Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Not Recommended: LOVE, PENELOPE by Joanne Rocklin

Editor's Note: Below is a twitter review of Love, Penelope a book I started reading last week. When I came to a passage with Native content, I paused the read, noted the content and in some instances, added a resource. I used "Spooler" to capture my twitter review and have edited them below, for clarity. If something doesn't make sense to you, please let me know through a comment. New information I provide is in brackets. When you see "You" in the tweets, it is because "You" is what Penny uses in her letters to her as-yet unborn baby sister.




A twitter review of a book called LOVE, PENELOPE by Joanne Rocklin. Published in 2018 by Abrams. 

The subtitle is "Letters from a big sister who knows about life." Penelope is excited about this new life growing in her Mama and writes to her in "Dear You" letters. 

In the second letter, Penelope talks about a heritage project she has to do for school, about where her family lived before they went to California (where the book is set). 

Her project gets off to a rough start (she's in 5th grade) because of a lie she told to her teacher. 

In the letter on Nov 29, Penny (Penelope) writes to You, that they have two mamas: Becky, and Sammy. 

Becky was married to a man, William. He died in a motorcycle accident when Penny was little. Then, Becky met Sammy. The three live in Oakland where Sammy has many relatives who have been there forever. 

With that bit of info on Sammy, you can probably guess why I'm reading LOVE, PENELOPE. 


"Many of Sammy's relatives have been here forever. Ohlone forever. OH-LO-NEE. As in native Californian."

That's cool [the thing that I thought is cool is that Rocklin tells readers that the Ohlone have been there forever] but then... 

"Sammy is 50 percent Ohlone."


Is that what a real-life Sammy would say? Generally, a person who is a tribal member or citizen of a specific nation is 100% a citizen of that nation. Most ppl rdg this thread are citizens of the US. If your mother was born in France, that doesn't make you 50% American [and 50% French]. 

People get into messy spaces when they equate citizenship in this or that nation with the racial or ethnic identity of their parents. 

Now, back to my twitter review of LOVE, PENELOPE. 


(Oh, meant to say a bit more about the Ohlones being "real Californians." That's like calling Native peoples "the First Americans." It is an error. Ohlones (and any Native nation) pre-date "the United States" or any of its 50 states.)

In her letter to You on Tuesday, December 2, Penny tells us about that heritage project she has to do for Mr. Chen. 

He [Mr. Chen] says that "The United States has always been a nation of immigrants." 

I hope that Penny challenges him on that...


And... she does! 

As she hears classmates talk about where their family is from, she says "My ancestors were always, always here. They didn't ARRIVE from anywhere. They were already here!" 

Good, Penny! 


Mr. Chen asks for more info. She says:

“I am descended from a native Californian tribe. The Ohlone, to be specific.”

She thinks that is a lie because Sammy isn't her biological parent. [For the most part she uses "fabrication" instead of "lie" to describe what she's done.] 


She goes on: 

"And princesses." Not ones with gold crowns and gowns, but "The brave kind with clothes made of animal skins."

Oh, dang. Did Sammy tell her THAT? Is that going to get corrected somewhere as this story unfolds? 


At the moment, I'm thinking of how an Ohlone child would read/respond to this story. Or any Native child. It seems to me that the author's audience isn't a Native child. 

On Saturday, December 6, Penny's letter to You is about Sammy's brother, Ziggy. He plays a ukelele. Penny, her mom, and Sammy are helping Ziggy update his resume. He's looking for work. 

Sunday, December 28, Penny is visiting Grandma Lorraine and Great Grandma Grace (Sammy's mom and grandmother). Penny plans to get some info "about Ohlone artifacts and rituals and ceremonies" so she can continue with her "fabrication."

Grace is "probably way over eighty" and has wrinkles, but soft skin. And she's got "long black hair, as black as a raven, as black as coal, as black as a deep, dark night." And, she has "pretty designs of dots and lines on her chin in the traditional Ohlone way."

Ok.... time for me to look over resources on the Ohlones. 

Two things to note: there are 109 tribal nations in California that have federal recognition. None of them have Ohlone in their name. 

But, INDIAN COUNTRY TODAY has an article about the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe's effort to get that recognition. Do read it! 


Here's the Muwekma Ohlone's website, with details. 

Before you begin creating Native characters, you gotta do a lot of research. The fruits of your research may not appear on the page, but it will be there, in the quality of the character and Native content. 

I noted the Muwekma Ohlone's page on their history with the fed gov; another resource is Deborah Miranda's BAD INDIANS. 



Dr. Miranda is Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen. Here's their website: Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation.

They're at Monterey Bay (not San Francisco, like the Muwekma Ohlone), but I think Dr. Miranda's book would add some depth to an author's knowledge. 


There's lot of articles on the Muwekma Ohlone website.

Back to LOVE, PENELOPE. In the letter to You on Sunday, Dec 28, Penny is visiting Sammy's mother and grandmother. 

"Both of them are 100 percent Ohlone. Sammy is only 50 percent because Grandma Lorraine married the late Mr. Henry Bach, who was German."


Rocklin (the author of Love, Penelope) did this percent thing earlier, too, in the Sept 29th letter. 

Oh... Rocklin responded to my tweets about that. Here's mine and her first tweet-reply:
And here's the second part of her reply:
[Inserting her reply for people who use screen readers. Rocklin wrote: "I agree with the importance of sensitivity to this issue, the conflation of ethnicity, citizenship and place of residence. To be fair, Penny was asked to tell the story of how her family came to live in California, a common assignment in California schools. She realized that her stepmom's Ohlone community had "always" been there, yes, before the US existed, and she had an important story to understand.]

I'm thinking about Rocklin's reply. She understands why it is not ok to conflate ethnicity, citizenship, and place of residence but wants me to be fair because this is Penny's story. Hmm. 

It seems it might be one of those stories where a white character is going to unlearn stereotypical things about a Native people. One goal in this kind of story is for others to unlearn those stereotypes, too. When the author/white character are outsiders to the particular culture that is being stereotyped, the readers (children) of that culture have to... bear with it so that white character/white readers 'gets it.' 

That's a huge ask of a Native child. 


Reasons why "50 percent Ohlone" is a problem are related to monied efforts to undermine Native sovereignty by denying a nation's status and efforts to take Native children from their nations and place them in non-Native foster or adoptive homes. See National Indian Child Welfare Act. 

For non-Native writers, creating Native content and characters--especially in this period of diversity--has allure, but for Native people impacted by that writing, the stakes are very high. These non-Native fictions can work against our well-being. 

So, Penny is visiting Sammy's mother and grandmother to gather info for her heritage project. Her first question is about ceremonies... "...what was your wedding ceremony like?" Clearly, Penny thought there was some Ohlone ceremony for marriage. 

Grandma Lorraine told her that she got married in Vegas by a guy who looked like Elvis. I like what Grandma Lorraine said! Penny's question reminds me of undergrad students I taught who were curious about Native weddings. There's a lot of bogus info online--so be wary of that! 

Course, a Vegas wedding ceremony is of no help to Penny and her heritage project, so she moves on to "precious artifacts of their Ohlone heritage." She knows Grandma Lorraine has an abalone necklace, so she asks her to put it on, take a photo, print it out, and give it to her. Penny asks Great Grandma Grace if she has "an Ohlone artifact that is precious to her." 

Artifact is an interesting word. I don't use it when I'm talking with friends of other Native nations... or Jewish friends, or Catholic friends... Do you? 


Great Grandma Grace says "Well, MY precious artifact is a beautiful round red-and-white basket with green and red feathers and shiny abalone beads." 

Artifact, again. Do you use that word to talk about things specific to your culture or nation? I don't. 


Grace tells Penny about Ohlone baskets. Penny wants a photo of the basket but Grace tells her that it "is a memory of a story about the basket. Memories and stories are just about the most precious things the Ohlone have left. We've lost a lot, Penny."

Grandma Lorraine goes on, telling Penny about a memorial park they go to every year, the day after Thanksgiving. Penny recalls going there once with Sammy. She remembers "chanting and the drumming." Some Native ppl will object to use of "chanting" to describe singing. 

"Chanting" is an outsider word. 

The park is the site of a shell mound that was where Ohlone buried their dead. Americans built an amusement park, and later, a paint factory on it. Grandma Lorraine says they begged developers to leave it but nobody listened to them. 


So, every year, they go to that place and tell others what happened. Penny understands, now, why Grandma Lorraine and Great Grandma Grace won't shop at the mall that is on the site now. 

Penny is now wondering if she should tell Mr. Chen she isn't Ohlone. 


In her letter on Jan 17, 2015, Penny tells You that she was going to tell Mr. Chen that she isn't Ohlone. Before she could, though, she showed him a drawing she had done of the basket that Great Grandma Grace had described. He was, to use Penny's word, BONKERS over it. 

He asks if it is in her family; she says yes; he is surprised because he thought all the baskets had been taken to Russia or Britain. 

Some, no doubt, did go there but why leave out the US museums and private collectors who have them? 


Mr. Chen tells Penny the local museum has a reproduction, but the one her family has should be in that museum. Penny feels pride over his words.

Now--we know there is no real basket--but even if there was a real one, Mr. Chen's idea that it should be in the museum is messed up. 


Penny tells Mr. Chen that the (non-existent) basket is on its way to the museum. That's kind of messed up, too. Why would it be going to that museum rather than, maybe, a museum or office run by the Ohlones? 

Mr. Chen looks at other parts of her drawing, especially the "wren feathers in the Indian chief's headdress; and the real sticks for the teepees." 

What is Penny's source for that? Mr. Chen asks if the dark marks at the top are storm clouds. Penny meant them to be bison and isn't sure "if the Ohlone ever met up with bison" so she says yes, she meant them to be storm clouds. 


Mr. Chen tells her she needs to "rethink that headdress and, also, the tepees." (Noting the two spellings Rocklin used for tipi: teepee and tepee.)

He also thinks she's drawn "too much warfare. All those spears! You may have forgotten some of what you learned about the Ohlone in third grade. And, most important of all, information about your own heritage."

He leaves the classroom and comes back with a handful of books for her to use. She admits she got her info from old movies (note: new movies have those same stereotypes). She says she knows "the teepees aren't right, but it was fun gluing on those twigs."

He asks if her parents saw it, and she said yes (another lie). He tells her to interview the people in her family. 

Fact: teachers/professors do that sort of thing all the time. Handing Native people books to learn abt our culture = not good practice! 


Mr. Chen, reminding Penny of what she learned about Ohlone people in third grade made me cringe. He seems to be saying that whatever she learned was good. For those who don't know, third graders in California do a lot of projects where they visit missions...

... and sometimes make dioramas of Indians being cared for in the missions as if it was a good. In reality, Native ppl were kidnapped, put in chains, enslaved, raped... those missions are far from "good." I know teachers who aren't doing that anymore. Thank goodness. 

Earlier in this thread I referred to Deborah Miranda's book. She also did some writing about those lessons (also done in 4th grade classrooms): Lying to Children about the Missions and the Indians.  

And I know Native parents who don't want their kids doing projects like that. Please--if you're a teacher, don't do them! I wish Mr. Chen had apologized to Penny for that third grade Ohlone unit. 

That night at home, Penny starts reading the books Mr. Chen gave her. She's a huge basketball fan, so when she reads that the Ohlone liked to throw spears through a hoop, she decides it is close enough to basketball to say "THE OHLONE INVENTED BASKETBALL."

That throw-a-spear-through-a-hoop... Some day I might dig into it because it is one of those "Indian" things you see attributed to many tribal nations. It is possible [that many different ones did that activity], but I'd like to know more abt it. In most descriptions, a hoop is rolled on the ground, not hung on a pole. 

It sounds like the book Mr. Chen gave Penny to read is biased. She doesn't know that, though (and I guess he didn't either). She's going to use info from the bk plus info from Grandma Lorraine abt the shellmound for her heritage project. 

I like that Penny wants to provide her classmates with info about the mound. That's recent, and real, and people should learn about it. 

In the letter on Feb 10, 2015, Penny tells You that she had asked Sammy what her Ohlone heritage means to her. Sammy tells her that she has two heritages: German, who had come here 100 years ago, and Ohlone, who have lived here almost forever. 

Penny sees that Sammy is "starry-eyed and proud thinking about her heritage." Sammy tells her that her Ohlone heritage has a bigger part of her heart, that "you cherish something more when it's in danger of being erased."

Given that the two Ohlone tribal nations I've referred to in this thread seem to be the ones that Sammy might belong to, and given that both are working on federal recognition, Sammy's focus on erasure, without mentioning recognition, is a missed opportunity. 

It strikes me as the writing of someone who doesn't know much about sovereignty. Far too many ppl in the US think of Indigenous ppls as cultural groups rather than as sovereign nations. 

With "culture" as the framework, we get material aspects of life--like drumming and baskets--but not sovereignty. Indeed, sovereignty is THE most important attribute. 

In that same Feb 10 letter, Penny tells her mom and Sammy that Grandma Lorraine and Great Grandma Grace had told her about the shell mound. Her mom tells her that her and Sammy had been trying to protect her frm that sad story. 

But... earlier in the book when these grandma's were telling Penny about the mound, Penny told the she remembered going there before with her mom and Sammy and that she remembers "chanting" and drumming. Remember? 

Sammy goes on to tell her "the important thing to remember" is that the "Ohlone didn't disappear." that "A long time ago, people took our land. They made us live in the California missions. They tried to force us to forget our language and our customs and our stories."

This makes me wonder what Sammy told Penny when Penny was in third grade. Did she go to the school to tell Penny's third grade teacher anything? Also, those missions aren't really "California missions." They are Catholic missions in California. 

In Penny's letter on Sunday, March 22, she tells You that she had told Hazel her secret. "...I do not possess any Ohlone DNA, and that I had borrowed Sammy's heritage. Sammy is a relative by adoption and by domestic partnership only." 

Ohlone DNA? What is that? 


How are readers expected to interpret "Ohlone DNA"? Surely Sammy knows there's no such thing? 

A real Sammy would know there's no such thing. Does the author of LOVE, PENELOPE know? Or... has she fallen for the (false) promises of all those DNA testing services? 


A DNA test cannot tell you a specific tribe. For information on that, please read Dr. Kim TallBear's article, There is no DNA test to prove you're Native American and read her book, too [and tell others! The massive ignorance on DNA testing is something you can interrupt if you just take the time to share the information.] 


I'm reading quicker now, not noting as much of the Native content as I have been so far because it is kind of repetitive. 

In the letter on June 8, Penny tells You that she told Mr. Chen that she isn't Ohlone, that Sammy is her mom's domestic partner, and that Sammy adopted her. 


She also tells her mom and Sammy that she had "borrowed" (she uses that term throughout; I find it annoying) Sammy's Ohlone heritage. Sammy tells her to go ahead and talk about it because they are a family. 

Sammy asks Jenny "why do you have to say 'parent by domestic partnership'? Can't you drop a few words and just say 'parent'?" 

I like that correction. I wish Sammy asked Jenny to quit with the "50% Ohlone", too. But I don't think the author understands why that's not ok. 


On June 10, Penny does her presentation. The letter on June 26 is about the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage, so, Penny's mom and Sammy plan to get married. On July 7, You is born and named Mary Joy, and the story ends. 

In the Acknowledgements, the author thanks Corinna Gould, an activist and educator in Ohlone culture, of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, but doesn't say what that person helped her with. 

And she thanks Linda Yamane, an Ohlone basket weaver, "for her beautiful basket in the museum." So, it doesn't seem that Yamane had a role in the book's content. In one of the letters Penny wrote, she described Yamane's basket. [It is important that students learn to read Acknowledgements with the same critical eye they read a book. This particular thanks (to Yamane) is odd. It tells us that Rocklin thinks that Yamane's basketry is important, but, ultimately, it means nothing for the quality of the Native content of Love, Penelope.] 

I'll end this twitter review of Joanne Rocklin's LOVE, PENELOPE. If you've read it over the last few days as I read Rocklin's book, you can guess that when this twitter review goes onto my blog, it will have a Not Recommended label. 

I haven't read reviews of it but my guess is that some people are pleased that Jenny has two mom's. That aspect of the story, some will argue, is so important that it matters more than problems with the Native content. Obviously, I disagree. 

Recently, many scholars and critics in children's and young adult literature are noting that an author carries the weight of their book, but there are others who play significant roles in a book getting published. 

In her Acknowledgements, Rocklin tells us her agent is Erin Murphy, and her editors are Susan Van Metre and Maggie Lehrman. From my point of view, their knowledge of Native peoples is lacking and contributed to the failures throughout LOVE, PENELOPE. Some will feel that the content of this thread and naming the agent/editors is "shaming" them publicly and that I should have written to them privately. 

Contacting them privately would help them, but it wouldn't help all the librarians who are selecting and deselecting books in their collections, and it wouldn't help teachers who, if they read this thread, might decide not to use the book. This review is not a "call" for the book to be withdrawn from shelves. It is criticism. It is not censorship. 

Criticism is not censorship. It is something writers study to improve their writing. I hope it proves useful to others.

4 comments:

Mrs. Marshall said...

Thank you so much for this. I am only halfway through the review, but I totally get what you are saying. And I just know that I would not have picked up on any this. Working on getting there, but not there yet.



Mrs. Marshall said...

Done reading and yes on this:

"Contacting them privately would help them, but it wouldn't help all the librarians who are selecting and deselecting books in their collections, and it wouldn't help teachers who, if they read this thread, might decide not to use the book. This review is not a "call" for the book to be withdrawn from shelves. It is criticism. It is not censorship."


And the author and editors shouldn't feel shamed. This is a learning opportunity and the best way to take that in is...listen...and don't respond with "Yes, but..."

Jean Mendoza said...

As I read your review, I got to thinking about unreliable narrators in fiction for young people, in general. For me as a fiction reader, when apparently factual information about Native people and identity comes from a narrator who hasn't been straightforward about facts of her own life -- that makes it hard to trust whatever actual information the author tries to present about those things.

If the narrator discovers the errors of her ways and sets things right, I suppose that problem could be taken care of, maybe. Or if the reader already knows enough to say, "Hey wait a minute." But especially if resolution/counterpoint is absent, a narrator's mistakes/misunderstandings/lies can get jumbled w/actual new info in a reader's mind. That doesn't seem helpful.

As I said, these thoughts aren'tt specific to this book. I know we are supposed to trust young readers to sort out what the problems are and what the facts are. But even adult readers often lack context & background related to Native people & issues. Will be thinking more about this!

Mike M said...

Thanks for another fine point-by-point review. I grew up in Ohlone Country, though it was taught as Costanoan back in my school days (yes--we did those mission projects; yes, we rode past the horrendous Junipero Serra sculpture on trips to the City), so I might have been intrigued by this book if I saw it on the library shelf. Now I might have to seek it out, to see for myself if it belongs on the "yuck shelf" in my mind.

Something authors and publishers might want to be more careful about is watching all the angles when they try to tick off too many check-boxes. Your critique covers the "Native heritage" check-box -- looks like a "Fail". As far as we can tell from your review, it seems like the "LGBTQA-Two-Moms" check-box may be a "Pass" for normal background. The third check-box, for "Adoptee identity" is the one that intrigues me, even though the first "Fail" renders it moot.

It sounds to me (again based on your review, which was not concerned with this issue) like the lies, the shame, the borrowing, the stealing, the re-thinking, the embracing, rejecting and all-around-confusion involved in building a transracial adoptee's identity may be accurate. I'll have to read it and see. Honestly though she'd need to be a really well-drawn unreliable narrator to pull it off successfully, and not likely in a children's novel, rare even in adult fiction like Hobson's Where the Dead Sit Talking.