Wednesday, May 12, 2021

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher


 Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher 
Written by Kade Ferris (Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Canadian Metis descent)
Illustrated by Tashia Hart (Red Lake Anishinabe)
Published in 2020
Publisher: Minnesota Humanities Center
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Status: Highly Recommended

Biographies of Native sports figures have been few and far between, in my experience. Jim Thorpe and Tom Longboat are two that immediately come to mind. So it feels great to be able to recommend Kade Ferris' middle grade book about the Ojibwe man who invented a special pitch called the slider. 

Charles Albert Bender: National Hall of Fame Pitcher is part of the new series, Minnesota Native American Lives, edited by Gwen Nell Westerman and Heid E. Erdrich. AICL has already reviewed two others, about Peggy Flanagan and Ella Cara Deloria

Charles Bender was born near Brainerd, MN, in 1884. His mother Mary was an Ojibwe woman who cooked for a lumber company, and his father Albertus was a white (German American) lumberjack. After the trees were gone and the lumber company moved on, the family farmed on the White Earth reservation. One of the tasks that fell to Charles was picking up rocks in the field and throwing them out of the way of the plow. After a while, his aim was very good and his throwing arm was powerful. He credited this experience with the foundation of his success as a pitcher.

Charles and some of his siblings attended a boarding school in Pennsylvania for several years. He enjoyed his academic subjects there. When he was finally able to go home, he found living with his family intolerable. The crowded conditions and his father's brutality made him eager to leave again, this time for Carlisle Indian Industrial School. If you've read about Jim Thorpe's life and career, you'll remember that athletics were very important at Carlisle. Charles' talent for pitching caught the attention of Carlisle coach Glenn "Pop" Warner, and Warner eventually persuaded him to join the baseball team. 

Reading both the bio of Ella Cara Deloria and this book may have you pondering life trajectories. Ella Deloria was a multi-talented person who turned to academics amid ambient racism and sexism. Charles Bender, biographer Ferris tells us, also had multiple strengths. A very good student, he was drawn into athletics as a young man, and that world is where he spent much of his adulthood. Like Jim Thorpe, Charles excelled at several sports. He came to love golf and was so good at trapshooting that, in his day, he was nearly as famous for his marksmanship as for his pitching.

After graduating from Carlisle, Charles set aside an opportunity to continue his studies, and went to pitch for a semi-pro team in Harrisburg, PA. A scout for the Philadelphia Athletics noticed Charles' exceptional pitching during an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs, and told the now-legendary Athletics' manager, Connie Mack, about him. Ferris centers the high and low points of Charles' time in major league baseball, like any biographer writing about a sports figure. For example, he notes that Charles' pitching for the Athletics in the 1911 World Series was hailed as "one of the most impressive feats in baseball" -- "striking out twenty batters in twenty-six innings and only allowing one earned run average in the three games he pitched." The reader can relish hard-won victories along with Charles and his teammates, and feels the sting of set-backs and defeats. The book includes a table of stats for Charles Bender's major league career. 

But Ferris also does not avoid the fact that, like many athletes who were not white, Charles endured racist micro-aggressions and even blatant aggression. There were the seemingly inevitable war whoops from "fans", being nicknamed "Chief" in the press against his firm objections, and sometimes worse. In 1907, he was even refused service and physically thrown out of an evidently whites-only soda shop in Washington DC when he ordered a soft drink. Ferris speculates that Charles did not let these situations "get him down," and he certainly did not let them define him.

The triumphs and tribulations of being an Ojibwe athlete and person in the world are likely to stand out for readers. I enjoyed the ways the author presents what major league baseball was like during its early years -- quite a contrast to today! I can't speak for other readers who are sports fans, but I was interested Charles Bender's life outside of his athletic career. The book mentions his oil paintings, gardening, and love of the natural world, but not (I had to look this up) the fact that he was married for about 50 years to the same woman. I don't see this as a flaw in the book so much as an indicator that this bio leaves the reader wanting to know more, and that's a good thing.

As with the other books in the Minnesota Native American Lives series, Tashia Hart's illustrations augment the text, sometimes poignantly. See how she signals that Charles was retiring -- hanging up his cleats -- on p. 37. At least one illustration includes a subtle nod to Ojibwe identity -- the floral design around the full-length portrait of Charles Bender in action, on p. 23.  

The book includes the same "Extend Your Learning" pages that are part of the other books in this series -- an excellent resource for educators. I sure hope editors Gwen Nell Westerman and Heid E. Erdrich have more of these middle-grade biographies in the works about influential Indigenous people. You can express the same sentiment by buying these books and/or sharing them with students!

Highly Recommended! I SANG YOU DOWN FROM THE STARS, written by Tasha Spillett-Sumner; illustrated by Michaela Goade

I Sang You Down from the Stars
Written by Tasha Spillett-Sumner (Inninewak (Cree) and Trinidadian)
Illustrated by Michaela Goade (Tlingit, member of the Kiks.ådi Clan)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended


As I sit here at my computer on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 and think about the books that I reviewed last week, I notice that women and children, and grandchildren are at the center of each one. That continues with I Sang You Down From the Stars. With this book, we add a baby. I've written reviews of books about babies before (Richard Van Camp and Julie Flett's We Sang You Home is one) and am delighted to add this one! 

Spillett-Sumner and Goade's book was published on April 6. Right away, it was on the New York Times Bestseller list. Just look at that cover! Isn't it breathtaking? The words and the art in I Sang You Down from the Stars sparkle with warmth and love. 

Stories about family members working together always resonate with me, especially ones about sewing. These reflect our communities in such beautiful ways. Look at this double-paged spread in I Sang You Down from the Stars. On the left, we see people at a table, cutting fabric. We see a child, showing an elder a finished square. That scene tugs on my heart as this family gets ready to welcome a baby into the family and its community (I took this photo outside in the early morning light):

And when the baby is born, we read: 
Family and friends came from near and far to welcome you. 
One by one, they held you and greeted you.
Those words, too, invoke strong memories full of love! Mama's holding little children so they can cradle the new babies! 

Before you read this book to children, take time to read the notes from the author and illustrator. I'm seeing more space being given to authors and illustrators, where they can speak directly to readers about who they are and what they bring to the book. These notes are important! They add depth and tell you things that infuse and shape your reading of the book. 

When I think about "back matter" (that is the information provided after the story itself) that I've read over the decades that I've been doing this work, I realize that I've talked about it in individual reviews but I haven't written an article about that. Hmm. Maybe it is time for that. 

Get a copy of I Sang You Down from the Stars! When you're at your library, ask for it so that others can find and read it, too. And tell your friends and colleagues about it. 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Thinking Critically About Writing Assignments We Ask Children to Do [and a recommendation for TEACHING CRITICALLY ABOUT LEWIS AND CLARK by Schmitke, Sabzalian, and Edmundson]

When we ask children to think (and write) like someone of a different time period, a different culture, a different geographical location, and a different language, what are we giving them in order to do that? Do we have content that can help them do that with the educational integrity that is necessary? In the case of Sacagawea, we have nothing to go on. She left nothing written. All we have is a lot of imaginings of what she thought, and what she said. 

In January of 2019, a photo of a "Lewis and Clark Expedition Diary Entry" assignment went viral. Written by a fifth grader, it was circulating again recently. Several people sent it to me, asking what I thought of it. In the assignment, students are asked to imagine being someone on the expedition. In this case, the fifth grade child imagined herself as Sacagawea. Here's what she wrote on her worksheet:
Dear Diary,

I am so mad! I took 3 annoying men who were very stinky to find the best rout to the Pacific Ocean, found horses, food, and peace so tribes wouldn't attack us! I did that whole journey, but the thing is I did most of the work, not Lewis, or Clark, or my husband! It should have been called the Sacagawea expedition!! I DID THIS ALL WITH A BABY ON MY BACK YET THE MEN DID MORE COMPLAINING!! And I got zero $! Like come on! I'm never doing that again.
My guess is that all of you reading #31DaysIBPOC are aware that men are paid more than women, and that women get little credit for their accomplishments. You've probably taught your students about gender inequities. Clearly, the fifth grader who composed the "Dear Diary" entry had learned about the difference in how men and women are treated. With that in mind, the 5th grader's answer sounds great. That's why it went viral. People think it is clever.

But if we pause to think critically, do you think Sacagawea would have written something like that? Before, during, and after her lifetime, people of Native Nations were and are fighting to protect our homes, gardens, families, and homelands from outsiders who wanted/want Native lands and resources. 

Representations--or, rather, misrepresentations--of Sacagawea are on my mind of late because An-Lon Chen (a parent) wrote to me about Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin's biography of her: Who Was Sacagawea. Chen had been reading it to her child and found herself wondering about its accuracy. We had an email conversation that evolved into a review essay that AICL published on April 23. I'm linking to it here and I want teachers to click through and read her review, especially the section she titled "Erasure." There, she writes about the 1905 Portland World's Fair, and how the National Woman Suffrage Association unveiled the first statue of Sacagawea. [Update on Sunday, May 16, 2021: Chen emailed me this week to say that the 1905 statue was the first major one of Sacagawea. She's found an earlier one, from 1904, done by sculptor Bruno Zimm.]

My point in bringing up Chen's essay? Because I'm thrilled by her critical stance! I want more parents to ask questions. I want educators to welcome their questions, and when necessary, I want us to change what we're doing in the classrooms or spaces where we teach. 

I know--thinking critically is in the news a lot as some parent and teachers object to anti-racist instruction. Changing what we do is hard and sometimes scary, but it is important. We, at American Indians in Children's Literature, are providing book reviews that we hope are helpful to you as you revisit the books you have or teach in your classrooms. We also created Tips for Teachers: Developing Instructional Materials about American Indians. We're here to help and the #31DaysIBPOC series (this is its third year) can help, too. 

On my side table is a copy of Alison Schmitke, Leilani Sabzalian, and Jeff Edmundson's book, Teaching Critically About Lewis and Clark: Challenging Dominant Narratives in K-12 Curriculum. Published this year by Teachers College Press, I highly recommend it! It will help teachers revise what they've been doing when they teach about Lewis and Clark. 

As I bring this post to a close, a warm ku'daa (thank you, in Tewa) to Tricia Ebarvia and Kim Parker for launching #31DaysIBPOC in 2019 and inviting me to participate.  


This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. 

Please click here to read the previous blog post by Katie Huang (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).