Monday, April 25, 2016


Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review of Susan L. Roth's Prairie Dog Songs. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2016. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.


Roth, Susan L., and Cindy Trumbore, Prairie Dog Song: The Key to Saving North America’s Grasslands, illustrated by Susan L. Roth. Lee & Low, 2016; grades 1-6

Based on the cumulative song, “Green Grass Grows All Around,” each double-page spread in Roth's book includes a verse from the song, a collage, and information that focuses on prairie dogs, environmental destruction of the grassland ecosystem and the return to biodiversity. Younger readers are encouraged to engage with the art and sing along with the lyrics on each page (and music and separate lyrics in the back matter). The text for older readers is more informative.

Roth’s signature illustrations, rendered in paper and fabric collage, will especially appeal to young children. Each page-and-a-half spread reflects the daytime and nighttime skies and clouds in mostly blues and greens, and the earth in mostly browns and greens. As well, the animals—from the littlest prairie dogs to the huge buffalo—hold their places in this delicate ecosystem, and it appears that Roth has carefully placed each blade of grass as well.

According to the publicity sheet:

Prairie Dog Song traces the history of the grasslands from the first settlers who arrived in the 1800s to the scientists working to preserve them. For thousands of years, grasses covered the area of North America, stretching from the south of Canada to the north of Mexico and creating what is still one of our most important and wide-reaching ecosystems. The tiny prairie dog was its caretaker, burrowing into the ground and keeping the soil rich enough to sustain many other species. But what happens when we humans chase away those tiny caretakers?

Unfortunately, this otherwise engaging picture book is fatally flawed, in that there are only four short references—dismissive ones at that—to the Indigenous peoples who, despite the many attempts of the settlers and government forces to dislodge them, continue to return and maintain the land. All of these references appear in the text for older readers; there is nothing in the lyrics or illustrations that refers to Native peoples.

This text is towards the middle of the book (unpaginated):

For thousands of years, prairie dogs lived alongside the Native peoples of the grasslands. Some Native groups survived by gathering plants and hunting the big animals, including bison, that ate the rich grass near prairie dogs’ burrows. Other groups were both hunters and farmers, growing crops such as corn, beans, and squash.

Then, in the 1800s, the United States government began forcing Native peoples from the grasslands so the land could be offered to settlers. The settlers saw fine, fertile areas where they could graze their cattle and horses and grow crops. The covered the land with fields, ranches, houses, and roads that destroyed the prairie dogs’ territory.

Within sixty years of the arrival of farmers and ranchers, most of the prairie dogs were dead. The settlers did not understand the role prairie dogs played in keeping the grasses healthy.... Prairie dogs, the animals that ate them, and the animals that lived with them began to disappear. So did the bison, which were hunted for their skins. (emphasis mine)

There are also two short and strange references in the back matter timeline:
(1) Prehistory: In what is now Janos Biosphere Reserve, in Chihuahua, Mexico, live hunter-gatherers who leave behind petroglyphs and arrowheads. (2) 1689: Military outpost established to protect Janos from Apache raids, although Apache still venture frequently into area. 
This “disappearance” or dismissal of Native peoples in a discussion of the history of the land and a particular ecosystem is nothing less than a justification of colonialism and genocide. None of the major reviewers—Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journa1 gave this book starred reviews—seems to have noticed this, and children will not, either. Unless they are Native children.

So it seems to be fitting to end this review with Indigenous peoples have the last word. The following is part of a statement released by the Assembly of First Nations in Canada:

Indigenous peoples are caretakers of Mother Earth and realize and respect her gifts of water, air and fire. First Nations peoples have a special relationship with the earth and all living things in it. This relationship is based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity. It is also based on the subsistence needs and values extending back thousands of years. Hunting, gathering, and fishing to secure food includes harvesting food for self, family, the elderly, widows, the community, and for ceremonial purposes. Everything is taken and used with the understanding that we take only what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it so that future generations will not be put in peril.

For the earlier grade levels noted, Prairie Dog Song is not recommended; for older students who may be learning how to read critically or for college students taking courses on deconstructing texts in children’s literature, maybe.

—Beverly Slapin


Unknown said...

This is a beautifully written and important review. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Every book cannot be everything to everyone. As it is, Prairie Dog Song is already trying to do too much in its pages. There's the cumulative song, there are the environmental issues with regard to the food cycle disruption, and suddenly we're in Mexico looking at a reintroduction program. The illustrations, while interesting, do not help the frenetic look of the package as a whole. This seems like a well-intentioned book that somehow lost its way. I can't imagine wedging in Native content to the morass that it became.