Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Not Recommended: Elisha Cooper's RIVER

Written by Elisha Cooper
Published in 2019
Publisher: Scholastic
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Status: Not Recommended

I'll begin with the book's description, from Scholastic:
A breathtaking adventure as a traveler and her canoe begin their trek down the Hudson River. In a mountain lake, the canoe gently enters the water's edge, paddling toward the river. The nautical journey begins. 
'She is alone, far from home. Three hundred miles stretch in front of her. A faraway destination, a wild plan. And the question: can she do this? 
In Cooper's flowing prose and stunning watercolor scenes, readers can follow a traveler's trek down the Hudson River as she and her canoe explore the wildlife, flora and fauna, and urban landscape at the river's edge. Through perilous weather and river rushes, the canoe and her captain survive and maneuver their way down the river back home. 
River is an outstanding introduction to seeing the world through the eyes of a young explorer and a great picture book for the STEAM curriculum. Maps and information about the Hudson River and famous landmarks are included in the back of the book.

My thoughts on River began as a Twitter thread I did on December 9, 2019 about Elisha Cooper's "A Note on the Hudson River" in the closing pages of River:

Notes can help a teacher, tremendously.

But when the note uses past tense words to talk about Native peoples... that book loses so much potential. And when that author fails to include Native peoples in the pages of the book itself, I am compelled to give it a Not Recommended label.

Stating the obvious: we (Indigenous Peoples) are here, in spite of all that was done to get rid of us. Children's books must not use past tense, exclusively--especially when a book has present day information! Past tense verbs affirm the idea that we no longer exist. They represent a significant flaw in a book that some think is worthy of the Caldecott Medal.

As Cooper's note demonstrates, he knows about several different Native Nations (scroll down to the tweet thread for details). Why couldn't Cooper have included some information about Native peoples in the journey the woman takes in her canoe? Cooper imagines a lot of people the woman interacts with on her canoe trip--but none of them are Native. On the endpapers where Cooper shows us maps of the states that the Hudson River passes through, he could have included "Homelands of the ___" and use his author's note to add that information to the maps. Any author or illustrator makes a lot of decisions as they create a book. Cooper has some knowledge and chose not to include it in the book. Why did he make that decision? Did it not occur to him? Did it not occur to his editors? Or, did they talk about it and decide not to use that information?

There is an expectation in children's literature that you should review the book in front of you, and not what you think the book could have been. Roger Sutton wrote about that recently at his blog (see Reviewing the book thats in front of your face). To use Roger's words, I'm committing a "cardinal sin" for questioning Cooper's omissions. His choice of words to describe that act is worth noting because it is rooted in a religion (Christianity) that was, and is, destructive to other religions and cultures. Regular readers of my work know that I've committed that "sin" a lot when I review books. Not asking questions about what is left out means letting the status quo continue as the status quo.

And of course, I won't stop asking questions!

And I hope you join me in asking them, too. River is published by Scholastic--the publisher who does book fairs in schools. You probably remember buying Scholastic books when you were a kid! They're a powerful company in schools. They shape what kids know. They can do better! #StepUpScholastic is an action to pressure them to do better.

I imagine some people saying, as they read my critique of River, that I should be grateful that Cooper included Native peoples in his note. I am, but, limiting his references to past tense is a selective inclusion that is insufficient when the book is set in the present day.

Before moving on to the Twitter thread (which has been slightly edited), I'll say again: I do not recommend River by Elisha Cooper.


Hey, Editor (at @Scholastic) of Alisha Cooper's RIVER:

She He used past tense verbs about Native peoples in his book about the Hudson:
It was called Cahohatatea ("The River") by the Iroquois who canoed it...

You do know that the peoples of the Haudenosaunee Nations are still here, right? So... why past tense?

You repeated the past tense error when you wrote parenthetically that
(Mohicans called it Huhheakantuck, or "The River that Flows Both Ways"). 
Did you talk to anybody at the Stockbridge-Munsee Community of Mohican Indians?

Your past tense tells us one of two things.

First, past tense when referring to Native peoples affirms the idea that Native peoples do not exist, today. Of course, that is an error. Second, if we assume that you think readers know that we are still here, then, you're telling readers that these nations no longer use those words.

If they don't, can you offer us evidence that you talked to someone who told you not to use those Native languages? Cooper's THE RIVER is getting lot of praise. You know... white woman going on a canoe trip alone... Whiteness loves that sort of thing. So, I'm not surprised it is getting praised.

BUT, COME ON, @Scholastic! What's with that Author's Note?! 

Note: Cooper’s first name is Elisha, not Alicia. And Cooper is he, not she. My apologies for that error. 

And a note to folks at Kirkus, School Library Journal, Horn Book, and ALA Booklist: if you have an in-house style or review guide, add something about verb tense! You have a lot of power to increase knowledge about this.


Ava Jarvis said...

There have been so many posts lately! And all great.

I'm moved here to comment because of the "rule" to not review what a book is not about. I've never been comfortable with that idea, because what a book is about is so nebulous? Even in the most seemingly cut-and-dried cases; say a book is about the ecology of our guts. But science has already shown that gut ecology is different from place to place---it's part of why we can get sick if we drink water in a place foreign to us, or why someone can digest something easier than someone else. If the author omits this information in favor of only showing, say, white gut ecology in Britain, even if the book is titled "White Gut Ecology in Britain, Leaving Out the Rest of the UK" we still have to ask why the limit was put in in the first place. After all, even just Britain's population isn't just white folks.

Also, a scientist would say: hey why are you limiting the value of your book by only providing one perspective on gut flora? If there isn't a note why with really good reasons why that make scientific sense, that scientist is extremely valid in asking that question.

Literature is the same, if not even more so!

You know what they say about keeping politics out of media? You can't, because everything is politics. And *omission* is politics as well. To not question omissions that are closely related to a work is to not question the politics of that work, as well as questioning if the work is as full as it could be.

If I write a pamphlet on first aid and neglect to tell you to look for the special medical tag some people carry to indicate what is and isn't good for their specific medical condition, well, it'd make no sense to review the first-aid pamphlet in front of you. (Also in this case doing so would actually result in deaths.)

As well, assuming that you know what any fiction book is really about is dangerous. Even if you're the author, because human brains are just awesome at self-deception and not noticing biases---it's why a huge list of logical fallacies exists at all. And if you're not the author and don't have mind-reading powers (and even if you did)... how arrogant is it to say that you know what a book is about and thus can make rules for everyone about what to review and what not to?

Perhaps the intention for "review only the book in front of you" is good, but it sounds pretty egotistical to me. Like going back to that hypothetical gut ecology book: a scientist who specializes in gut flora will see a different book than one who specializes in deep sea fauna. Should then both scientists be faulted for not agreeing what the book is about when they make their peer reviews? That's not a great idea. And when it comes to literature, it's far more complex. (Or perhaps, as complex, but in different ways.)

Anyways, I have been thinking for a very long time about "only review the book that's in front of you" and why it makes me so uncomfortable, like for years because these kinds of questions are the ones that are so hard to grasp for answers to. Philosophy is so damned hard, as any student of philosophy will tell you.

And everything is philosophy, in the end.

TLDR asking questions is good and a duty when you review a book.

-- Ava, who sometimes would like it if these questions did not keep me up at night for years, but hey, sometimes thinking is just that hard

Roger Sutton said...

Debbie, do you think it would have been better for Cooper to have said "It is called Cahohatatea ("The River") by the Iroquois who canoe it...."? Is that true?

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Hi Roger, I think it's more about calling our attention to how RIVER exemplifies a pattern. I've seen it over and over, I'm sure you have too, and Debbie writes about it often: "Nonfiction" narratives that tell the story of [some part of what we now call the US] as follows. 1, Native people were there and called this thing X. 2, Europeans were there suddenly, as if by magic, and Native people suddenly weren't, and the Europeans called the thing Y. 3, Now "we" are here and "we" interact in such and such a way with this thing that's *now called* Z.
I hope the problems with this framing are obvious--assumptions about who "we" are (it doesn't include Native people because they only exist in the past tense), and how the *actual* name of [the thing] is now the European name (when in fact that is far from true--many Native nations do still use traditional names).

So it's not a matter of "fixing" this instance of erasure of present-day Native people by altering the tenses as you suggest. It's about revisiting how book creators frame these nonfiction narratives to erase Native people in the first place, and coming to see the underlying, white-centric assumptions that underlie that framing.

Anonymous said...

Talking about what the Iroquois called and did on the Hudson river several hundred years ago does not erase the Iroquois any more than talking about what the Dutch called and did on the river then (compared to what it is now, de Hudson vernoemd naar Henry Hudson) does not erase the Dutch, anymore than talking about what the Assyrians called and did on the Mediterranean sea in the past does not erase the Assyrian people of today, scattered and dominated by others as they might be. You are reading your political social justice positions into authorial intent yet again, as you did in the Hundred Year-Old Barn book by MacLachlan, reviewing the road not taken, and the book not written. Roger Sutton wrote recently about this problem in his Hornbook "Read Roger," and he could not be more right.

Toren's mom said...

If the Dutch people and Iroquois people have the same status then your point might have some merit. Looking at things through a social justice lens means looking at power structures and those two cultures are not equivalent. The history is clear and it reverberates today. Whether the book’s author intended it or not, the impact contributes to the erasure of Indigenous peoples.