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.


Anonymous said...

Here is the letter from Hale to Lincoln to which AJB refers, I think. Where does it contain the false Thanksgiving narrative? Can you link? I would love to share with my class. Thanks.


From Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln

Sarah-Hale-1615 Philadelphia, Sept. 28th 1863.


Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and — as I trust — even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Enclosed are three papers (being printed these are easily read) which will make the idea and its progress clear and show also the popularity of the plan.

For the last fifteen years I have set forth this idea in the “Lady’s Book”, and placed the papers before the Governors of all the States and Territories — also I have sent these to our Ministers abroad, and our Missionaries to the heathen — and commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly the most kind approval. Two of these letters, one from Governor (now General) Banks and one from Governor Morgan are enclosed; both gentlemen as you will see, have nobly aided to bring about the desired Thanksgiving Union.

But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid — that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; — or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has ocurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment.

I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.

An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.

Excuse the liberty I have taken

With profound respect

Yrs truly

Sarah Josepha Hale,

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Good question. I'd say take a look at 1621: A New Look (which I reference in the review) and see what might be helpful there. I think the letter you included above is just one of many; Sara Josepha Hale had been campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday for a long time.

I wrote about her role a little too simplistically, and apologize for that--the full story is messier and not something you can pin on any one individual. Thanksgiving as a Harvest celebration had been around forever (both Wampanoag people and English people celebrated the Harvest before the incident of 1621). I'm not sure exactly how or when this story about Wampanoag and English people sitting together became conflated with the Harvest celebration itself; i.e., I'm not sure how much Sarah Josepha Hale was simply telling and boosting a narrative she had been fed. I do know that the idea of disparate groups coming together was important to Abraham Lincoln in his decision to make it a national holiday, because he was trying to hold together a nation divided by the Civil War. So regardless of where this narrative originated, it became "official" under Lincoln, with a lot of work from Hale.

Apologies for oversimplifying in my review. The larger point, which I should have made above, is that regardless of who did what, the holiday that Lincoln established leveraged a false version of history in the service of Lincoln's Civil War-related agenda at the expense of Wampanoag people.

Anonymous said...

I'm the same Anon as Thursday, 11/9 7:56pm CST.

Allie, your apologies are graceful and sincere. That said, scholarship is a watchword of Debbie's blog. Your original review is, to be graceful, less scholarly than it could be. You referenced a letter from Hale to Lincoln as containing certain material that it does not contain, and still can't link to documents that do have that material. In your recent comment you ask readers to hunt for the evidence on which a big premise of your review rests. That isn't the reader's job. It's the scholar's job.

(For what it's worth? A Google books search of 1621: A NEW LOOK (2001 edition) shows Hale's name coming up just twice, on p. 41 and p. 46, each time fleetingly, and neither mention at all in support of your point.)

If the support isn't there, think about revising the original review with strike-throughs and corrections. No crime in that.

Cassandra Gelvin said...

It's not anything nearly as harmful as the issues depicting the Native Americans, but the Pilgrims didn't always wear black and white, either. It looks like this book is a whole mash of stereotypes of everyone involved. Lazy writing all around.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

I did oversimplify, but nothing I wrote in that first paragraph merits a strikethrough (I said "the story Hale told" not "the story she created"; Hale did tell that story, regardless of who created it.) And, I deliberately pointed people to 1621: A New Look for the larger story, not to make them hunt for evidence, but as a resource for anyone who wants more detail than what I provide in one paragraph of a book review.

The point of this review was to pinpoint the ways THE ITSY BITSY PILGRIM parrots and reinforces a false, but deeply rooted, narrative. I'm not interested in shifting my focus to who's to blame or who's not to blame for the existence of Thanksgiving, but in what we children's lit people are doing here and now to reverse course (or not).

Anonymous said...

Hi Debbie and Allie, speaking of Sarah J. Hale, have you seen Laurie Halse Anderson's 2002 picture book called THANK YOU SARAH: THE WOMAN WHO SAVED THANKSGIVING, illustrated by Matt Faulkner? Oyate has it on the "avoid" list.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

I hadn't heard of it, but I took a look--yikes. It is definitely one to avoid. Features very stereotypical images of Native people (doesn't even name the tribe) and spins Sarah Josepha Hale into a superhero.

That said, I actually find Sarah Josepha Hale a compelling figure for people like me--cis white women who want to do ally work. She was an abolitionist, an activist for girls' education, all in all, a well-intentioned white person. Her magazine published Edgar Allen Poe (super bigoted) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (another well-intentioned white person who did a lot of harm). The idea that good intentions = good work such a big part of the systems that perpetuate racism...

Anonymous said...

It's just strange that Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner would do a book like that. It continues to sell well, as I just checked at Amazon. Anyway maybe Debbie will review it in time for the holiday, or you will at RWW. Thanks for the review on Itsy Bitsy. I'll find something else.

K. Attaway said...

Hello everyone,
As a future educator I am always on the lookout for books to add to my classroom library. I hope to find ones that will inspire not only learning but also a love of reading into my future students. My dream would be to teach Kindergarten and this is exactly the kind of book I would have reached for on the book store shelves. Thank you so much for your post and for making me think twice before I select books that will be introduced to young minds. My hope for my future classrooms would be that each student find themselves in a book, that the diversity of my collection will inspire them. I will continue on in my search for books that students will enjoy learning from and enjoy reading.
This was very eye opening for me as I think back to the books that I read even to my own daughter and also will read to my child that I am currently pregnant with. I will spend time going through our home library of books as well with this in mind.
Lastly, thank you for speaking about Sarah Josepha Hale in a manner that does not belittle her. She was a human just like the rest of us and like you said was well-intentioned.
Thank you again!
-K. Attaway

Annie O'Connor said...

I work at a preschool where every year the pre-k4 class (not my class) puts on a Thanksgiving play where half of the kids dress up a pilgrims and half dress up as Native Americans and they all have a meal together and mutually help each other. Every year I wonder how much longer my preschool will be pushing this lie. Every time I see this miss representation of Thanksgiving or Columbus Day actually being celebrated I am enraged at how shunned and miss represented the native people of our country have been in history. Their suffering is denied and has been turned into a holiday to celebrate the advancement of our country and the destruction of a way of life and huge population of people. This book is unacceptable and should not be shown to children. I am waiting on the day our countries history is correctly taught to children no matter how ugly, and not just sugar coated and picked over.