Tuesday, November 13, 2018

NOT RECOMMENDED: The Oregon Trail - The Race to Chimney Rock

A few days ago, people started sharing the books that Amazon has listed as "Best Children's Books of 2018." In the ages 6-8 category, Amazon has The Oregon Trail: The Race to Chimney Rock. 

As you might imagine, it is in that category of books that AICL usually describes as NOT RECOMMENDED.

Published on September 4, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it is book 1 in a 4-book series. The series is like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books where readers make a decision about what they want to do at a specific point in the story. Instead of an adventure, readers of this series choose their own trail. The publisher of The Race to Chimney Rock made a marketing decision that people who liked the Choose Your Own Adventure series and/or those who liked playing the Oregon Trail video game, would buy this series. That Amazon lists it as one of the best books of 2018 tells us that the publisher was right. With this series, it is adding to its profit margin--but miseducating children. Of course, that doesn't matter. What matters more and more in the US is $$.

If we were being accurate about history, the information kids get would be different than what they get in this book. Here's the first sentence in the book (p. 7):
You are loading up your covered wagon to head out to Oregon Territory, where a square mile of free farmland awaits your family. 
The first decision point happens several pages later, but if I was editing that book, I'd edit that sentence a bit, add some more information, and offer a decision point right away. It might be something like this:
As you and Pa load your covered wagon to head out to Oregon Territory, he tells you about the square mile of free farmland you are going to claim. You had read Section 4 of the Donation Land Act of 1850, and know that land was only available to certain people. You know it was designed to displace even more Native peoples from their homelands, and that to get land, you had to be a "white settler" or "American half-breed Indian." You know the law is wrong and racist. What do you do?
If you speak up, turn to page __. 
If you decide to keep quiet, turn to page __. 
I don't have an edit or suggestions beyond that, but I wonder what kids would come up with in a class where their teacher helps them map out different choices than the ones in Race to Chimney Rock? The teacher would have to begin by providing students with an in-depth unit about the history of the area that came to be called the Oregon Territory. It would take a lot of preparation, but wouldn't it be interesting to see it, in action?

It'd have content in it kind of like what Joseph Marshall has in his book, In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse. That book is set in the present day. A Lakota grandfather takes his grandchild, Jimmy, on a road trip. At one point, the grandfather asks Jimmy if he's heard of the Oregon Trail. Of course, Jimmy says yes, and his grandpa says (p. 29):
"Before it was called the Oregon Trail, it was known by the Lakota and other tribes as Shell River Road. And before that, it was a trail used by animals, like buffalo. It's an old, old trail." 
Isn't that terrific? I think Marshall's book is terrific, and I wish publishers would stop putting out books about the gold rushes (there was more than one) and the Oregon Trail! Those books glorify periods of history--and in that glorification, mislead readers about the facts of history. Teachers who use the books, uncritically, are mis-educating their students. To conclude, I do not recommend The Oregon Trail: The Race to Chimney Rock. I've got notes stuck in my copy here and there... there's so much wrong! Avoid it. If you already bought it for your child, see if you can get your money back. 


Anonymous said...

My students love choose your own adventure books and I will add this to my collection. Your view is not the only way to view history and your edits make it sound more like a textbook than a fun read.

Debbie Reese said...

Hmm.... Anon at 8:46 PM on Nov 13: you are a teacher. We expect teachers to provide children with accurate materials about history. Instead of deciding to revisit what you're doing to the kids in your classroom, you're deciding to stay the course.

That's too bad, for everyone.

Elisa Gall said...

Anon, it wouldn't sound like a textbook because textbooks historically have lied to our children about the history of this country. There are always multiple views of events, but the view/narrative of USA history told in schools thus far has been a racist, colonialist view rooted in misinformation and gaslighting. You're prioritizing and centering your non-Native students when you say this is a "fun" read - how is being a victim of oppression "fun?" To keep celebrating this book would be to prioritize racist "fun" at the cost of the children you are supposed to be teaching in a supportive, respectful environment. If what they love is the "You Choose" element, find different Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Sue Heavenrich said...

My kids loved choose-your-own adventures. And if we had a book like that, "free land" would have sparked a discussion much like you raise, Debbie. There was never "free" land - and the idea that First People weren't "using it correctly" just irritated us. What is the "right use" of a forest from a bear or salmon's perspective? This is more than academic as we heat up the planet...

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Anonymous is painting Debbie as a killjoy and a myopic bully for standing up for Native children whose stories and histories are damaged by this book. It does not surprise me, but it pains me that a teacher would try to gaslight Debbie and those who agree with her this way. I know that Debbie can take it, but I fear for this teacher's students.

Jean Mendoza said...

Anonymous, in a moment of reflection sometime, you might want to ask yourself 1) "Why am I determined to miseducate the children whose minds have been entrusted to me?" and 2) "Why do I feel the need to brag about it?"

Anonymous said...

Wwwooooooowww that anon

Person knowledgeable in Native history: *gives history*

Like WOOOOOOW. Why did she even bother coming on to a Native American children’s book site if history in her eyes is just supposed to be “fun”? There’s a difference between simplification and inaccuracies. And even if the books do have some type of likable humorous edge, you can still criticize the things you enjoy. Though I don't know how you can complain about depressing elements in a book with the main selling point of dying of dysentery.

But even so, I suspect the reason the books are supposedly gaining popularity is the nostalgia factor from adults, even if they are marketed at children. The memories of the game are not specifically tied to the history lesson itself but of some of the references and jokes tied to the game. I haven’t read these books but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was mostly adult gamers or nostalgic parents who are buying them just to see the jokes again, and then giving them to the kids, and the kids only enjoying it for the humor/novelty of having the stakes of the child characters being in actual danger. So it can be uncomfortable in terms of how the games were in the 70's, but not updating any uncomfortable factual history information. Also, there are hardly any reviews or ratings on Amazon or Goodreads? Is Amazon just promoting it a lot but not many people are actually reading them? But the mentality here seems to be "I remember these games I thought were fun as a kid!" rather than "I remember history".

Anonymous said...

I am 12 years old and when I read this series, it was one of the best ones yet. It literally made me buy the rest of the books. And like other comments here, your way of writing it, sounds like a textbook and doesn't sound like a children's book.