Monday, March 30, 2015

HOME by Carson Ellis

A lot--A LOT--of people are writing to me about a page in Home, the new book by Carson Ellis. Published in 2015 by Candlewick, here's the synopsis:

Home might be a house in the country, an apartment in the city, or even a shoe. Home may be on the road or the sea, in the realm of myth, or in the artist’s own studio. A meditation on the concept of home and a visual treat that invites many return visits, this loving look at the places where people live marks the picture-book debut of Carson Ellis, acclaimed illustrator of the Wildwood series and artist for the indie band the Decemberists.

And here's the cover:

I draw your attention to the last image in the top row (a tipi) and the first image in the fourth row (an igloo). And... I sigh.

Once you start reading this picture book, you'll come to a page that says "Some homes are boats." But it isn't just a boat. No boat is just a boat, right? They have purpose.

On the facing page of the boat are three figures, partially clothed, standing in front of a structure, looking out at that boat as it approaches. The text is "Some homes are wigwams." That tells us that this particular boat is one on which--shall we say, Europeans--are aboard.

That boat has been their home for a while, but they're looking to build new homes. On Native lands. On the home lands that belong to those three figures standing by that wigwam.

I wonder if those thoughts occurred to Ellis as she did this part of the book?

I wonder if Ellis imagined, say, children of tribal nations on the East Coast as readers of her book?

While a lot of people are sighing with pleasure as they turn the pages of this book, lots of others are rolling their eyes. I'm among the latter. And all the Native and non-Native people who are writing to me? They're of the latter group, too.

Home  -- for its point of view -- is not recommended.

Update, March 31, 2015

On Twitter, I was asked how the book ends. Does Ellis, the person asked, make the point later in the book that the land belonged to someone else? The answer is no. Here's the final page:

The question "Where is your home" can be used by politically engaged teachers to have a conversation with children about that page with the boat and the wigwam. If/when you see that happen, please do let me know!

Another person asked me about people of color and if they're included. Here they are:

Despite its many positive reviews from mainstream review journals and publications, I think the book is problematic. This isn't diversity. This is exotic and stereotypical depictions of 'other.' Though there is some lighthearted whimsy (as in the shoe) and there is much to be appreciated in the art itself, I think it fails. 

Update, April 2, 2015

A colleague pointed me to the Kirkus review of Home. I went to the Kirkus site, searched on the title and found two things. Here's a screen capture of the review:

See what they chose to highlight for the webpage? "Visually accomplished but marred by stereotypical cultural depictions." I'm thrilled to see that. The other item on the Kirkus site is an article by Julie Danielson. It includes excerpts of an interview with Ellis. Some of it is quite interesting. She talks about a trench that was cut from the book. Soldiers were in it. Ellis said:
 “The one exception is…a spread [that originally] had soldiers who ‘make their home in a trench,’ but my wise editor, Liz Bicknell, suggested that maybe a trench isn’t really a home. A home doesn’t have to be a place you choose to live, but to say that a perilous hole in the ground where you’re temporarily sleeping, possibly against your will, is a home might be pushing it. It also might be depressing. And not super fun for kids. Though, for what it’s worth, the trench in the illustration was kind of fun. There were soldiers playing cards and someone singing in the bath. War is not silly, but if, like me, you spent your childhood obsessing over M*A*S*H and Hawkeye Pierce, you might lose track of that sometimes.”

I'm glad that Liz Bicknell hit the pause button on that but wonder why she didn't hit it at other points, too? 

Later in that interview, Daniels asked Ellis about her relationship with Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, writer/illustrator of Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. Their book is dedicated to Ellis. She says they're close friends and that they gave her feedback on what she was doing in Home. That is troubling, too. They're key people in children's literature and they didn't spot the problems with stereotyping? 

Update: December 3, 2015
See Sam Bloom's review, at Reading While White.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't the book be used to teach point-of-view? It shouldn't be discounted because you have a problem with one picture.

Anonymous said...

Problem is, it's not just one picture... it's a continuation of centuries-old stereotypes used to dehumanize Native people and justify everything white people did to them.

Also, it's not just one page--see the stereotypical "poor but happy" Kenyan blacksmith (complete with a white-toothed grin).

That said, it could absolutely be used to teach point of view, with kids who have a grounding in stereotypes and racism. I'd start with the question, "Who is the author/illustrator of this book? What is her point of view? What messages is she sending? What are the effects of those messages?"

Debbie Reese said...

Excellent questions, Anonymous at 9:35 PM on March 31st!

If anyone sees such conversations happening, please come back and let us know!

Anonymous said...

I think this article is reading between the lines a little too much. A lot of the images are playful, some are historical, and some are modern. People in the U.S. no longer live in wigwams, but we also don't use covered wagons anymore. That doesn't mean somewhere in the world, those things don't exist as home to someone.

Ultimately, this is a book for children. This book may introduce them to the rest of the world, or to history in the U.S.. Or maybe they might just like the pictures.

As for me, I enjoyed seeing a book where a variety of homes were introduced to children who may only be familiar with ones they see in their backyard.

K T Horning said...

The ship/wigwam illustration raised my eyebrows, but I was really appalled at the illustration of an Arab holding a scimitar. It's one of the illustrations you show ("Some in palaces.") The whole illustration isn't featured here, however. In the book, below him, we see people hoarding gold in an underground lair.

And we wonder where kids get their misconceptions about the Middle East!

Debbie Reese said...

Yes--there's a LOT wrong with the book. But all comments prior to yours, K.T., are the usual defenses of criticism.

Over the last couple of days, there's been several stories in the media about the graffiti artists in HOMELAND who used their art to critique the show. I shared one of the news stories on my FB wall and a children's book writer replied saying that they shouldn't have taken the job in the first place, that their graffiti sabotages the show. She doesn't want to know, I guess, that the show misrepresents so many people!

heatherdent56 said...

Debbie, thank you for this post. I was one of those swept away by the whimsical illustrations and failed to see what was wrong with the book. I am often disgusted by the way American society is so blind to stereotypes, and here I was completely guilty of the same blindness. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Sometimes we all just need a little reminder.