Saturday, January 18, 2020

NOT RECOMMENDED: Rebecca Roanhorse's RACE TO THE SUN. A review essay by Michael Thompson (Muscogee Creek)

With his permission, American Indians in Children's Literature is publishing Michael Thompson's essay about Rebecca Roanhorse's middle grade novel, Race to the Sun, published in 2020 by Disney Hyperion in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Thompson is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation and taught high school in Farmington, New Mexico. He does not recommend Roanhorse's book. 


NOT RECOMMENDED: Rebecca Roanhorse's Race to the Sun

What will Rebecca Roanhorse's Race to the Sun 
contribute to our understanding of the Native world it portrays?
Review essay by Michael Thompson (Muscogee Creek)

When Rebecca Roanhorse published her dystopian fantasy novel Trail of Lightning, I wrote at length about my grave concerns for her appropriation and distortions of Dine’ cultural narratives. I noted, as a Native educator and a Navajo in-law, that numerous Navajo writers were voicing similar objections, many of which are archived at Debbie Reese’s important website (AICL).

Now that Roanhorse has published a YA novel, Race to the Sun, my concerns remain unchanged, and arguably the stakes are even higher, as this book is likely to reach a much larger audience of younger readers, who are both Native and non-Native.

Although my primary conflict with RTTS is its failure to observe traditional boundaries that normally protect cultural narratives from appropriation, I will note briefly that there are some unusually problematic internal inconsistencies in the narrative and in some characterization.

For example, are we really to think that a young Navajo woman who has undergone her kinaalda is clueless at solving the riddle of what “four mountains bind you to your home”? Or that her father, a man who’d married a woman whose secret identity was supposedly a monsterslayer, would be seeking to work for a major oil and gas company that is being protested by Native people for its pipeline?

Moreover, there are some elements that are jarringly inconsistent with actual Navajo life and culture – the six stanza riddle that sets the quest seems straight out of European folklore, as does the plot structure that is clearly derived from classic stages of the hero’s journey, as well as the book and the sword that are among the monster slaying weapons provided by the Sun. And finally, I could barely believe that the climactic battle at Tse’Bit’Ai’ actually included Spider Woman dressed much like the Marvel superhero and casting a life-saving web. Clearly, the author feels free to mix and match whatever cultural/literary elements suit her fancy. This is opportunism on a grand scale.

Yet the greatest problem here is a simple one. Roanhorse must know that some traditional Navajo people consider her use of sacred figures and practices profoundly inappropriate. Those objections are well-documented.

She just doesn’t care.

Years ago I wrote an article for Tribal College Journal about the importance of the oral tradition in tribal college classrooms. I spoke with several Native scholars and instructors in researching that piece. One of the most significant personal conclusions I came to was this: as place-based, earth-based, community based cultures, tribal people honor the story of the group, its history and values and beauty, above the imagination of the solitary artist.

And I might add that the most important stories are often seen as belonging to the group, not to an individual to do with as he or she pleases. When I was first given a few traditional songs to learn to sing in ceremony, I was told this by my teachers: don’t add anything, don’t change anything, don’t take anything away.

That’s how it is possible to keep cultural knowledge intact for thousands of years.

For many traditional Native people, our origin stories, our ceremonial songs and teachings – passed down from our ancestors for centuries -- have a deeply sacred aspect, which in turn has made possible our cultural survival.

I am well aware that many people, maybe even a majority of Native people, consider the objections I am making inconsequential. So be it.

But there are at least some Native people I know who believe that we must always push back against anything that would diminish our origin stories, our worldviews. That means, among other things, protecting our stories as they were handed down to us.

As an educator, one of the most important questions I would ever ask about any work categorized as Native literature is this: what will it contribute to our understanding of the Native world it portrays?

When I consider Race to the Sun, I find almost nothing of real value to deepen one’s understanding of actual Navajo teachings but rather a mishmash of coming of age tropes from various non-Native cultures and from popular American culture, sprinkled with just enough familiar Navajo elements (hogans, Navajo tacos, geographic icons, and the like) to label it a Navajo story. No doubt there is a great deal of currency in mainstream readership for doing this. But there is little here to educate young Navajo or non-Navajo readers about the real meaning of the Dine’ narratives’ actual Holy People or the complex principles on which they are based.

The literature that Roanhorse makes uses a kind of cultural costumery and caricature. She takes characters and iconic landmarks from a rich, interconnected set of sacred Navajo stories, which have profound significance within that context, and she uses them as plastic action figures and dramatic settings to spin out whatever pop culture genre she likes, without any real regard for the actual gravity that traditional Navajo people would attach to them.

This is cultural reductionism, plain and simple.

Spider Woman, for the Dine’, does not belong in the Marvel universe, however many books that may sell. She belongs exactly where she has always been -- in the Dine’ universe – with beauty all around her.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Changes ahead at American Indians in Children's Literature

Changes Ahead at American Indians in Children's Literature
Debbie Reese

When I launched American Indians in Children's Literature in 2006, it was my effort to make my research and thinking available to people who don't have access to professional or academic journals. Among my first posts are two about Lois Duncan's Season of the Two Heart. As I look back at it, I see that I did not use "recommended" or "not recommended" in the title of the post. In recent years, we have been adding our recommendation as part of the title of a post. Sometimes, a friend or colleague wrote something for AICL. I'd publish their post and include their name in the title of the post.

In 2016, Jean Mendoza became co-owner of AICL. Late last year, I realized that the only way that readers could tell who had posted an item was by looking at the tiny auto-generated note at the bottom of a post. Because those letters are so tiny, people were crediting me for work Jean did. That is not acceptable. So, as we move into 2020, we are making some changes!

Signed Headings

As you can see at the top of this post, its title (Changes Ahead...) and its Author (Debbie Reese) are in bold and centered. We'll do that for posts that are not book reviews.

Standardized Book Review Format

We are going to begin each book review with an image of the book cover, the book title, author, publisher... and we're adding "Reviewed by: ___" so that it is clear who is doing the review. Here's how that looks:

See the four asterisks at the bottom of that screen capture? Beneath the asterisks, we'll dive into our review. We've got different styles of writing. Some days our writing is formal. Sometimes it is more conversational. And sometimes I have a brief review that summarizes a series of tweets that I did as I read a book, followed by the tweets.

Our "Best Books" Lists

Over the years, we've had two kinds of year-end lists. I've done ones that are a compilation of Recommended and Not Recommended books in a given year. That allowed me to provide readers with a comprehensive list of every book I reviewed during that year. That included books published in that year, but it also included posts about older books.

In recent years, I switched to doing "Best Of (year)" lists that only included books published in that year. That is in keeping with what book review journals do each year but I find it limiting because older books don't get visibility that I want them to have. Jean and I are going to try out a few options to revamp the annual Best Book lists.

We look forward to figuring out a way to share a page of Best Books that includes books published in 2020, and ones we reviewed during 2020 that might have come out in 2015. And--we want to give visibility to problems in books we do not recommend, and in books we recommend with caution.

One more thing! We do more than book reviews at AICL. Sometimes we do essays about a topic or event of interest to us, personally or professionally. We want to be able to include links to some that we think readers should see.

We don't know what this will look like yet, but as the year progresses, we'll be working on it, behind the scenes. As always, we invite your feedback!

Sunday, January 12, 2020


Regular readers of AICL know that Jean Mendoza and I spent the last three years adapting Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States in an edition for young readers. It came out in June of 2019, as An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. 

We are glad to see it on year-end "Best Of" lists. Some are:

Booklist Editors' Choice Books for Youth 2019
Kirkus Reviews Best YA Nonfiction of 2019
School Library Journal Best Nonfiction of 2019
New York Public Library Best Books for Teens
Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Kids in 4th-8th Grades
Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, Best Books for Young Readers of 2019

If you're a teacher, parent, or librarian who plans to use the book, you'll definitely want to download the terrific Teacher's Guide to the book that Dr. Natalie Martinez wrote. She created several lesson plans, too! They are:

The Unitarian Universalist Association selected it for its 2019-2020 Common Read. Folks who are participating will definitely find the guide and lesson plans helpful.

If you see other listings or uses that we could add, let us know!