Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Mark this day... there's a Native Imprint from a Major Publisher!

Way back when I started graduate school in the mid 1990s, I wanted to see so much more being published by Native writers... and here, in 2019, is the very best news that I could hope for...

Congratulations to Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee) for making it happen!

Thank you, to Rosemary Brosnan and HarperCollins, for your commitment to Heartdrum, to Cyn, and to Native writers and illustrators.

And thank you, Ellen Oh! 

And Rainey--the logo... perfect!

[This news was first published by Publishers Weekly.]

Recommended: The Case of the Missing Auntie

 How often have you read a middle grade mystery novel that had you in tears just a few pages after making you laugh? That's what happened when I spent yesterday with an ARC of Michael Hutchinson's new Mighty Muskrats Mystery, The Case of the Missing Auntie (Second Story Press, 2019)

In The Case of Windy Lake, Hutchinson introduced four mystery-solving Cree cousins: Atim, Chickadee, Samuel, and Otter, known in their community as the Mighty Muskrats. Now he has the Muskrats head for the Big City to visit some more cousins, and to attend a big event called the Exhibition Fair. Hutchinson reveals a bit more about each character this time, along with a lot more about historical and contemporary Indigenous experience in the part of the world currently known as Canada.

Chickadee looks forward to the Exhibition (the Ex), but she's also on a mission. Their Grandpa has told her about his younger sister who was taken from a boarding school decades ago, and lost in "The Scoop" The family hasn't seen or heard from her since, and he wants very much to find her. "The Scoop" is the informal name for a set of Canadian policies that resulted in many First Nations children disappearing, forever separated from their families. Chickadee is determined to find out what happened to Auntie Charlotte, even if that means she has to guilt-trip her cousins into helping her. And even if she has to navigate the city transit system alone while Atim, Samuel, and Otter try to find a ticket for Otter to a sold-out concert by their favorite Indigenous band.

Hutchinson's storytelling is engaging. The kids find some good allies and face some unexpected challenges, even dangers. To say more about the plot lines might give something away. So.

Windy Lake featured some standout prose, and Hutchinson's way with words is evident in Missing Auntie as well. Here are a couple of examples.

a) Chickadee and her older cousin Harold are talking at breakfast about the contrasts between the Windy Lake reserve and the city. Harold says, "City people don't seem to know there is a different life out there. It's like the city mouse killed the country mouse and forgot he ever existed. Our people can get lost in the city." That sly reference to one of Aesop's fables made me smile and think, "Funny!" and "Yikes!" at the same time.

b) And here's part of the description of an arcade and pool hall the Muskrats enter during their effort to get that concert ticket for Otter: "The Crystal Palace was a mixture of deep shadows, colorful neon, and arcade lights. It smelled like the ghosts of greasy burgers and spilled pop....A palisade of pool sticks lined the outside walls. A scattering of players focused on their games. The smack and click of pool balls colliding kept a random tempo."

But you don't get the impression that Hutchinson is bashing urban life -- the Muskrats meet some good people, people of subtle courage and outright heroism, along with racists, criminals, and people who have lost themselves. It's clear that the city can be a combination of the strange, the unfriendly, the wondrous, and the ordinary. And the characters of the Muskrats are developing, too, in ways that are easy to appreciate. These are good-hearted, caring, smart young people, but they're all individuals.

Hutchinson also weaves in factual information as the kids sort out what happened to their Grandpa's little sister.  Occasionally that can seem like a lot of exposition, but some readers won't know otherwise about the boarding schools and the Scoop, about present-day bureaucracy, about Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and about how the old racist policies continue to affect First Nations families today.

I found the ending to be realistic and satisfying, even though it unfolded in a way I didn't expect. Overall, Missing Auntie is a good read, with an emotional "punch," and I can hardly wait for the Mighty Muskrats to take their next case. But Missing Auntie won't be out until spring 2020. Preorder your copy now from Second Story Press!

Recommended! THE RELUCTANT STORYTELLER by Art Coulson; illustrated by Hvresse Christie Blair Tiger

Note from Debbie on Nov 28, 2023: Due to my concerns over Art Coulson's claim of being Cherokee, I am no longer recommending his books.  

There's a specialness to Art Coulson's The Reluctant Storyteller that is moving through my head and heart. You won't find it for sale in the usual places because it is published by Benchmark Education, who publishes "leveled readers" for classroom use. Some people don't like books like this because they don't have the slick production values that you find in books in bookstores.


Don't look away! Benchmark Education offers books that I know--without a doubt--that Native children will be happy to read! One of my favorite books--ever--is Where'd You Get Your Moccasins by Bernelda Wheeler. When I was teaching children's literature way back in grad school in the 1990s, it was on the required list of books I asked pre-service teachers to buy. Some would look at the stapled spine and think less of it without reading the words in the book that made, and makes, my heart soar! They had to learn to set aside elite notions of what a book should be like, and think about the content and what that content could do for readers in their classrooms.

I ask that same thing for The Reluctant Storyteller. The things I look for in a book are all here. It is set in the present day, it is tribally specific, it is written and illustrated by Native people, and it rings true! Coulson knows what he's talking about. The family at the heart of this story is filled with storytellers who adore being out and about, telling Native stories. They're from Oklahoma, but live in the Twin Cities. They do visit, a lot, and a trip is coming up. Chooch, the main character in Coulson's book doesn't want to go. He's rather stay in Minneapolis for the Lacrosse tournament.

Chooch doesn't tell stories and can't imagine himself as a storyteller. His dream? To be a chef. But, nobody knows that he wants to be a chef. He enjoys cooking with his mom and grandma, making up recipes. Things he makes are tasty!

On the way to their Oklahoma, Chooch's uncle tells him a story about a Tsula, a fox who wishes he had a coat of feathers, like Totsuhwa, the redbird that he sees flying about in the trees, so that he could fly, too. One day he runs and runs and runs, so fast, that his feet are off the ground. Day moves into night and, well, he started flying. He's no longer Tsula, the fox. Now, he's Tlameha, the bat. People who read AICL regularly know that I'm careful about traditional stories and how a writer works with them, uses them, bringing them into a book. This story is one that the Cherokee people tell. Coulson is Cherokee. I trust that he's sharing a story that can be shared. And--I love the way he brought it to Chooch.

They get to Oklahoma, and Chooch is drawn to the cooking area of a Native gathering. By the time we get to the final pages of The Reluctant Storyteller, Chooch understands himself in ways he did not before the trip. He's learned that there are many ways to be storytellers.

And, there are many ways to tell stories--to bring stories to children and teens! That's what I mean, up top, where I say there's a specialness to this book. There's layers of truth in it. Layers of Native life, too... 

So, don't turn away from leveled readers. If you open the Benchmark catalog, you'll see other writers there, too. Like Ibi Zoboi! And David Bowles! And Jane Yolen! Jerry Craft, and, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve! These are names teachers and librarians are familiar with. Look at the catalog! You'll see others, too. 

I like The Reluctant Storyteller very much and recommend that you get it... but I think the books are hard to get. I got my copy from Art Coulson's website.

Recommended: JOHNNY'S PHEASANT written by Cheryl Minnema, pictures by Julie Flett

Johnny's Pheasant is written by Cheryl Minnema (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe) and illustrated by Julie Flett (Cree-Métis). New in 2019, it is a picture book I am pleased to recommend.

Grandma's are special, aren't they? Mine was, and I know my mom is special to my daughter and all her other grandchildren. In some families, grandma's make things. When I was a kid, I hung out with my grandma, a lot. I have such fond memories of those times, helping and watching her make things.

Back in the 1960s when the US government was putting a blacktop road on our reservation, they also strung barbed wire fencing to keep livestock off the road. That barbed wire came on wire spools that are about the size of a 5 gallon bucket. The end parts of the spool looked like flower petals. Here's a photo that sort of looks like what I have in my memory:

Image result for barb wire spool vintage

I walked with my grandmother for miles and miles, gathering up empty, cast off spools. At home, she bound them together in an array that she attached to a wood frame. These then became charming gates to the porch, and to the garden. She also worked with feathers. She especially liked peacock feathers. She'd trim them and attach them to fabric wall hangings. They were so pretty!

In Johnny's Pheasant, we see a grandma and grandson, out and about. Johnny spies something in the grass. Turns out, it is a pheasant! Grandma thinks it is dead and that she can use its feathers in her craft work. But Johnny thinks the pheasant is ok. He's right!

The pheasant comes to from its seemingly-dead state, and flies about the house, at one point, landing on Grandma's head! Johnny thinks the pheasant, lying there in Grandma's house, had heard his grandma say she was going to use its feathers--and her words roused it!

From grandma's head, the pheasant flies out the open door. Johnny and his grandma go outside and watch it fly away. But, a single feather flutters to the ground. When Johnny hands it to his grandma, she exclaims "Howah."

Howah is an Ojibwe expression meaning 'oh my!' I enjoyed reading this story, but when I read "Howah," I paused. Ojibwe kids are gonna love that! Johnny's Pheasant is a delight on many levels. Published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2019, I recommend it for every family, Native or not, who tells stories about grandma's. Its quite a heartwarming story! 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Dear _____: I got your letter about Thanksgiving

Today's blog post has an unusual title. It is my effort to reply, in one response, to the range of queries I get by email. These are emails that give me hope. They embody a growing understanding that Thanksgiving, as observed in the U.S., is fraught with problems.

Those problems range from the stereotyping of Native peoples to the pretense that peoples in conflict had a merry sit-down dinner.

Some emails are from parents who are dismayed when they visit their library and see children's books filled with those stereotypes and pretenses. These parents want their children to learn the truth. So they turn to the library for help.

Some parents tell me that, in a previous year, they had talked with librarians about the problems in the books. These parents felt hopeful that the librarians understood and would provide different kinds of programming and displays this year but that doesn't happen. Others tell me that the librarian interprets their questions as efforts to censor books. Some get lectured about censorship.

The thrust of the emails is this: what can I do?

Those of you who are writing to me have already taken the first step, which is to know there's a problem. Others have to know that, too. In order for changes to happen, more people have to understand what you already know. There is a problem. So, talking with friends and colleagues about it is a second step. Some of you already do that, which is great. Keep talking! And use social media! Though there are valid concerns about the merits of social media, I think it is why so many towns, cities, universities, schools, and states have instituted Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day.

With that in mind, I'm sharing a terrific resource that is available, online, at no cost.

Titled "Origin Narrative: Thanksgiving," it is a free teacher's guide to be used by people who have bought a copy of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People but I think people can use it without the book.

A brief note: In 2014, Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States was released by Beacon Press. Teachers asked for a version that they could use with teens. Beacon asked if I would do it; I invited my friend and colleague, Dr. Jean Mendoza, to do it with me, and it was released in 2019, with "For Young People" as part of its title.

Here's a screen capture of the lesson plan. To download it, go to Beacon's website where you can see the webpage of it and the link to download a pdf. You can ask your library to get the book, and if you have the option, see if you can schedule one of the library's meeting rooms to have a conversation with others about the holiday.

I welcome other thoughts. What strategies have you used that seemed to help?


Ah! Meant to include a bit more. Some people write to me asking for Thanksgiving books that I recommend they use with children. My impulse is to offer some suggestions, but I am also trying to remind them and myself that the question is, in essence, one that centers the holiday itself. It seems to recognize that stereotyped and erroneous storylines are not ok, but it still wants Native peoples at that table.

Instead of providing a list of books that can be used for this week, I am asking that you use books by Native writers, all year long. Don't limit our existence to this holiday.

In the Best Books page here at AICL, you'll find lists that I create, and links to the pages about the Youth Literature Awards, given by the American Indian Library Association. I've also written several articles that are available online. Some are about books I recommend, and some are ones that invite you to think critically about books. Here's the links. They work right now but journals don't keep articles available this way, long term. You might have to ask your librarian for the article if a link no longer works.