Saturday, July 09, 2016

Reading While White review's Lane Smith's THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS

Several months ago I saw the cover of Lane Smith's There Is a Tribe of Kids and wondered about his use of the word tribe. Most people see the word "tribe" and think of a group of people who they view as primitive, or exotic, or primal, or... you get the picture, right? If not, open another browser window and do an image search of the word tribe. Did you do it? If yes, you saw a lot of photographs of people of color and of Native peoples, too.

In the last few weeks, I got an email from someone asking me if I'd written about that word. The person writing didn't mention Smith's There Is a Tribe of Kids but may have been asking themselves the same question Sam Bloom did when he read the book. I haven't yet had a chance to look for Smith's book.

Yesterday, Sam's review of There Is a Tribe of Kids went up at Reading While White. I highly recommend you head over there and see what he has to say. On one page of the book, the kids are shown playing in a forest... and they've got leaves stuck into their hair in ways that suggest they're playing Indian. Here's that page:

Sam isn't the only one to notice that problem. He pointed to the review in the New York Times Book Review, where the reviewer wrote that this kind of play signifies wildness.

And, Sam notes that the book has gotten several starred reviews from the major children's literature review journals--journals that librarians use to purchase books. Those starred reviews will mean it is likely to be in your local library. That image, however, means There Is a Tribe of Kids is going into AICL's Foul Among the Good gallery.

Do read Sam's review, and the comment thread, too. I am especially taken with Pat's comment. She used a phrase (I'll put it in bold font) that appeals to me: "An informed reading means giving up the position of innocence that White readers enjoy when other cultures' are represented in service of an engaging story."

Sam's post and the comment thread give us a peek at what goes on behind the scenes in book reviewing. In his review, Sam wondered if the book is getting starred reviews because people like Lane Smith's work overall. Roger Sutton replied that Horn Book didn't give it a starred review, but that their discussion of the book itself included the playing Indian part that Sam's review is about, but that "the reviewer and the editors differed" with Sam's assessment, so, Horn Book recommended the book.

Roger and I have disagreed on playing Indian over and over again. Horn Book gives that activity a pass because Horn Book views it as an "extra literary" concern. Intrigued? You can read one of the more recent discussions we had: Are we doing it white?

Pat's comment is perfect. Far too many people don't want to give up their position of innocence. Playing Indian is just too much fun (they say) and it isn't racist (they insist), or inappropriate (they argue)... Indeed, some say that sort of thing honors Native peoples.

It doesn't honor anyone. It is inappropriate.

My guess is that Lane Smith didn't know it is a problem. His editor, Simon Boughton, apparently didn't know, either. If you know Smith or Boughton, I hope you ask them to think critically about playing Indian. There Is a Tribe of Kids, published by Macmillan, came out in May of 2016.


Nina Lindsay said...

Debbie, thanks for this. I would add, to what people say about "playing Indian" in the realm of children's book criticism, that "it happens" or "it happened." That is, that a writer employing it may be accurately reflecting reality. This is a shield that many critics use, I feel, to maintain their "position of innocence." We should ask: what story is the book creator choosing to tell by using this tool, and what therefore does this book do for us as readers?

Unknown said...

I find it completely absurd that in this day and age, white people are still claiming that "playing Indian" is anything but degrading and reductionist to a great variety of peoples and their civilizations in a way that has ideologically supported murderous attacks on those peoples. Nobody should be doing this.

On a slightly different note, I definitely agree with you about the usual use of "tribe." I wonder what you think, though, about a slightly more specific use I'm familiar with, using the word to refer to Jews (referencing the 12 tribes of Israel), usually by Jews themselves. I've known more than one Jewish person refer to themselves as "a member of the tribe." Do you think there's room for that use as well, or is it too overwhelmed by the condescending, degrading use?

Thanks for another great post.


Anonymous said...

The book title refers to a group of goats. Young goats are called kids and a group of goats are a trip or tribe hence the title Tribe of Kids - the end photo you refer to is a play on the original tribe of kids. The entire book discusses what groups (mostly animals) are called. Maybe you want to actually read a book before crucifying it.

Amy said...

Anonymous: seriously? You're trying to say that it's obvious "tribe" means "group of goats." Wow.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, That is called a play on words... double signification of the term "tribe of kids" referring to both the goats and the white kids playing Indian. I don't think Debbie is crucifying the book she is just making us think about the fact that these echoes of stereotypes are perpetuated whether we call them out or not.

Anonymous said...

Again, if you actually open the book you would also see that there are not just white children in the illustrations and they aren't "playing Indian" they are playing in the trees and replicating animals. They have flowers and branches in their hair and all sorts clothes made out of leaves. I think the one photo is totally taken out of context. No Amy, it isn't obvious that is why you OPEN the book and read what was meant before passing harsh judgement. Seriously?? Have any of you read this book???

Nina Lindsay said...

Anonymous, so, you want to start unpacking the racism in the use of the collective noun "tribe" for "goats"?

Sam Bloom said...

Anonymous, it's funny; your statement (or statements? Since you're using anonymity as a shield it's impossible to tell if you are more than one person) is a perfect example of the comment from Pat that Debbie quotes and mentions about maintaining a "position of innocence." And as the person who took the "one photo" you mention in your comment from 12:34:00 PM, since you've read the book, you should know it is completely IN context to zoom in on the most offensive part of that illustration... though I certainly could have chosen others that were offensive for slightly different reasons.

K T Horning said...

I've read the book. Several times. The issues Sam (and Minh in his NYT review) raised are valid.

Debbie's blog post deals more with the criticism of the book, and what it reveals about the reviewers who can either see, or who choose NOT to see, an issue that has been pointed out countless times in many, many books for many, many years. She did not "crucify" the book. She questioned the reviewers who refuse to "give up a position of innocence" when it comes to playing Indian, as Anonymous is aptly demonstrating in this comments section.

Roger Sutton said...

Hey Deb--while we have indeed argued about the appropriateness of the "playing Indian" trope in books over the years--many years ;-)--I don't believe this book is an example of that. I think it's about kids playing, full stop.

Sarah said...

When I see the word "tribe" and also see an illustration - even one illustration - of children with leaves sticking up in their hair, playing outdoors, the first thing that comes to mind is "playing Indian." Full stop.

I am glad I have been sensitized to that, in large part because of Debbie and her blog. I can no longer hold to a position of innocence.

Anonymous said...

Debbie has spoken, as the authority on all things Native, so we must accept her position. We are no longer Innocent. We are her True Believers. Full Stop.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Anonymous Monday, July 11, 2016 at 2:56:00 PM CDT -

You are attacking Debbie for a claim she has never made. Debbie has never claimed to be the 1 authority on Native representations. She cites other sources constantly.

But more importantly, you are using Debbie's identity as a Native person as a weapon against her here.

Debbie writes a lot about Native representations. Debbie identifies as a Native person.

I write a lot about whiteness. I identify as a white person.

And nobody has ever used my whiteness as a tool to discredit me. Nobody has said "Allie is portraying herself as the 1 authority on whiteness" or "Allie is asking us to be her True Believers."

My opinions are allowed to stand, as representations of my point of view, knowledge, and opinions, without my running the risk of someone thinking I claim to speak for all white people. This is all part of having access to privilege that Debbie does not have access to.

Disagree with Debbie's ideas all you want. But when you say something like "Debbie has spoken, as the authority on all things Native" without citing how Debbie has made such a claim, you'd better go around to each and every blogger on the internet and leave similar comments about them and their areas of scholarship.

Anonymous said...

Allie, I was giving her credit and the authority she much deserves. An attack? I do not understand how or why you would read my statements with such a negative lens. It was not my intent to use her heritage as a weapon against her. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The fact of the matter is that we are no longer Innocent, and we can no longer hide behind decades of ignorance about Native issues. Now we have become her True Believers. She does not claim to be the one authority, but she is the best we have and therefore we accept her position.

Debbie Reese said...

Good morning, Anonymous,

Thank you for following up with a second comment. It was necessary.

Your first comment reads precisely like the sarcasm I receive in discussions that take place here and elsewhere. Your first comment sounded like sarcasm to me, too. Again, thanks for following up. There's more to say but I want to finish reading/reviewing the book (got a copy at the library last night).


K T Horning said...

It's impossible to tell who is speaking to whom with so many Anonymous posts. If people are reluctant to use their own names for whatever reason, can they at least use pseudonyms?

Carol Valdez said...

I second that motion! Was just thinking the same thing.

Carol Valdez said...

I agree. The first comment came off as sarcastic; as a result, doubt remains about the second comment which sounds disingenuous and fawning.

@ Anonymous: If the second comment is a true reflection of your feelings, then do take more care in your comments next time, considering that at least four of us interpreted your first comment in a similar way (Allie, Debbie, KT and I)

EB said...

Yes, referring to readers as "True Believers" suggests that the second comment is further sarcasm masquerading as praise.