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. 


Jennie said...

Thank you this thorough and enlightening review, Debbie! I borrowed Stolen Words from another library in order to evaluate it for inclusion in our library's collection. I was a bit at a loss as to whether it would be an appropriate title to add or not, but now I will certainly NOT be adding this as a resource. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Thank you for that. A teacher at my school recommended it for our library, but when I read it, something bothered me that I couldn't put my finger on. It seems condescending somehow.

Krista Schmidt said...

I came searching for your review because I was curious as I began reading the upcoming dual language edition version on NetGalley:

kimotinâniwiw itwêwina / Stolen Words
by Melanie Florence
Second Story Press

It seemed off to me as I realized it was a previously published work that was now translated by people other than the author. I'm curious your thoughts on this version and this practice of translating the book.

Liz Williams said...

I'm grateful to have found your review of "Stolen Words" today. I had purchased the book after seeing it on so many "recommended" lists, and reading rave reviews. But now, knowing the background of the author, and how much of the story was simply "made up" to manipulate the reader's emotions has convinced me not to read this book in my classroom again. I was so happy when I first found it because I felt like it was a good way of discussing Residential Schools to young children, and I could relate to the grandfather's loss of language and culture in his youth (my teachers told my family to only speak to me in English and not in my native language). But I can see now Melanie Florence's work really can't be trusted to tell an authentic story.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your work. I often struggle with finding a way to explain why a book is inappropriate. I also struggle with authors who claim Native heritage when is suits them. But you write about these hard issues so well. I do always feel a sense that our children, we, deserve more after reading your reviews. What an incredible resource you provide for us all. I am so happy I can screen my book choices here first.
Quyana cakneq.
Kristi McEwen
parent and teacher

Debbie Reese said...

Thank you, Kristi. Those are the hardest critiques to do. Figuring out how to do them in a caring way is difficult. It feels easier if I keep children foremost in my mind, and our responsibility to them and to Native Nations.