Friday, January 15, 2016

Ellen S. Cromwell's TALASI, A STORY OF TENDERNESS AND LOVE

Earlier this month I received a review copy of Talasi, A Story of Tenderness and Love. Written by Ellen S. Cromwell and illustrated by Desiree Sterbini, it purports to be about a Hopi child. The author is not Native.

Here's some of my notes:

Page 6

Talasi is the little girl's name, which, the author tells us "comes from corn tassel flowers that surround her pueblo home in Arizona."

I think readers are meant to think that her name may be a Hopi name. Let's pause, though, and think about that. The word tassel is an English word. The Hopi have their own language, and likely have a word for tassel. Wouldn't the child's name reflect that word rather than the English one?

As regular readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know, my grandfather is Hopi. I've been to Hopi. Homes on the mesas aren't surrounded by corn fields. The mesas are, so maybe that is what the author means, but written as-is, it reminds me more of farms in the midwest where homes are surrounded by corn fields.

Page 7

There's an error about materials used to build homes. The text says that "dwellings" (that word, by the way, sounds like an anthropologist, not a storyteller) are made from "adobe stone and clay." That ought to be "dried bricks and adobe clay" as stated in the "About the Hopis" at the end of the book.

We read that the best part of "multi-level living" is that Talasi can climb up and down a ladder. Sounds odd to me... let's think about a child in the midwest living in a two-story house. Is that child likely to say going up and down the stairs is the best thing about living in that multi-level home? I doubt it. Presenting that activity as a favorite thing for Talasi to do sounds very much like an outsider's imaginings of what life is like for a Hopi child. I suppose it is possible, but, not likely.

Page 10

The illustration shows Talasi and her grandmother, who sits in a rocking chair. The wall behind them has a six-paned glass window... which strikes me as an inconsistency. So does Talasi lying on the floor. It reminds me of a modern day house (again, in the Midwest) more than it does a Hopi home at one of the mesas. It also makes me wonder about the time period for this story.

On that page Talasi's grandmother tells her that she's going to move to a new home and that she'll go to a school to learn things that she (the grandmother) can no longer teach her. This foreshadows what is to come: Talasi's grandmother is going to die and upon her death, Talasi and her mom are going to move away to a city.

Page 14-15

On this page we have a double paged spread showing a city with tall buildings and bright lights. I wonder if it is Phoenix? And again I wonder about the time period for the story.

Page 16

Talasi goes to school but feels out of place. The text says that there are things to play with, but "no Katsina dolls to comfort her." Reading that, I hit the pause button. This, again, feels very much like an outsider voice. A "Katsina doll" isn't a plaything in the way that sentence suggests.

Page 18

Talasi brings a Katsina doll into the classroom. She wants to share it, and a story about it. I find that page especially troubling. It makes me wonder if Cromwell and Sterbini submitted this project to the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. The acknowledgements page in the front of the book thanks Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa, the archivist at HCPO, for his "generous attention." His name there suggests that he endorsed Cromwell's book, but "generous attention" gives me pause. Given the care with which the HCPO protects Hopi culture from appropriation and misrepresentation, I doubt that HCPO approved what I see on page 18.

That said, the way that Talasi tells that story sounds--again--very much like an adult who is an outsider rather than how a Hopi child would speak.

***

I have too many concerns about the content of Talasi, A Story of Tenderness and Love. If I hear from any of the people in the Acknowledgements, telling me that they do recommend it, I'll be back to say so.

2 comments:

Susan Chavez Cameron said...

As one of the persons acknowledged in this book, I would like to make it clear I do not endorse it. Although the story line is significantly better than the first two drafts my colleague and I reviewed, we did not read the final copy or review any of the illustrations. The shortcomings in the printed copy are solely those of the author.

Beverly Slapin said...

This happens a lot, Susan, and it needs to stop. Several years ago, a publisher hired me to read and comment upon a 500-page or so manuscript, which I did. As I read, I took copious notes, and wrote the publisher a long letter that pointed out many, many problems. I strongly recommended that this book not be published. When it was, I had been acknowledged in this way: "Beverly Slapin, who provided expert attention and meticulous detail to the entire script." It was extremely embarrassing to me.