Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dear Scholastic: Given your statement about standards...

January 25, 2016

Richard Robinson, CEO
Scholastic Books

Dear Mr. Robinson,

Those of us who study and share children's literature in classrooms and libraries have been using social media to share our astonishment at each new development with regard to A Birthday Cake for George Washington. We--and you, too, I gather--have watched these conversations take place outside of our relatively small community. That is a plus for us, and should be for you, too.

Personally and professionally, I welcome the critical eyes of those who object to the book.

I assume that your public relations office is keeping track of key developments. For the benefit of my readers, I've put together a brief timeline of the key points. I think the dates are correct. For a more comprehensive timeline, see here.

Wednesday, January 6
Scholastic released A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

On the same day, there was a statement on the Scholastic blog. Written by the book's editor, it explained the thinking that went into the book. The statement referenced discussions that took place in 2015 over A Fine Dessert (not published by Scholastic).

Friday, January 15
Scholastic released an unsigned statement on its blog, acknowledging the discussions online.

Sunday, January 17
Scholastic released an unsigned statement that it was stopping distribution of A Birthday Cake for George Washington. It said "We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children..."

Friday, January 22 
The National Coalition on Censorship (NCAC), the PEN American Center, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors issued a statement that cast Scholastic's decision as one of self-censorship.

Monday, January 25
Scholastic issued a statement saying that NCAC and PEN "did not correctly read" their statement about withdrawing the book. The decision, they state, is not due to the controversy over the book, but because "it does not meet the standards which support our publishing mission." It attributed the decision to CEO, Richard Robinson.

The statement also includes this paragraph:
In addition to engaging children with great stories, all of us at Scholastic have an important responsibility to ensure that our history—both the good and the bad--is portrayed accurately in a way children can understand, as we prepare the next generation of young people who are being raised on our books, classroom magazines and curriculum programs widely used in schools and homes.

Speaking as a scholar who studies portrayals of Native peoples in children's and young adult literature, I can say that you publish many books that do not meet the "portrayed accurately in a way children can understand" statement that I assume is part of the "standards" that prompted you to withdraw A Cake for George Washington. 

My question, Mr. Robinson, is this: will you be withdrawing other books, too, for the same reasons?

On Twitter, I asked about a few you have in The Teacher Store pages. I've read and analyzed these ones. I know that they do not accurately portray Native peoples. Other scholars have written about their inaccuracies, too.

  • Hiawatha, illustrated by Susan Jeffers
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell
  • Touching Spirit Bear, by Ben Mikaelsen
  • Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare
  • The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, by Paul Goble
  • Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George 
  • Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Stone Fox, by John Reynolds Gardiner

I also asked about your "Thanksgiving Feast Readers Theater Headbands and Play Script." I have no doubt that people mean well when they create and use these kinds of items, but they foster stereotypical thinking and encourage playing Indian in stereotypical ways.

Clearly, those headbands are meant to be used at Thanksgiving. That prompts me to say that I think you're failing to give young children an accurate picture of colonization.

I've seen a lot of smiling Indians in children's books that send the same message that the illustrations of smiling slaves send to readers: it wasn't that bad. Your statement tells me you know it was bad. Indeed, you called it evil, as you should. I agree. Slavery was evil.

The same is true about colonization and the genocidal policies of the early colonists and later, the men embraced as "Founding Fathers." I hope that your statement is an indication that you're convening meetings within the Scholastic offices and you're going to withdraw other books, too.

Is that, in fact, happening?

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature


Note: I sent a link to this letter to Kyle Good. She is listed as the contact person for the statement, as shown here:

Kyle Good


Anonymous said...

This is a critical conversation. Even if these books, like A FINE DESSERT, remain part of classroom conversations, what would it mean for Scholastic to take the lead in modeling CRITICAL ENGAGEMENT? In guiding teachers and students alike to reflect on portrayals and how language and literature do not neutrally reflect the world but in fact construct understandings of that world?

Watching. Waiting.

Tricia said...

I know it's only been six days, but I'm disappointed in the lack of response from Scholastic. Many of the books you mention are used in my class sessions on evaluating literature for bias. I hope you will keep us updated and let us know if there is any movement from Scholastic.

Thanks for all you do to promote accurate portrayals of indigenous peoples. And in support of diversity in children's books in general.