Thursday, July 14, 2016

Lane Smith's new picture book: There Is a TRIBE of KIDS (plus a response to Rosanne Parry)

Eds note, 2/17/17: Scroll down to see curated list of links to articles about Smith's book. 


I love word play. Lane Smith's book is getting a lot of love for its word play, but I'm tagging his book as Not Recommended. It is a 2016 book, published by Roaring Book Press/Macmillan.

Here's the cover of his new book, There Is a Tribe of Kids. The blue creature to the left is meant to be a young mountain goat, or, a kid (that is the term for a baby goat). We follow the child on the right as we read There Is a TRIBE of KIDS. That child is a kid, too, of course, which tells us that Smith is doing some word play in the book. See the two sticks coming out of the child's head? See the stance the child is in? That child is playing at being a goat kid.

Note that two words in the book title are in capital letters. They go together. That's a pattern that Smith uses throughout the book, and as a former elementary school teacher, it is kind of detail that I'd love to point out to kids.


Smith's error is using the word TRIBE on the final pages of the book, to refer to children who are playing, adorned in various ways with leaves. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's go back to the opening pages.

On the title page the child is with three kids (goats) as an adult goat looks down on them from atop a rock. On the next page, the three kids climb the rock, leaving the child alone. The child stands upright and walks away from the rock, discarding the horns.

Beneath that illustration are the words "There WAS a TRIBE of KIDS." The three kids the child was with are part of a tribe (tribe is another word for herd), but since they've left him behind, Smith uses the past tense (was).

Beneath that sentence is an illustration of the child looking across the page at a penguin. The child is shown in the same pose the penguin is in. On the next page the child is shown in the same pose as four penguins (see the illustration to the right). As we saw with the goats, the penguins leave (they go into the water and the child follows), and the text is "There was a COLONY of PENGUINS."

In the water, the child is in the midst of jellyfish. In a series of illustrations, we see the child's leaf shirt float up and then into a balloon shape, which are the shapes of jellyfish as they swim.

That's the pattern of the book. The child is with a group of some kind, and while with that group, the child's leaf clothing or body positioning emulates that group.

On some pages, the child is just shown with the group. On one page, the child sits atop a whale. A raven picks the child up off the whale's back and flies with other ravens; the raven opens its beak and for an instant the child is flying but then drops to the ground and lands on a pile of boulders. The child plays on the boulders (holding his body like one), falls headfirst into some flowering plants, and when the child is upright again, the child has leaf arms and leaf ears and a flower atop its head. The child finds elephants and then, those leaf ears are like elephant ears.

As we get to the end of the story, the child is near the ocean, which has a bed of clams. The child uses one as a bed. In the morning the child wakes, alone, abandons the leaf shirt and follows a trail of shells and finds "a TRIBE of KIDS" playing beneath and on the branches of a massive tree. There are 28 children. What are they playing? They've all got leaves on, in some way.

Here are the ones with a leaf/leaves on their heads. Coupled with the word TRIBE on that page, it looks to me like they're dressed up to play Indian. Remember the pattern of the book. The child we followed from one page to the next was (mostly) shown doing something to emulate something else.

But, writer Rosanne Parry disagrees with Sam, and with me, too, but she didn't reference me at her post, A Tribe of Book Reviewers.  My guess is that she thinks her blog post title is clever. It isn't. She thinks that Sam Bloom (see his review at Reading While White) should have
"been willing to look a little deeper, beyond just the immediate Oh no! we are insulting Native Americans again, as we have done so often in the past."
When I read that line in italics, I was incensed. She's being quite dismissive of criticism of stereotyping, bias, appropriation---all those things that white writers, including her, have done. A few years ago, I reviewed Parry's Written In Stone. There's a lot wrong with that book. She wrote to me privately to talk about my review, but I preferred the conversation to be public so that others could follow and learn from it. Many did. Parry did not. Indeed, Parry's resistance was remarkable. She was so sure that she was right to make up traditional Native stories, and right to make up petroglyphs and assign them meaning, and right to write that story because the Native kids she taught--she told us--wanted her to write a story about them. Sheesh! White savior to the rescue!

Parry had a lot more to say about Smith's There Is a Tribe of Kids...

She acknowledged that tribe is a loaded word, but says that she:
"didn't immediately make the leap to Native American tribes because there are no tribes in North America who dress in garments made of leaves. Plant fibers woven into cloth, yes. Dance costumes made of pale yellow grasses, yes. But broad-leafed green plans arranged around the body as a short cloak? No."
Are you rolling your eyes? Are you flipping out at her use of "costumes"? You should be. She likes to talk about the Native kids she taught in Washington. Does she think they wore costumes?! There's more. She read through the book and
"didn't see a single reference, even an oblique one, to a Native American tribe or any tribal activity of North America. No hunting, no fishing, no fires, no tomahawks, no archery, no totem poles, no teepees, no drums, no horses, no canoes."
Again: are you rolling your eyes? Or, maybe, grinding your teeth? Or laughing at how stupid this all sounds? Or---are you reading it and thinking she's making good points? All those reactions are possible, given the widespread ignorance out there about Native people! Some get it, while others are oblivious. Parry goes on, telling us the way the kids are playing is more like the Green Man,
"an ancient mythological figure associated with the Celtic tribes." 
Oh! The kids are playing Green Man. Not Indian! (I'm being sarcastic). Parry isn't done yet, though... She tells us that the children playing on those final pages are of different colored skin tones, making the book:
"one of the most racially inclusive books on our bookstore shelves this year. Not only that, it's a racially inclusive book that isn't about slavery or civil rights or westward expansion, which often cast Black and Native American characters as victims."
Oh, yay (again, I'm being sarcastic). Then she tells us that the kids are:
"arranging shells, playing ball, swinging, sliding, climbing, dancing, running, hiding, napping" 
and that none of those actions are
"a mockery of Native Americans. If they were wearing fringed buckskins or button blankets or powwow dance costumes or had painted faces or were brandishing bows and arrows, that would be an entirely different story."
Oh. I see. (More sarcasm from me; I can't not be sarcastic about her words, and this is the fourth or fifth time I'm reading them!) There's that use of costume again. From a white woman who professes love for the Native kids she taught. She tells us that what she sees in Smith's illustrations are depictions of how kids play, and asks
"Who are we to shame them by saying this is playing Indian?"
Shame. That word is getting used a lot in children's literature discussions last year and this one, too. Us Native and people of color are being mean, shaming writers and now--Parry tells us--the way that kids play.

Sigh. Yes, some of the kids are sliding. And some are playing ball, etc. But look at the illustrations I shared above. What are we to make of them? They're not active in any way. They're just there, wearing their leaf feathers, holding staffs, standing, sitting, jewelry dangling from neck/wrist/ears... What about them?

Parry offers workshops on how to get things right. If you're a writer, avoid her. I wish I could say she's clueless, but I think she is being deliberately obtuse. She'll lead you to think your problematic story of appropriation is ok. It won't be.

I acknowledge that I'm clearly incensed with her and I anticipate lot of people coming to her defense. Parry and others (as Sam Bloom noted, There Is a Tribe of Kids is getting starred reviews) don't see--and refuse to see--the problems in the book. That's where we are in 2016.

Update, Friday July 15, 2016

See my first post on Smith's book: Reading While White reviews Lane Smith's There Is a Tribe of Kids

Part of the contentious discussion is that tribe doesn't mean Native peoples. That is, of course, true. However, in the U.S., that's what the word generally invokes. Some evidence: In preparing this review, I did a search of children's books at Amazon and at Barnes and Noble, using "tribe" as the search term. The results make it clear that the word is coupled with Native peoples. I didn't include discussion of the word in this review but will discuss it in another post.

Update, Friday, Feb 17, 2017

From time to time I curate a set of links about a particular book or discussion. I'm doing that below, for There Is a Tribe of Kids. The links are arranged chronologically by date on which they were posted/published. If you know of ones I ought to add, please let me know. I will insert it below (as you'll see, I'm noting the date on which I add it to the list in parenthesis).

Sam Bloom's Reviewing While White: There Is a Tribe of Kids posted on July 8, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Debbie Reese's Reading While White reviews Lane Smith's THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS posted on July 9, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Debbie Reese's Lane Smith's new picture book: THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS (plus a response to Rosanne Parry) posted on July 14, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Roxanne Feldman's A Tribe of Kindred Souls: A Closer Look at a Double Spread in Lane Smith's THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS posted on July 17, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Roger Sutton's Tribal Trials posted on July 18, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).

Elizabeth Bird's There Is a Tribe of Kids: The Current Debate posted on July 19, 2016 (added to this list on July 21, 2016).


Beverly Slapin said...


I’m appalled that, despite so many years of your work in deconstructing and dismantling racism, white authors and publishers continue to profit from shaming Native children. It’s obvious that A TRIBE OF KIDS is a combination of words and images that, together, scream “white privilege.” And there are still white authors and educators who continue to push back against your on-target analysis of yet another picture book that shows non-Indian children “playing Indian”: “No, they’re not. Those are leaves, not feathers or beads or leather. The children are ‘multicultural,’ not white.”

This reminds me of when, in 1990, I was part of an impassioned and dedicated multiethnic group of parents, students, teachers, and librarians—we called ourselves CURE (Communities United against Racism in Education)—in what came to be called the “Textbook Wars.” We fought hard, for more than a year, against the California schools’ adoption of a series of racist history and social studies textbooks. In the introduction to our published report, there’s a statement from a parent who had told the members of the San Francisco Board of Education:

“[These textbooks’] insidious message is this: In order for some children to be proud of their histories, other children must be made ashamed of theirs.”

In 1991, Dr. Joyce King, who was an active participant in the “Textbook Wars,” coined the term, “dysconscious racism” as “a limited and distorted understanding of inequity and diversity; an uncritical habit of mind that justifies inequity and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things as given. As such, it favors maintenance of the status quo that benefits those with power and privilege.”

It’s way past time for white educators and writers and publishers to learn from—rather than continue to push back against—the decades-long efforts of AICL, De Colores, Rethinking Schools, Teaching for Change and a host of activist educators, writers, publishers, and bloggers. Join the rest of us to create something positive for our children.

Unknown said...

Hi Debbie!

I read your blog from time to time and find it very thought provoking. I will start out by admitting that I am a white, middle class female, so obviously that affects my perceptions. However, I have always been interested in different cultures, and even married someone from a different culture, country, and language. So I'd like to think that I am culturally sensitive, or at least try to be. I also continue to strive to learn new information. So I have a question, and it truly is not meant to be mocking. What is wrong with kids pretending to be American Indians? I agree that it is clear from the illustrations that the kids are pretending to be Native Americans, and it seems rather silly to deny that. However, as an imaginative child myself, I must admit that there were many times I pretended to be a Native American (Sacajawea in particular). I also pretended to be a Russian spy, an Egyptian princess, a super talented child actress, a child from China, another from Mexico, and also characters from books I read. I never thought of this as something I shouldn't do or something that was somehow morally wrong. In fact, my grandmother was from Montana and actually knew and respected some Native Americans. (She called them Indians, but I don't think she used the word in a disparaging way.). So do you feel it is wrong for children to pretend to be from a culture they do not belong to? And why?

(On another topic, I would really love to hear your thoughts about Peter Pan someday!)

Best Regards,

Kristin Jónsson

Anonymous said...

Wow, what an incredibly condescending response from the author. I have to believe that when people get this defensive over being called out for their privilege, they know deep down that they're in the wrong and just aren't able to admit it to themselves yet. And while most authors can see that replying defensively to a review they disagree with isn't a good idea, some unfortunately still don't get that - and it ends up only making them look worse. Yikes.

Thank you for all the work that you do, Debbie.

Hanna said...

Dear Debbie,

Yes, I echo your frustration.

It is particularly troubling for me that reviewers' defense of this imagery perpetuates future generations of non-Native kids inadvertently playing Indian, which hurts everyone. Writers'/illustrators'/editors'/reviewers' failure or refusal to see images in context paves the way for future oppression, regardless of intention.

Thank you for your thoughtful, specific analysis. The defensive responses of Parry and others are clear arguments for the ongoing importance of your work and all of our efforts to provide better books for children.

Debra Johnson said...

Hi Debbie,

As always, I appreciate your analysis and your ability to clarify the issues at hand. Similarly, I am heartened by the comments and surprised as well.

Kristin's comment, in particular, left me with numerous questions:

How exactly does one play these cultural characters? What is involved in pretending to be Native American?

I recall hearing a story from a Native man years ago. For him, it meant being the one who endured "pretending" to be shot to death by white playmates.

How does one play at being a Chinese person?

Was that Egyptian princess based on Hollywood's version of a white Cleopatra?

Maybe the answer to the question of harm lies in the play itself. If children pretend to be people from other cultures, based on false, faulty, and the oftentimes demeaning representations available in most media - then that is the problem.

Lest we forget, children learn through play.

Anonymous said...

It really annoys me when these thing happen and the fix would be EASY. At least, the one I am thinking of.

Assuming that the whole book is basically the child hanging out with various(Collective term) of (Animal/thing), could the artist have just used regular clothes and changed the clothes to match the Animal/thing? And instead of ending with a tribe of human kids, why not a Family of Kids?

That seems nicer to me, again assuming the main thing was to teach collective terms?

Unknown said...

I would note that when children "play Indian" they are simplifying and dramatizing stereotypes of American Indians. They are reducing real people's lives to play-acting. And they are using stereotypes that have been invoked to justify racism and genocide against American Indians. I can't know how Debbie feels about it, but I know how I would feel if gentile German children made a habit of dressing up like Chasidim and "playing Jew" by pretending to be money-lenders and suchlike. I can only imagine that being told that it's OK for the children of white people--those who have benefitted from the frankly genocidal polices of the US toward American Indians--to treat her culture like a dress-up game calls up similar feelings for Debbie.

Blackface is not OK. Redface is not OK. Marginalized, oppressed people are not toys or costumes. Ancient Egyptian princesses are not oppressed or disenfranchised, historically or today. Neither are Russian spies or talented child actors. It's really not at all the same thing.


Perry Nodelman said...

It's also infuriating that, in allowing the child to engage with a group of children aping Indian stereotypes, the book equates indigenous people with the animals that the main character has been interacting with so far. I'm reminded of the Museum of Natural History in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which has galleries devoted to geology and the local environment, the flora and fauna of Nova Scotia, and, disturbingly, the local Mi'kmaw people--as if indigenous people were equivalent to the animals and the environment and part of nature--not quite civilized enough to be fully human.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said, "Wow, what an incredibly condescending response from the author." <-- I just wanted to point out that Rosanne Parry is not the author/illustrator of this book. And that Lane Smith has not posted anything publicly on the creation of this book. Please make sure the facts are not muddled here.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, Thank you so much for offering the detailed analysis of the whole book and especially the second to final spread -- and the use of WAS vs IS (which occurs on the LAST spread in the book.)

I can see more clearly now why this spread could be problematic -- especially interpreted this way, as Perry succinctly summarizes: that "allowing the child to engage with a group of children aping Indian stereotypes, the book equates indigenous people with the animals that the main character has been interacting with so far." That our white child protagonist encounters a group of children, many of whom are mimicking various "tribal" stereotypes (since not all of them do that.) I am going to scan each of the 28 children and put it on my blog this morning ( and unpack which seem to be "aping indigenous people" and which might not -- one is riding on a swing, another is pretending to have antlers on her head, and another looks to be like a running Statue of Liberty.

Another possibility is that these are all children from the past -- who could be from different backgrounds and cultures -- who're being themselves and simply are having a grand time with found objects in nature. And our white kid protagonist finds a certain kindred spirit with these "kids" - but does not "mimic" them the same way he did with the animals in previous pages. He continues on to the next page, showing that he and his contemporaries are still conducting imaginary plays, and none of these images show any sort of "aping around" to mimic indigenous people. Does that mean that he does not and never will mimic indigenous children as if they were animals? Does that mean that he is now one of the group, just like all KIDS past and present who belong to the same TRIBE, (read: childhood as a specific, or even "separate" group of people) who find themselves closer to nature than the tribe of adults?

I am thoroughly fascinated by the potential of multi-interpretations of this book. And, Debbie, I will now go read Roseanne Parry's review as well. Thanks for pointing out that one to us.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Rosanne Parry's review of the book and found it thoughtful and important -- especially the part of how the review at Reading While White borders on censorship of the book.

Here are a couple of observations of what she wrote and what Debbie found objectionable and what I saw:

1. Debbie found Rosanne's use of italics condescending for "Oh no! we are insulting Native Americans again, as we have done so often in the past." -- but she didn't include another italicized sentence in the same review, "Oh look! The Green Man! You don’t see that every day in kids’ books." From this, I concluded that Rosanne uses italics to indicate an internal first reaction -- and not to highlight anything negative about the first sentence here.

2. I also found that Rosanne did not use "costume" to indicate every day wears -- as Debbie quotes, Rosanne uses "garments" and only uses "costume" when she means "costume" -- "dance costume" or costumes worn in special festivals. This is a practice that is common in all cultures, and definitely a continuing practice in the Native American nations.

Unknown said...

Roxanne, I believe that Anonymous was referring to Parry's reaction to criticism of her own book, which Debbie linked to.

Debbie has also written extensively about problems with the word "costume". Would invite readers to look at that writing.

There is a larger dynamic happening here, though, that I'd like to address. Debbie's review both draws on decades of scholarship and personal experience, and also, I think, contains real hurt and frustration. Hurt and frustration that also come from decades of experience.

On the one hand, so much deflection of criticism that engages with colonialism-- whether or not that criticism actually comes from Debbie-- focuses on Debbie's perspective as being limited, or too powerful since she's just one person, or too powerful since white people have critiqued a colonialist narrative so Debbie must have undue influence, or too powerful because she's speaking in concert with other Native people and people of color, or too ill-informed because she didn't finish the book (even if she did), or too ill-informed because she doesn't understand the author's intentions, or see the book's subtleties, or comprehend how others are reading it. All of these actively minimize and discredit the expertise, scholarship, and care Debbie brings to each reading and critique.

And on the other hand, there seems, in these deflections, to be a complete unwillingness to acknowledge the hurt and frustration, or to credit their source. I'm not always a fan of lingo, but I think the word gaslighting is a powerful one. Someone speaks about racism from their expertise and personal experience, and the response is an inevitable stream of reasons why it is all in their head. Even if they also happen to have advanced degrees in the subject under discussion. Those responses say more about the listeners' defensiveness and investment in maintaining an untenable perspective, but they also have profound effects on people trying to speak. And they have destructive effects on this field as a whole. At this moment, with all that's happening within children's literature and outside of it, I still think one of the most revolutionary acts is listening.

K T Horning said...

Thank you, Sarah Hamburg! Your comment is brilliant from start to finish.

Sam Bloom said...

I'm only going to say a few words on this topic, because I don't think it is all that relevant to this constantly evolving discussion any more: I did not say anything in that initial review about censoring the book. I said that *I personally* will not be sharing it with kids, but since I am a librarian there are any number of HUNDREDS of books that I choose not to share with kids... am I therefore censoring those books? It's frankly baffling to me that this is still a thing.

BUT... the main reason I'm leaving a comment is to say YES to Sarah's comment. Amen. And also, Sarah mentioned (I think maybe on the original RWW post) that I was the one who wrote the original review, but who is more or less having her credentials questioned here, on the ALSC listserv, in the comments of the RWW post? Debbie. For more on this, see Ebony Elizabeth Thomas's storify #weneeddiversecritics (again, thanks to Sarah for sharing that one on twitter earlier)... it is absolutely on the money considering the way this whole discussion has, to me, turned in a way that must be all too familiar to many of the people involved. And I was, honestly, completely unaware until I read that storify - as a white person I've been insulated in ways that I still don't completely understand throughout this whole discussion, but the storify helped me start to understand why these things morph the way that they do.

K Barsotti said...

Thoughtful points.

Julie said...

Sam, When you make a case that a book is racially insensitive, I think the implication is that people who disagree with you or like the book, etc., must be racists -- or close-minded or stupid or in possession of some other undesirable trait. Otherwise, how could they choose this book out of HUNDREDS of others? (and as we see in this blog post, accusations are not always subtle). I agree that the term "tribe" is problematic. However, I would have to read and think carefully about "A Tribe of Kids" before coming to my own conclusions. I also admit that I will never look at a book exclusively in terms of identity or identity politics. I have to take all aspects of a book into consideration, including literary and artistic elements. I understand that this is not to the liking of some diversity advocates; but as with books, I think there needs to be room for differing perspectives among professionals who want more and and better representation in children's books, which I sincerely believe includes most youth services librarians.

Unknown said...

When you make a case that a book is racially insensitive, I think the implication is that people who disagree with you or like the book, etc., must be racists -- or close-minded or stupid or in possession of some other undesirable trait.

I'm not seeing how this comment relates to Sam's comment here. Sam is the one who made the case, originally. But Debbie is the one getting the pushback. That's what he's saying, and he's saying--and I agree--that that fact has everything to do with the comfort levels people have about criticizing Native women rather than white men.

As to the comment--"people who disagree with you or like the book." Those are two very different things, first of all. Second, if those people are unhappy at the suggestion that they have some undesirable trait, perhaps they should take a minute and think about what it would be like to bombarded with that message from everything from literary classics to reality TV every day. Because that is what Sam and Debbie are saying: that this book continues in the tradition of implying that Native peoples have some undesirable traits. When the text reinforces such a status quo, I see no reason for the people hurt by it to be "subtle" or to prioritize the feelings of others in their critiques.


Julie said...

Veronica, in the paragraph above, Sam talks about censorship in relationship to his post on RWW, where he got plenty of pushback. What Sam didn't do was widely publicize his post nor take a sledgehammer to an author who disagreed with him.

Perhaps, you and Debbie don't have to "prioritize the feelings of others." As a professional, I feel that I must at least take them into consideration. As a human being, I also agree with Gandhi that, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Julie Corsaro

Debbie Reese said...

I (Debbie) am pasting Julie Corsaro's comment (on July 17 at 5:47 PM) in this comment so I can address it with clarity. (Note to AICL readers: in 2010, Julie Corsaro was president of the American Library Association's ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children).

In her reply to Veronica, Julie wrote:
"Veronica, in the paragraph above, Sam talks about censorship in relationship to his post on RWW, where he got plenty of pushback. What Sam didn't do was widely publicize his post nor take a sledgehammer to an author who disagreed with him."

Julie--What do you mean by saying that Sam didn't "widely publicize" his post? Do you mean it is wrong to share my posts on listservs and on social media? Or that it is wrong for anyone to share Sam's? Sam's got shared. I saw it a lot in my social media feeds.

Are you being critical of me for sharing my post? Why is it bad to "widely publicize" something I write? Given your role as a professional, and someone in past leadership of ALSC, your comment sounds like you want people NOT to read the very content area blogs that ALSC is asking librarians TO read.

Julie also said:
"Perhaps, you and Debbie don't have to "prioritize the feelings of others." As a professional, I feel that I must at least take them into consideration. As a human being, I also agree with Gandhi that, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

Julie--I don't mean to be callous about Rosanne Parry's feelings or Lane Smith's either, but frankly, my professional concern is for the children (Native and not) who will read their work, and whose thinking will be shaped by their work.

Debbie Reese said...

I (Debbie) am pasting Roxanne Feldman's comment (the part I'm responding to) on July 16 at 7:17 AM here, so I can respond to it directly.

Roxanne wrote:
"2. I also found that Rosanne did not use "costume" to indicate every day wears -- as Debbie quotes, Rosanne uses "garments" and only uses "costume" when she means "costume" -- "dance costume" or costumes worn in special festivals. This is a practice that is common in all cultures, and definitely a continuing practice in the Native American nations."

Generally speaking, Native people refer to the clothing we wear for ceremonies and gatherings as regalia. You can find instances where people use "costume" but mostly, no. We don't wear a "dance costume." You're characterizing what we do as performance, or entertainment, or fun, but they're far more than that... some are prayer in motion. If you came to Nambe and were there when we were dancing, you would not applaud because it isn't performance. If you see a Native dance group who is on tour, performing as a means of educating the public about Native peoples, you might applaud, but the people in the group would not call their clothing a costume.

Unknown said...

"As a professional," Julie? Really?

Let's start there. Clearly you mean to imply either that Debbie and I are not professionals, or that our attitudes are not professional. If the former, I find it interesting that here Debbie is being impugned for not being paid for her work, whereas in the RWW thread, her words were called into question because she has been paid for her work. You may rest assured that I am gainfully employed in the field of children's literature. If you mean the latter interpretation, we will just have to disagree. Being "neutral" only ever benefits the oppressor, as Elie Wiesel has noted. Being a professional means I should be responsible with my opinion and support, and my conscience is clear that I am and have been. So again, rest assured that you are speaking to peers--we are all professionals.

I have read the RWW post and comments, and I don't agree that Sam is getting plenty of pushback. What I read in those comments is pushback directed at Debbie, even though she is not the author of the post.

Now, the sentence of yours I italicized in my previous comment still makes no sense when applied to Sam's discussion of the accusation of "censorship." My response to it stands. It is unacceptable to demand that marginalized and oppressed people prioritize the feelings of those who are hurting them even while they critique their oppression and marginalization. As the most recent post on the RWW blog notes, sometimes people in dominant groups are going to feel uncomfortable. That's necessary.

As to Debbie "widely publicizing" her post--what on earth is wrong with that? Do you really mean to suggest that it's all right for Debbie to have long as she doesn't publicize them too widely? And going after an author with a "sledgehammer"--what do you mean by that? Your metaphor suggests that it is Debbie who is enacting disproportionate violence on Parry. What, in your opinion, is disproportionate about Debbie's response?


Unknown said...

One more thing, Julie.

You cite Gandhi in your closing sentence. It is my understanding that Gandhi's philosophy of pacifism was about eschewing retaliatory physical violence, not hurt feelings. Nobody is advocating physical violence. But I find it hard to believe that Gandhi spent much time worrying about British occupiers' hurt feelings.


Julie said...

Debbie: If your intention is not to be "callous," then why are you? Words such as "incensed," "stupid," and "ignorance" suggest hostility more than callousness to me. In either case, I don't think they encourage safe and respectful conversation.

Unknown said...

Since this comes up *a lot,* thought it worth sharing this explanation of tone policing:

The idea that Debbie is somehow being unkind in sharing her work further highlights the subtext: be quiet.

I'm also struck, Julie, by the idea that critiquing representation in a book necessarily implies that one identifies those who disagree as racists. If this is the starting point -- and calling someone racist is somehow seen as the most hurtful offense, as opposed to experiencing racism -- then what is the way forward? (Again, the implied answer is: be quiet. In this scenario, there is no way to critique a book without it being framed as being personally "unkind".)

As Debbie and Veronica said, this prioritizes the feelings of those who are not experiencing oppression over those who are. It also imposes a framework in which critique is always identified as personal rebuke or attack, rather than as a fundamental component of our work as professionals.

Unknown said...

There is also so much to say about the distinction Julie draws between what she calls "identity politics" vs. "literary and artistic elements." Since it's so large a topic, will just make one point, which is to refer back to ALSC's own professional guidelines on this subject for those serving on youth media awards committees.

Debbie Reese said...

I (Debbie) am pasting part of Kristin Jonsson's comment here so I can respond to it directly:

Kristin asked:
"What is wrong with kids pretending to be American Indians?"

Kristin--I've written about that several times on my site. Here's one item:

Kristin asked:
"(On another topic, I would really love to hear your thoughts about Peter Pan someday!)"

Kristin--So many kids play at being Tiger Lily. And of course, the boys play Indian in stereotypical ways. I've written about Peter Pan here, too. This is a link to a search of my site using Peter Pan as the search term:

Unknown said...

OK, Julie, let's look at the words you object to:

1) "Incensed" - Debbie uses this word to describe her own reaction to Parry's comment. Is Debbie not allowed to be angry? Is she not allowed to communicate that she is angry? Why not? Why shouldn't she be angry at yet another white person dismissing racism toward Native peoples?

2) "Stupid" - Yes, Debbie described Parry's itemized list of what Native people do as sounding "stupid." Why do you see it as Debbie's job to make a conversation "safe and respectful" for Parry? This entire post is about how Parry failed to make the conversation safe and respectful for Debbie.

3) "Ignorance" - Debbie is correct. There is widespread ignorance about Native Peoples in the US. Are you seriously contesting this characterization?

Racism makes these conversations unsafe and disrespectful for Debbie. Why do you continue to demand that she keep them safe for her white interlocutors?

Finally, Debbie told you why she does not prioritize the feelings of Lane Smith or Parry. It is right there in the sentence you cite. It is because she is prioritizing the feelings and experiences of Native children and readers; in doing so, she has to make white people uncomfortable (again, see the recent RWW post). Expecting her to take care of white people's feelings instead is completely unreasonable.


Anonymous said...

From the Blog of Rosanne Parry...The parts that haven't been discussed here. Interesting how quickly words like ignorance and racism are thrown into the mix when she is simply celebrating children at play. She also chose to show ALL of the illustrations not just "offensive" ones.

"I am in complete agreement that what happens at sporting events with adults dressing up as a Native American team mascot and behaving like football hooligans is offensive. Likewise, the “sexy Indian maiden” costume that turns up at Halloween is rude and insulting to not just Native Americans, but all women. But if we can’t see the difference between that intentionally vulgar behavior and a book that makes no overt or even covert references to it, then we run the risk of burying the good along with the bad.

Children at play in the woods tend to revel in the natural world. They roll around in it. They smear their bodies with mud and chalk and berry juice. They weave crowns of flowers and fashion bandoliers of ivy and antlers of twigs and wings of ferns. They build houses out of leaves and sticks and set out feasts on seashell plates and acorn cups. Who are we to shame them by saying this is playing Indian? In a world full of children wrapped up in their electronic devices, I think a book which encourages them to go outside and enjoy the natural world (and encourages their parents to celebrate this) is a book worth sharing.

It is absolutely the duty of parents and teachers to be aware of negative stereotypes. I believe it is possible to share this book with preschool children of all races without hurting anyone’s feelings. I think it’s possible to understand the word “tribe” in its idiomatic sense—a place where you are warmly embraced and included. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if toddlers and preschoolers began with this kinder and gentler meaning for the word “tribe” and then gradually came to understand its more weighty implications sometime after first grade? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this book, which is so inclusive of black and brown children, were shared freely rather than withheld out of fear?"

You want to make change? How about changing the view instead of censoring it? Seems you are just as guilty of what you are complaining about. Too bad because there is an awful lot to be learned from each other if we could put down words such as: racism, ignorance, incensed and pick words like: acceptance, tolerance, and maybe even love.

Johanna Knox said...

Hi Debbie,

First of all, I wanted to thank you for all you write. From one woman in Aotearoa New Zealand – of predominantly British coloniser heritage – thank you. Your writing here, and on the child_lit list, has, for years, in myriad ways, informed my work, influenced my choice of books for my children when they were younger, and sparked discussions in our household. Now they’re older, I believe the ripples of your work can be seen in how they approach the world.

I’m writing nervously, as I’m from a very different part of the world. Nonetheless this book is supposed to have reached our own shores, though I haven’t seen it yet, so I think we should think about it, too. I’ve pieced together the best picture of it that I can from images of pages on the internet, and this is just my reading of it as one person far from where it was created – but living in a place with its own history of colonisation.

The large spread at the end, where the main character approaches the whole ‘tribe of kids’ … The first thing my eye is drawn to is the girl who is wearing pink flowers. Instantly I read her as a sort of generic Indian dancer figure. Her yoga pose; the shape of her foot; her beads; and the flowers she wears which look so like lotuses – those things come together to give me that impression.

Then, because there is one figure in the scene that immediately strikes me as having been given stereotypical, generic cultural attributes, I figure there must be others.

I move to the blond boy in the leafy top hat with the umbrella – which to me clearly signifies ‘British’. (Interesting that the blond British boy is the largest figure in the image and the one doing the overt welcoming to this domain …)

I look at the brown girl to the left of him, who looks to be also doing some welcoming, but in a much more subservient pose, placing leaves on the ground, like a path for the visitor to follow or tread on.

Then I look for the images that have been discussed in most detail here. And when I see them, because it’s clear to me, from what I’ve already looked at, that stereotypical cultural imagery is used in this illustration, I can’t not read those other kids – with their poses – and the silhouettes of their leaf clothing – as harking back to a legacy of colonial images of ‘primitive people’.

And yes, I can see them as ‘playing Indian’. Even having grown up on the other side of the world. Not that my agreement to this is needed.

For me, growing up in the Pacific, there are also resonances of ‘cannibals’ with spears, wearing grass skirts. (I’ll also note here how gendered the clothing is.)

The extreme generic-ness of the cultural representation in this illustration is one of the most discomfiting things to me. It feels like ‘mainstream’ culture saying, ‘This is how you look to us. And I’m going to take your image and portray you to the world in the way that I see you’. This is a form of colonisation, right?

Someone could argue I’m bringing a lifetime of cultural baggage to my reading of this illustration. And I am. Someone could argue that child readers won’t bring that same baggage – they’ll look with fresh eyes and simply see kids of different skin colours playing together in nature. But even if they do, what other more subtle messages are they absorbing and internalising?

Who’s the boss in this picture? How are different cultural groups portrayed and by who? What’s different about boys from girls? Are you in this image? Or not? Are kids you know in this image? Portrayed how? What does this mean to you? What foundation is this image laying? What ideas is it reinforcing?

We say good children’s books speak deeply to us in formative years and work on our minds in ways we’re often unaware of. So why wouldn’t we be extra careful about the subtle messages and worldviews that these books convey? (Perhaps especially in such visually compelling books as this one.)

I have other thoughts about the book’s narrative, but I’ve taken up a lot of room already. Thank you for letting me share thoughts. And thanks again for all you do.

Debbie Reese said...


THANK YOU! For your close attention to the depictions of the other children. I'm pretty worn from the discussion about this book, most of which as been at Reading While White but in several other places, too. One thing I wanted to do was do what you did! I tried, one morning, but was just too tired!

So, again, THANK YOU!

I also wonder if the humans are all children. That one you note, with the top hat? And the one who is putting down the shells? On that final page, their size relative to the three others in that final image suggest to me that those two are adults, not children. Their different skin tones reminded me of the final page of A FINE DESSERT where it seemed the narrative wanted to end on that happy multicultural note which I found very troubling there, and here, too. Especially now--with so much violence--with so much racial profiling. With so many people in the US feeling embolded to just shout at others. I'm talking about being in an airport a few months ago when some primary returns were being broadcast. I was standing at the TV watching, and Donald Trump was being declared a winner. An older white man was a few feet away from me. He looked at me. And the TV and back at me, and yelled GO TRUMP at me. I just walked away. Relative to what so many others are experiencing, that was nothing.

The thing is--as you note so well--kids pick up on things. This book, with what some have called inclusive and multicultural, is so far from that, and, the insistence on denying the things I and you point out... it is troubling and unsettling.

Johanna Knox said...

Oh, I also just wanted to add – I can see that there is nothing 'subtle' about the images if you are on the receiving end.

Anonymous said...

Ban all pictures books - problem solved.

Unknown said...

Yes, Anonymous, criticizing picture books is the same as advocating for banning them. Great point.


Debbie Reese said...

(Note from Debbie: if you ever submit a comment and don't see it, please let me know directly via email or Twitter and I can post on your behalf, as I'm doing with this comment, submitted to me via a Direct Message at Twitter.)

CAORANN - Celts Against Racism

Oh no. It's another Celtique Pretendian:
'Parry goes on, telling us the way the kids are playing is more like the Green Man,

"an ancient mythological figure associated with the Celtic tribes."'

No, no, no, no. "The Green Man" is a motif from medieval English architecture. It's not Celtic. It's not part of Celtic spirituality and certainly not part of any kind of "tribal" Celtic history or pre-history. What the author is doing here is misappropriating from, and misrepresenting, multiple cultures hoping people won't notice the racism here.

This is a common tactic when white people want to pretend they're not ripping off Indians: they claim it's "Celtic." But "Celtic" doesn't mean "vague ideas of ancient European." It doesn't mean "white."

The living Celtic cultures in the Six Celtic Nations and the diaspora are real cultures, with our own languages, imagery, history and traditions. To those of us who are part of the cultural communities, we immediately spot obfuscations and derailing like this. That is why we've found it important to work together as Celtic spiritual people and Native American people to point out these lies. Don't believe the author's diversions and gaslighting. The cultural appropriation, the racist dismissals and derailing you see are all real.