Sunday, October 15, 2023

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving, by Chris Newell and Winona Nelson

If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving
Written by Chris Newell (citizen of Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township)
Illustrated by Winona Nelson (member of Leech Lake Band of Minnesota Chippewa)
Published in 2021
Published by Scholastic
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Status: Highly Recommended


There are many sentences and passages in If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving that I wholeheartedly welcome. Here's one from page 8:

"The story of the Mayflower landing is different 
depending on whether the storyteller 
viewed the events from the boat or from the shore."

That line jumped out as I started reading Chris Newell and Winona Nelson's nonfiction picture book. The cover art positions the reader in a different place. Think for a moment about the cover of most books you've seen about Thanksgiving. They show "Pilgrims and Indians" gathered around a table, or, they show the Mayflower en route. With the cover art of If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving, readers are invited to revisit this moment from the vantage point of a Native person. Here's a close up of that part of the cover:

Published in 2021 by Scholastic Press, it offers teachers a Native perspective--not just on Thanksgiving--but on history. Most readers are likely familiar with the "If You Lived" series that includes ones that purport to be about Native peoples but that are chock full of errors and bias. I'm glad to see this book -- written and illustrated by Native people. From that vantage point, everything in the book is different from the hundreds (thousands?!) of children's books about Thanksgiving. 

In this review, I'm choosing to select a few passages like the one on page 8 that are different than what you have probably seen in other books, before. 

Many books say the Mayflower arrived in the "New World." Newell's book says:
...the ship arrived in Wampanoag territory at the village of Meeshawm, in what is now known as Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Newell names the tribal nation (Wampanoag) and the name of their village, Meeshawm. I bet you've never seen "Meeshawm" before. And he used the phrase "what is now known." As you spend more time reading newer books and articles you'll see more and more writers using that phrase. It may feel awkward but those words are powerful. They tell readers there's a longer history to that place and its name. The phrase invites readers to ask 'what was it known as before?' and 'who called it that?' 

Throughout the book, Newell provides "Did You Know?" boxes in bright colors, like this one in yellow: 

The complete text in that box is:
The English commonly used the labels "Indians" or "savages" to describe the multiple nations of peoples and cultures they encountered in America. "Savages" was incredibly demeaning. Even though the terms were inaccurate and dehumanizing, they became familiar in English terminology. Today the language has changed and generalized terms like "American Indian," "Native American," "First Nation," "Indigenous," or 'Native" are all in use. However, Native peoples prefer to be called by their tribe or nation whenever possible. 
In professional development workshops I do, I talk about the importance of being tribally specific. That's what Newell is asking readers to do. Use the name of a person's nation. When you talk about Newell's book, you can say "This book is by Chris Newell, a citizen of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township. It is illustrated by Winona Nelson, who is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Minnesota Chippewa." You could show students the website of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township and the website of the Leech Lake Band of Minnesota Chippewa.  You can use their sites as primary sources of information. 

In many books you'll find information about Pilgrims camped on shore in December of 1620, huddled around a campfire for warmth. Illustrations will also show "Indians" in very little clothing shooting arrows at those Pilgrims. The "Indians" are shown that way throughout these books, no matter the season. Winona Nelson's illustrations in If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving are different. They are accurate. In winter, she shows them in clothing appropriate for the cold temperatures: 

I recommend you study illustrations carefully. In many books you'll see the "Indians" barefoot--again, regardless of season or what they are doing. In If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving, the only bare feet you'll see are those of this toddler-in-arms. Another reason Nelson's illustrations stand out is because they include women and children. 

I recommend that teachers get a copy of If You Lived During the Plimoth Thanksgiving and study it carefully. Use it with students, in part or in whole, but use it! What you gain from reading it yourself will help you improve your instruction about Native peoples, overall. What you learn by reading it will help you spot problematic text and illustrations in whatever book you're reading. It'd be great if you do more with it: consider forming a study-group with fellow teachers where you use this book to revisit the ways that the Mayflower or Thanksgiving or Native content is presented in your school. The possibilities! There are many.