Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Thoughts on Patricia MacLachlan's THE HUNDRED-YEAR BARN (and my conclusion: Not Recommended)

On October 8, 2019, a reader wrote to ask me if I had seen Patricia MacLaughlan's The Hundred-Year Barn. Published by HarperCollins and illustrated by Kenard Pak, it came out recently.

Though the reader did not say why they were asking me about The Hundred-Year Barn, my hunch is that they read my article, An Indigenous Critique of Whiteness in Children's Literature (write to me and I'll send you a copy of it). The article is a published account of the remarks I made when I gave the 2019 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture in Madison, WI.

In that lecture, I talked about the 2018 Caldecott Award winner, Hello Lighthouse (by Sophie Blackall) which I view as the epitome of Whiteness and the embodiment of the nostalgia we hear when we read the news ("Make America Great Again"). I said:
I have no doubt that people think books like Hello Lighthouse are "neutral" or "apolitical." That's Whiteness at work. From my perspective, the politics in Hello Lighthouse are front and center. Its nostalgia for times past is palpable. In Blackall's book, the life of a white family is affirmed and the lighthouse that they live in is on what used to be Native lands. There's no neutrality there. In fact, if we think about it, every children's book for which the setting is this continent, is set on what used to be Native lands. If we could all hold that fact front and center every time we pick up a children's book set on this continent, how might that change how we view children's literature? How might that shape the literature as we move into the future?

People did not (and do not) like me saying that about Blackall's book. That is, however, my sincere appraisal of it and my questions are sincere, too. What if we did think about the land every time we pick up a children's book like The Hundred-Year Barn?

Here's the description of The Hundred-Year Barn from the HarperCollins website:
One hundred years ago, a little boy watched his family and community come together to build a grand red barn. This barn become his refuge and home—a place to play with friends and farm animals alike.
As seasons passed, the barn weathered many storms. The boy left and returned a young man, to help on the farm and to care for the barn again. The barn has stood for one hundred years, and it will stand for a hundred more: a symbol of peace, stability, caring and community. 
In this joyful celebration generations of family and their tender connection to the barn, Newbery Medal–winning author Patricia MacLachlan and award-winning artist Kenard Pak spin a tender and timeless story about the simple moments that make up a lifetime.
This beautiful picture book is perfect for young children who are curious about history and farm life.

The barn was built in 1919. We aren't told where (geographically), but Lachlan's dedication to her grandparents suggests that she may have had North Dakota prairies in mind when she wrote this story. But, she was born in Wyoming and said that she carries a bag of prairie dirt with her, so it could be Wyoming rather than North Dakota. What was going on in those states in the early 1900s? North Dakota became a state of the US in 1889. Wyoming became a state in 1890.

I'll say this, just to be obvious: all that land belonged to Native Nations.

I wanted to read The Hundred-Year Barn to see if there was any mention of Native people. I wondered if there was an author's note that said a bit more about that land, that barn, that family. In short: no. I've got the book in front of me today and it is simply a white family and community. Not a single mention of Native people or communities. Its history starts in 1919 with a white family.

Now--I know some of you are saying "MacLachlan's book isn't about Native people!" and "Don't judge it for what it doesn't have in it." But those are thin arguments, aren't they? If we think back to children's books that, for decades, showed women in narrow ways, critics asked questions, right? Asking questions about the contents of books is one mechanism to drive change.

I'm pretty sure that, in 1919, Native people were watching White people building barns on what was once Native homeland. And that, in that hundred-year period, Native people watched more and more White people move on to Native homelands and build things.

I'd bet, as a matter of face, that there were lawsuits in federal courts, through which Native Nations were trying to get the US to honor treaties it made with them.

The Hundred-Year Barn is--to some--a lovely story. To a Native person--to me--it is one like so many others that erase Native people from existence. It denies truths to children. And it feeds a nostalgia for a time that never really was like what you see when you read MacLachlan's book. The Hundred-Year Barn is not a good that I would recommend, to anyone. All kids deserve better than that.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Update from Debbie, Oct 26, 2019: Unfortunately, the endpapers include some state recognized groups (I won't call them tribes or nations) whose website information makes me cringe. I hope the team who put the endpapers for Fry Bread together can make edits immediately. I am in the process of looking at them carefully and am considering creating a post that tells you how/why I am saying I would not personally call them tribes or nations. 

All across social media, friends and colleagues are saying "Happy Book Birthday!" to Kevin Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal. That's because their book, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story is officially available, today, October 22, 2019.

There's a lot inside the covers of Fry Bread! What you find when you turn the pages is why I highly recommend it.

I wish I had slick video and video-editing skills so I could offer you a short and compelling film about the book. I don't have those skills, so... here's what I have:

Here's a screen capture (from my kindle copy of the book) of the last page I showed you in the video:

See those adults pointing out names of Native Nations? That's so wonderful! Mine--Nambé--is there, too. Here's my finger, pointing to it:

Those of you who follow AICL know that we emphasize the importance of sovereignty... Of knowing that Native Nations pre-date the United States. So many names inside this book! It will be empowering to so many readers!

There's more, though, to say about Fry Bread. 

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Santa Fe Indian Center, in Santa Fe, NM. I talked about the names of nations but I also talked about the range of hair color and skin tone in the book. See?

After the lecture, a family approached me to say how deeply moved they are by seeing a child with lighter skin and hair. Fry Bread pushes back on the expectation that Native people look the same (black hair, dark skin, high cheekbones etc.). That expectation means that adults don't hesitate to tell a Native child like the girl holding the cat that they are "not really an Indian" (or some variant of that phrase). That's such a damaging statement! When you hear an adult say that to anybody--but especially a child--stop them.

The final pages of Fry Bread can help you interrupt that kind of harmful statement. There, Maillard wrote that:
Most people think Native Americans always have brown skin and black hair. But there is an enormous range of hair textures and skin colors. Just like the characters I this book, Native people may have blonde hair or black skin, tight cornrows or a loose braid. This wide variety of faces reflects a history of intermingling between tribes and also with people of European, African, and Asian descent.
It is quite the challenge to impart substantive information in an engaging way, but Maillard and Martinez-Neal have done it, beautifully, in Fry Bread. I highly recommend it! Published by Roaring Book Press (Macmillan) in 2019, I hope you'll order several copies for your bookshelves, and to give to Native families, too.

Update: October 23, 2019
In a comment, I was asked if the book has information about the history of fry bread and its impact on health of Native people. It does--and that is yet another aspect of what makes this book stand out.

One double paged spread shows Native people in shadow. The woman on the cover is telling kids about the long walk. The text is:

Fry bread is history
The long walk, the stolen land
Strangers in our own world
With unknown food
We made new recipes
From what we had

In the Author's Note, Maillard provides teachers and parents and librarians who do not know this history, with information they can use to prepare to use the book with kids. It is an exquisite author's note! It spans eight pages that correspond with the illustrated pages that are the heart of Fry Bread. And--they're footnoted! I don't recall seeing footnotes in an Author's Note before.

Maillard writes that people think the Navajo (Diné) were the first to make fry bread. He talks about how, across the country, Native people and our ways are resilient and here, today, in spite of efforts to weaken and destroy our nations and communities.

He writes that there are some Natives who are pushing back on the making and eating of fry bread. He wrote:
For these critics, fry bread is an easy target for a much larger problem of being forced to deviate from a traditional Indigenous diet.
The larger problem, he writes, is a reality many Native communities face. There are no fresh food markets nearby, fast food is more readily available, and access to health care (like markets) is difficult. We know that fast food is unhealthy when eaten every day. Maillard makes that point about fry bread, too. Eating it everyday will lead to health problems.

As noted above, the Author's Note is exquisite for the depth of information it provides. I quoted that one sentence, but will also note that the sentence has a footnote! It goes to Devon Mihesuah's article, "Indigenous Health Initiatives, Frybread, and the Marketing of Nontraditional 'Traditional' American Indian Foods." In his Author's Note, Maillard provides 15 footnotes! Like I said... exquisite. And--I think--groundbreaking.

Monday, October 21, 2019

A First Look at Roanhorse's RACE TO THE SUN

In July of 2019, I received an ARC (advanced reader copy) of Rebecca Roanhorse's Race to the Sun. I did a short twitter thread as I looked it over. Below is that thread, with some light editing to the original tweets, for clarity. I assume that Roanhorse and Riordan, too, read my thread and that edits to the ARC will be made before the final printing of Race to the Sun.  The book is due out in 2020.


I have an ARC of Roanhorse's RACE TO THE SUN.

I was wrong to recommend her TRAIL OF LIGHTNING. Details: Concerns about Roanhorse's TRAIL OF LIGHTNING.

RACE TO THE SUN is in Rick Riordan's "Rick Riordan Presents" series. His use of his fame to launch writers of color is terrific. I haven't read the other book in Riordan's series.

His intro for RACE TO THE SUN is titled "The Original American Gods." That's a problem, for sure. His problematic intro looks like this:
Changing Woman. Rock Crystal Boy. The Glittering World. The Hero Twins.
Do you see why that's not ok? "Original American" erases the fact that the Diné people pre-date America.

Indigenous peoples weren't "Original Americans."

They weren't "First Americans" either.

They were people of their own unique nations, all of which pre-date the United States. 

Moving from Riordan's intro to the book itself, I am pretty sure the Diné Writers Collective would say no to it, immediately. In their Open Letter, they state that Roanhorse appropriated Diné culture when she wrote TRAIL OF LIGHTNING. But they are also concerned with the content. They write that
Roanhorse often mischaracterizes and misrepresents Diné spiritual beliefs.
Roanhorse turns deities into caricatures.

They reference others who have appropriated and misrepresented Diné beliefs, including Tony Hillerman, Oliver LaFarge, and Scott O'Dell. 

And they write that 
We are concerned that this book attempts to convert our true ancestral teachings into myth and legend.
Upthread, I linked to the Diné Writers Collective letter. I hope you go read the entire letter.

It is signed by Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, Chee Brossy, Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, Tina Deschenie, Jacqueline Keeler, Dr. Lloyd Lee, Manny Loley, Jaclyn Roessel, 
Roanna Shebala, Jake Skeets, Dr. Laura Tohe, Luci Tapahonso, and Orlando White. 

In her Author's Note for RACE TO THE SUN, Roanhorse writes
I am just a writer of fantasy, not a culture keeper or scholar. This book should not be taken for a cultural text.
That is an icky, not-my-fault disclaimer because it echoes what Whiteness says (by "Whiteness" I mean white writers who argue that what they do in fiction doesn't have to be accurate because everybody knows that fiction isn't real. That is a disingenuous defense, no matter who says it.) 

In that note, she also thanks Riordan for allowing her to:
...share some of what I know of the beauty of the Navajo culture with Navajo readers and the rest of the world.
That kind of clashes with what she said, earlier (about the book not being a cultural text). First she says not to read the book as a cultural text, but then she says she's glad to share what she knows about Navajo culture.

How are readers going to know which parts are fantasy and which are not?


I am currently reading Race to the Sun, making notes as I do. So far, I've met the main character. She is a Diné girl named Nizhoni who can see monsters. Because of that power, the monster she sees in the opening chapters tells her that it has to kill her.

But, a small stuffed horned toad on her shelf speaks to her, telling her she has to slay that monster. To do that she has to go to the Glittering World where she will meet the Sun, who is also known as The Merciless One, and who will give her the tools she needs to kill that monster. 

Clearly, Roanhorse is using Navajo stories to create the characters in Race to the Sun. As such, people in the Diné Writers Collective will see this as appropriation. Would the Diné Writers view these characters as caricatures?

When I finish reading and thinking about the book, I will be back with a link to the review.


In the last few months, I (Debbie) have received a few emails about the National Parks. I have replied by directing individuals to An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, for Young People. 

When Jean and I adapted Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's book into one that teachers could more readily use on their own or with students, we made choices on what to modify, keep, leave out, or expand.

Knowing that some families visit National Parks, we decided to expand a bit on that topic.

In Chapter 9, "The Persistence of Sovereignty," we wrote about the Yellowstone Park Act in a segment we titled "Pushing Back Against Legalized Land Theft." In that section we talk about several instances in which a tribal nation fought to have land taken from them to create a national park or forest, returned. One example is Blue Lake, taken from Taos Pueblo when President Roosevelt created Carson National Forest in 1906. For decades, they fought to have it returned.

As you can see from the screen cap of my Kindle copy of that page, we also have a "Did You Know" textbox about a legal term: reserved rights. That was deliberate on our part because we knew there was a case before the Supreme Court, about whether or not Clayvin Herrera, a member of the Crow Nation, had rights to hunt in the Bighorn National Forest.

When teachers introduce information about the National Park system, we hope our adaptation will help them provide students with a more critical look at how those lands came to be "national" parks.

And we hope they'll draw connections from history to the present day. They can do that, for example, by studying and talking about Clayvin B. Herrera v. State of Wyoming. It cited the reserved rights doctrine. The court, by the way, ruled in favor of Herrera.