Friday, December 21, 2018

William Flood and Nancy Bo Flood: A History

On Dec 19th, I recommended the wonderful illustrations that Jonathan Nelson did for First Laugh: Welcome, Baby! and briefly noted my concerns with Nancy Bo Flood (she is listed as the second author of that book). This post is a follow up to that review.

At this point (2018) I have a ten-year history with Nancy Bo Flood and her husband, Dr. William Flood. Some people are aware of this history. Some will be upset that I've written it up here because to them it will feel mean-spirited and unkind. I hope that you can set aside your emotional attachments to Flood and other White writers and see my history with them from an Indigenous point of view that is embedded within a much longer history of interactions between White and Indigenous people.

The history of White people taking from Native people is hundreds of years long. Most of you know about that, and some of you think it is horrible. Some of you go down that "to the victor go the spoils" way of thinking. Those "spoils" include Native stories. There are a great many non-Native people who made and make careers by using something that belongs to Native people.

The history of White people taking from Native people is also filled with White people befriending Native people out of a genuine sense of caring--about our souls. I'm talking here about missionaries who go (yes, it still happens) onto reservations and into Native communities with the goal of converting us to their particular religion.

And, the history of White people taking from Native people is also filled with White people who befriend us because they have found themselves living in or near our communities.

Of that latter group, I wish they could form those friendships without saying "look at me and my Native friend." Or, "look at the good I do for my Native friends!" Or, "I worked with them and they asked me to write this story about them." Or, "I taught their kids and I learned from them and so, I am able to write books about them that you should buy because I know what I'm talking about." Or, "Look! My book has a note inside from my Native friend or colleague. You can trust what you read in my book."

They mean well. But, I wish they could see past their good intentions. What they're doing is exploitation. Ultimately what they are doing is the same as those who take without care. And all those who help get their books published, you are complicit in the taking and exploitation. You can rationalize it any way you want to, but ultimately, you're complicit.

I know--that sounds harsh. I know plenty of people will read this and think I should just be quiet or that I am wrong. You'll find examples to counter what I'm saying here. There are always exceptions but my larger concern is that we should all ask why someone feels the need to justify their tellings of Native story by pointing to their work with Native peoples. Anybody can do good work without using our faces and our names to justify your work. Can't you just do good without holding us up as evidence of your good work?


In 2007 or 2008 I received an email asking if I was interested in serving on the Advisory Board for a new initiative within Reach Out and Read. It was to be the American Indian/Alaska Native Reach Out and Read project (ROR AI/AN). I don't have that email or ones through 2009 because I changed computers and email providers and am not able to retrieve them. I do have ones from 2010 through 2014.

The two doctors who were starting the American Indian/Alaska Native initiative of Reach Out and Read were Dr. William Flood and Dr. Steve Holve. By the time they had written to me, I had already had a lot of experience with well-intentioned people who did not see the problems in children's books that I was seeing.

I had a long phone conversation with Dr. Flood or Dr. Holve. I remember it clearly. I remember where I was standing (just outside my mom and dad's home at Nambé; I was visiting them when the call came through) as we talked. I remember telling them that I had strong points of view on the ways that Native people were depicted in children's books, who wrote them, etc.

Whichever doctor it was, they assured me that the sort of expertise I'd bring to that project was precisely why they had contacted me. With that assurance, I said yes, enthusiastically. I was excited, thinking about how we would get books by Native writers into the Indian Health Service clinics.

The doctors had invited another individual with history and expertise in Native writing/books to serve on the board. Things looked good!

But then...

We learned that the doctors had done some work on a video they wanted to play on the televisions in the waiting rooms. We were asked to provide input on the video.

In it, a Native woman was shown reading and recommending a book written and illustrated by a non-Native writer. Though I don't have an email that confirms my memory, I think the book was one of those written and illustrated by Paul Owen Lewis. It could have been Frog Girl or Storm Boy. Lewis says similar things about each one. Looking at the covers, you'd likely conclude that these are Native American stories.

They aren't.

Paul Owen Lewis is not Native. In the author's note, he tells us that Frog Girl is "an original creation" that is "carefully composed entirely of Native story elements in both its narrative and its art." He also says it is an adventure story that reflects Joseph Campbell's "three rites of passage" in which
"... a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. In no place is this universal theme more powerfully represented than in the rich oral traditions and bold graphic art of the Haida, Tlingit, and other Native peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America."
The other individual and I expressed our concerns with it and books like it. Our concerns were met with resistance. Anybody could write what they wanted to, we were told. That's true, of course, but that wasn't the point. Instead of problematic books like Frog Girl, we argued, why couldn't the project select and promote books by Native writers? We were getting nowhere. That second person resigned from the board. I don't recall what happened after that and don't have emails to help me reconstruct what happened.

Then, on July 16, 2010, I received an email with the subject line "Welcome to Reach Out and Read for AI/AN sites." It gave us several updates, including one that indicated the video project was still being worked on. I asked for an update about the concerns that we'd discussed previously.

Dr. Flood replied that ROR AI/AN had discussed them at a meeting and that those present had determined that the project goal was to encourage parents to read to their children, and that it "is not our goal to tell parents what to read, or what not to read. That would be a form of censorship and that is not our role."

As you might imagine, I was frustrated.

The entire reason I and the other individual were asked to be on the board was to bring our expertise on selecting books to the project so it could provide children with books that were accurate, respectful, and ideally, written by Native writers. Our objection to Lewis was being characterized as censorship.

I'd had similar conversations elsewhere, on listservs of writers, editors, librarians, professors, and reviewers who work specifically in children's literature. Whenever I or anyone talks about the importance of insider perspective (what is referred to, today, as #OwnVoices), someone invariably raises the accusation of censorship.

Somewhere in all those listserv conversations, I had become familiar with a person named Nancy Bo Flood. I had been to her website, which has photographs of her on it. In those children's literature conversations, she had been saying things that were similar to what Dr. Flood had said.

Then one day I realized that the emails I was getting from Dr. Flood and the ones I was getting from Nancy Bo Flood were from the same account! Below is a screen cap of the top of an email I got from Dr. Flood. The photo is of Nancy but the name on the email is her husband (I blocked out part of his email address):

In my mind, several threads started to come together. I remembered that she said somewhere that she was teaching Native students in Flagstaff. She had also said that her husband was a doctor in that area.

I wondered what all (children's books) she had written.

I did a search at Amazon and saw that, together, Nancy and William had published Pacific Island Legends: Tales from Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Australia in 1991 from Bess Press which is "retellings of their [people of the Pacific] traditional legends" (p. xiii). Without a doubt, the Floods and the third author, Beret E. Strong, felt they were doing a good thing with this book. In the preface, they wrote (page vii):
"Legends that were once part of an oral tradition become available to readers throughout the world. They cross oceans, continents, even generations. These legends speak a universal language. People everywhere and throughout history wonder about the questions found in these stories: How was the world created? Why do we have both good and evil? Why do families fight? What is the meaning of life and death?"
Clearly they understand the significance of the stories to the people the stories belong to, but their appraisal--that the stories speak a universal language--erases the distinct aspects of those people. Finding that book, I understood why Dr. Flood was so resistant to our concerns about Frog Girl. He had, in short, a conflict of interest.

The Flood's aren't alone in appropriation of Indigenous stories, and they certainly are not the first White people to do it and to think well of themselves for doing it. The historical record is full of White people doing that sort of thing and people are doing it today. Take a look, for example, at For Your Consideration: Part 2 at Indigo's Bookshelf: Voices of Native Youth and their critique of Rosanne Parry.

Today many people are growing in their understandings of appropriation. Today, items taken from tribal nations are being returned.

Stories don't have the legal protections that artifacts do but increasingly, tribal nations are writing protocols and policies that ask outsiders not to use their stories. Those documents don't have a section that says "if you have a good friend who is of our nation (or if you taught our kids, or lived near or in our community), go ahead with what you want to do." Those documents are being written because appropriation keeps on going. It started hundreds of years ago and continues, today. And--it is harmful to the well-being of tribal nations.

In 2017, the USBBY (United States Board on Books for Young People) selected Nancy Bo Flood to sit on a panel titled "Indigenous Experience in Children's Literature." I objected. So did Naomi Bishop. And Naomi Caldwell. And Christy Jordan-Fenton. Our objections are available on a round up post I did about them. Eventually, USBBY announced she would not be on that panel.

From what I read, she had been asked to be on it because people (like me) had objected to her appropriations and USBBY felt that she could speak to concerns of outsiders writing Native stories. My guess is she would cite Native friends who she's asked for help with her books. In other words, she'd use those friendships to justify her appropriations.

-----Editing on Saturday, Dec 22, 2018, in response to Therese Bigelow's comment on Facebook, suggesting that I use Ed Sullivan's response to my query regarding how Flood came to be on the Indigenous Experience panel. He said:

I invited Nancy Bo Flood long after the other panelists were invited. She was already registered for the conference and presenting a breakout session on another topic, so I asked her if she would be willing to participate. Since cultural appropriation will be a topic of discussion for the panel, having someone who has been criticized for that can offer an interesting perspective to the conversation. When I invited Nancy, she stressed she was not Native American, and I am sure she will be quite clear about that on the panel when she speaks, too. I hope that answers your questions.

-----End of addition on Dec 22, 2018-----

Her writings and the objections are what got her onto that USBBY panel. In essence, she was going to gain even more visibility from an international organization. That's great for her career as a writer. What was she going to say? Was she going to use her friendships to assure people that it was ok to do what she did? If yes, she would be giving other White writers a how-to guide for appropriating Native stories.

But--does that sound like genuine care for us?

To me, obviously, it does not. Ultimately, what she's doing is no different from that group that claims "to the victors go the spoils." It might feel different, but it really isn't.

First Laugh did not need Nancy's name on it, did it?  That her name is on the cover is troubling. It doesn't have to be there. The only person who is served by it being there is Nancy. Ultimately, she's gaining from her name being there, from her work with Rose Ann Tahe.

I've got more to say but am hitting the 'publish' button this blog post because I promised someone I'd do it as soon as possible. I may be back to say more, later. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts. If there are things I've said that are unclear, let me know. This has been a very hard post to write. It also occurred to me that, perhaps, Nancy Bo Flood was going to use her time on the USBBY panel to say she wasn't going to keep on, as she had been, but First Laugh tells us otherwise. Again, I welcome your thoughts.

Previous posts about Flood:

Thursday, December 20, 2018

NOT RECOMMENDED: WILD BIRD by Wendelin Van Draanen

This post started out as a "Debbie--have you seen" one but turned into a Not Recommended one pretty quickly...

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen Wild Bird by Wendelin Van Draanen. It was published in 2017 by Knopf. Here's the book description:

3:47 a.m. That’s when they come for Wren Clemmens. She’s hustled out of her house and into a waiting car, then a plane, and then taken on a forced march into the desert. This is what happens to kids who’ve gone so far off the rails, their parents don’t know what to do with them anymore. This is wilderness therapy camp. Eight weeks of survivalist camping in the desert. Eight weeks to turn your life around. Yeah, right.
The Wren who arrives in the Utah desert is angry and bitter, and blaming everyone but herself. But angry can’t put up a tent. And bitter won’t start a fire. Wren’s going to have to admit she needs help if she’s going to survive.

The description has no mention of the Native content that Kirkus noted in their review and that prompted AICL's reader to write to me. Kirkus noted that content:
Traditional tales told by Mokov, an elderly Paiute who visits the camp... 

Hmm. Sounds like Wild Bird has a Native elder imparting wisdom, doesn't it? Let's look a bit more. Using the Google Books preview, I see that Mokov comes into the story in chapter 24 (it starts on page 101). My comments are marked in italics following each summary I do as I take a look at Wild Bird.

It is nighttime, Wren is in her tent, the other girls are sitting around a campfire when one of them squeals "Mokov!" Wren sees a man come out of the darkness. He's got "two long silver braids" and is wearing a leather vest, a dark green shirt, and pants and hiking boots that are just like the jailers who guard these girls in this camp. But, something about him seems different. The girls get to their feet. He greets them, and Dvorka (one of the girls at the camp) comes to get Wren for "Legend time. He's Paiute." What, Wren asks, is that?

Debbie's comments: I gotta say--girls "squealing" when he appears is kind of unsettling. And that name: Mokov. Is that a Paiute word? And his purpose? It does look like he's there to use Native stories to teach these girls.

On page 102, Dvorka tells Wren: "It's a Native American nation."

Debbie's comments: I like that Wren asks that question. It is an accurate depiction of the level of ignorance many (most?) people in the US have. If, for example, Dvorka had said "He's Native American" instead of "He's Paiute" -- Wren would know what Dvorka was talking about, but the author's "He's Paiute" is a good move. It makes Wren ask a question that is followed by very important information: the Paiutes are Native peoples of a particular nation. 

The girls offer Mokov food and drink but he says that the land has nourished him. Then he "spreads his arms" and asks the girls to sit and tell him how they've been. They talk about using rainwater to wash their hair with yucca root.

Debbie's comments: He spreads his arms?! I'm getting snarky pretty quick but that snark reflects my frustration with these kinds of representations of Native characters. Think about that movement for a minute. Who does that, for real? Remember--this is a campfire setting. In the White imagination, wise Indians do that sort of thing. You can probably recall an image or two or three, of that very thing. The one that comes to mind, for me, is Grizzly Bob! He's a good example. Grizzly Bob, of course, is not a Native character. He's just playing one at camp. (And that bit about land nourishing him plays into the stereotype of Native peoples being one-with-the-land.)

Mokov nods his approval, and then asks them about their quests. They look away, or down, telling him it isn't easy. One says she is still so angry. Mokov nods, then says (102):

Anger is a dry riverbed. You should follow it only if it leads you to the springs of forgiveness.
Debbie's comments: I feared it would go that way... along with that holding up of the arms is this wise-Indian-speak. It is not a good thing. It is a term that describes the ways that White Writers imagine Native people's speech to be. It is romantic in style, and the opposite of the "heap big" sort of thing that some writers do, but done this way, either one is stereotypical. Both are misrepresentations that get in the way of seeing Native people as people. 

Then the girls Mokov for a story. Wren wonders if the girls are serious. Dvorka says (p. 103):
"There's nothing like a story told by Mokov." Then she adds, "Traditionally, the full legends were only told in the winter or fall, but he thinks there's value in sharing shortened versions with us." She lowers her voice even further as we watch the others. "Most Native American tribes have nature-centered spiritual traditions where everything has life and the power to direct its energies. The humans and spirits in their stories often take on the forms of animals." She zeroes in on me. "Storytellers were the ones who passed along the tribe's history and beliefs. These are sacred legends, told in a traditional way. They are not to be ridiculed." 
The girls hold their breath, waiting for him to speak. "Even the fire is quiet" and "the smoke rises straight up." Then he tells the story.

Debbie's comments: Is there an author's note in this book, I wonder? Do we get a source for what Dvorka says? Is there a source for these "sacred legends" that Mokov is telling? 

Later in the book, another Native guy is the object of their adoration. This time, it is "Silver Hair." Turns out that he is Mokov's grandson. The girls, as Wren says, are definitely fawning over him. She is too, by the way, but is more subtle about it.

Debbie's comments: This White adoration of Native men is unsettling and reminds me of the too-many romance novels that have a white woman on the cover, in the embrace of a very sexualized Native man. Will Wren and Silver Hair (that name, by the way, is another problem). I know a lot of you will object to a "Not Recommended" tag when I haven't read the entire book, but come on! You see the problems, right? I hope so. Books like this one -- published by one of the Big Five publishers -- do a lot of damage. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


This year, Charlesbridge published First Laugh: Welcome, Baby!

When I learned that Jonathan Nelson (illustrator of the way-cool The Wool of Jonesy) was doing the illustrations for this book, I was excited. When I got the book and saw that Nancy Bo Flood was listed as a co-author, I groaned. More on that later. For now, let's look at the art and what Nelson tells us with his art. Here's the cover:

Image result for "nelson jonathan" "first laugh"

So much to love, there, in his art! We see two adults clearly loving the child in their arms. We see a modern day house. Regular readers of AICL know that I think stories of Native people set in the present day are crucial to help non-Native people know that (and I hate saying this every single time I write or speak it) we are here, part of the present day.

When you open the book and look at the title page, you see that baby, lying in a baby bouncer, playing with a mobile... of sheep! On a blanket with sheep! See? So perfect!

From there we see babies in different places, surrounded by family members who are trying to make the baby laugh. Then, a baby smiles and laughs!

And then there's a gathering to celebrate that baby's first laugh. Take a look at it! So much joy and details to note, like the satellite dish on the house and the electric pole.

Did you know that there's a lot of writing about photographers and post card makers removing such things from photos because they wanted the Native people and places being depicted to look "authentic." Infuriating, for sure that they made decisions that if we had clocks or sewing machines or electricity or glass in our windows, we weren't "real."

Published in 1999
As I study Nelson's painting of all those folks gathered there, I am remembering Luci Tapahonso and Anthony Chee Emerson's Songs of Shiprock Fair, published in 1999 by Kiva Publishing.

I like it a lot, too, for the same reasons I like what I see in First Laugh: Welcome Baby! Set in the present day, family, crowds.

Both books provide Navajo children with mirrors of their lives and tribally specific experiences.


Now let's look at the authors.

In the back matter, the first author's note is listed as "Author's Note from the Late Rose Ann Tahe." In first person, she tells us her English name and her Navajo name. Then, she introduces herself in the traditional way, telling us that she was born into her mother's clan, and her father's clan, and what her maternal grandparents' clan is, and her paternal ones, too. That note ends with "This is who I am and where I am from."

It is followed by an author's note from Nancy Bo Flood who tells us that "Just weeks after Rose and I completed the manuscript for this book, she contracted a sudden illness that took her life." So, Flood asked Tahe's family what they wanted to do. They agreed, Flood writes, that "their mother's wish was to have this book become real."

And so--we have First Laugh: Welcome Baby! with Flood listed as the second author. On the strength of Nelson's illustrations, I am recommending First Laugh. I think his work is terrific and I want to see more of it.  

Rather than put the concerns--including appropriation--with Nancy Bo Flood here, I'll be doing a stand-alone post (12/22/18: see William Flood and Nancy Bo Flood: A History). I'll be back to add the title and link to it, soon.

Do take time to visit Nelson's website, and of course, get a copy of The Wool of Jonesy. 

I adore that book and was delighted to see a 3D version of Jonesy at Returning the Gift last year.

He's awesome!