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.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Highly Recommended: FOREVER COUSINS written by Laurel Goodluck; illustrated by Jonathan Nelson

Forever Cousins
Written by Laurel Goodluck (Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian member)
Illustrated by Jonathan Nelson (Diné)
Published by Charlesbridge
Publication Year: 2022
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended


As I turned the pages of Forever Cousins, I thought back to the early 1990s when we left Nambé's reservation to go to graduate school in Illinois. Our daughter was three years old. She and her cousins were in tears. The always-present playing options were about to change. 

When you start reading Forever Cousins, you'll meet Amanda and Kara and to a lesser degree, Forrest. You'll learn a lot about them. The two girls are together all the time. Sometimes they're doing things most kids in the U.S. do--like make jelly sandwiches--and sometimes they're doing something Native kids do, like dancing at a powwow. On the cover you see both girls have dolls. Those are quite special! They were made for them by their magúu (the author's note tells us that magúu is a Hidatsa word that means grandmother).

We learn that they live in a city and that Kara and her family are moving from the city to the Rez. They'll see each other in a year. A year! In subsequent pages we see the two, both feeling alone while doing the same activity. Amanda is at a powwow in the city (we see tall buildings in the background), holding her doll close as she sits on a folding chair. Kara is at a powwow on the Rez (we see low hills in the background). Her mom offers her some fry bread but she just hugs her doll and shakes her head.  

Throughout, Nelson's illustrations set the story very much in the present day. That's especially evident on the page where the two girls talk to each other using a video platform on their cell phones. Like anyone, we use all the forms of literacy and communication available to us! I like that but I also like the page where Amanda gets a post card from Kara. Finally it is time for Amanda and her family to hit the road! It'll take two days to get to the Rez. Nelson shows us their joy when they cross a state border. That made me smile. When we drove from Illinois to Nambé, we'd cheer just like that when we crossed from Texas into New Mexico! 

Amanda and her family arrive at the reunion, and after some initial shyness, the cousins have a great time and we see the families gathered while a new baby gets his Hidatsa name. It is then time to say their goodbye's. 

The story Goodluck and Nelson share in the pages of Forever Cousins is a joy to read and look at. Like the recent books by Native writers, it has an extensive Author's Note that provides teachers with information that helps them understand why Amanda and Kara and their families aren't on the reservation when the story starts. In her note, Goodluck says that the characters in her book represent her and her cousins growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in the Bay Area suburbs of California. She shares some background about her family and cousins and how the city and the Rez were both home and community. She says:
As a matter of fact, we are dual citizens: first enrolled members of sovereign Tribal Nations and then citizens of the United States. The term "sovereign nation" means a Tribal Nation that governs itself. If it is federally recognized, then it has a governmental relationship with the United States as a nation with a nation.
Those of you who know me probably guess that my heart is soaring as I read those sentences! Teachers: download Affirming Indigenous Sovereignty: A Civics Inquiry by Sarah B. Shear, Leilani Sabsazlian, and Lisa Brown Buchanan. It'll provide you with ideas on how you can incorporate tribal sovereignty into your classroom. 

In the portion of her note titled "From the Reservation to the City" she tells us that her parents moved from their reservation to the city because of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. It was a federal program that was described as a way for Native people to move to cities and get vocational job training--but there was more to it than that. Goodluck writes:
In actuality, the federal government wanted to erase Native culture by moving Native people to cities so they would adapt to the lifestyles of white people. 
I am so glad to see that sentence in this book! This is the honesty that ought to be in every book! 

She goes on to say that her parents were able to get jobs in the city, but that the government promise of a job did not work for most tribal people. They endured discrimination and racism. I have uncles and aunts who moved to cities for jobs. Some got those jobs and stayed in those cities, others came back very soon. I suggest you read Indian No More because it, too, is about this relocation program. 

I'm sharing the final paragraph in the note because it is so very powerful:
The treatment of Native Americans in the United States was and sometimes still is despicable. But as with the family in this story and with my own family, unjust experiences forge tight bonds between us and make us strong. Our resiliency is rooted in our ceremonies and culture. We have a deep love of home. The land reminds us of our ancestors, storytelling helps us make good decisions, and we continue to have love and loyal family connections that are unbreakable.

Forever Cousins is tribally specific. Both, the author and illustrator, are Native. The story is set in the present day. It can--and should be--read year-round (not confined to a heritage month or day). It is getting a 'highly recommended' label from me, but my enthusiasm for the book is much more than a 'highly recommended' label conveys. With this story and the note, Goodluck and Nelson give teachers or parents information that they can carry with them when they close this book and choose another one that features Native people. They see us as people who live in a city or on a reservation. They can see us as people whose identities and lives as Native people are central to who we are, and who share the same sorts of joys and fears that kids of other cultures do, too. 

Forever Cousins is one of the best books I've read. I'm delighted to read it, to write about it, and to recommend it to everyone.