November 17: Debbie's letter to Michael about GONE
November 18: Michael's response (submitted by email on Nov 18)
November 19: Debbie's response
November 20: Michael's response (submitted by email on Nov 19)
November 20: Debbie's response (about erasure)
November 21: Debbie's response (Lana's identity)
November 22: Debbie's note to Michael on dialog
November 17, 2016
Dear Michael Grant,
Our conversation yesterday at Jason Low's opinion piece for School Library Journal didn't go well, did it? I entered it, annoyed at what you said last year in your "On Diversity" post. There, you said:
Let me put this right up front: there is no YA or middle grade author of any gender, or of any race, who has put more diversity into more books than me. Period.Then you had a list where you were more specific about that diversity. Of Native characters, you said:
Native American main character? No. Australian aboriginal main character, but not a Native American. Hmmm.You do, in fact, have a Native character in Gone. I'd read it but didn't write about it. So when you commented to Jason in the way that you did, I responded as I did, saying you'd erased a Native character right away in one of your books. With that in mind, and your claim that you've done more than anyone regarding diversity, I said you're part of the problem. You wanted to know what book I was talking about. Indeed, you were quite irate in your demands that I name it. You offered to donate $1000 to a charity of my choice if I could name the book. You seemed to think I could not, and that I was slandering you.
In that long thread, I eventually named the book but you said I was wrong in what I'd said. So, here's a review. I hope it helps you see what I meant, but based on all that I've seen thus far, I'm doubtful.
Here's a description of the book:
In the blink of an eye, everyone disappears. Gone. Except for the young. There are teens, but not one single adult. Just as suddenly, there are no phones, no internet, no television. No way to get help. And no way to figure out what's happened. Hunger threatens. Bullies rule. A sinister creature lurks. Animals are mutating. And the teens themselves are changing, developing new talents—unimaginable, dangerous, deadly powers—that grow stronger by the day. It's a terrifying new world. Sides are being chosen, a fight is shaping up. Townies against rich kids. Bullies against the weak. Powerful against powerless. And time is running out: on your birthday, you disappear just like everyone else. . . .Chapter one is set at a school in California. It opens with a character named Sam, who is listening to his teacher talk about the Civil War. Suddenly the teacher is gone. It seems funny at first but then they realize that other teachers are gone, and so is everyone who is 15 years old, or older. In chapter two, Sam, his friend Quinn, and Astrid (she's introduced in chapter one as a smart girl) head home, sure they'll find their parents. They don't.
Partway through chapter two, you introduce us to Lana Arwen Lazar, who is riding in a truck that is being driven by her, grandfather, Grandpa Luke, who is described as follows (p. 19-20):
He was old, Grandpa Luke. Lots of kids had kind of young grandparents. In fact, Lana’s other grandparents, her Las Vegas grandparents, were much younger. But Grandpa Luke was old in that wrinkled-up-leather kind of way. His face and hands were dark brown, partly from the sun, partly because he was Chumash Indian.At first, I thought, "cool." You were bringing a tribally specific character into the story! If he's Chumash, then, Lana is, too! There's whole chapters about her. She's a main character. But, you didn't remember her. Or maybe, in your responses at SLJ, you were too irate to remember her?
Anyway, I wasn't keen on the "wrinkled-up-leather" and "dark brown" skin because you're replicating stereotypical ideas about what Native people look like.
As I continued reading, however, it was clear to me that you were just using the Chumash as decoration. You clearly did some research, though. You've got Grandpa Luke, for example, pointing with his chin. Thing is: I've been seeing that a lot. It makes me wonder if white people have a checklist for a Native character that says "make sure the character points with the chin rather than fingers."
Back to chapter two... Grandpa Luke pointed (with his chin) to a hill. Lana tells him she saw a coyote there and he tells her not to worry (p. 20):
“Coyote’s harmless. Mostly. Old brother coyote’s too smart to go messing with humans.” He pronounced coyote “kie-oat.”Hmmm... Grandpa Luke... teaching Lana about coyote? That sounds a bit... like the chin thing. I'm seeing lot of stories where writers drop in coyote. Is that on a check list, too?
Next, we learn that Lana is with her grandpa because her dad caught her sneaking vodka out of their house to give it to another kid named Tony. Lana defends what she did, saying that Tony would have used a fake ID and that he might have gotten into trouble. Her grandpa says (p. 21):
“No maybe about it. Fifteen-year-old boy drinking booze, he’s going to find trouble. I started drinking when I was your age, fourteen. Thirty years of my life I wasted on the bottle. Sober now for thirty-one years, six months, five days, thank God above and your grandmother, rest her soul.”Oh-oh. Alcohol? That must be on the checklist, too. I've seen a lot of books wherein a Native character is alcoholic.
Lana teases her grandpa, he laughs, and then the truck veers off the road and crashes. Grandpa Luke is gone. Just like the other adults. Lana lies in the truck, injured. Her dog, Patrick, is with her. The chapter ends and you spend time with the other characters.
His being gone is what I was referring to when I said that you erased him. At SLJ, you strongly objected to me saying that. You interpreted that as me saying you're anti-Native. You said that "every adult is disappeared." That you did that to "African-Americans, Polish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, French-Americans, Italian-Americans..." Yes. They all go away in your story, and because they do, you think it is wrong for me to object. That's when I said to you that you're clearly not reading any of the many writings about depictions of Native people. It just isn't ok to create Native characters and then get rid of them like that. Later in the SLJ thread, you said:
"I threw the reference to the Chumash in as an effort to at least acknowledge that there are still Native Americans in SoCal. That was it. It's a throwaway character we see for three pages out of a 1500 page series."Really, Michael? That's pretty awful. I hope someone amongst your writing friends can help you see why that doesn't work!
Lana is back in chapter seven. A mountain lion appears. Patrick fights it and it takes off, but Patrick has a bad wound. Lana drifts off to sleep again, holding Patrick's wound to stop the blood. She wakes, part way through chapter ten. Patrick isn't with her but comes bounding over, all healed! Lana wonders if she had healed him. She glances at her mangled arm, which is now getting infected. She touches it, drifts off, and when she wakes it, too is healed. Next she heals her broken leg. All better, she stands up.
So---Lana is a healer, Michael? That, too, is over in checklist land (Native characters who heal others).
In chapter fifteen, Lana and Patrick set out to find food and water and hopefully, her grandfather's ranch. After several hours of walking in the heat, they find the wall that is an important feature of the story, and then, a patch of green grass. There's a water hose and a small cabin. They drink, and she washes the dried blood off her face and hair.
In chapter eighteen, Lana wakes in the cabin, and remembers the last few weeks. She remembers putting the bottle of vodka in a bag with "the beadwork she liked" (p. 203). My guess, given that her grandfather is Chumash, is that the bag we're meant to imagine is one with Native beadwork designs on it.
Lana hears scratching at the door, like the way a dog scratches at a door, and she hears a whispered "Come out." Oh-oh (again), Michael! Native people who can communicate with animals! That on the checklist, too? Patrick's hackles are raised, his fur bristles. They finally open the door and go out out but don't see anyone. She uses the bathroom in an outhouse. When Lana and Patrick head back to the cabin, a coyote is standing there, between the outhouse and the cabin. This coyote, however, is the size of a wolf. She thinks back on what she learned about coyotes, from Grandpa Luke (p. 207):
“Shoo,” Lana yelled, and waved her hands as her grandfather had taught her to do if she ever came too close to a coyote.It didn't move, though. Behind it were a few more. Patrick wouldn't attack them, so, Lana yelled and charged right at them. The coyote recoiled in surprise. Lana was a flash of something dark, and the coyote yelped in pain. She made it to the cabin. She heard the coyotes crying in pain and rage. The next day, she found the one who she'd charged at (p. 207):
Still attached to its muzzle was half a snake with a broad, diamond-shaped head. Its body had been chewed in half but not before the venom had flowed into the coyote’s bloodstream.What does that mean? Does Lana's healing power mean snakes will defend her? Or, that she can summon them to help her? Or is the appearance of these snakes just coincidental and has nothing to do, really, with Lana?
In chapter twenty-five, two days have passed since Lana's encounter with the coyotes. Lana and Patrick eat the food they find in the cabin, and learn that it belonged to a guy named Jim Brown. He has 38 books in the cabin. Lana passes time reading them. At one point, she realizes there's a space underneath the cabin. In it, she finds gold bricks. She remembers the picks and shovels she saw outside, and the tire tracks leading to a ridge and thinks that, perhaps, Jim and his truck are there. She fills a water jug, and the two set off, following the tire tracks.
In chapter twenty-seven, Lana and Patrick reach an abandoned mining town. She look for keys to the truck they find, and, they peek into the mine shaft. Suddenly they hear coyotes. It seems Lana can hear them saying "food." Lana and Patrick enter the mine, but the coyotes don't follow them. Then, one of them talks to her, telling her to leave the mine. They rush in and attack her but then stop, clearly afraid themselves. She's now their prisoner. They nudge her down, deeper into the mine. She senses something there, hears a loud voice, passes out, and wakes, outside.
In chapter twenty nine, the coyotes push her on through the desert. She thinks of the lead coyote as "Pack Leader." He's the one who speaks to her. She asks him why they don't kill her. He says (p. 326):
“The Darkness says no kill,” Pack Leader said in his tortured, high-pitched, inhuman voice.That "Darkness" is the voice she heard in the mine. It wants her to teach Pack Leader... She asks Pack Leader to take her back to the cabin so she can get human food there. Later on, Darkness speaks through Lara.
Ok--Michael--I've spelled out how your depictions of Lana fail. There's so much stereotyping in there. I gotta take off on a road trip now. I may be back, later, to clarify this letter. I think it is clear but may be missing something in my re-read of it. If you care to respond, please do!
American Indians in Children's Literature
November 18th (Michael Grant's response to Debbie Reese):
At first, I thought, "cool." You were bringing a tribally specific character into the story! If he's Chumash, then, Lana is, too! There's whole chapters about her. She's a main character. But, you didn't remember her. Or maybe, in your responses at SLJ, you were too irate to remember her?
“Coyote’s harmless. Mostly. Old brother coyote’s too smart to go messing with humans.” He pronounced coyote “kie-oat.”
“No maybe about it. Fifteen-year-old boy drinking booze, he’s going to find trouble. I started drinking when I was your age, fourteen. Thirty years of my life I wasted on the bottle. Sober now for thirty-one years, six months, five days, thank God above and your grandmother, rest her soul.”
"I threw the reference to the Chumash in as an effort to at least acknowledge that there are still Native Americans in SoCal. That was it. It's a throwaway character we see for three pages out of a 1500 page series."
“Shoo,” Lana yelled, and waved her hands as her grandfather had taught her to do if she ever came too close to a coyote.
Still attached to its muzzle was half a snake with a broad, diamond-shaped head. Its body had been chewed in half but not before the venom had flowed into the coyote’s bloodstream.
“The Darkness says no kill,” Pack Leader said in his tortured, high-pitched, inhuman voice.
Saturday, November 19: Debbie Reese's response to Michael Grant's email, written as an observation rather than a point-by-point rebuttal:
Grant says that he "improvised" when creating the Native characters and what they do, and that he relied on his imagination. Improvisation and imagination, however, don't come from nowhere. They are infused with ideas about the world that come from ones existence in the world. Grant is able, from his point of view, to wave away all that I pointed out in my review. His unwillingness to acknowledge the ways that he stereotypes Native people is a problem. Obviously, his editors and fans are in that same space. They are not able to see these problems and, subsequently, unable to recognize the harm they do. Collectively, they are perpetuating these stereotypes. Grant does this with other groups, too. See the review of the way he depicted autism, here: Review: the Gone series by Michael Grant and his comment to that review. As I read GONE, I highlighted passages about Petey. I highlighted passages about Edilio, who is called a wetback. And I highlighted the first death in the book (p. 43): "She was black, black by race and from the coating of soot."
Grant thinks I and Corinne Duyvis are wrong to point out these problematic representations in his books. We have a larger challenge, he argues, ahead of us (the president-elect). It seems he wants us to set aside our work as people who speak up to misrepresentations in children's and young adult books. The thing is, Grant's views--and the president-elect's views--were shaped by stories in books, in the media, and by stories told to them by parents, friends and colleagues... That is why Grant's depictions matter.
Sunday, Nov 20, 2016: Michael Grant's response to Debbie Reese (submitted on Nov 19):
"Edilio is in hiding," Astrid snapped. "Edilio has to be worried about being kicked out of the country. Our Edilio."
"He's got a volunteer lawyer --"
But Astrid wasn't done. "They should be putting up statues to Edilio. They should be naming schools after that boy -- no, no, I'm not going to call him a boy. If he's not a man I'll never meet one."
Criticize? Of course. Comes with the territory. Teach? Of course. Review? Yep. Where I part company is the destruction of books. Mein Kampf is still on the market, and, as a Jew? I would never support banning it. I flatly reject the banning or withdrawing of books.
Monday, November 21, 2016: Debbie Reese's Response to Michael Grant about Lana's identity
I don't know if I'll hear from you anymore, but if you do, I'll insert your replies in the appropriate place. This morning, I'm back with this reply to talk with you or anyone who is interested in understanding the problems with your decisions with respect to Lana's identity.
You introduced her on page 19, partway through chapter two. She's riding in a truck with her grandfather, Grandpa Luke. You tell us he is Chumash. In my review (up top of this post), I wrote that I thought that was cool because you didn't say he was "part Chumash." When someone is a citizen of a nation, they're a full citizen of that nation. In the U.S., the tribal nations have sovereign nation status because they were nations of people long before Europeans came here. Each one has its own criteria for determining its citizenship. So, it seemed to me you knew about tribal nations and citizenship.
In its interview series with Native leaders, the National Museum of the American Indian has one with the chairman of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. It has lot of good information, including this:
The federal government created Indian reservations even before many western states were established. To remedy the poverty of the Indians in California who were previously part of the Spanish missions, Congress passed the Mission Indian Relief Act of 1891.I'm sharing that passage in particular because of the reference to the missions (which Raina Telgemeier misrepresented in Ghosts).
But let's get back to Lana. I'm guessing that Grandpa Luke would be a citizen of the Santa Ynez Band. I'm also guessing that Lana would be, too. My expectation--at that early point in the book--was that I'd be pleased as I read on. I thought you'd done some research on Chumash people and would be bringing that into the story. From there, though, what I found was stereotypical.
In your reply on November 18th, you asserted that those items were about something else. They were not, in your mind, related to any effort on your part to signify that Luke and Lana are Chumash. (A note about alcoholism: you said that alcoholism rates are high, but that's not accurate. Research studies show that rates of alcoholism are similar across Native and non-Native populations. See a Washington Post article, or the research study the Post references).
Specific to their identity, you wrote that Luke was a "throw away character." I get it, but am not okay with it. Though this entire conversation has been intense, I think you will make different decisions in creating Native characters, and I think your editors will be more aware of how they're brought into stories, too. That is a plus, for all of us.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016: Debbie Reese to Michael Grant on dialog
You still there? Maybe busy with family on this holiday week?
In my head, I'm thinking you're still open to dialog. So... I'll be hearing from you sometime, maybe next week? I hope so!
I hope that your editor didn't tell you to stop. I hear that happens to some writers, so I suppose it is possible in your case, too. Others might have told you to quit, that you're wasting your time with me, but that's a bit of a cop out, I think. You and I aren't the only ones reading this conversation. Your fans are reading, too. And a lot of writers are reading it, too.
So, I hope I'll have another email from you soon.