Saturday, July 08, 2017


A teacher wrote to ask if I've seen The Quest for Z: The True Story of Explorer Percy Fawcett and a Lost City in the Amazon by Greg Pizzoli. Out in June of 2017 from Viking Books for Young Readers, it is getting starred reviews. Here's the description:

British explorer Percy Fawcett believed that hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest was an ancient city, lost for the ages. Most people didn’t even believe this city existed. But if Fawcett could find it, he would be rich and famous forever. This is the true story of one man’s thrilling, dangerous journey into the jungle, and what he found on his quest for the lost city of Z.

Rich and famous. Explorer. British. Why the starred reviews for another in a long line of stories that celebrates exploitation, colonization, and, well, capitalism?!

Page one (and the title, too) tell us that this story is about the Amazon rainforest:
Less than one hundred years ago, maps of the world still included large "blank spots": distant and dangerous lands that mapmakers and scientists had not yet explored.
Critical readers will ask--right away--about the point of view of this story. That land was not "distant and dangerous" to the people that lived there. And it was not unexplored by them, either. Here's one possible rewrite of that sentence:

Less than one hundred years ago, British maps of the world still included large "blank spots": distant and dangerous lands that British mapmakers and British scientists had not yet explored. 

Here's another:
Less than one hundred years ago, British mapmakers and scientists, imagining themselves superior to all other peoples of the world, called the homelands of those peoples "distant and dangerous" and could not imagine that those peoples also had mapmakers and scientists. Those British people were racist. 

It is frustrating to see books like this one... Do you have a copy? How might you re-write it? Might you do a re-write of it--with kids? It would be an excellent exercise in point of view, racism, and the ongoing refusal to decenter Whiteness.

I may be back, later, with more to say...


  1. I've followed your blog for a while, but….to be honest? This will be the last post I read here. I feel as though this post—and other recent posts like it—is less about pointing out the flaws in a very Eurocentric book, and more about the anger that Eurocentrism caused. And while that anger deserves a voice, I feel as though it overshadows the information being presented. That isn't to say I think anger is wrong and all reviews should be written in a toneless, emotionless manner, because that is a very poor way to write a review, and provides little of value to the person reading that review. I simply find reviews more helpful when emotion—any emotion, positive or negative—is used as a tool to call attention to the content of the book, rather than overshadowing the content that created the emotional reaction.

    I'm sorry. I've loved your blog for a long time, and so it is with a heavy heart I say goodbye.

  2. This post doesn't seem particularly angry to me, more justifiably weary and exasperated with a totally obvious bit of eurocentrism.


  3. Dear Anonymous--

    I’m so sorry that you’re feeling frustrated with Dr. Reese’s writing style as she voices her exasperation at having to call out racism in children’s books, day after day after day after day.

  4. I would love to see more books with re-writes like Debbie proposes. It is so easy to take books like that at face value and not think critically about them. Rewriting such sentences would be a great activity to do with kids.

  5. Hi, AnneM--

    I've done this exercise with parents, students, teachers, and librarians; sometimes in separate groups, sometimes together. Yes, it's a great activity that gives them instant positive peer feedback ("showing" rather than "telling") and encourages them to replicate the exercise ("each one teach one"). Thanks, Debbie, for recommending this.

  6. Speaking of rewriting, most Europeans and McEuropeans (not an actual word; I'm thinking of Mc- as in McDojos, McPapers, and McMansions--an apt choice given that the prefix originally meant son of [person], and in this case would mean "quickly created [thing], but not as good as the original despite taking after it") don't know about Marshall Islands stick charts (which, to an outsider, look like nets or strange artworks, which they're not--Man, I long for the invention of things like psychic paper!) at all. Can someone please find some (ethically obtained, of course) images of old-tech, indigenous-made maps made by Amazonian Amerindians? I myself haven't had much success--most searches for said kind of map lead only to high-tech maps (whether European-made or Indigenous-made) or to old, obsolete European-made maps. (I'm looking at you, Straits-of-Anian-searchers.) That kind of map would be great for a rewrite of biased books like this.



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