Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"Circle the wagons" will come out of next printings of Robin Benway's FAR FROM THE TREE

Robin Benaway's Far from the Tree, published in 2017 by HarperTeen/HarperCollins, won the 2017 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. The story itself, as the description shows, has nothing to do with Native people:

Being the middle child has its ups and downs.
But for Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, discovering that she is a middle child is a different ride altogether. After putting her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family, including—
Maya, her loudmouthed younger bio sister, who has a lot to say about their newfound family ties. Having grown up the snarky brunette in a house full of chipper redheads, she’s quick to search for traces of herself among these not-quite-strangers. And when her adopted family’s long-buried problems begin to explode to the surface, Maya can’t help but wonder where exactly it is that she belongs. 
And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, who has no interest in bonding over their shared biological mother. After seventeen years in the foster care system, he’s learned that there are no heroes, and secrets and fears are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him.
Don't miss this moving novel that addresses such important topics as adoption, teen pregnancy, and foster care.

Yesterday (Dec 19, 2017) I was tagged (in Twitter), by @bookishadvocate* about a phrase in the book. Benway was tagged, too. Here's the tweet:
Pg 263 in this NBA winner contains the microaggressive phrase "circle the wagons." & need to remove it in future publications. If they're already addressing this, great! If not, fix it please. Great story, but that phrase...yikes. - read it yet?

*With permission, I'm adding this note: Bookishadvocate is Emily Patterson Visness, a middle grade teacher. She blogs at The Bookish Advocate.

Shortly after that tweet went out, Benway responded (text on left; screen cap of tweet on right):

"Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. I just looked up the phrase and had absolutely no idea of its racist origins. I apologize for the offense and will talk to Harper tomorrow about removing it from future printings. Again, thank you for letting me know."

Then--today (Dec 20, 2017), Benway tweeted again, responding to @bookishadvocate, saying:
Thank you so much for sharing it with your students! I just spoke with Harper and the phrase is being removed from future printings. 

I haven't read Far from the Tree but because I keep track of revisions like this, I did this quick post about it. If you are an author who makes a similar change, even if the content is not specific to Native peoples, let me know!

Update: AICL maintains a page of phrases like this one, with information on their history that explain why they are ones you might want to stop using.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Recommended: Wild Eggs: A Tale of Arctic Egg Collecting

by Suzie Napayok-Short (Inuk). illustrated by Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Inhabit Media, 2015
Review by Jean Mendoza

Wild Eggs: A Tale of Arctic Egg Collecting opens with a little girl stepping off a bush plane, holding a stuffed polar bear. Akuluk and her mother have come from Yellowknife to a remote part of Nunavut. She is about to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. She’s apprehensive, and thinks she'd rather visit her cousin in Montreal. But her mother says that her grandparents have “much to show her” and that she will “learn lots of new things.” Indeed, Akuluk’s first days with her grandparents are packed with things that are new to her, and yet very old – traditions of her family’s people.

The book is apparently intended for children ages 5 – 8. It’s full of information, from Inuktitut words (pronunciation guide in the back of the book) to details like duck-skin mittens and traditional ways of egg-gathering on remote Arctic islands. It's all woven into Akuluk’s experience, as her mother and grandparents (mainly her grandfather) explain things to her during the course of their normal activities. The characters are more than just conduits for information, though – they are warm, kind, and attuned to each other. Suzie Napayok-Short is from the community she writes about, and it shows. She also spent many years as an Inuktitut translator and interpreter in Canada, and in a sense Wild Eggs interprets some traditions for both the protagonist and the child who hears or reads the book. 

Wild Eggs could be just right for a child in Akuluk’s situation, growing up away from her family’s home culture. I think any child can also learn from and appreciate Akuluk’s experiences. The only problem I can foresee is that the word count is higher than is typical for read-alouds for that age group. For an adult sharing the book, that might mean taking care to call attention to what’s in the illustrations. Or, with some of Napayok-Short’s descriptions, the adult might want to invite children to close their eyes and picture the scene, such as this one:

“Suddenly there were black and white and brown wings everywhere, birds cawing and crowing, almost filling the sky with their colors. Once in a while, Akuluk saw a king eider with its beautiful emerald green head and bright orange beak.”

The text is full of sensory details, and the illustrations do justice to the author’s descriptive language. Artist Jonathan Wright’s bio in the book is vague, so I looked him up. Turns out he’s married to Inuk documentary-maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. He did artwork and animation for her film “Angry Inuk,” which looks at the ways Arctic indigenous people have been affected by protests against seal hunting. Wright doesn’t claim to be Indigenous. But his illustrations for Wild Eggs suggest that he’s deeply familiar with the people, landscape, weather, and creatures of the area where the story takes place. Some of the illustrations are playful, such as the 2-page spread (pp. 6-7) of Arctic hares scattering as a taxi speeds past them, throwing gravel, Akuluk’s amazed face pressed to the back window. Other pages express beauty– check out the spread on pp. 16-17. On one side, three silhouetted figures bounce across the tundra on a big ATV. Opposite them, a caribou watches, indistinct but commanding, while a large dark bird (crow or raven) flies overhead. Sorry about the poor photo quality, but I hope you get a sense of how it works:

The detail and use of color are striking throughout the book. (On his blog, Wright says he used Intuos to illustrate Wild Eggs but has since switched to another platform he much prefers.) 

I wanted to see and hear more of Anaana, Akuluk’s grandmother. Ataata, the grandfather, is a distinctive character, but the grandmother says little and her facial features are always partial, shadowed or blurred. Maybe the world needs another book about Akuluk – one about lessons from her Anaana.

Some extra-textual thoughts: The hunting practices of Indigenous communities in that region (including killing of marine mammals) have been the subject of protests by people concerned about the long-range survival of bird and animal species. Some might object to a book that portrays humans taking wild eggs for food, even though, as Ataata explains, traditional egg-collecting is done carefully with the survival of the bird species always in mind. Also, the traditional clothes Akuluk is given are made of animal skins – which may bother those with a particular perspective on the relationship between humans and animals.

Adults sharing the book should familiarize themselves with the issues involved. By that I mean not just the perspectives of middle-class folks in the lower 48 states who “hunt” in the supermarket aisles and (rightfully) object to maltreatment of livestock, or who cut out meat altogether. I mean also the perspectives of people who traditionally relied, and still rely, on wild foods, fur, and skins for survival. The palaugaaq, bannock bread, that Anaana serves on Akuluk’s first night has been “traditional” only since the introduction of flour after the European invasion of North America. But wild eggs helped sustain generation after generation of Arctic Indigenous peoples. So did the Arctic mammals, some of which face existential threat from decades of the greed and wastefulness of non-Indigenous commercial hunting. Plus habitat reduction and anthropogenic climate change. (I'm not neutral on this.) People wishing to protect threatened or endangered species have often tried to halt even the traditional practices that keep specific Indigenous cultures going, which has those Indigenous communities deeply troubled. They've been cast as the bad guys (and sometimes -- ridiculously -- as ignorant of their own impact!), hardly their role through the millennia in the fragile ecosystems they call home.

In other words, sharing Wild Eggs with children could lead to interesting discussions about Inuktitut words, about eggs, about grandparents and what they have to teach us. Or it could mean navigating emotionally-charged conversations about topics like food sovereignty, ethical practices in human relationships with other species, and the future of animals and Indigenous cultures and the planet on which all of us must somehow co-exist.

In any case, I recommend sharing it, thoughtfully, with children, be they in Nunavut, Nebraska, or New Mexico. There's lots to think about.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Not recommended: STOLEN WORDS by Melanie Florence

I picked up Melanie Florence's Stolen Words with a bit of trepidation because her previous picture book, Missing Nimama, was so troubling. It, and her novel, The Missing, felt off. (Here's my post about them.)

At the time, I couldn't put my finger on why her books were unsettling. Some time after reading the two books, there was a writing contest in Canada. Florence supplied the prompt for it. When I read the prompt, I understood why I had so much trouble with those two books. Rather than holding people with care, she seemed to be using people who had been through traumatic loss as subjects for her writing. Some might say that she's a good writer and that she writes in compelling ways, but rather than moved, I felt manipulated.

With that as background, I am here today with my thoughts on Stolen Words. 


Imagine. That's what writers do. They imagine a place, a time, and the people of that place and time.

It is very hard to do well, especially when the writer is crossing into a place and time that is not their own, where every word they write is drawn from that imagining.

On her website, Melanie Florence writes that she's Cree/Scottish. She also writes that she never had the chance to talk with her grandfather about his Cree heritage and that Stolen Words is about a relationship she imagines she had been able to have with him. In other words, she didn't grow up as a Cree person. She didn't grow up in a Cree community. Without a tangible connection to Cree people, the risk that we have a story that is more like something a Scottish person would write, is very high.

Stolen Words opens with a seven-year-old girl skipping and dancing on her way home from school. She is holding a dream catcher that "she had made from odds and ends. Bits of strings. Plastic beads. And brightly colored feathers." Apparently that was a craft project at school. Why, I wonder, were they making dream catchers at school?

As she walks home with her grandfather, she asks him how to say grandfather in Cree. He doesn't remember how to say it, he tells her, sadly. "I lost my words" he says. She asks "how do you lose words" to which he replies that "they took them away." Her subsequent questions build on the answer her grandfather gives to the previous one. Slowly we read that he was at a residential school. Their words, he says, were taken to the same place he and other children were taken away from home and from their mothers. When asked who took them away, he replies that it was "men and women dressed in black" who locked their words away and punished them if they used those words. The illustration for this part of the story shows a group of children. Thin ribbon like streams flow from their open mouths and take shape in the form of a raven that is being captured in a bird cage by a priest:


I was describing that scene to Jean Mendoza. She said it sounds a lot like the scene in Disney's The Little Mermaid when Ursula takes Ariel's voice from her. Jean's right! It is a lot like that--and therein I come to my greatest concerns with Stolen Words. It is more like a fairy tale than a story about what happened to Native children in the residential schools.

After that, we see the little girl's grandfather in tears. She touches his "weathered" face and tries to wipe away his sadness. She gives him the dream catcher and says she hopes it will help him find his words again, but in fact, it is she who helps him--which dovetails nicely with the fairy tale treatment of the brutal realities of the schools.

The next day when he meets her after school, she's got a worn paperback in hand. She greets him with "Tanisi, nimosom" and tells him that she found his words in a book titled Introduction to Cree that was in her school library. There may, in fact, be a locally published Introduction to Cree somewhere, but I was surprised by this page in the story. It is plausible that such a book would be in the school library, but it feels like a pretty big stretch. We're in fairy tale land, again.

Turning the "much-loved pages" her grandfather finds the word for granddaughter and whispers it. Kind of magical, isn't it? Florence writes that "The word felt familiar in his mouth." The word felt like his home and like his mother.

Pretty words, for sure, that mightily pull on heart strings. In the next illustration he is holding the book to a page where there's a bird cage like the one we saw above. This time, though, ravens are flying out of the cage and a few pages later, we have a happy fairy tale ending, with the two walking together.

Need I say that I intensely dislike Stolen Words? The words and the art exploit readers and turn something that was very painful and genocidal into a fairy tale. For the most part, Florence's storytelling is working on White readers. It is getting starred reviews that it does not deserve. I find this book much like A Fine Dessert with its happy slaves hiding in a cupboard.

Stolen Words by Melanie Florence is much like 
A Fine Dessert with its happy slaves hiding in a cupboard. 

For another critical look at Stolen Words, see Ann Clare Le Zotte's twitter thread on November 22, 2017.

As citizens of the US and Canada learn about the boarding and residential schools that were designed to 'kill the Indian and save the man' we need stories that do justice to the experiences of the children who were in those schools. Because of growing awareness of the schools, we will see writers use them as a topic. That is fine but they must be done with care and respect. Melanie Florence doesn't give us that care or respect. She's given us a fairy tale. The characters aren't real. There was, and is, no magical happy ending. We all deserve better than that, and I implore writers, editors, reviewers, and teachers to keep that in mind.

If I was clever I might come up with some way to critique her chosen title, too. Overall the book feels like a theft, like she's robbed Native people who do not have to imagine--as she did--what this experience was like.

Published in 2017 by Second Story Press, I do not recommend Melanie Florence's Stolen Words. 

Not Recommended: THE METROPOLITANS by Carol Goodman

Carol Goodman's The Metropolitans, published in 2017 by Penguin, includes a Mohawk character. I do not recommend her book. Here's the description:
The day Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, four thirteen-year-olds converge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where an eccentric curator is seeking four uncommonly brave souls to track down the hidden pages of the Kelmsbury Manuscript, an ancient book of Arthurian legends that lies scattered within the museum's collection, and that holds the key to preventing a second attack on American soil.  
When Madge, Joe, Kiku, and Walt agree to help, they have no idea that the Kelmsbury is already working its magic on them. But they begin to develop extraordinary powers and experience the feelings of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, and Lancelot: courage, friendship, love...and betrayal.  Are they playing out a legend that's already been lived, over and over, across the ages?  Or can the Metropolitans forge their own story?
As the description indicates, the setting for this story is 1941, on the day when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There are four main characters. Joe is Mohawk, Kiku is Japanese American, Walt is a Jewish boy whose parents sent him to London from Germany, and Madge is White. The focus of my review is Joe.

Meet Joe

When the story kicks off, Joe has run away from the Mohawk Institute, a residential boarding school in Canada that students called the Mush Hole because of the food they were given there (more on residential schools, below). He's been in Manhattan a few days trying to find his older brother, Billie, who is a steelworker. Goodman gives a physical description of him as having "dark hair, and eyes the color of burnished copper. His skin was a lighter copper except where it was smudged with dirt on his sharp cheekbones" (p. 18). He's tall and apparently muscular enough that he's the one who is seen as the one that can get into physical fights when necessary. He speaks with a lisp and we learn that his special power will be one that allows him to read, speak, and understand any language. When he eventually knows his Mohawk name (Sose Tehsakohnhes) and some Mohawk words, we learn that his name means "he protects them" (p. 346) and Kiku thinks it is the right name for him.

Not all Native people have dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes, and prominent cheekbones, but that is the default physical description a lot of authors use. Overused, and done that way, it is stereotypical. So is the idea that Joe is the one who will do the physical fighting. And his Mohawk name treads very close to the stereotypical ideas that circulate in US society about Native naming. Most troubling for me, however, is his power. I'll say more about that below.

The Mush Hole

Joe is 13 and had been at Mush Hole since he was five. The first time he ran away, it was wintertime (we don't know how old he was). He remembered his "Tota" (grandmother) telling him that bears go into caves in the winter, so he does that but wants to get back to Akwesasne. The third day after he took off, the principle finds him and takes him back to school. He is beaten for running away and for wanting to speak Mohawk. The second time he ran away he made it home but his dad tells him he has to go back. His brother (Billie) tells him to tough it out till he's sixteen and able to work with Billie. Before he goes back to Mush Hole, his grandmother whispers his Mohawk name in his ear so that he won't forget it, but at the school, he's beat again and forgets his name and other Mohawk words, too. One day he is walking by the principle's office and hears him using the strap on someone. He hears a voice and recognizes it is his little sister, Jeanette. He goes into the principal's office, takes the strap from the principal, and hits him with it. The principal falls and hits his head. There's blood everywhere. Jeanette tells him to run, so, he does. This third time running away from residential school is what brings Joe to Manhattan. 

Some of you are aware that there's been an uptick of books that are about Native kids in boarding or residential schools. Some were/are run by religious denominations, some were/are run by the U.S. or Canadian governments. The schools were designed to 'kill the Indian and save the man' which meant they were one way in which the federal governments sought to eradicate Indigenous nations, our languages, religions--every aspect of our cultures. Anyone who follows Native news knows Canada established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Children's literature is one way that more people can learn about the schools--but the content has to be accurate and it must be handled with great care and respect. Too much of what I'm seeing is over-the-top exploitation. There's no care in that kind of writing. It is harmful to Indigenous people for whom the schools are part of their family experience. And it is harmful to everyone else when they walk away from a book thinking they've learned something about Native people or a particular nation or moment in history. 

Goodman's decision to create a Mohawk character who was at a residential school could have been a good thing, but the stereotypes I noted above demonstrate what I see as a shallow treatment of Joe. Goodman doesn't seem to know much, overall, and it causes missteps like that part in the book where Madge offers a cab driver "an Andrew Jackson." That line is meant to add to her edgy character but it is a powerful indicator that Goodman doesn't really know much about the things that are of concern to Native people. For some background on him see Adrienne Keene's article on Jackson in Teen Vogue.

It seems to me that Joe and the history of residential schools are playing on calls for diversity in children's literature. The way she's created Joe feels appropriative. She's exploiting that history for the sake of a story she wants to tell. She does that with other characters, too, whose people have similar genocidal and oppressive histories.

Joe's Dream--and the Manifestation of Evil

The night before Joe meets the other kids in the museum, he has a dream of Stone Giants who are (p. 27):
...a race of fearsome monsters that hunted the people of the Six Nations to feast on their bones and flesh. No arrow could pierce their stone skin. No matter where the people hid, the Stone Giants' eyes could see into the darkest places. That's what it felt like when the Stone Giant in his dream had looked at him--like he saw into Joe's darkest places and wouldn't mind snacking on his bones--and the Stone Giant had worn the face of the main the gray fedora.
The man in a gray fedora is a man in the museum. Joe and the other kids see him steal a manuscript page from a display case. They chase him but he vanishes, like a fog. Turns out, that man was in the dreams of the other kids, too. We're going to meet this figure again near the end of the book when it senses that Joe is the kid with the most anger and therefore the strongest candidate to be won over to its plan to poison the people of NYC, much like it poisoned the people in camps in Germany. That figure is Mordred.

As the description of the book indicates, it has a King Arthur thread, throughout, and while Goodman likely thinks she's been clever in weaving all this together, I find it utterly disgusting. It feels to me that she's transferring responsibility for genocide to a fictional figure rather than the human beings responsible for that genocide. And it feels that she's equating an figure in Mohawk tradition stories (the Stone Giants) with Mordred, making the Stone Giants a pure evil, too.

The Naming of Native People in Acknowledgements--and Who Can Tell These Stories

In the acknowledgements, Goodman writes that she talked with two Mohawk people. That might signal that we can rely on what she's done with Joe, but we don't know if the people she names read the book and gave her feedback on it. Would the two people Goodman named be ok with her use of "Stone Giants" in this story, in this way? What is the source for the Stone Giants Goodman depicts? Is it one of them? 

As noted earlier, Joe's power is that he can read, hear, and speak languages. One goal of the residential schools was to wipe out Indigenous languages. It feels wrong for a White writer to give a Native kid this particular power and I think a Native writer would have developed Joe's character and the rest of the story with greater care.

Not Recommended

Clearly, Carol Goodman's The Metropolitans is getting a Not Recommended tag from me. There's too much wrong in the small bits and the entire storyline is a huge step over the line of storytelling about peoples histories--with care and respect for those of us who are still here.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Edited by Hope Nicholson, Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 2 has stories from several people who you may know from previous AICL reviews of their work.

In particular, I'm thinking of Richard Van Camp. Some of you may recall that he is Tlicho Dene from Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories of Canada. For this review, I'm focusing on his "Water Spirits." Set in Yellowknife, the story opens with a science teacher talking to his class. (Bonus: the illustrator, Haiwei Hou, modeled the teacher after Richard, which was a surprise to Richard when he saw the illustrations.) They're about to head out to a gold mine where the tour guide will take them deeper into the mine than most tours go. There are cultural and spiritual aspects to "Water Spirits" but I am focusing on the destructive aspect of mining.

As we see the bus full of kids on its way to the mine, there is some snark and banter. One kid wishes the mine was still open. He thinks it would be a great summer job, and he kind of doesn't like the history that their teacher shares, en route to the mine. That history? That the tour guide's family has lived in that area for hundreds of years before the mine opened in 1948.

On the tour, the students learn that the mine brought an end to so much. Wildlife left the area. The river was polluted and Indigenous people couldn't fish from it anymore. A student asks if the technology and jobs from the mine brought other opportunities that made life easier for them, but the guide won't take that bait. He replies with more information:
"This giant mine no longer operates because it is one of the most contaminated groundwater sites in Canada. For 50 years, almost 240,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide waste was released into the ground and water where it remains."
The students are surprised. "Arsenic?" they ask, puzzled. "Didn't the gold get dug out with hammers?" they say.

That--for me--is a crucial moment in this story. Children's books, textbooks, television shows, and movies about gold mining perpetuate an image of some old guy with a pan, using it to find gold in streams of water. Others show men with pick axes, working in dark shafts. The reality, though, of how gold was taken from the earth is much darker than that. At that point in the story, the guide takes the students into a very dark tunnel full of pipes and tells them about the "roasting" method of extracting gold from rock.

Stories that present mining--accurately--are vitally important. But here's the status quo: Instead of the truth, kids get inaccurate romantic nonsense about heroic self-made Americans who toughed it out, staking claims and panning for gold. That nonsense is even worse when we consider what happened to Native people who were "in the way" of those get-rich expeditions. For more on this, you can take a look at Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of Murder, Rape, and Enslavement of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush by Clifford E. Trafzer and Joel R. Hyer.

In addition to Van Camp's "Water Spirits" there are many other excellent stories. Elizabeth LaPensée's story, "They Who Walk as Lightning" is also about protecting water. Erika Wurth (author of Crazy Horse's Girlfriend) wrote about Moonshot and featured this panel from LaPensée's story:

If you are following Native news about our opposition to pipelines, that image will remind you, perhaps, of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.

Here's the Table of Contents for Moonshot: 

Scanning it you'll see familiar names--and names you should look out for if you're interested in writing by Native people. And if you haven't already gotten a copy of Volume I, do that, too, when you order Volume 2.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Highly Recommended: THE WATER WALKER written and illustrated by Joanne Robertson

Often, people write to ask me for books about Native people who are activists, or who might be involved in, or organizing, actions of some kind to protect their nations or homelands. 

Joanne Robertson's book is one I'm happy to recommend. 

Robertson's The Water Walker, published in 2017 by Second Story Press, is about Josephine Mandamin. Here's a photo of the two women, at a recent event promoting the book:

Photo source is Anishinabek News: 
This collaboration is significant. Robertson and Mandamin worked together on the book. It is the epitome of #OwnVoices. Robertson joined Mandamin on walks that took place in 2011, 2015, and 2017. Here's the description, from the publisher's website:
The story of a determined Ojibwe Grandmother (Nokomis) Josephine Mandamin and her great love for Nibi (water). Nokomis walks to raise awareness of our need to protect Nibi for future generations, and for all life on the planet. She, along with other women, men, and youth, have walked around all the Great Lakes from the four salt waters, or oceans, to Lake Superior. The walks are full of challenges, and by her example Josephine challenges us all to take up our responsibility to protect our water, the giver of life, and to protect our planet for all generations.
Robertson turned Mandamin's work into an engaging story that invites children to learn about her activism. Told from the point of view of a child talking about her grandmother, Nokomis, we read about how Nokomis gives thanks, every day, for water. 

While she is thankful for water, she doesn't yet have the awareness of what might happen to it. One day, an ogimaa (Ojibwe for leader or chief) told her that water is at risk. He asked her, "What are you going to do about it?" Looking around, she understood what the ogimaa meant. Water was being wasted and polluted by people who didn't seem to understand the ramifications of their treatment of life-giving water. Weeks passed as his words and her observations weighed on her. Then one night she had a dream. The next day, she put a plan into action. 

See that? She called her sister, and kwewok niichiis (women friends). I'm not Ojibwe, but my heart swells seeing those Ojibwe words in this book! I see them all the time from Ojibwe friends and colleagues on social media. And clearly, these women are in a modern day kitchen. I love that, too. This story is centered in the present day. None of that silly or romantic nonsense in this book! That's a huge plus, too. 

The action they took? Walking, with Nokomis at the head of the line, carrying a pail of water and a Migizi Staff. 

They walked each spring, for seven years. That's serious and hard work--made accessible to kids by sneakers. The kwewok niichiis all wore sneakers as they walked. Every spring, they'd set out again. They started in 2003, walking around the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Sneakers wear out, as kids know. As they read (or as they're read to) The Water Walker, they'll enjoy the pages where the sneakers appear in text or illustration.

As they walked, they prayed and sang and "left semaa in every lake, river, stream, and puddle they met." I'm pointing out that Robertson says, simply, that they left semaa (sacred tobacco) as they walked. It is a significant action, but Robertson doesn't give details. I really appreciate that! Some things need not be shared with readers. In an #OwnVoices story, we know what to--and what not to--disclose. 

In the next pages, we learn that Nokomis spoke to a lot of people about the walking. She was on TV, in the newspapers, on the radio, and in videos

In 2010, women of other nations joined Nokomis and her kwewok niichiis. They brought water from the oceans. The Water Walker ends with a page much like one from early in the book, where Nokomis is outside giving thanks. The last words in the story part of the book are the ones in the question the ogimaa had asked Nokomis in 2003. This time, though, the words are directed at the reader. What are we going to do about what his happening to water? 

On the final page, there's a glossary and pronunciation guide of the Ojibwe words used in the story, and there's additional information about Josephine Mandamin. Readers are invited to write to her, telling them what they're doing to protect water. 

The Water Walker is an extraordinary book. I highly recommend it and hope that Second Story gives us more like it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Recommended: NIMOSHOM AND HIS BUS by Penny M. Thomas

Several people wrote to tell me about Nimoshom and His Bus. Due out in 2018 from Highwater Press, the story is by Penny M. Thomas (Cree-Ojibway background), with illustrations by Karen Hibbard.

If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that we're always delighted by books by Native writers--especially ones set in the present. Books like Nimoshom and His Bus provide Native children with mirrors that non-Native children find in abundance. When I was a kid, a yellow school bus came onto our reservation and took the bunch of us Nambé kids to school. I rode the bus for years and years. I remember one driver. Eddie. Because he wore a big cowboy hat. It would have been so cool to have one who would have used Tewa words when we got on the bus, or, when we got a bit rambunctious!

That's Nimoshom on the cover. Nimoshom is a Cree word that means "my grandfather." On each page, we see him engaging with children and using Cree words. "Tansi" he says, when he greets them. Of course, that means hello. The straightforward text is terrific. Hibbard's illustrations perfectly capture the warmth and joy of the kids on that bus, and the guy who drives their bus.

I highly recommend Nimoshom and His Bus! It'd be a simple thing to use other Native words in addition to--or instead of--the Cree words in the book. In fact... When it comes out in 2018, I'm going to send a copy of this to the Tewa teacher at the school that serves Nambé kids!

Friday, November 24, 2017

AICL's Best Books of 2017

I'm starting AICL's "Best Books of 2017" today--November 24--and will update it as we read other books published in 2017.

Please share this page with teachers, librarians, parents--anyone, really--who is interested in books about Native peoples. As we come across additional books published in 2017, we will add them to this list. If you know of ones we might want to consider, please let us know!


Comics and Graphic Novels
  • Nicholson, Hope. (Ed.) (2017). Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 2. Alternative History Comics, Canada.
  • Robertson, David. (2017). Will I See? Portage and Main Press. Canada.
  • Storm, Jen. (2017). Fire Starters. Highwater Press. Canada.
  • Vermette, Katherena. (2017). A Girl Called Echo. HighWater Press. Canada. 
Board Books
  • Flett, Julie. (2017). Black Bear, Red Fox: Colours in Cree. Native Explore. Canada.
Picture Books
  • Campbell, Nicola. (2017). A Day with Yayah, illustrated by Julie Flett. Tradewind Books. Canada. 
  • Nicholson, Caitlin Dale and Leona Morin-Neilson. (2017). nipêhon/I Wait. House of Anansi Press. United States.
  • Ortiz, Simon J. (2017). The People Shall Continue, illustrated by Sharol Graves. Lee and Low. U.S.
  • Robertson, Joanne. (2017). The Water WalkerSecond Story Press. Canada.
  • Smith, Monique Gray. (2017). You Hold Me Up, illustrated by Danielle Daniel. Orca. Canada.
  • Vandever, Daniel W. (2017). Fall in Line, Holden! Salina Books. U.S.
For Middle Grades
  • Tingle, Tim. (2017). "Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains." in Flying Lessons and Other Stories. Random House. U.S.
For High School 
  • Charleyboy, Lisa and Mary Beth Leatherdale. (2017). #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American. Annick Press. Canada.
  • Dimaline, Cherie. (2017). The Marrow Thieves. Dancing Cat Books. Canada. 
  • Rendon, Marcie. (2017). Murder on the Red River. Cinco Puntos Press. U.S.
  • Robertson, David. (2017). Strangers. HighWater Press. Canada. 


Picture Books
For Middle Grades

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Not recommended: John Smelcer's KISKA

Published by Leapfrog Press, John Smelcer's Kiska was released in November of 2017.  I'll start by saying I do not recommend Kiska. Back in September when I received an advanced reader copy of Smelcer's book, I tweeted as I read it. Last week, Melissa S. Green sent me an in-depth review of his book. Rather than repeat what she said in her excellent review, I'm going to focus on a couple of things: the seal story and the dramatic character of Smelcer's story.

First, though some background.

My guess is that most people do not know that Native peoples of Alaska were removed from their villages during World War II. In fact, most people don't know much about the Indigenous people of Alaska.

As I began the background research to review Kiska, I wrote to colleagues and writers in Alaska to ask about the internment of the Aleut people. I learned that the preferred name for the people I was asking about is Unangan. One resource I was pointed to is The Alaska Native Reader (2009), edited by Maria Sháa Tláa Williams. Here's a paragraph (I highlighted the end of the last sentence (Kindle Locations 62-66):
The history of Alaska is often told from the perspective of outsiders and those who view the resources of Alaska as amazing treasures to exploit. There are stories of eighteenth-century Russian fur hunters, of the brave miners who came to Alaska in the late nineteenth century to discover gold, of the companies that developed salmon canneries, and, in the twentieth century, of the oil companies that worked together to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, one of the engineering marvels of the twentieth century. These stories are often highlighted and even exalted, yet one must ask what was the impact on the indigenous people.
When I review a children's book, I consider impact. What will the content of a book do to Native children, particularly the children who are of the identity the characters are meant to be. Will it accurately reflect their people, past and present, and their experiences--good and bad? And, what will a book do to non-Native children? Will it give them reliable information about the people who are depicted in the book? The answers to those questions are why I do not recommend Kiska.


Let's start with the description (from Amazon):
Kiska’s home in the Aleutian Islands is a peaceful paradise until Japan invades in 1942. Soon after, a U.S. naval ship arrives to evacuate everyone in her village to an internment camp almost 2,000 miles away—where they are forgotten. Informed by true events, this is the story of a teenage girl who steps up when her people need a hero.
In chapter one, we meet Kiska as a grandmother who is telling her 13-year-old granddaughter what happened to her in 1942 when she was 13 years old. Kiska speaks to her granddaughter in a way that suggests that the granddaughter knows little, if anything, about being Aleut and nothing about 1942. Making the granddaughter ignorant makes it possible for the author (Smelcer) to write for a similarly ignorant audience of readers.

On page 16, for example, Kiska says that their word for kayak is baidarka. We can read that as her attempt to teach her granddaughter their language, but she only uses baidarka that one time. After that, Kiska uses kayak. If part of what Kiska/Smelcer are doing is to teach some Indigenous words using story, it would have been appropriate to use baidarka throughout, rather than revert to kayak.

Update, Nov 12, 6:00 AM--I shared this review on Facebook. There, I received an immediate comment that baidarka is a Russian word. That individual is correct. The Unangan word for kayak is iqyax. I consulted several sources, including Smelcer's Alutiiq Dictionary, published in 2011. On page 44, he writes that "the word baidarka is of Russian origin, while the Unangan (Aleut) word is Igyax." Why did Smelcer's character say baidarka is the Aleut word? He clearly knows otherwise. 

Right away in chapter one, the story moves from Kiska-the-grandma to Kiska-the-teen. There's one point where Kiska's uncle is skinning a seal. She pleads excitedly with him to tell her, again, "the story of the first seals" (p. 18). In his story, a beautiful young girl is of age to marry. Many of the men in the village want to marry her. One night a man goes into her room and "forced himself on her" (p. 18). Because it is dark, she doesn't know who it is. This happens several nights in a row. One night, she decides to scratch his face so she'll see, in the morning, who it is. It turns out to be her brother. "In her great shame" (p. 19) she throws herself in the sea and is transformed into the first female seal. Her brother, either because he loved her so much or because he was ashamed of himself, also jumps off the cliff and is transformed into the first male seal. "All seals thereafter came from the two of them" (p. 19).

Generally speaking, when Native people tell stories to children and teens, there is a purpose or context for the particular story they choose to tell. Native writers who incorporate Native stories into their books usually have a context for a character to tell that particular story. I read through these pages in Kiska several times and can't figure out why Kiska's uncle would have chosen to tell that story to her in the first place, and then why Kiska would ask for it again when her uncle is skinning a seal. It strikes me as an unusual story. It is about rape and incest, and the outcome of is the creation of all seals. Having seals is a good. But I don't understand how a good is the outcome of rape and incest. It doesn't make sense to me. What will readers come away with? I don't know. I do wonder, though, about the backstory for Kiska's uncle telling that particular story? What was he trying to teach her, and why?

In fact, Kiska wonders about that story, too. After her uncle tells her the story, Kiska thinks about how she's always been uncomfortable with the ending because it "seemed to me that the wicked brother got his desire to be with his sister." She'd heard another version, where the brother and sister become the first sea otters. What, she wonders, "was to be learned from such stories? That life is unfair? Our stories weren't like the fairy tales I heard at school with their tidy, happy endings" (p. 21).

True enough, Native stories aren't like English ones. They've often been misinterpreted by outsiders. As someone who says he's gathered stories from elders, it seems to me that Smelcer would take care in using them, especially when he's telling them (through his characters) to an audience that isn't Unangan.

Curious to see what I might learn about Aleut stories--and this one in particular--I started looking for it. In other tellings, the story is about sea otters who, once transformed, swim away from each other. Unangam Ungiikangin kayux Tunusangin • Unangam Uniikangis ama Tunuzangis • Aleut Tales and Narratives, has stories collected by Waldemar Jochelson in 1909 and 1910. Edited by Knut Bergsland and Moses L. Dirks, it was published in 1990 by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Story #42 is "Aatluung." Story #58 is similar. There's a brief note that the stories are similar to others meant to teach that incest is unacceptable.

In #42, Aatluung's sister is having her menstrual period alone in a separate house. When darkness came, a man would go in her house and "play with her [sexually]" (p. 325). Trying to figure out who he might be, she tore his parka one night and the next day, learned that the only person with a torn parka was her brother, Aatluung. That night, after the man played with her and was leaving, she thrust her knife in him from behind. The next morning, she heard weeping and learned that people were weeping for her brother, who was dead. She bathed, put on her parka, cut it open in front, and went over to where her brother was lying. "Get up to see the two [vulva] that prevented you from sleeping!" When she said that, his foot moved. She said it again and he got up, took hold of her and went out, to the shore. Their mother, crying, followed them but before she could reach them, they were in the sea. The brother became a male sea otter and dove toward east. The sister became a female sea otter and dove towards west. Their mother died, right there. There is no mention that these otters are the first sea otters.

The story the uncle tells in Kiska is the same one Smelcer shared on the website for the Missouri Folklore Society. There, he says he collected it in 1987 but doesn't give any details there as to what the story means.

So... I come back to Smelcer's reason for having it in chapter one of Kiska. Was it initially told to her because of her brother, Peter, who is a bit older than she is? Was she told that story to warn her not to let him have sex with her? I suppose that is possible but there's nothing in the story that even hints at that concern on anyone's part. Without any context, it seems odd to include it.

When chapter one ends, the Japanese have bombed Dutch Harbor Naval Base in Alaska.

In chapter two, a ship with an American flag anchors offshore. Three smaller boats are lowered, men climb into them and head for Kiska's village. Most everyone runs down to the beach to greet them. On shore, the men climb out. Some have rifles. One says that everyone must gather to hear what he has to say. Boys run up to the village to spread the word, and within a few minutes, everyone is at the beach. The man pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and reads aloud from it. Here's the first part (p. 28):
By order of the Secretary of the United States War Department and by the Secretary of the Interior...   
I tried to find this order in government archives and books, but have not yet found it. Writers have a lot of flexibility in fiction but I think items presented as official documents must be accurate. Classroom teachers assign historical fiction in their classrooms, especially when studying history, and they assume that what an author includes is accurate. Here's the next part:
... you are hereby ordered to abandon your village immediately and to be relocated to a safer location where you will be interned for the duration of the war against the Japanese. Such orders are in the interest and security of the nation and for your own protection.
If I ever find that order, I'll be back to say so. Melissa Green didn't find it either. See "Official proclamation" in her review. After reading that order (p. 28):
The officer told us that we were to leave immediately, at that very minute with only what we had on. No one was permitted to go home to collect clothes or pots and pans, or to close house doors or windows. No one was allowed to leave the beach.He ordered us to board the three boats immediately, to be transferred to the gray ship anchored a couple hundred yards offshore. When some families disregarded the orders and started up the path to their homes, two soldiers ran in front of them and aimed their rifles at them.
Pretty frightening, but, I don't think it is an accurate telling of what happened. I found several resources (including a documentary, Aleut Story) about the evacuations. At some islands, people were given less than 24 hours to prepare, but they were able to pack one bag. All on its own--being forced to select what you'd put in one bag and preparing to move in less than 24 hours--is a horrible experience. Why did Smelcer make it worse than it was?

He does that, again, later when Kiska is on the ship and meets other Aleuts who tell her that the soldiers burned their villages and shot their pets. Hearing gunfire, Kiska runs to a window (they're in the hold of the ship, so she looks out through a small window) and sees soldiers walking through her village, shooting at dogs and cats (p. 31-32):
I saw my dog running up the path to the cliffs above our village, trying to escape. A soldier ran after him, shooting at him and missing him several times. Rocks and dirt flew up where the bullets struck too high or too low. But finally, the soldier knelt and aimed right and killed my dog. I can still see him rolling and rolling down the hill and lying in a clump of grass.
Horrific, right? But not true either. Many villages were pillaged by American military personnel--after the people were gone. One village was burned, and in one village, the cows were shot, but so far I've not seen anything about pets being shot. The soldiers tell the Aleuts that they'll be gone for a very long time, and that's why they are killing the pets. (For more details, see "Burning villages" in Melissa Green's review.)

The story that Smelcer tells in Kiska suggests a government that carried out a methodical and even diabolical removal. That, however, is not accurate either. According to the report Personal Justice Denied, "there was a large failure of administration and planning" (p. 318) for the removals. The ship Kiska is on, he tells us, is the Delarof. That, too, is an error. The Delarof evacuated people from St. Paul and St. George, but not from the Aleutian Islands. (See "Delarof didn't carry all evacuees" in Melissa Green's review.)

In the remaining chapters, there is considerable overlap in what I would include and what Melissa Green included. Rather than repeat what she said, I recommend you read her review in its entirety. I'll turn, now, to the discussion questions at the back of the book.

Many of you know that some teachers use children's and young adult books in classrooms with the intent of supplementing material in a textbook. Some publishers ask their writers to develop a list of discussion questions for the book. Those questions will help a teacher use the book--but I think this part of Smelcer's book falls short, too. This is especially true for the questions that are based on inaccurate events in the story. Here's a set of questions for chapter two:
Did the soldiers have to burn the villages and kill all the cats and dogs? Couldn't they have at least waited until the villagers couldn't see it? The colonel told them this was "for their own good." What do you think about that?
In answering them, children have to accept the story as true. What happens, however, if the child reading the book is Unangan and knows that what Smelcer wrote isn't accurate? How does the child answer that question?

Stepping beyond classroom use of books, it is important to know that some basal reading companies use literature in their packaged materials. If Kiska were used, its errors would then be presented as fact in materials teachers use in the classroom. If that were to happen to Kiska, kids who know the truth would be in a dilemma. They'd have to choose between answering a question with an answer they know is wrong, or answering it with what they know to be true--and then be in an awkward situation with their teacher.

Because literature is used to teach, it is vitally important that historical fiction about little-known events be accurate. The questions for other chapters of Kiska have similar problems. The answers are based on what readers are to believe is accurate information in the chapters.

As long-term readers of AICL know, I've written quite a lot about the ways that the US government and its actions have been harmful to the well-being of Native Nations. In my review of Smelcer's book, I'm in the odd position of defending the government against Smelcer's inaccurate telling of this history.

In short: I do not recommend Kiska, by John Smelcer. Published in 2017 by Leapfrog Press, I think they made an error in judgement.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017


Eds. note: American Indians in Children's Literature is pleased to share Allie Jane Bruce's review of The Itsy Bitsy Pilgrim, by Jeffry Burton. Published in 2017 by Little Simon, I agree with Allie--this book is not recommended. --Debbie Reese


The Itsy Bitsy Pilgrim, by Jeffry Burton, Ill. Sanja Rescek. Little Simon.
Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce

In 1863, a White woman named Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln.  Hale, a writer and editor (she is most famous for authoring “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), had an idea that she thought might help heal a divided nation: Lincoln should establish a national holiday to celebrate a fictionalized version of an historical encounter between Wampanoag people and English invaders in 1621.  The narrative she told got a lot of things wrong, including the idea that the English people invited Wampanoag people to feast with them (they issued no invitation), and left out even more, such as the larger colonial genocide surrounding that “first Thanksgiving” (for more information about the actual events of 1621 Plymouth, check out 1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving by Catherine Grace and Margaret Bruchac, National Geographic Children’s Books, 9780792261391).  Lincoln liked this bowdlerized version of history, and agreed to create the holiday—Thanksgiving—that Hale suggested.  The story was canonized and enshrined.

150 years later, myriad books for children, including THE ITSY BITSY PILGRIM, are still telling that story.  In addition to the atrocious rhyme scheme, vapid art, and overall insipid feel, THE ITSY BITSY PILGRIM checks all the usual boxes in perpetuating the Thanksgiving myth:

  • The “pilgrims” (mice) in question are centered and framed as non-problematic settlers rather than increasingly hostile invaders
  • The “pilgrims'” work—building houses, shoveling snow, growing food—is portrayed as entirely their own accomplishment (the Native folks do not show up until after Winter), when in reality, without Wampanoag help from the beginning, the people from England would likely have perished

  • The tribe (Wampanoag) is not named—in fact, these “new friends” are not even identified as First/Native Nations
  • The Wampanoag clothing is simplistic and stereotypical, down to the requisite feathers
  • The pilgrim mice issue an invitation to the Wampanoag mice (this time, to “play”)
  • Both groups sit and eat together in an uncomplicated, thanks-filled, joyful meal, after which…
  • …the story ends, free from genocide, displacement, structural inequities, or any other inconvenient injustices.

That a board book could tackle a subject like genocide is, I know, unrealistic, and I do not mean to suggest that it should.  I know that the 2-4 year old brain (for which this book is intended) is not built to understand such a concept (although young children hailing from cultures who’ve experienced genocide are often, inevitably, exposed to language and conversations about genocide from the time they’re born).  

It is crucial, however, to examine the messages we have sent and continue to send, year after year, about Thanksgiving; at its essence, the holiday story airbrushes history, minimizes Native trauma, and assuages White guilt.  No single board book can correct that, but it can perpetuate—or counter—those messages.  The Itsy Bitsy Pilgrim unequivocally perpetuates them.  I unequivocally do not recommend it.