Sunday, May 10, 2020

AICL Making A Difference

AICL Making A Difference
Posted by Debbie on May 10, 2020

The emails I get from parents, teachers, librarians, and professors about how they used a post (or several) from American Indians in Children's Literature to speak up to problematic texts being used in schools... those emails give me such a lift! I read one of them this morning.

I started AICL in 2006. Reading old and new books with wonderful content also gives me a lift. But--for those wonderful books to be embraced, people have to realize that a lot of books they adore have terrible Native content that shapes what they think they know about Native people. Reading those books and finding the words to say "this is not ok, and here's why" is hard work. I've pushed through emotional and intellectual fatigue again and again (there's over 1000 posts on AICL), but earlier this year (before COVID), I had reached the point that I needed to step away for a while, to recharge. As some of you know, Jean Mendoza joined me at AICL in 2016 and has been posting reviews. I'll return to reviews as soon as I can. In the interim, I might upload some brief posts that say "recommend" (or not recommended) and that a review will be forthcoming.

In the meantime... if a post at AICL has been helpful to you in your work, let us know. Two things sustain me: photos of children in my family (they are the audience for the books reviewed here on AICL) and hearing from you (and how you will/will not use a book with children).

I'll close this post with some personal photos. I spend most of my days making face masks for the local hospital's distribution project. And I go for walks with my dear husband and take photos of plants and animals we see. I miss my daughter and her partner! And my mom! And my siblings! Sewing masks and going on walks help me pass the hours but gosh I want to get on the road and walk into their homes and laugh and eat and do all the things we do.


I took this photo of these baby geese and their mother today at Boneyard Creek in Champaign. I got to wondering why the creek is called Boneyard and looked over at Wikipedia... that paragraph about Indians.... Research for another day.

Image may contain: grass, outdoor, nature and water

This photo is early morning after a night of hard rain. We saw lot of those trails that earthworms make as they crawl out of rain-soaked earth. I intended to get home and crop out the right half of the photo. But I loaded the entire photo to Facebook and realized that the camera's auto-focus on honed in on the tree branches reflected in the puddle. People were intrigued by the accidental composition of earth and sky and everything in between. 

Image may contain: tree, outdoor and nature

Most of my photos are of flowers. Ones on plants and ones on trees. They're all so gorgeous! All photos are taken with my iPhone, by the way. This one is done using the "portrait" mode. I finally figured out how to use it. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Recommended: Inconvenient Skin by Shane L. Koyczan

Inconvenient Skin/nayehtawan wasakay
Written by Shane L. Koyczan 
Cree translation by Solomon Ratt
Illustrations by Nadya Kwandibens, Jim Logan, Kent Monkman, Joseph Sanchez
Published in 2019
Publisher: Theytus Books
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Recommended

"The cure will take as long as the sickness, and the sickness isn't yet over." (Shane Koyczan)

Inconvenient Skin is a message, in the form of art works and poetry in English and Cree, to the people and government of what is currently known as Canada. It's a message about a shameful part of the Canadian past that continues to infect the present: its residential schools for First Nations children. Although Skin is "about" Canada, its main message is relevant in what is currently called the United States. It speaks back fiercely against the notion that Native people, or settler-colonizer descendants,  should "get over the past," forget historical horror and injustice, and move forward while still in denial.

The book was inspired, if that's the right word, by the discouraging net result of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was convened in 2008 to study the history and legacy of the residential schools. Its work included gathering (often traumatic) testimony from survivors. The final report and "calls to action" were published in 2015.

From the outset, Indigenous people in Canada had expressed doubts about the project. There has been profound disappointment that the commission's work resulted in few, if any, of the positive changes it seemed to call for.

The book's title is taken from the passage:
we are not free to shed our history
like an inconvenient skin
Inconvenient Skin holds a mirror of truth to Canada's beliefs about its goodness: "[O]ur nation is built above the bones of a genocide."

Canadians, Koyczan says, aspire to certain traits as a nation (e.g., kind, honest, strong, free), but he warns:
if we ever become
who we hope we are
it will be because we see how far there is still to go
and we know that if we are not these things to everyone
then we are none of these things
And Canada has not been, and is not "these things to everyone." The same can be said of the United States.

As narrator, Koyczan uses the pronouns "we" and "us" to speak directly to anyone who identifies as Canadian. Having a same-page Cree translation of his words signals that Indigenous peoples are not silent in the discourse about Canada's identity. They've never been silent, though they have been ignored, and certainly the residential schools had the mission of destroying Indigenous languages.

Koyczan doesn't identify as Indigenous, but says his father "had first-hand experience with residential school". He is learning about "missing chapters" of his origins, he says, by beginning to reconnect with his father.

Biographical material about translator Solomon Ratt states that he is also a residential school survivor.  He is an educator, focusing on teaching the Cree language. You can see some of his teaching videos and other work on the Cree Literacy Network Web site, including a collection called "Stay home: Learn Cree!" inspired by COVID-19 regulations.

You could say that the "work" of Inconvenient Skin happens on 3 levels: Koyczan's call for reflection and change, Solomon Ratt's Cree translation, and the powerful Indigenous perspectives presented by the contributing artists.

Kent Monkman's (Cree) emotionally charged cover painting, titled "The Scream," depicts priests, nuns, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police dragging children away from their families. The same image appears later in the book. One of Monkman's satirical paintings is also featured. The paintings by Joseph Sanchez (Taos Pueblo) consist of spare patches of color and indistinct figures that suggest trauma and the closeness of death. Several of the mixed media works by Jim Logan (Metis), incorporate text to depict a variety of residential school experiences; their overall effect is devastating. Nadya Kwandibens' (Anishinaabe) photographs highlight the "Idle No More" movement that began in Canada in 2012, signaling contemporary Indigenous sovereignty, and resistance to Canada's ongoing failures relative to First Nations.

Be forewarned that this was not meant to be a gentle book. The words are an admonition, an accusation, a call to action; the pictures depict the reasons behind the words.

Koyczan recorded a spoken-word performance of Inconvenient Skin in 2017 that's definitely powerful. The video incorporates vocals by Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagak and Kym Gouchie (Lheidli T'enneh Nation). Before viewing or sharing the video, be aware that it uses some images of childhood trauma that are not used in the book.

Inconvenient Skin assumes that readers already know something about the residential/boarding schools. That may be true for Canadian teens. But teens in the US will probably need background information. They need to know, also, that the US and Canada have held (and hold) similar settler-colonial attitudes about Indigenous peoples, and that the goals, policies, and practices of the schools were very similar on either side of the border. It might help to first read the section about boarding schools in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. 

I doubt the US will have a truth and reconciliation commission in my lifetime. Awareness of the boarding schools may be increasing among non-Native people, but there remains a nearly bottomless pit of ignorance and denial about the aftermath of the schools for Native families and communities.

Inconvenient Skin can be a powerful catalyst for conversations about what the legacy of the boarding schools means for a country (be it Canada or the US), and those who identify as its citizens. We can predict that these conversations about ugly, painful stuff will be hard for descendants of settler-colonizers who allow themselves to engage in that work, be they adults or high school students. But they are necessary, because as Koyczan says,
this nation is not so sturdy
that it can sustain the weight of this blind spot in our memory
As the mother of Native kids, though, I'd ask that in high schools, Inconvenient Skin be recommended rather than required reading. Some of the art in particular depicts traumatic situations that may well be part of Indigenous families' experiences, and still "with them" in ways that can make discussion re-traumatizing. I'd insist that Native students be allowed to structure and direct discussions themselves on a purely voluntary basis, and that they could opt-in to those discussions. They should never be put on the spot or asked randomly to speak for their families, or for Native people in general.

That said, I think the foregrounding of Indigenous experience, and an Indigenous language, in Inconvenient Skin can serve as encouragement and empowerment for Native kids. If any readers of AICL have taught with this book, we'd like to hear how you went about it, and how it went.

This is one of the most compelling illustrated books I've seen about settler/Indigenous relations. No one should expect it to be something they can take lightly.

Edited 4/29/2020: You can buy a copy from Theytus Books, the oldest Indigenous publishing house in Canada. It's good to support Indigenous businesses!

Monday, April 27, 2020

Highly Recommended: Grasshopper Girl by Teresa R. Peterson

Grasshopper Girl
by Teresa R. Peterson
Illustrated by Jordan Rodgers
Published by Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing
Published in 2019
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly recommended

When you're little and you don't feel well, there's nothing quite like a hug and a story from someone you love to help you get better.

Grasshopper Girl is a warm-hearted little picture book about Psipsi, a 6-year-old Dakota girl. One day, Psipsi's legs ache and she has a fever, so her Ina (mother) sends her to bed early. She wishes Ate, her father, would come home from work and tell her a story. But Ina doesn't know when Ate will be back. So Psipsi lies there, thinking about her family, and what it will be like to have a friend at school, and how much she likes to jump. When Ina brings in Psipsi's baby brother for his nap, Psipsi sings him to sleep. She still doesn't feel well, though. Then the door opens. It's Ate! He hugs her, and tells her a Dakota story about Unktomi, the trickster. That's the comfort she needs. When that story ends, Ate tucks Psipsi in, and she drifts off to sleep.

Grasshopper Girl is the work of two Native book creators: author Teresa Peterson (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota) and artist Jordan Rodgers (Lakota). Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing, a Native-owned press, is the publisher. So it's a tribally specific #ownvoices book.

The story takes place on "the Dakota reservation" in 1943. The author has said in interviews that elements of the book were drawn from her own mother's life, including the Unktomi story Ate tells. Psipsi's full name -- Psipsicadan Wicinyanna, or Grasshopper Girl -- is Peterson's mother's Dakota name.

The final page of the book includes a glossary of Dakota words, and the words appear throughout the story, followed by the English equivalent in parentheses. Non-Dakota readers who want help with pronunciation can refer to this alphabet video created by Dakota Wicohan (a language/culture revitalization project), and the Beginning Dakota Web site. Betsy Albert-Peacock at Black Bears and Blueberries recommended those resources. Thanks, Betsy!

Note that if you find other Dakota language resources, you may see that people have used more than one way to represent the sounds of the language. (Grasshopper Girl uses what's known as the Williamson and Riggs version.) The author's note explains a little about the Dakota language and efforts to keep it going. It feels great to be able to recommend a book that contributes to Dakota language preservation!

The author's note also gives some background information about the Unktomi story Ate tells Psipsi. If you've followed American Indians in Children's Literature for a while, you know how important it is for writers to be transparent about where such traditional stories come from. Peterson's explanation is very clear and credible. The fact that she embeds the old story in a realistic family situation is a strength of the book.

Jordan Rodgers' illustrations remind me of a good graphic novel, and I think they will appeal to the book's target audience. The characters' faces are very expressive (see example to right), and she brings in humorous details.

For example, in the "family photo" near the beginning of the book, Psipsi's two annoying older brothers are giving each other rabbit ears! I smiled at Psipsi's face when she pretends to be asleep while trying to see who has come into the room. And there's something comforting about Psipsi's quilt, and its presence on so many pages.

I also like how Rodgers represents Unktomi and the problems he creates for himself. You never quite see his face, even after his problem gets accidentally solved.

Grasshopper Girl would be a cozy bedtime read-aloud. Elementary age kids can read it themselves, too. You can order Grasshopper Girl directly from Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing, or from Birchbark Books. Either way, you'll be supporting a Native-owned small enterprise, and Native book creators.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Recommended! Wilgyigyet: Learn the Colors in Sm'algyax

Wilgyigyet: Learn the Colors in Sm'algyax
Compiled by the Haayk Foundation
Illustrated by Huk Yuunsk (David Lang)
Publisher: Sealaska Heritage
Published in 2019
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Recommended

Wilgyigyet: Learn the Colors in Sm'algyax is a board book which suggests it is meant for toddlers, but because it teaches color words in Sm'algyax (the Tsimshian language) anybody can use it! Course, you want to hear the words spoken, too, and you can do that with this video:

This gorgeous board book is part of the Baby Raven Reads, a culturally responsive kindergarten readiness program. The tribally specific art is stunning, and I can imagine Native peoples across the continent creating similar books.

Sealaska's website has great materials. Take a look, for example, at Practicing Our Values, which is a blog post about what we can do, now that Coronavirus is impacting our lives.  Get some of the books at the site, or... some of the clothing items! The scarves are especially spectacular.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Not Recommended: JULIE OF THE WOLVES by Jean Craighead George

Not Recommended: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
Post by Debbie Reese

With COVID19, parents are spending more time with children who are home. I see parents talking about classics they read when they were young and reminiscing about those books. That is a problem! Many are outdated and racist. They cannot be justified as "a product of their time" because that justification assumes that everybody thought alike at that point in time--and that's just not true!

People who are misrepresented in classic or award winning books 
do not think like the white writers who misrepresented them! 

A good example is Julie of the Wolves. Way back in 2006 when I first launched this blog, I did a short post about Julie of the Wolves that linked to a review done by Martha Stackhouse. She is Inupiaq. I'm pasting that post here. It includes a link to Martha's review. Below is that post from 2006.


First published in 1972 by Harper & Row, Julie of the Wolves won the Newbery Medal in 1973. It is included on a wide range of recommended book lists. It is available in audio and video; there is a sequel to it. Numerous teacher's guide and activity books are available for teachers to use when teaching the book. This is the summary of the Julie of the Wolves (from the Library of Congress):
"While running away from home and an unwanted marriage, a thirteen year old Eskimo girl becomes lost on the North Slope of Alaska and is befriended by a wolf pack."
A few days ago on child_lit (an Internet listserv for discussion of children's books), a subscriber posted a link to a review of the book on the Alaska Native Knowledge Network webpage. The reviewer, Martha Stackhouse, is Inupiaq. She points out misrepresentations and misconceptions of Inupiaq culture, and says
 "I humbly would not recommend the book to be put on school shelves."
Spend some time on the Alaska Native Knowledge Network pages. Read Martha Stackhouse's review of Julie of the Wolves. There is much to learn on their site about this and many other popular children's books set in Alaska (i.e. Gerald McDermott's Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest).

To find the book reviews, go to Honoring Alaska's Indigenous Literature, and click on "Examining Alaska Children's Literature" and "Critiquing Indigenous Literature for Alaska's Children."


Update, May 11, 2020
We've recommended several terrific books you can choose that don't have problem of bias, stereotyping, misrepresentation, or appropriation. Take a look at the Best Books page. It links to lists we do at AICL and to books that the American Indian Library Association selected for its book awards.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Highly Recommended: The Forever Sky by Thomas Peacock

The Forever Sky
Written by Thomas Peacock
Illustrated by Annette S. Lee
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press
Published in 2019
Reviewer: Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

My husband Durango is an artist and writer, and I value his reactions to the children's books Debbie and I study. He isn't always drawn to what's in my Books to Review pile. But when The Forever Sky was delivered during our first day of "shelter in place", I invited him to look it over.  When he finished, he asked, "What age is this for?" I said, "I think it could be for older kids, but they're saying ages 3-7." "How about 74?" he asked. (He's 74).

That sounds right to me. The central idea of The Forever Sky has emotional impact across generations, though the vocabulary and plot are not complex. The book touches on familial love, loss and healing, imagination, and how humans tell stories that make sense of the world, all in the context of Indigenous (Ojibwe) knowledge and perspective.

The text by Thomas Peacock (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Anishinaabe Ojibwe) would stand on its own, but the paintings by Annette S. Lee (Lakota-Sioux) add considerable depth and nuance. Example: The end papers (front and back) consist of a two-page spread showing two small, shadowy figures seated on a blue-gray rectangle at bottom, slightly off-center. They are surrounded by swirls of deep night-time blues and greens that are freckled with white dots that might be stars or fireflies, or some of each. The same painting is the basis for the title page, and it appears again at the end of the book, as background for the brief glossary.

Two figures wearing shorts and tee shirts appear on the pages of dedications and publishing information. The first page of the story shows the same figures lying on a blanket, pointing at the sky. They are young Ojibwe brothers, Niigaanii and Bineshiinh. They miss Nooko, their grandmother, who died recently. Throughout the book, the boys return to the meadow to watch the ever-changing night sky. Niigaanii, the older boy, tells his little brother Ojibwe stories their uncle has shared with him about the sky and the stars. Their uncle has said that Nooko's spirit is in the stars. So are all those who have passed on. In the northern lights, they are dancing together. Finally, one night, something happens that helps ease some of the boys' grief. This is a story of serious matters, yet it conveys hope and healing.

Not many artists are astrophysicists in the rest of their lives. What Annette Lee knows about the sky is evident in The Forever Sky, as well as in her web gallery. She also collaborated on some tribally-specific resources including the Ojibwe Sky Star Map - Constellation Guide (2014) and D(L)akota Sky Star Map - Constellation Guide (2014)Some of those constellations appear in The Forever Sky. Clearly, "Western" science is only one lens on what's overhead.

"The sky is so big it goes on forever," Niigaanii says. "That is why we call it Gaagige Giizhig, the Forever Sky."

I'd love to share this book with kids, and hear their ideas about what's going on in each of the pictures. Are the brothers present in every illustration? Do any of the constellations show up more than once? What does the artist do to depict Niigaanii, Bineshiinh, and their parents and uncle, at the end of the story?  Every page holds mystery, like the night sky, in keeping with the gravity of Peacock's subject matter.

Especially important, I think, is how the author anchors the boys' experience in the cycles that are part of Ojibwe life. Niigaanii tells Bineshiinh that they need to know the stories their uncle tells, "So when we are uncles we can teach our nieces and nephews." "So they will teach their nieces and nephews," his brother adds. And so "the stories will go on forever," Niigaani says.

Readers may notice that some illustrations depict the boys in shorts and tee shirts, but in others they seem to be dressed as if for a ceremony. Perhaps this shows that time is passing -- not just astronomical time but the calendar of an Ojibwe community's traditional events. Or perhaps some of those figures are not the boys and their uncle at all, but past and future relatives, telling and hearing the stories across generations.

The night sky has always given humanity a focus for its most challenging questions. The Forever Sky foregrounds some of those, from an Ojibwe perspective. What is the meaning of all that darkness, those many lights that brighten it? What happens when a person dies? Given that individual life on earth is finite, what role does a person, a child for example, have in the continuity of their community's ideas about the world? Peacock has addressed Ojibwe attitudes about disabilities in at least two of his other books, and he presents another facet of those in The Forever Sky.

As I wrapped up this review, I started reading the Ojibwe Sky Star Map Constellation Guide, mentioned earlier, which Annette S. Lee was involved with as first author (image below right).

This passage from its first page echoed what she and Thomas Peacock have created in The Forever Sky:
....Native star knowledge is disappearing as elders pass. One Ojibwe elder spoke of his vision of "the star medicine returning through the native youth." He specifically called them "star readers."
It struck me that Niigaanii and the uncle are some of those "star readers." Though I was already appreciative of what Peacock and Lee have done, my understanding of it has been deepened by the star map/constellation guide.

If you're among the many who can't leave home now because of COVID-19, this may be a good time to get more familiar with the night sky, and to do so with the children in your life, if you can.  Reading The Forever Sky together may be a way to start. And a book like the Ojibwe Sky Star Map Constellation Guide can add even greater depth to your night-sky experience.

Hear an archived interview with Thomas Peacock on Native America Calling. It's really good. Kirkus gave The Forever Sky a starred review, and Debbie and I include it on AICL's Best Books of 2019. Thomas Peacock also wrote The Dancer, which is also on our Best Books of 2019 list, and which Debbie mentions in her post about social distance powwow books.

Edited on 4/11 to add: On Monday, April 20, 3:00 pm, the Minnesota Historical Society Press will post a video of Thomas Peacock reading The Forever Sky aloud here. And see MHSP's The Forever Sky web page to link to coloring pages based on Annette Lee's illustrations.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Children's Books for Social Distance Powwow


I typed the seven characters in COVID19 and then didn't know what to say.

I've been trying (but failing) to read new books, or to turn my notes on previously read books into a review. That fail is because of the weight--for me--of COVID19 on the heels of three years of work on An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. Adapting that book took a tremendous toll on me that I had not been fully aware of until I couldn't deny that toll any longer. I needed some rest! So, in February I made a recovery plan and started to feel better.

But then came COVID19. We've had a couple of scares but we're ok.

Some things lift my spirits. Most of you probably know that powwows are gatherings of Native people. One response to COVID19 is the Social Distance Powwow. If you're Native, you know what I'm talking about! Videos of Native people dancing--alone--are in our social media threads.

As I watch them--especially the ones of children--I think about some wonderful children's books I've reviewed here at AICL, that are about children and families at powwows or traditional gatherings.

Powwow Summer: A Family Celebrates the Circle of Life by Marcie Rendon (Ojibwe); photos by Cheryl Walsh Bellville (not Native). I first read it in 1995 when I started doing research on Native peoples in children's books and absolutely loved what Marcie Rendon shared in this nonfiction picture book! Bellville's photos are terrific.

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek); illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (not Native). It came out in 2000 and is the book I wish I had when our daughter danced for the first time.

The Butterfly Dance written and illustrated by Gerald Dawavendewa (Hopi). This is another book I wish I'd had when our daughter first danced--especially because my grandfather was Hopi and this dance is similar to ones we do at Nambé.

Bowwow Powwow by Brenda Child (Red Lake Ojibwe); illustrated by Jonathan Thunder (Red Lake Ojibwe); translated by Gordon Jourdain (Lac La Croix First Nation). Delightful and informative, it came out in 2018 and won the American Indian Library Association's 2019 Youth Literature Award in the picture book category.

The Dancers by Thomas Peacock (Lake Superior Anishinaabe Ojibwe) and illustrated by Jacqueline Paske Gill (not Native) came out in 2019. Told from the perspective of a little girl, one of the dancers in this picture book is her aunt, who is a Fancy Shawl dancer. Later, the auntie joins the army and is badly hurt. Doctors amputate her legs, and with encouragement of her Native family and community and doctors she eventually dances, again. I got the book in Minnesota from the Birchbark Books table at a conference. The women at the table told me it sells well in the store and I can see why it appeals to Native people. Many of us have family in the military. 

I'll close this post with this: on my to-be-read pile is Siha Tooskin Knows The Love of the Dance written by Charlene Bearhead (not Native), Wilson Bearhead (Nakota and Wabamun Lake First Nation), and illustrated by Chloe Bluebird Mustooch (Alexis Nakoda Sioux Nation). Due out in 2020, it is part of the "Siha Tooskin Knows" series published by Highwater Press. Have you seen it? If you have, what are your thoughts? And, are there other books in this theme (Native children/families at powwows or traditional gatherings) that you'd add?

If you want more information about the Social Distance Powwow, I recommend you see Mary Annette Pember's article "Dancing for the people (virtually)" at Indian Country Today. If you do search on your own, some of what you find may be sketchy or appropriative.