absolutely. But the Orpheus story itself is such a powerful, elemental tale. When I was a teacher I used to tell the Orpheus story to 9-10-11 year olds. They were totally gripped by it and this is just a new version of that story. And the thing about children’s books is if you go into the children’s book department you will find all kinds of wonderful, experimental, creative, energetic books. That’s where people should be looking, and not thinking about where should we categorize this book or that book. This is an amazing world. People really believe that books can change peoples lives.

Banks: And they can.

Almond: And they can.

Moderator: A lovely moment of agreement. Lynne Reid Banks. David Almond in Newcastle, thank you both very much indeed.            

Wednesday, December 02, 2015


My grandfather, Rex Sotero Calvert, was Hopi. We never called him grandpa or grandfather. We called him Thehtay, which is the Tewa word for grandfather (Tewa is our language at Nambe Pueblo). Calvert is the name he was given when he went to boarding school, at Santa Fe Indian School. Before that, he was Rex Sotero Sakiestewa. He was born in 1895 at Mishongnovi Village.

At SFIS, he met my grandmother, Emilia Martinez. She was from Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo). They lived at Ohkay Owingeh and had six children: Delfino, Felix, Marcelino, Edward, Andrea, and Cecilia. To me, they were Uncle Del, Uncle Felix, Uncle Mars, and Aunt Cecilia. Edward--we call him Uncle John. He still lives there, at Ohkay Owingeh. Andrea--we call her mom.

When I talk with my mom, we sometimes talk about Thehtay. He lived with us at Nambe Pueblo when I was growing up. I remember him being out back, working the garden with a hoe... Suddenly he'd yell "The beans!" We'd have been playing in the garden as he worked, no doubt un-doing the work he'd been doing to irrigate that garden as we made little dams to divert the irrigation water! Remembering the beans, he'd throw down the hoe and run inside the house to add water to the pot of beans on the stove. When he was older, he'd sit in his wheelchair, softly singing Hopi songs to himself. I wish I'd listened to them, and that I'd learned some of them. What I do have are warm memories of him, of being with him, of his humor.

This morning as I read My Hopi Corn and My Hopi Toys, my thoughts, understandably, turned to Thehtay. Written by Anita Poleahla and illustrated by Emmett Navakuku, the two are board books from Salina Press.

Celebrate My Hopi Corn begins with a single corn kernel telling the reader that she has many sister kernels on an ear of corn, that they grow under a warm sun, and that as the days begin to shorten, the kernels take on different colors. Some are yellow, while others are blue or red or white. After they're harvested, the kernels are shelled off the cobs. For that, we're shown a Hopi girl in traditional clothes shelling the kernels off the cobs. Some kernels are ground into flour to make piki (a traditional food that is exquisite in form and flavor. In form it looks like a rolled up newspaper, with the paper itself being the piki, which is kind of like filo dough in its flakey texture). Some corn is used for dances, and, some is kept inside for the next planting season, when a Hopi man plants corn. That page, especially, made me think of Thehtay:

I don't have a memory of Thehtay planting seeds. My memory is of him in a button down shirt and jeans (nothing on his head; not wearing a belt or mocs as shown in the illustration) using a hoe to rid the garden of weeds.

As you see by the illustration, the text in Celebrate My Hopi Corn is in two languages: Hopi, and English. The illustrations are a blend of realistic depictions of people, and, Hopi images like the one of the sun, and later, one of rain clouds. The book ends with a double paged spread of corn maidens:

Corn. Community. Ceremony. Planting. All are important to who the Hopi people are. I really like this little book and wish I could share it with Thehtay. Poleahla and Navakuku's second book, Celebrate My Hopi Toys is a counting book of items used for play, but also for dance. I like it very much, too. Like Celebrate My Hopi Corn, it is bilingual and shows items specific to Hopi people. Poleahla has been working on language instruction for many years. These little books will, no doubt, be much loved by Hopi children, but they're terrific for any child. For children who aren't Hopi, they provide a window to Hopi culture. A window--I will also note--that is provided by insiders who know just what can be shared with everyone.

They are available from Salina Press.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Books to get (& avoid) from the We Need Diverse Books/Scholastic Reading Club collaboration

A few weeks ago, Scholastic and We Need Diverse Books announced a Special Edition of the Scholastic Reading Club program.

You know what I'm talking about, right? You remember your teacher handing out those book club flyers? You remember poring over the options, deciding which ones you'd get? And then the joy when they arrived!

I was on both ends of that program. As a kid, I got books that way, and as an elementary school teacher, my students got books that way, too.

Like anyone, Scholastic has an uneven track record in terms of the books they publish. Some are great, some are not.

When I saw the first page of the flyer for this collaboration between Scholastic and We Need Diverse Books, my first thought was "Oh no! Not Stone Fox!" That book has stereotypical imagery in it. The stoic Indian in it is violent, too, striking the white kid that is the main character. Even though it all comes out ok in the end, I don't recommend it. Stereotypes are just no good, for anyone.

Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?

I've finally gotten a chance to look over the entire flyer and am really glad to see Joseph Bruchac's Eagle Song is in there. I like that book a lot and recommend it. (The flyer also has Bruchac's story about the Trail of Tears, but I haven't read that one yet.)

Don't waste a dollar on Stone Fox. Spend three dollars instead, and get Eagle Song. Danny, the main character, is Mohawk. The setting is present day. His dad is a steelworker. They've moved to a city where Danny feels alone and is teased about his heritage. Like other Native families who find themselves in cities, they seek out a Native community, and find it at the American Indian Community House. Lot of good in this book! I highly recommend it. It was first published in in 1999 by Puffin Books.

Stereotypical words and images: Gone!

Over the years, I've written about children's books that were revised.

A few days ago I compiled links about revised books (some are mine and some are from others who work in children's literature) and inserted them in my post about A Fine Dessert. Today, I'm putting them on a stand-alone page. If you know of other changes, do let me know. This set of links will eventually appear at Teaching for Change.

We are rarely told why these books were changed, and we're rarely told when the change itself is made.  Some changes are no-change, really, because the ideology of the book (writer?) is still there, beneath the words that get changed. Some changes--like the ones in picture books--are significant. All of them are, nonetheless, important to know about.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dear Teachers: An Open Letter about Images of Indians

November 17, 2015

Dear Teachers,

Each day when young children get home from school, parents ask how their day went and if they have any homework. For some parents, the homework their child brings home can be daunting because it has material on it that they haven't thought about in years. They have to "brush up" on it in order to help their children understand the concepts the child's homework is intended to reinforce. Some parents find homework annoying because it is so repetitive and their children could be doing something more engaging.

Last month on social media, Native parents circulated photos of worksheets and books their children were bringing home. Some of these photos were of cartoon-like images of Indians who greeted Columbus.

November is Native American month. Thanksgiving happens this month, too, so, some of the worksheets parents are sharing on social media are about Indians greeting the Pilgrims. Some just have random images of Indians on them because it is Native American month.

If I asked you, teachers, to look through your file of worksheets, some of you will see what I'm talking about. Smiling Indians handing corn to Pilgrims. Cute Indians sitting cross legged on the ground, tending a fire, next to a tipi. Color-by-number worksheets of Indians... We could go on and on, right?

For Native parents--and for non-Native parents who know these images are stereotypical--the homework itself is more than daunting or annoying. They know those worksheets carry messages of who or what Indians are supposed to be. They know those images are misinforming the children the worksheets are meant to educate. For them, these worksheets put them in a what-do-I-do about this moment. Some will point out the stereotypical image and, if needed, tell their child why it is stereotypical and not ok. Some will arrange to meet with the teacher. Some will express their frustration, with family and friends, in person and on social media. And some will keep silent because they fear that speaking to you, their child's teacher, will put their child in an awkward position.

For Native children, those images are one more silent assault on Native culture. These silent assaults, however, are ones their teachers are handing to them. My guess is that some of you, teachers, don't even notice those images on those worksheets.

I have empathy and respect for teachers. I taught elementary school in the 1980s. I know how hard it was, then, to work with the limited resources I had from the school itself, and from my own pocket. Teaching is even harder, today, than it was then. So I'm not writing this to make you feel bad.

I'm writing to ask you to take a few seconds to look--really look--at the worksheets you're going to use today, or tomorrow, or the next day, or any day. Do they have those images of Indians on them? If they do, set them aside.

A lot of you assume these worksheets and biased children's books don't matter because you believe there aren't any Native kids in your classroom. If you're basing that belief on an idea that Native people have dark skin, dark hair, high cheekbones, and personal names that sound Indian in some way, you're reflecting a stereotype.

I don't say any of this to shame you, or to embarrass you.

We all have a lot of ignorance about people who are unlike ourselves. I have had many moments of being embarrassed! I, for example, loved Five Chinese Brothers. I have very warm memories of reading it--memories that go all the way back to my early childhood years. I carried that book in my heart for decades. Then, in a graduate school course about children's literature, that book was one we looked at, and I realized how racist its depictions are... and I let it go.

I hope you'll read this letter as a virtual hug, of sorts, from a fellow educator who--like you--cares about teaching and what we teach to children. We're all learning, every day, how to do it better. I welcome any questions you have--about worksheets, or books. My entire website is for you. It's all free. For you.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

P.S. (added an hour after I hit upload on my letter):

My husband suggested I say a bit more about what teachers can do instead of the usual Thanksgiving activities. So! If you're working with very young children, remember your training. Early childhood education is centered on teaching children in a here-and-now framework. For them, the long-ago (when colonization began) is not best practice. For children at that age, if you want to do something about the holiday, take the what-I'm-thankful approach instead of a usual Pilgrims and Indians ones. Because you're working on their fine motor skills and use craft projects for that purpose, you can do arts activities about turkeys. For older children (3rd grade and up), check out American Indian Perspectives on Thanksgiving. If you want to take some time to unlearn what you've learned about Thanksgiving, you can start with a fellow teacher's post about Thanksgiving books: Kara Stewart's "Children's Books about Thanksgiving."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Absolutely disgusted by Catherynne M. Valente's SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE

I've never used "absolutely disgusted" in a title before today. There are vile things in the world. Some of them are subtly vile, which makes them dangerous because you aren't aware of what is going into your head and heart.

Some things, like Catherynne M. Valente's Six-Gun Snow White are gratuitously vile. As a Native woman, it is very hard to read it in light of my knowledge of the violence inflicted on Native girls and women--today. Here's the synopsis:

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents--a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.

There is no redeeming Valente's words. There is nothing she could write, as the book proceeds, that will undo what she says in the first half. I quit.

I don't think this is meant to be a young adult novel but I've seen a colleague in children's literature describe it as "fantastic" which is why I decided I ought to see what it is about. As the synopsis indicates, it is a retelling of Snow White. It was first published in 2013 by Subterranean Press as a signed limited edition (1000 signed and numbered hardcover copies), but is being republished in 2015. This time around, the publisher is Saga Press.

Obviously, I don't recommend it.  I've never read anything Valente wrote before. I asked, online, if this is typical of her work, and the reply so far is no. So why did she do this? Why would anyone do this?

Six Gun Snow White is not fantastic. It is not brilliant. It is grotesque. It is so disgusting that I will not sully my blog with actual quotes from the book.
  • Valente uses animal-like depictions to describe the main character's genitals. Yes, you read that right, her genitals. Animal-like characteristics are often used in children's literature but none, that I recall, that are anything like these. In children's books, you'll find things like Indians who "gnaw" on bones or have "steely patience, like a wolf waiting." Such descriptions dehumanize us.
  • Valente has the stepmother bathe the main character in a milk bath to make her skin lighter in tone, but to do the inside parts of her she shoves the main character's head underneath, which echoes the intents of the boarding schools established in the 1800s. A guiding philosophy was 'kill the Indian/save the man' and the idea of the "civilizing" curriculum was to "hold them under until they are thoroughly soaked in the white man's ways."  
  • Valente shows the main character and her mother (her mother was Crow) being lusted after, abused, beaten, and violated by white men. This is especially troubling, given the violence and lack of investigation of that violence that we see in the US and Canada. 

I suppose all of that is so over-the-top to make a point of some kind, but that point need not be made in the first place. As the title for this post says, I am absolutely disgusted by what I see in Six Gun Snow White. 

Dear Katherine Handcock at A MIGHTY GIRL...

November 16, 2015

Katherine Handcock
A Mighty Girl

Dear Katherine,

I saw your November 15, 2015 post at A Mighty Girl. Your topic is celebrating Native American Heritage Month. Of course, I applaud A Mighty Girl for lot of reasons, and I am glad to see you contributing a post about Native peoples, but some of the books you chose are pretty awful.

I'll start with Scott O'Dell. Though he meant well and people who decided to give his books medals meant well, too, his books are not accurate. Rather than providing children with worthwhile information about Native peoples, children's misconceptions of who Native people were--and are--are affirmed by the misrepresentations and bias in his books. Please don't recommend Sing Down the Moon or Island of the Blue Dolphins

My guess is, Katherine, that you read those books when you were a child. They resonated with you. That's the case with a lot of people. They read something when they were a child, but upon re-reading it as an adult, they are taken aback by the ways that Native people are depicted. A few weeks ago, CBC Diversity recommended Island of the Blue Dolphins in a post about strong female characters. The pushback from social media was immediate. It came from Native people, and from scholars in children's literature, too. Within hours, CBC Diversity had removed the book from that post.

Julie of the Wolves... oh dear. Wrong in so many ways! Same with Mama Do You Love Me!

I see you also have The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses on that list. It's a fail, too, when looked at critically. Pretty art, some say, and a Caldecott Medal, too, but there's no tribe in that story! It is a made-up story--made up by a well-intentioned British writer/illustrator (Paul Goble). It looks like a Native story, and to most people, it will be assumed to be a Native story, but it isn't. Same with Frog Girl. That is made up, too, by someone (Paul Owen Lewis) who is not Native.

You do have some terrific books listed, including:

  • Buffalo Bird Girl, written and illustrated by S.D. Nelson
  • Crossing Bok Chitto, written by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges
  • Morning Girl, written by Michael Dorris
  • The Birchbark House, written by Louise Erdrich
  • Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home: by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes
  • House of Purple Cedar, by Tim Tingle
  • Native Women of Courage, by Kelly Fournel
  • SkySisters, written by Jan Bourdeau Waboose, illustrated by Brian Dienes
  • Jingle Dancer, written by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
  • Very Last First Time, written by Jan Andrews, illustrated by Ian Wallace

Anything I didn't list above is something I've not read, or, that I have read but cannot recommend and haven't yet written about in my book chapters, journal articles, or at my blog American Indians in Children's Literature.  I should also note that I'm a Pueblo Indian woman, a former school teacher and professor in American Indian Studies.

A few additional thoughts: because Capaldi's book about Carlos Montezuma was so flawed, I suspect that her book on Zitkala-Sa has similar problems. Same thing with regard to dePaola. His Legend of the Indian Paintbrush has problems, so I suspect that his Legend of the Bluebonnet might have similar problems. And, Katherine, if you're into children's literature, I highly recommend a new blog called Reading While White. Among its writers are librarians at the CCBC (you cited CCBC in your post).

Please reconsider the books you have on your list. Like thousands (millions?) of people, you meant well, but intentions don't matter. The content of a book and what it tells children is what matters most of all. Some of the books you recommended actually work against what I think A Mighty Girl is all about. Affirmation. Some of the books you recommend affirm stereotypes. Can you remove them?

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature