Thursday, October 01, 2015

Big News about Hoffman's AMAZING GRACE

Eds. note (10/2/2015): See update at bottom. It appears the change is only to the U.S. edition. 

In a comment to his post about weeding books, Roger Sutton said that Horn Book just received the 25th anniversary edition of Amazing Grace and that the page on which Grace is shown playing Indian is gone (she's pretending to be Longfellow's Hiawatha). Here's his comment:


This is the illustration he's talking about. It was in the original version of the book, published by Dial in 1991. The author is Mary Hoffman; the illustrator is Caroline Binch:



For those who don't know the book, the main character is a girl named Grace who wants to be Peter Pan in the play her class is going to do. Other kids tell her she can't be Peter because she's a girl and he's a boy, and, that she's Black and he's White. Stung--as any kid would be--she imagines herself in all kinds of roles, including Hiawatha. That she's "by the shining Big-Sea-Water" tells us she is imagining herself as the Hiawatha of Longfellow's imagination (there was, in fact, a real person named Hiawatha).

But see how Grace "plays" Hiawatha? In a stereotypical way. She sits cross legged, torso bare, arms crossed and raised up (I don't know why so many statues show Indians with arms crossed and lifted off the chest that way), barefoot, with a painted face and stoic look.

Amazing Grace came out in 1991. In 1992, a person from whom I've learned a great deal, wrote about it. That person: Ginny Moore Kruse. In her article "No Single Season: Multicultural Literature for All Children, published in Wilson Library Bulletin 66 30-3, she wrote:
Are the book's multiple themes so welcome that the act of "playing Indian" escaped comment by most U.S. reviewers...that critics relaxed their standards for evaluation? No, such images recur so frequently that when they do, nobody notices. Well, almost nobody but the children who in real life are Indian. 
Claiming that only American Indian children are apt to notice "playing Indian," "sitting Indian style," or picture book animals "dressed up" like American Indians does not excuse the basic mistake. Self-esteem is decreased for the affected peoples, an accurate portrayals are skewed for everyone else.

This change is big news in children's literature. I'm grateful to Roger for sharing it. But let's return to his words. Roger suggested that the absence of Grace/Hiawatha in the new edition is the result of "public shaming."

Its absence can be seen as the result of public shaming---but it also be seen as a a step forward in what we give to children.

Might we say it is gone because its author, illustrator, and publisher decided that the self-esteem of Native children matters? And, maybe, they decided that having it in there was a disservice to non-Native readers, too, skewing what they know about Native peoples? Maybe they just decided it was dated, and in an effort to market the book to today's readers, that page would hurt sales.

Today, I wish I was near Ginny's hometown. I'd call her and see if she wanted to join me for a cup of tea. I'm sure it'd be a delightful conversation.


Updated on October 2, 2015 at 9:23 AM

Librarian Allie Jane Bruce wrote to tell me about a review of Amazing Grace at the UK website, Mirrors, Windows, and Doors. Based on what I read in the review, there are two versions of the 25th anniversary edition of Amazing Grace. The one Roger Sutton has is the US edition. The one in the UK remains unchanged. Here's an excerpt of the UK review:
The double-page that shows Grace as Hiawatha and then as ‘Mowgli in the back garden jungle’ does, however, need to be held up as a reminder that breadth of experience through reading is important for young children: whilst Grace’s story highlights a can-do attitude and the notion that you can be whatever you want to be because of what you do not what you are, the stereotypes that have been passed down through some of these classic stories can only be broken by ensuring that children read contemporary stories set within the cultures they represent.  There is still too much of a dislocation in the UK between dressing up in a feathered headdress with a painted face and awareness of how that sits within contemporary Native American culture.

I guess that the people involved in the 25th anniversary edition think it is ok to let kids in the UK have that page. Obviously, I disagree.

This, however, is familiar. In 2010, a British production of Peter Pan was slated for Canada. Changes were made to it in an effort to be sensitive to First Nations people. Given the debased depictions of Native peoples in kids books imported from the UK to the US, I think it is wrong to leave that page in Amazing Grace. Worse than wrong, actually. It is a disservice to the children whose stereotypical ideas of Native people are affirmed by that page, and a disservice to those who learn that image for the first time, when they read Amazing Grace. 

8 comments:

tanita✿davis said...

Because you are often a "lone voice," I know it must feel at times that you're shouting into the void, but stuff like this makes me quietly applaud. I'm grateful that slow we might be, but we learn. And now, Grace is truly amazing.

Beverly Slapin said...

Congratulations, Debbie and Ginny and all involved in this struggle! Major win!

I’d like to think that the removal of the offensive “Hiawatha” page from the 25th anniversary edition of AMAZING GRACE was an acknowledgment of the importance of Native children’s self-esteem and non-Native children’s education. But since it was done without comment (and based on my experience with how large publishers do things), my guess would be that it was strictly a marketing decision.

In any event, let’s not forget that beyond the now-defunct “Hiawatha” stereotype of Indians, AMAZING GRACE remains a terrible book. Here are just a few of many other problems:

• Its title is a trivialization of a beloved and emblematic Black spiritual;

• A racist comment by one of Grace’s classmates goes unchallenged;

• There’s a long line of costumes (including the stereotypic one-legged, eye patch-wearing “pirate”), not empowering to anyone, let alone Black children;

• In Black communities, little girls beyond diapers do not go out without shirts. A friend commented to me that, had she gone out without a shirt at that age, her mother would’ve gotten physical with her. My friend also said, “My grandmother would never let me go out with hair uncombed like that.”

K T Horning said...

Is all literary criticism "public shaming" then? Or just the criticism that points out racial and gender stereotypes?

Naomi caldwell said...

Congratulations Ginny and Debbie your work does make a difference and I am grateful.

All the best,
Naomi Caldwellb

Deborah Menkart said...

This is fantastic news.
But instead of public "shame" one could also consider the terms public "education" or "consciousness raising" or "demand."

Marjorie (MWD) said...

It is indeed good news that the page is no longer included in the US edition and it makes me even more sad that a similar decision was not taken here in the UK. I'd be interested to know what dialogue took place between the US and the UK offices of Frances Lincoln...

Catherine Butler said...

In Black communities, little girls beyond diapers do not go out without shirts.

I just want to nit-pick this a little. First, it's not clear to me that Grace has "gone out" dressed as Hiawatha: she looks as if she is at home, on the carpet.

Also, though, that's quite a generalisation about black communities, given that Grace is British rather than American. It's not clear that she even lives in a "black community": her friends and classmates are a mixture of races, as is common in British cities and schools.

This is slightly tangential to the main point of the post, but I think not entirely.

Roger Sutton said...

The U.S. edition of Amazing Grace has always been Dial. But what i don't know is whether the elimination of the Hiawatha picture happened with this anniversary edition or if the (American) publisher had removed it before--it's a book that's been through many years and printings, so this change might not be new. I just don't know.