Friday, March 30, 2018

Not recommended: ORPHAN TRAIN GIRL by Christina Baker Kline

In 2013, Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train was published. In 2017, a young readers’ edition came out. Here’s the description:
This young readers’ edition of Christina Baker Kline’s #1 New York Times bestselling novel Orphan Train follows a twelve-year-old foster girl who forms an unlikely bond with a ninety-one-year-old woman.

Adapted and condensed for a young audience, Orphan Train Girl includes an author’s note and archival photos from the orphan train era. This book is especially perfect for mother/daughter reading groups.
Molly Ayer has been in foster care since she was eight years old. Most of the time, Molly knows it’s her attitude that’s the problem, but after being shipped from one family to another, she’s had her fair share of adults treating her like an inconvenience. So when Molly’s forced to help an a wealthy elderly woman clean out her attic for community service, Molly is wary. 
But from the moment they meet, Molly realizes that Vivian isn’t like any of the adults she’s encountered before. Vivian asks Molly questions about her life and actually listens to the answers.
Soon Molly sees they have more in common than she thought. Vivian was once an orphan, too—an Irish immigrant to New York City who was put on a so-called "orphan train" to the Midwest with hundreds of other children—and she can understand, better than anyone else, the emotional binds that have been making Molly’s life so hard.
Together, they not only clear boxes of past mementos from Vivian’s attic, but forge a path of friendship, forgiveness, and new beginnings.
As the description indicates, there are two main characters in this story. The one of interest to me is the sixth-grade girl, Molly, who is Penobscot. She is named after Molly Molasses (p. 64):
…a Penobscot Indian born the year before America declared its independence. […] The Penobscots said Molly Molasses had powers, m’teoulin, given by the Great Spirit. People with those powers, her dad told her, could interpret what dreams meant, cure diseases, and tell hunters where to find game. It’s too bad Molly didn’t wind up with any of those powers herself. 
Kline's story is set in Maine. Molly spent her early years living on the reservation on Indian Island with her dad, who was Penobscot, and her mom (her identity is not specified, which means, she's white. You know--the default is always White). 

When she turned eight her mom made macaroni and cheese for the two of them and then they waited for Molly’s dad. Her mom tries calling his cell. He doesn’t pick up, but Molly hears her mom hissing into the phone “How could you forget your daughter’s birthday?”  After a while she goes to bed and wakes him when her dad is there, shaking her shoulder telling her to hold out her hand (p. 166-167):
She did, and he pulled three little cards out of the bag. On each one a small charm was wired into place. “Fishy,” he said, handing her the small pearly blue-and-green fish. “Raven.” The pewter bird. “Bear.” A tiny brown teddy bear. “It’s supposed to be a Maine black bear, but this is all they had,” he said apologetically. “I was trying to figure out what I could get you for your birthday. And I was thinking. You and me are Indian. Your mom’s not, but we are. So let’s see if I remember this right.” He moved over to sit on the bed and plucked the bird charm out of her hands. “Okay, this guy is magic. He’ll protect you from bad spells and stuff.” Then he picked up the teddy bear. “This fierce guy is a protector.” 
She laughed, relaxing. Her dad was home. Now her mom wouldn’t be mad anymore. Everything was all right, and it was okay that she’d had a birthday after all. 
“No, really. He may not look like much, but he’s fearless. And he’ll make you brave, too. All right. Now the fish. This one might be the best of all. He’ll give you the power to resist other people’s magic. How cool is that?”
She smiled sleepily. “But magic’s not real. Just in stories.” Her father’s face grew serious.  
“No, there’s a real kind of magic, Molly Molasses. You’re old enough to know about it now.” She felt a thrill that climbed up from her stomach, hearing her father say that. “It’s not like bad spells. It might be stuff that looks real good and sounds real nice. It might be—oh, I don’t know. Like maybe somebody telling you it’s okay to steal a candy bar from the Mini-Mart. You know it’s wrong to steal a candy bar, right? But maybe this person has a lot of magic and he’s saying, ‘Oh, come on, Moll, you won’t get caught. Don’t you love candy, come on, just one time?’” He wiggled the fish in his fingers and pretended that it was talking. “‘No, thank you! I know what you’re up to. You are not putting your magic on me, no sir, I will swim right away from you, y’hear?’”
Molly smiled. Her dad smiled back. “But now you’re protected from that sort of magic. Nobody can make you do stuff you don’t want to do. Nobody can tell you who you are, nobody but you.” 
Before then, her dad had given her a corn husk doll but she didn’t much like it. She would have rather had a Barbie doll. Two weeks after that birthday evening is the car crash. Her mom is having a hard time with his death, so, a case worker steps in, and six months later she's put into the foster system (p. 10): 

There weren’t any foster families on the reservation who could take her, so she ended up getting shuffled around before landing with Ralph and Dina.
That placement with Ralph and Dina is where this story takes place. There's a lot about emotional interactions Molly has with foster families and other children but almost nothing about emotions over her parents. She's snarky about her mom, but her dad is pretty much just... not in her head or heart. 

Molly’s social studies class is studying the Wabanaki Indians, and for the first time since she started at this new school, she’s interested because she’s learning things about the Wabanakis that she didn’t know. She’s angry, for example, when she learns about the treaties and how land had been taken from the Wabanakis, and how people called them “dirty, redskins, savages” (p. 125). When someone in the class says that the Wabanakis just have to deal with what happened, she raises her hand, tells them she’s part Wabanaki, and that (p. 125):
… what happened to the Native Americans wasn’t a fair fight. You can’t take everything away from someone, everything they own and care about, and then just say, ‘Deal with it.’ That’s not okay.”


That, in short, is pretty much all that Kline tells us about Molly and her identity. Orphan Train Girl is really about the girl who was, in fact, an orphan train girl. That girl, Vivian, is the other character in the story.  The book description tells us that Vivian asks Molly about her life, but there's very little of Molly's life in comparison to what Vivian tells her about her own life. Molly’s identity and purpose for being in this story is to provide a way for Kline to tell a story about Vivian.

In the Acknowledgements, Kline wrote that when she was writing this book, her mother was teaching a class at the University of Maine. That class was “Native American Women in Literature and Myth.” A final assignment was to (p. 226):
…use the Indian concept of portaging to describe “their journeys along uncharted waters and what they chose to carry forward in portages to come.” The concept of portaging, I realized, was the missing strand I needed to weave my book together.  
Kline’s mother used portaging for her own purposes. Kline apparently liked that idea so much that she had Molly’s teacher give Molly’s class that same assignment. They were to interview a parent or grandparent and (p. 63-64): 
… interview someone in your family. Someone older. Your mother or father, a grandparent, someone who’s lived through things you haven’t. And ask them about a time they had to take a journey of some kind. Maybe it was an actual journey, maybe just a change of life, trying something new. Ask what they took with them from their old life and what they decided to leave behind. You’ll turn the answers they give you into a report for the class.” 
And that, speaking frankly, is how a major publisher can turn a best seller into something that will bring in more money: adapt it for young readers and put it forth as if it is a Native story. It isn't. Orphan Train Girl is (if you can't tell), rubbing me the wrong way. 

But there's more. I think somebody read Orphan Train and told Kline that Molly's identity as a Native child being put into the foster system was a problem. Someone told her about ICWA. But, she (or perhaps--Sarah Thompson--the person who adapted the story for young readers) didn't incorporate any of that into the story. Instead, Kline put this in a note in the back (p. 227):
In a case like Molly’s, when a Native American family is not available to foster a child, the Tribal Court will allow her to be fostered to a non-Indian family.
She also says, in that note, that Donna Loring, a member of the Penobscot Nation read the manuscript (p. 227):
...advising me on issues related to the ICWA, and adding shading and nuance to some complicated questions about Native American symbols and laws.
As I noted, though, there's no ICWA in the story. I assume the "symbols" has to do with those charms that Molly's dad gave to her. But all in all, the story that Kline tells is one where she's using a Native character and Native content to tell a story that is--at its heart--about a White woman. It is a history Kline clearly wants to tell but she could have done that without this decorative use of Molly. 

In short: I do not recommend Orphan Train Girl. Published in 2017 by Harper, this is another instance of a book written by a non-Native writer who is using Native content (poorly) and getting published by a major publisher. For the sake of every child in the US, this has to stop. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Recommended! With joy! BOWWOW POWWOW, written by Brenda J. Child, translated into Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain, illustrated by Jonathan Thunder

Due out on May 1 of 2018 is an absolutely terrific book, Bowwow Powwow written by Brenda J. Child (Red Lake Ojibwe). The story she tells was translated into Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain (Lac La Croix First Nation), and Jonathan Thunder (Red Lake Ojibwe) did the extraordinary illustrations.

Here's the description:

Windy Girl is blessed with a vivid imagination. From Uncle she gathers stories of long-ago traditions, about dances and sharing and gratitude. Windy can tell such stories herself–about her dog, Itchy Boy, and the way he dances to request a treat and how he wriggles with joy in response to, well, just about everything. 
When Uncle and Windy Girl and Itchy Boy attend a powwow, Windy watches the dancers and listens to the singers. She eats tasty food and joins family and friends around the campfire. Later, Windy falls asleep under the stars. Now Uncle's stories inspire other visions in her head: a bowwow powwow, where all the dancers are dogs. In these magical scenes, Windy sees veterans in a Grand Entry, and a visiting drum group, and traditional dancers, grass dancers, and jingle-dress dancers–all with telltale ears and paws and tails. All celebrating in song and dance. All attesting to the wonder of the powwow. 
This playful story by Brenda Child is accompanied by a companion retelling in Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain and brought to life by Jonathan Thunder's vibrant dreamscapes. The result is a powwow tale for the ages.

Frankly, there's so much I love about this book that I'm not sure where to start!

Direct your eyes back up to that cover. That's Windy with her uncle, in his truck. Right away, I am grinning. See, when we were kids, my dad had a white truck, but my little brother's favorite color was green, so my dad took his truck to one of those discount paint shops (ummm.... I suppose a lot of you are going, 'what is that'? but some of you know EXACTLY what I mean) and had it painted green! And we all went everywhere in that truck. Our dogs, did, too. Sometimes they were up front in the cab, and sometimes they were riding in the back, just like Itchy Boy is on the cover. What I mean to say is that the cover for Bowwow Powwow has an immediacy that Native kids are gonna respond to. It is, in other words, a mirror of the life of a Native kid.

Moving beyond the cover, I can tell you how much Native kids who do every thing with their dogs are going to like it. By every thing, I mean Every Thing. For Windy, that includes fishing (the page of ice fishing is hilarious) or, curling up together for the night, like she does with Itchy in this bit I'm inserting below... Or I can tell you that parents and teachers helping kids learn Ojibwe are going to like it. I love seeing Indigenous languages in kids books!

Or I can tell you that kids who go to powwows are going to love it. That illustration of Windy sleeping launches Bowwow Powwow into a dream sequence that I adore. At that point in the story, Windy is at the end of a very good powwow that is going on, late, into the night. She's fallen asleep, listening to a drum.

She dreams of the elders who teach her, and the veterans who are in the Grand Entry, and the traditional dancers, and the grass dancers, and the jingle dancers, and the fancy dancers... but they're all dogs!

I cannot say enough how perfectly Jonathan Thunder's illustrations capture each one of those dancers, in just the right moment. That just-so tilt of the head, or the arm, or a knee... 

On their way to the powwow, Windy's uncle told her about dances that came before the powwow. As they drive, he's passing along some oral history about dancers going from house to house, singing "we are like dogs." And, the people in the houses gave them gifts of food, or maple sugar candy, or beads. The dance is about generosity, about sharing. In the back of the book, there's a note about that particular dance and how it was misunderstood and misrepresented by anthropologists who erred in calling it a "begging dance." We Pueblo Indians have a similar problem. Outsiders didn't understand a dance we do that includes a sharing of foods and other items. One outside writer, in particular, wrote a children's book where she misrepresented it as a food fight like you see in a cafeteria. Outsiders. Ugh.

I can tell you that those of us who know something about sovereignty are going to spot something in here that's gonna make us say "YEAH" (it is the license plate on the truck).

What I mean is this: there's many points in Bowwow Powwow where the words or art tell us that this is an #OwnVoices story! The three people who gave us this book know what they're doing. I highly recommend it for every school and public library. I know--I'm going on a bit about its significance to Native readers--but non-Native readers will enjoy it, too. It is tribally specific, and it is set in the present day, and it beautifully captures Ojibwe people. Pardon my corny "what's not to love" --- because this book? It is an absolute delight! Head right on over to the Minnesota Historical Society's website and order it!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Not recommended: A CONSPIRACY OF STARS by Olivia A. Coles

I'll start with this: I do not recommend A Conspiracy of Stars by Olivia A. Coles.

Published in 2018 by Katherine Tegan Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), there is a sequel in the works. Here's the description (I'm highlighting a couple of words):
Enter the vivid and cinematic world of Faloiv in the first book of this dazzling YA sci-fi/fantasy series, perfect for fans of Carve the Mark, Red Rising, and These Broken Stars.
Octavia has always dreamed of becoming a whitecoat, one of the prestigious N’Terra scientists who study the natural wonders of Faloiv. So when the once-secretive labs are suddenly opened to students, she leaps at the chance to see what happens behind their closed doors.
However, she quickly discovers that all is not what it seems on Faloiv, and the experiments the whitecoats have been doing run the risk of upsetting the humans’ fragile peace with the Faloii, Faloiv’s indigenous people.
As secret after disturbing secret comes to light, Octavia finds herself on a collision course with the charismatic and extremist new leader of N’Terra’s ruling council. But by uncovering the mysteries behind the history she’s been taught, the science she’s lived by, and the truth about her family, she threatens to be the catalyst for an all-out war.  

The highlighted words in the third paragraph in that description tell you why people brought A Conspiracy of Stars to my attention. It has Indigenous people of another planet. That planet? Faloiv, where the Indigenous people are the Faloii.

Octavia is 16 years old. As the book opens, she's with her father in a chariot, driving outside their compound (the "Mammalian Compound some call "the Paw"). They're from the "Origin Planet" and got to Faloiv aboard a ship they called the Vagantur. When it left that planet, there were 500 people on it, but as the story unfolds, we learn that some of them went missing. That's an important hint of what is to come.

Five pages in, Octavia pulls up to the "wigwam" that serves as a gatehouse. The word 'wam appears 49 times. Octavia and the people from the Origin Planet refer to their homes as 'wams. Why did Coles choose wigwam/'wam? If you're a regular reader of AICL and, in particular, the Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich, you know that a wigwam is an Ojibwe house made out of birchbark.

Is Octavia (and the people from the Origin Planet) Ojibwe? I doubt it. Octavia is using an Ojibwe word, though. Why, I wonder? What's the backstory there (backstory is the reasoning behind an author's choices)?

On page 162, Alma (one of the teens in Octavia's group) speaks a few Latin words. Octavia teases her about it and asks why she cares about things from the Origin Planet. Alma says:
"This dead language is just one, the one they decided should survive. Think about how many other languages we probably left behind!" 
Octavia is unhappy with what she hears herself saying (that they should focus on the future, not the past), and Alma tells her that the future might make more sense if they knew more about the past. Of course, they're talking about earth and -- given the wigwam -- I'm going to guess they're talking about European colonization of the places currently known as the Americas.

A Conspiracy of Stars is meant to address colonialism. Does it work? I suppose it does, for an audience that hasn't thought carefully--if at all--about colonialism. I get the appeal of these books, but, all this "learning" through these books kind of demands that Native kids either not read the book, or, grin and bear it as their non-Native peers learn about the evils of colonialism.

Over on Goodreads, there's several reviews that note its similarity to Avatar (you know--the movie with the blue people who shoot arrows). That movie didn't work for me, and A Conspiracy of Stars doesn't either. Horrible things are done to the Faloii.

As the story progresses, we're going to learn that the buzzing Octavia 'hears' is an ability to communicate, telepathically, with other beings. Her brain, it turns out, is different. She's been given a gift from the Faloii and from her grandmother.

Through all but the last few pages of the book, we are meant to think that Octavia's grandparents are dead, but they aren't. They are among the 100 that split apart from the main group. They're alive, and living with the Faloii in a Faloii city.

The last words in the book are spoken by Rasimbukar, a young Faloii (who is meant to be similar in age as Octavia). She beckons to Octavia:
"Come. Your grandparents are waiting."
That, for me, elicited a deep sigh of disappointment. Octavia's grandparents weren't dead after all. They had "gone Faloii" -- or to use more familiar words, they've gone Indian.

Most readers on Goodreads are taken with those last words and cannot wait for the next book. Going Indian has appeal. Allying with the oppressed has appeal to progressive thinkers. I assume that the next book will start out there, in the Faloii village.

A Conspiracy of Stars is an old story dressed up (admittedly, there are some parts that are well-written) as a sci-fi fantasy set on another planet but it depends on a lot of the stereotypes that we're all too familiar with. That is why it is getting a not-recommended here, on AICL.

Back with a note: Octavia isn't White.