Saturday, October 15, 2022

Dear Kate: An Open Letter to Kate DiCamillo (and Authors of Children's Books)

Update from Debbie on Monday, Oct 17, 2022: Kate DiCamillo responded to me, sharing my letter on her Facebook page. I deeply appreciate her response. Ones like it make me hopeful! Scroll to the bottom of my letter to read her response. 

October 15, 2022

Kate DiCamillo

Dear Kate,

You and I have never met. I'm tribally enrolled at Nambé Owingeh, a sovereign Native Nation in the southwest. In the early 1990s, I moved from Nambé's reservation to Illinois where I began working on a PhD in the College of Education at UIUC. My husband and our little girl went, too. Since then I've written book chapters and articles about depictions of Native peoples in children's books. In 2018, the American Library Association announced that I had been selected to deliver the 2019 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture. I'm pretty sure you know about the Arbuthnot. 

In 2005, I launched American Indians in Children's Literature, and I use it to do in-depth analyses of children's books. Sometimes--like now--I use it to speak directly to a specific author. 

I read Because of Winn Dixie at some point and had positive feelings about it. More recently I realized that it featured Gone With the Wind. And so, on June 17, 2016, I added it to my page, Books that Reference Racist Classics. And then in 2021 I learned that you had removed Gone With the Wind from your book. That was a good decision. I assume you had engaged in conversations with people who asked you to reconsider using it. 

Earlier this week (October 12, 2022) on your Facebook page, you wrote about being with friends and talking about books you and they loved when you were kids. 

You listed books people mentioned, including Island of the Blue Dolphins. As your conversation continued, you talked about how you had learned about those books. Many talked about how it read aloud to them in class. They remembered the teacher who read the book, too, and you wished those teachers could have heard you talking about those memories. 

You noted that reading aloud is a gift. On that, I concur. I have many warm memories of reading aloud to our daughter on our travels from New Mexico to Illinois. 

You closed your Facebook post with
[T]hank you, Mrs. Boyette, for reading Island of the Blue Dolphins to our second grade class.
For you, and the thousands of people who embraced and shared your post, Mrs. Boyette's reading aloud to you is a positive memory but for Native kids--especially ones who are Aleut, memories are not positive. Here is a thread by Dr. Eve Tuck, recounting her experience (I have her permission to share it). She did the thread in response to my critique of the book.

I appreciate the thorough analysis that has done here. As an Aleut person, I can say that the inaccuracies depiction of Aleut people in this book meant that non-Indigenous people said a lot of painful and ignorant things to me, especially as a kid.
I was a kid growing up in a white rural town in Pennsylvania, and usually ours was the only Native family in the community. I attended a school that had multiple copies of this book in classrooms, the library. I remember there even being a door display of this book.
So I grew up in a white community that only knew of Aleuts (Unangan) from this book.
I was taunted for it. I was asked by children and teachers to explain why Aleuts were “so mean.” And no matter what I said about my family, especially my grandmother, it wasn’t believed.
The book was believed over my real-life knowledge of Aleut people.
Fictionalizing an Indigenous community to make them the violent device of your plot line is a totally settler thing to do. O’Dell had no business writing a word “about” our people.
The book says nothing about us. Like Gerald Vizenor’s analysis of the figure of the ‘indian,’ it says more about the violent preoccupations of the settler, and says nothing about Unangan.
The last thing that I will say is that when I think about colonial violence that Aleut people were *actually* experiencing in their/our homelands in the time period that the book was set, it makes me doubly angry about the falsehoods depicted in this book.
But that would never be a best seller.

I'm writing this letter to you today, Kate DiCamillo, to ask you to extend the action you took regarding Gone With the Wind. Teachers are still using Island of the Blue Dolphins. Native children are negatively impacted, and everyone is being mis-educated by the contents of that book. 

Would you please revise your post, asking teachers not to read Island of the Blue Dolphins aloud, and tell them why they should not? Being able to tell them why they should make a different choice will mean that you need to read my critique. Revising your public remarks about the book is important. You would take a leadership role in doing so. You could speak about this at conferences. You and other writers with large followings could be a force for change! 

I'll close with a note to my readers: if you know DiCamillo, please give her a link to this letter. Consider writing to her, yourself. If you would like to comment to me, please do. I welcome thoughts from those who revisit their warm embrace of books. Please refrain from submitting comments that tell me I'm wrong. 


Debbie Reese
Founder, American Indians in Children's Literature
Twitter: @debreese

At 9:48 AM on October 17, DiCamillo responded to my letter. She wrote the following on her FB page:
When I talk to kids about writing, I tell them that one of the most important tools a writer can cultivate is their ability to listen to other people—to be curious about what other people think, and why.
Last week on this page, I wrote about the powerful experience of having a teacher read a book aloud to a class.  
I thanked my second-grade teacher for reading us Island of the Blue Dolphins.  
After that post, Dr. Debbie Reese, founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, wrote to tell me about how and why Island of the Blue Dolphins has caused pain.  
I read her letter and her article on Island of the Blue Dolphins and what I thought was: EVERYONE needs to read this, so I’m posting her letter here.
Thank you, Dr. Reese. 
I wish Mrs. Boyette had had the chance to read this letter, to know these things. 
And I am grateful to her for reading aloud to second-grade me.


Franki S said...

I have learned so much from your work on harmful representations and from the work of Dr. Laura Jiménez on nostalgia and children's books. It's helped me to see that although I may have happy memories about an old book because it was a good experience, that does not mean that book should continue to be shared with children. Especially in a classroom. I can have loving memories of a book AND see its problems and understand why it is harmful for children. When we know a book does harm, it is our responsibility not to continue to share it with children-no matter how much we "loved it" or how much other children we have shared it with "loved it". Thanks for generously sharing your expertise.

Anonymous said...

This is so important. We can remember a book fondly, but still see the damage it can do for others. Just because we loved it then, doesn’t mean we haven’t learned more. Like Maya Angelou says “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better!”

Jeffie Khalsa, parent said...

Thanks so much for this. I’m glad Kate DeCamillo posted your letter to her (how I came to read it) and I hope she will take the further step of reading your critique of Island of the Blue Dolphins and will take the steps you asked for of calling on teachers to stop reading it aloud to students.

I have had the recurring experience of reading books aloud to my kids (5 and 8) and realizing partway through that the book contains racist/sexist/ableist language or stereotypes. When they were really little I sometimes edited this out or changed it on the fly. Now that they are older I often read it as it’s written but stop to discuss it and critique it and explain why it’s problematic.

My concern is as my older kid reads many chapter books independently now, we aren’t having those discussions as much. But I try to have the discussions in general, and hope she notices and is skeptical about problematic language/messages in kids books. And I try to include books that are known to be empowering and accurate. Thanks for your important work!

Anne Ward-Masterson said...

Thank you for putting this into words. Many of the books I was read to as a child were truly lovely stories. There were a few though, that caused pain.

Molly Grimmius said...

I would love to know a list of books for elementary/ middle school age that you recommend that accurately show the culture of the Aleut. Or any books you recommend In general that you recommend when taking about Native American cultures.

Debbie Reese said...

Molly, please see the lists, here:

I don't have one to recommend, about Aleuts. I'll see what I find, though!

Lisa Y. said...

PS The Sign of the Beaver question was posed by me, Lisa Y. I didn’t realize it was unsigned before I posted the comment. Thank you!

Debbie Reese said...

Lisa, there are several posts at AICL about SIGN OF THE BEAVER. We and many others do not recommend it. Here's one post:


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! After reading it I saw that a local business was doing a literacy book drive and were specifically requesting Island of the Blue Dolphins. I forwarded them this article and they changed it to Birchbark House instead! Thanks for making it easy for me to advocate for better books!

Kaitie Jayne said...

Thank you for this article! After reading it I saw that a local business near me was doing a literacy book drive and were specifically requesting Island of the Blue Dolphins. I forwarded them this post and they immediately changed it to Birchbark House! Thanks for making it easy for me to advocate for this change!

Crystal said...

I just finished reading Alone by Megan E. Freeman which is a nominee for the California Young Readers Award this year. It begins with a quote from Island of the Blue Dolphins and the book is referred to numerous times as this is a survival book about a girl who is also left on her own. I wasn't sure if you knew about this one yet. It was published in 2021. It's disappointing that people are still holding that book up in a positive way.