Wednesday, April 01, 2015

An Indian headdress in WINNIE AND WALDORF by Kati Hites

I am always glad when people write to me about problems they see in children's books. In recent weeks I've heard from a few people about Winnie and Waldorf.  A picture book written and illustrated by Kati Hites, it was released on March 5th of this year by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.

School Library Journal's review says that "Families with dogs will see the humor in this mixed-media and digitally illustrated book; cat lovers will be shaking their heads in wonder."

Let's add... "People who find kids donning Indian headdresses will also be shaking their heads as they wonder when this sort of thing will end."

There's no reason for this:




Winnie wears that "formal attire" to her sister's violin concert. The feathers obscure the view, so this happens:



If that was a real headdress, nobody would do that to it. They carry a great deal of significance. They aren't playthings to handle in that way.

That headdress, as Winnie says, is her "most formal attire." In the story, she isn't playing Indian. It wouldn't make it ok if she was, I hasten to say, but there is a backstory for it, right? Hites had a backstory for having that item amongst the items Winnie uses to dress up. What is that backstory?!

Of course, Hites has an editor over at HarperCollins. I wonder who that person is? Did they talk about that headdress? I hope someone reads this post and shares it with Hites and her editor.


Update, April 2, 2015

The author, Kati Hites, submitted a comment to this review. As regular readers of AICL know, when an author submits a comment, I generally paste it into the blog post for the convenience of readers. I will respond later.


Dear Debbie Reese, 
I happened upon your article today; I would like to extend a personal apology for offending your culture- it was never my intention. I am especially saddened to realize the insensitivity (that I had missed while creating the book) as I am very protective of preserving folk customs within my own culture: I still go to traditional dance class every week, Hungarian folk singing, and volunteer in Hungarian Scouts. Growing up as a Hungarian American, my family put a lot of value in dressing up traditionally; 'széki szoknya' literally was my most formal attire. 
I was the happy owner of a whole wardrobe of traditional garment from a spectrum of cultures- from German to Japanese to, yes, Native American. Perhaps I had no business collecting these things, but I loved it anyway. I even dressed up my American friends in my Transylvanian skirts, and párta (which is the Hungarian headdress worn during weddings and ceremonies). Because very few Americans even know where Hungary is, I felt that it would have been exclusive and confusing to have her wearing a piece of clothing that most wouldn't recognize. I had indeed received a suggestion that she could be dressing up into fancy girly clothes in that scene... but that isn't true to who I am. I never liked wearing pink. I wasn't a sparkles, feather boas kind of gal. 
That being said, clearly I wouldn't like to further insult by denying my use of ironic humor throughout the entire book. That scene was an unfortunate attempt to further illustrate Winnie's unique perspective on things rather than an attempt to trivialize the significance of the headdress. Just as we could chuckle about her thinking that naughty Waldorf is the best friend a person can have, we could wonder at her unique opinions on other matters. 
I hope that in the future you give me the opportunity to show the genuine respect I feel for people who care and preserve and live tradition. A tree that has no roots cannot grow. I invite you to contact me about ideas on how to support the preservation of Native American traditions.
Sincerely,  
Kati Hites, debut author/illustrator

My response, on April 3, 2015:

Dear Kati,
Thank you for replying to my review. We're in the midst of intense interest in diversity. I wish you had used the Hungarian headdress.  Using it and including an author's note about it would have taught readers so much, expanding what they know about a people and culture they (as you note) might not know about. Maybe you can do that in a revision of the book? 
The default language used right now is "white" or "Caucasian" but within those labels, there is a lot of ethnic diversity, too. David Roediger's Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White is an excellent study of, as his title says "how America's immigrants became White."
For you--or anyone--who wants to support Native peoples, you can talk with others about stereotypes in children's books, and you can read, recommend, and gift books by Native writers to children, young adults, parents, teachers, and donate them to school and classroom libraries. You can do what I suggested David Arnold do: talk with your editor about this review, so that this sort of problem isn't repeated in other books the editor is working on. 
You've got a blog. It'd be wonderful to see a post there, noting my review and sharing there, what you've shared here. Another place to share is Kurtis Scaletta's series on How to Fail.  
Again, thank you for commenting on my review of your book. 
Debbie




5 comments:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Debbie Reese said...

For those who are wondering, the first comment was from the author. I deleted it because it included her email address and I didn't want those bots that harvest email addresses to scoop it up and spam her!

She is going to resubmit her comment.

Anonymous said...

Dear Debbie Reese,

I happened upon your article today; I would like to extend a personal apology for offending your culture- it was never my intention. I am especially saddened to realize the insensitivity (that I had missed while creating the book) as I am very protective of preserving folk customs within my own culture: I still go to traditional dance class every week, Hungarian folk singing, and volunteer in Hungarian Scouts. Growing up as a Hungarian American, my family put a lot of value in dressing up traditionally; 'széki szoknya' literally was my most formal attire.

I was the happy owner of a whole wardrobe of traditional garment from a spectrum of cultures- from German to Japanese to, yes, Native American. Perhaps I had no business collecting these things, but I loved it anyway. I even dressed up my American friends in my Transylvanian skirts, and párta (which is the Hungarian headdress worn during weddings and ceremonies). Because very few Americans even know where Hungary is, I felt that it would have been exclusive and confusing to have her wearing a piece of clothing that most wouldn't recognize. I had indeed received a suggestion that she could be dressing up into fancy girly clothes in that scene... but that isn't true to who I am. I never liked wearing pink. I wasn't a sparkles, feather boas kind of gal.

That being said, clearly I wouldn't like to further insult by denying my use of ironic humor throughout the entire book. That scene was an unfortunate attempt to further illustrate Winnie's unique perspective on things rather than an attempt to trivialize the significance of the headdress. Just as we could chuckle about her thinking that naughty Waldorf is the best friend a person can have, we could wonder at her unique opinions on other matters.

I hope that in the future you give me the opportunity to show the genuine respect I feel for people who care and preserve and live tradition. A tree that has no roots cannot grow. I invite you to contact me about ideas on how to support the preservation of Native American traditions.

Sincerely,
Kati Hites
debut author/illustrator

rebecca said...

Dear Kati Hites,

Another thing is that the situations are not all parallel. American Indians, specificially, have suffered a great deal of harm from the idea that it's okay for anyone to dress up like them (for play, as sports mascots, etc). This connects to the way that American Indians are often thought of more as fantasy characters than actual human beings. Because of all that, any time a white character in a book dresses up "like an Indian," it re-strenthens the notion that Indians are fantasy characters rather than humans.

pitbullgirl65 said...

And the thing is, a Hungarian headdress would have been both interesting and respectful.