Friday, September 17, 2021


The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature
Edited by Esther G. Belin, Jeff Berglund, Connie A. Jacobs, and Anthony K. Webster
Cover Art by Shonto Begay
Foreword by Sherwin Bitsui, with Contributions by 
Jennifer Nez Denetdale and Michael Thompson
Published in 2021
Publisher: The University of Arizona Press
Status: Highly Recommended
Reviewer: Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh)


In 2021, two terrific anthologies were published. First was When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry (edited by Joy Harjo). Harjo's anthology has writers from many different nations. I recommend you get a copy of it. Second is The Diné Reader. I recommend you get a copy of it, too, because it gives you depth about one nation. 

Let's start with Shonto Begay's cover art. He is known in children's literature for two books he wrote and illustrated: Ma'ii and Cousin Horned Toad (1992), and Navajo Visions and Voices Across the Mesa (1995). The title of the art on the cover of The Diné Reader is "With Glowing Words." We see a Diné person, reading. In the interview of him on page 182, he said: 
"When I paint people reading, it's also beyond what the picture is, it keeps going on. It's an interpretation of an interpretation of a reader."
As I think about that, I wonder how high school students will interpret what they find in The Diné Reader. Who that reader is and what they've read will shape their interpretations of the poems and stories in the book. 

Sherwin Bitsui did the foreword for the book. Towards the end of the first paragraph, he says that non-Navajo and non-Native people tell him that they learned about Navajo culture through Tony Hillerman's books. Hillerman, you see, is not Native. What he provides is incorrect portrayals of Navajo people. In contrast, when Bitsui talks with young Navajo students who are in universities and learning about Navajo writers, he sees their excitement over stories and poems by Navajo writers that reflect their own experiences. The Diné Reader, he says, provides teachers with authors and resources they case use to bring greater depth and understanding to students who read work by Navajo writers. That depth and understanding is crucial because it can push aside the Hillermans of the book world.  

Are you one of the people who reads or recommends Hillerman? Stop doing that right now! If you're a teacher, your responsibility is to educate students. With Hillerman, you are miseducating them. Get a copy of The Diné Reader and start reading. Find a story or poem that resonates with you in some way, study the interview that precedes that writer's work, and then look in your library for additional materials from that author (start with the Bibliography in the final pages of the reader). If your library doesn't have something you want, ask for it!

And make sure to read Esther Belin's introduction to the history of Navajo literature, Jennifer Nez Denetdale's "Chronology of Important Dates in Diné Political and Literary History," and Michael Thompson's "Resources for Teachers and Readers." All three are excellent for what they provide to teachers who want to step away from the nonsense of Hillerman and do right by Navajo people. Thompson (he is Mvskoke Creek) organized his resources into sections, including one on humor that I like a lot. For each of his sections, he discusses it, follows with "considerations and reflective tasks" and ends with works in the reader that exemplify the idea the section is about. 

The Diné Reader can be used in high schools. As I page through my copy (or click through my e-book copy), I pause to read old favorites, smile at memories of hanging out with the poets, and of course, I read items new to me. As I read the introductory material about Tina Deschenie, I see that her first poem was published in 1973, when she was a high school student. In short, there's so much depth in the pages of this book! Order a copy and sit with it, soon!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Books by Native writers are on list of banned books at Central York High School in Pennsylvania

Update on Friday, September 24: Here is a link to Central York Banned Book List, which is a downloadable pdf of all the books. The pdf was made by the Central York Book Club (they used the original list). The original list was a spreadsheet that had tabs at the bottom to the 4th-6th grade and the high school books. And, earlier this week, news media reports indicate that the school board lifted the "freeze" on the books. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021. This morning, I saw posts on social about books that are being banned in Central York High School in Pennsylvania. The books are outstanding ones by terrific writers like Zetta Elliott, Jacqueline Woodson, Yuyi Morales, Aisha Saeed, Monica Brown, and Minh Lé. It also has a few books on it by white writers like Eve Bunting's Smoky Night (note: Smoky Night is deeply problematic. Its presence on the list tells us the committee may not be aware of those problems.) 

Books by Native writers are on the list, too. 

The list itself is a spread sheet titled Equity Book Resource List. I gather that a diversity committee created the list for teachers to use, but some parents did not like the books and went to the school board, who put the entire list on hold. There are a few media articles about the list and student protests to the books being banned. Some of the articles are disjointed. If you want to get a solid understanding of what is happening, see Kelly Jensen's article at Book Riot): School District Maintains Ban of Antiracist Books Despite Student Protests

The books by Native writers include:

Picture Books K-3
  • Fry Bread: A Native American Story by Kevin Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
  • The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves 

Books 4-6
  • An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (note: because it is listed in the 4th-6th grade section, I think this is the young peoples adaption that Jean Mendoza and I did. Dunbar-Ortiz and Mendoza are not Native, but I am.). 
  • Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis
  • We Are Grateful by Traci Sorell (Sorell's book is a picture book. Perhaps the committee felt it should be used at the 4-6th grade level. I'm among those who recommend picture books for all readers.) 
Update on Sept 24, 2021:  We do not recommend Jane Yolen's Encounter (it is on the list). And, unfortunately, Brad Meltzer's I Am Rosa Parks is being used on many news article and social media posts about the ban. I would prefer books by Native and Writers/Illustrators of Color receive visibility. 

Update on Jan 18, 2022: We do not recommend Hoffman's Amazing Grace. It is also on the list.