Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Dear Tim Federle: Some thoughts on Native content in BETTER NATE THAN EVER

Dear Tim Federle,

I read your piece, Book for Kids Raises Eyebrows Over Young Gay Character, at Huff Post. There, you said that Better Nate Than Ever features:
...a subplot about a teenager who's starting to notice other boys and beginning to wonder why.
That subplot made some parents uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that they decided to do what they could to prevent you from visiting the schools their kids go to. You quoted one such parent, who wrote a review that said
...homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this book.
I love what you said right after quoting that parent. You said
You bet it is.
I am with you on that. It is normal. It is natural. And I'm glad it is in your book. I want more books like that, too.

But. There's something else in your book that is presented as normal and natural. It happens on page 213. Freckles is sitting on a futon with his laptop. Nate joins him there:
I sit on the futon Indian style and can feel the weight of the day on my head, my eyes drift.
Indian style? Dang! That is a stereotype of how Native people sit. It is so pervasive that it has become "normal" and "natural" to write it, say it, and not notice it as a stereotype. Given the popularity of your book, might you talk to your editor and change that sentence so it reads:
I sit on the futon and can feel the weight of the day...
Or maybe
I sit next to Freckles on the futon and can feel the weight of the day...
Nothing is lost by taking out "Indian style." The gain? A Native kid doesn't have to see his culture stereotyped yet again, and non-Native kids (who doesn't have this in their vocabulary at present--seems it has really fallen out of use) don't get introduced to that stereotypical idea.

Now let's flip over to page 264-265. It is Halloween:
Kids are starting to appear in costumes, on the street, looking just like the kids back home. The getups aren't any better, and that really blows my mind; I'd think in New York the ghosts would be ghostier and the witches witchier. But I guess a kid's Halloween costume is the same everywhere. A bunch of little boys, smaller than me, come toward us, dressed as a pack of cowboys.
"Look out for Indians," Aunt Heidi says, and Freckles sort of fake-hits her and says, "Native Americans," and we sort of laugh.
For a second, I think that we're passing a pretty convincing caveman... 
That paragraph continues, but there's no more talk about cowboys or Indians.

I trust that you and your editor, David Gale, thought that passage would show an awareness of issues over the use of the word "Indian" to reference Native peoples. True enough, the word "Indian" is problematic, but using "Native American" instead doesn't "fix" the problem with the word, especially in this particular context.

Let's back up and see why that doesn't work. Freckles tells Aunt Heidi to use Native Americans instead of Indians. This is how that would read, if she did as he suggested when she saw little boys coming toward her dressed as cowboys:
"Look out for Native Americans," Aunt Heidi says.  
I don't think "Native American" is better than "Indian." Why she's said "Look out for Indians" is important. In the U.S., people hear the word "cowboy" and "Indian" comes to mind, because of all those cowboy and Indian stories and movies. In them, the Native men weren't seen as dads, or husbands, or sons in those scenarios. They were portrayed as blood-thirsty, savage, and primitive. Saying "Look out for Native Americans" instead of "Look out for Indians" leaves that portrayal intact. That's why the suggestion falls flat.

As with my question above about "sitting Indian style," let's imagine a re-write. Let's say you want to keep this in the story, so that your readers gain something about Native peoples as they read it. How about if Nate (instead of Aunt Heid) says "Look out for Indians" and then, Aunt Heid or Freckles says something like "Yay! Nobody in stereotypical Indian costumes!" Nate could say "Huh?" and Aunt Heid could say something like "I got a lot to say about that. Learned a lot when I went to see Bloody Bloody Jackson. I got there and there was a protest going on! Native people were there, objecting to that play." In case you missed that protest, Mr. Federle, here's one article about it: Native Americans protest 'Bloody Bloody Jackson.'

I'll close with this: I appreciate what you tried to do with the Native content. I understand that writers are afraid to write diversity into their books, because they're afraid they'll get it wrong and someone will say something about it. You took the risk, and, you goofed. But! These problems in your book can be fixed. I hope you attend to them, and, that you include an Author's Note, too, that tells readers why they're being revisited.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature


hschinske said...

"Cross-legged" works fine, too. Not to mention that "Indian style," besides being a stereotype, is an incredibly dated term (and makes no sense anyhow, seeing as all kids sit that way). It struck me as old-fashioned when I was a kid, and I am middle-aged now.

kellybarnhill said...

It is amazing to me how quickly the language changes and how easily we grownups writing for children can date ourselves. When I was a kid, I probably heard the phrase "Indian style" to refer to sitting crosslegged probably a million times. My teachers said it; my Scouts leaders said it; my friends said it; I said it. Skip ahead one generation, and my kids never hear it at all. They said "criss-cross-applesauce" or they just said "cross-legged" (the former is obviously way more fun to say). Once my son was reading a book - I can't remember what, now, maybe one of the Ramonas - and he asked me what the phrase "Indian style" meant. He had never heard it!

So that's the other problem with the phrase - not only is it obviously damaging to the Native kids who will encounter it in their reading, but there's lots of kids who won't even know that it means sitting crosslegged. It's both unnecessarily hurtful and unnecessarily confusing.