Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Back Matter in 2022 book from Charlesbridge -- THE GARDENER OF ALCATRAZ

This morning on Facebook (in a discussion of books by region), I saw mention of The Gardener of Alcatraz. Written by Emma Bland Smith and illustrated by Jenn Ely, it came out in 2022 from Charlesbridge. In my experience, Charlesbridge is one of the publishers that is really trying to be conscious of content about Native peoples. 

I know the history of Alcatraz. Would any of that history, I wondered, be in The Gardener of Alcatraz

The answer is yes. Information is included in the back matter. I think solid info in a book's back matter as a step in the right direction. 

Here's the description for The Gardener of Alcatraz:
When Elliott Michener was locked away in Alcatraz for counterfeiting, he was determined to defy the odds and bust out. But when he got a job tending the prison garden, a funny thing happened. He found new interests and skills--and a sense of dignity and fulfillment. Elliott transformed Alcatraz Island, and the island transformed him.

Told with empathy and a storyteller's flair, Elliott's story is funny, touching, and unexpectedly relevant. Back matter about the history of Alcatraz and the US prison system today invites meaningful discussion.
I do hope that the back matter invites meaningful discussion! Many (most?) kids won't read the back matter--but teachers, parents, librarians--you certainly can! Read and study it so you can give more depth to students when you teach or book talk The Gardener of Alcatraz. Here's what I see:
  • In the Time Line is "1969-70: Native American occupation of Alcatraz" (p. 36).
  • In Alcatraz and Its Gardens (p. 37), there are several subsections:
The first paragraph of "The Early Years" says "Because there was no source of water, Native people did not live on the island (although historians believe the members of the Ohlone tribe may have hidden there to avoid being captured and forced into slavery in the California Mission system)." 

The second paragraph says "Native Americans were also imprisoned there for refusing to allow their children to be taken away and placed in boarding schools." 

There's an entire subsection called "The Native Occupation." The first paragraph is about the prison being expensive to maintain, and so it was shut down. The second paragraph is: 

Then, in 1979, a group of Native activists from different tribes occupied Alcatraz. Their goal was to raise awareness about the brutal ways in which Native people had been treated and to protest the recent closings of reservations across the country. The Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz for nineteen months before the government evicted them. Signs of their presence remain on the island to this day, inspiring visitors to reflect upon Indigenous people's ongoing fight for their rights.

I wish the author had included sources or books for this information. There's a selected bibliography but none of the primary sources, books, online resources, or DVD's that they list are specific to Native people at Alcatraz. She cites books that are not ones for children. For example, she cites Michael Esslinger's Alcatraz: A History of the Penitentiary Years. She could have cited one of Adam Fortunate Eagle's books. You can read his Heart of the Rock: The Indian Invasion of Alcatraz at the Internet Archive (or get a copy from your library). Another option is Troy Johnson's books about the occupation. They are primarily photo records of that period and I find them gripping. The National Park Service hosts a page he wrote about the occupation: We Hold the Rock.  She includes links to online resources and could have added ones about the Hopi parents who were imprisoned there. The National Park Service has this one: Hopi Prisoners on the Rock.  

  •  In Author's Note, Smith writes that Corrina Gould, Tribal Chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, "went over the passages concerning Native people's relationship with Alcatraz." (p. 40). 

I am psyched to see Smith's note -- and that she worked with Corrina Gould! I met her (virtually) last year when we were doing a session for caregivers in the San Francisco Bay area. 

As noted earlier, I think it is great to see inclusive back matter! I hope teachers use it when they use the book in the classroom. 

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