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:

Source: https://goo.gl/MSvs2R

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.