Friday, February 05, 2016


A reader sent me some photos of Eric Carle's Have You Seen My Cat? First published in 1973 by Little Simon, it looks like it may have first been published in German, in 1972. It is a Ready To Read book. It is also available as a board book. You can also get it in Dutch. Or Afrikaans.

Here's the synopsis:

In Eric Carle’s charming and popular story, Have You Seen My Cat?, a little boy worries about his missing cat and travels to different places in search of his pet. The boy encounters numerous feline counterparts as he searches, including lions, leopards, and tigers—but it isn’t until the last page that he finally finds his missing pet!

Is this kid a time traveler?! Or, is he going to Hollywood movie sets?! What I'm getting at is this: the illustrations depict people--who are not like the, shall we say American white boy--as exotic. This is just like we saw in 2015's much acclaimed Home, by Carson Ellis.  Remember that?! I wrote about them, and so did Sam Bloom at Reading While White. 

Here. Take a look at some of the illustrations in Have You Seen My Cat? This is a page from the Chinese board book edition:

Here's two pages from a video of someone reading the Ready to Read edition:

I'm going to be a bit snarky here...

Have you seen this book? Is it on your shelf?


dotting said...

I'm one of those folks who read "Home" and was most perturbed with the image of the scimitar-wielding man, which smacked of unthinking orientalism. Most of the other images in Home were presented without commentary and lent themselves to discussion, but that one was an awful throwback that made me question the rest of the book.

Can you give an example of what you would rather see in a book like "Have You Seen My Cat"? It seems to be an introduction to the large cats of the world accompanied by images of people from the neighboring areas, and unless I'm missing something, Carle seems to have handled the depictions respectfully.

Is presenting other cultures as visually different and interesting an inherently flawed angle?

Allie Jane Bruce said...

The images I see present a white child as normal, default, and centered, as the "guide" for the reader as the book takes them on a journey of stereotype-laden, "otherized" people.
I think the problem with stereotypes is not that they are always inaccurate, but that they are tools used to dehumanize. Native American people did and do wear feather headdresses, but they are deeply meaningful to Native communities; each feather earned individually and represents an act of courage (Debbie can speak WAY more to this, but I doubt a Native person would just be lounging wearing feathers on any old day). But, feathers and headdresses are seldom presented this way in children's books. If an illustrator presents a Native person wearing feathers in their hair, they should do so accurately, which this is not, and in a way that preserves, rather than diminishes, the humanity of the subject, which this also does not.

dotting said...

Thanks for your response, Allie. I'm aware that feathered headdresses hold specific meanings for Native American people and should be depicted with that in mind, but I read that first illustration as South American because of the parrot, unique building, and specific type of feathered apparel. I haven't read as much about those cultures or seen as much about them on this blog, but I was under the impression that they wouldn't necessarily have the same relationship with feathers as indigenous peoples in other regions. I'm not seeing elaborate/colorful ceremonial gear, but a relatively simple headband and cuffs.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Allie, for your response to dotting. There are many ways to analyze that particular page. Showing a (presumably) Native person in a headdress as if it is everyday wear is one.

Let's look closely at that page. What year, dotting, do you think it is meant to represent? We know the story itself is present day by the way the boy is shown in what we all recognize as everyday attire. In his post on HOME, Sam Bloom asked a question about the scimitar-wielding man:

"Does Ellis realize the misconceptions she is reinforcing with this spread?"

His question has application to the pages in Carle's book, too.

What is Carle reinforcing with this page (the one with the person in a headdress)?

When kids think of Indians, they think of someone in a feathered headdress, sitting cross legged on the ground, in face paint, with something akin to a tipi in the background, usually barefoot, and mostly naked. We see similar images in Wilder's LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and in AMAZING GRACE (noting here that the new US edition doesn't have that page but the UK one still does). And--we see that on this page.

The bird on that page suggests we may be looking at Carle's depiction of Indigenous people in Central or South America, but if accurate to a specific group of people, we don't know which one. If you do a search on "Indigenous peoples" and "Central America" you'll see plenty of photos of people dressed pretty much like the white boy who is looking for his cat. You'll find some similar to what Carle shows, too, but let's go back to Sam Bloom's question. What is being reinforced in showing the Indigenous person this way, as opposed to a child from there in a t-shirt and jeans?

Jill said...

I learn so much from these conversations, so thank you for hosting them, Debbie.

I wanted to add a few comments to the mix. Having lived in West Africa for about 5 years, my experience is that the depiction of the African women is not archaic or "stereotypical", at least in my country and neighboring countries. These styles, homes, carrying methods are current, realistic, and though homes vary, the rest of this illustration looks pretty much like all that you would see today. Even in the capital cities, where there are more "Westernized" women, probably 98% would look just like this. Which I think is beautiful. Very different than Cairo, for example, or Johannesburg, but this picture feels authentically, currently, West African to me.

I do share the desire to counter negative cultural stereotypes that exist, and I definitely would love to see more Native lit with contemporary characters. Yet I also love deep-rooted pieces of culture that have survived the bland, Westernization of all things and don't view these pieces as negative. I like exposing American kids to the fact that not everyone dresses, lives, eats, greets, etc. the way we do, and helping them see that as a positive part of our world. There are very few indigenous American peoples left who have these elements of their culture intact, but that is a grief to me. If this boy went to Amazonia and encountered them, then he is the richer for it. Granted there are few nomadic Bedouin left, but again -- that's sad! It is not embarrassing to sit on the ground, go barefoot, live in a house that suits your lifestyle. These are not inferior aspects of culture.

It seems to me the problem comes when it is the only depiction of, for example, Native Americans, that children see or when they are not guided to see these diverse cultures as beautiful and enriching. But I would also be saddened by erasing what you see as "exotic" cultures (when you live in them they just feel normal) from the books.

I'd love to hear your feedback. Thanks again...