Showing posts sorted by relevance for query If I Ever Get Out of Here. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query If I Ever Get Out of Here. Sort by date Show all posts

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE

While I'm working on my review essay about Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here, here's what Cynthia Leitich Smith had to say about it:

"[If I Ever Get Out of Here is] A heart-healing, mocs-on-the-ground story of music, family and friendship." -- Cynthia Leitich Smith

I put her comment in large print because Gansworth's novel is exceptional. I highly recommend it. And, Cynthia--who is Muscogee Creek* and an award-winning and acclaimed author herself--writes Cynsations, one of the top blogs in children's literature. Her thumbs up is significant. Pre-order your copy of If I Ever Get Out of Here today.

If you're looking for accurate, authentic, kick-ass literature by a Native author, Gansworth is Onondaga.* He is new to YA literature. If you read Native literature, you may recognize his name because he's written several terrific books and stories... His Extra Indians got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. 

*Smith, Gansworth, and myself (Debbie Reese) are all tribally enrolled with our respective tribal nations.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What I Like about Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE

America--or any nation--celebrates moments and events in its history that show that nation in a good light. Noting those moments is important, but so is noting that there is not a single story within any nation. Not everyone celebrates those same moments. Some people have a different view of those moments.

Take, for example, the celebration of United States Bicentennial. In the opening pages of his If I Ever Get Out of Here, Eric Gansworth's protagonist looks down the street at his elementary school. He imagines teachers getting ready to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial, and notes that the teachers would be puzzled that the celebrations would not be a priority on the reservation.  

Knowing that Gansworth pokes at that celebration might turn you off. You might think that his book is an anti-American screed. 

Rest easy. It isn't. 

It also isn't one of those 'eat your veggies' kind of books...

It is, however, a rare but honest look at culture and how people with vastly different upbringings and identities can clash. And dance. And laugh. Gansworth informs readers about cultural difference, but he doesn't beat anyone up as he does it. 

Gansworth's novel is told in three parts. Here's my thoughts on Part 1, Chapter 1. I've got lots of notes on the rest of the book and will share them later.

Part 1 – If I Ever Get Out of Here

Do you remember the photo on the album sleeve for Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run? A group of people, clad in black, is standing and crouched in front of a brick wall. Caught in a spotlight, they are ‘on the run.’ 

That album cover is the inspiration for Gansworth’s graphic introduction to part one of his novel, but Gansworth’s group is facing the wall. What, I wondered, does that suggest to us about his novel? 

Of course, each reader will answer that question in a different way, based on what he or she brings to the reading itself. Our baggage, so to speak, impacts how we read. 

The image is provocative. So are the people we meet when we start reading part one. In the first chapter, Gansworth introduces us to key people in the story, telling us just enough about them to know how they'll figure in this story about a Native kid named Lewis and his friendship with George. He's the son of a guy in the Air Force. George is not Native. In fact, George's mother is German, which adds a lot to the story.

Meet Lewis Blake. He’s a smart kid. He lives on the Tuscarora Reservation. He’s just about to start seventh grade in one of the “brainiacs” sections set aside for the above-average kids.  As the only Native kid in the brainiac classes the year before, Lewis had been lonely.

The teasing ways he made friends at the reservation school didn’t work when he tried them out with the white kids in his class at the middle school. He thinks he might have a better year if he cuts the braid he has worn since second grade and tries harder to fit in. He enlists the help of Carson, a Native kid he’s known all his life, but Carson’s cousin, Tami—who doesn’t know tribal ways—takes the scissors and makes the cut before Lewis and Carson have tied off both ends in the way such cuts are customarily done.  Dejected, Lewis leaves Carson’s house and walks home.

On the way home, he passes the reservation’s elementary school, where the teachers are getting ready to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. Lewis thinks about how the families on the reservation aren’t impressed by the 200th birthday of the United States, with good reason!  “[W]e’d been here for a lot longer than two hundred years" (p. 5).  He thinks back to third grade, when his teacher asked him to demonstrate his fluency with the Tuscarora language at Indian Culture Night. The memory is packed with conflicting emotions. Lewis was happy at the recognition, but history made his mom cynical. She is dismissive of the event and the motivations for it, too. 

I understand her cynicism.

Lot of people think educational programming at schools can help tribes recover what was lost in the boarding school period, when the educational policy was to ‘kill the Indian,’ to ‘save the man.’ Erase their culture, that is, and replace it with ‘the man’ who happens to be the white man.  Lewis's mom is right to be cynical. Teachers in reservation schools and elsewhere have good intentions, but for those of us who have lost language and culture, it is going to take a lot more than Indian Nights at school to recover language and traditions. Too much of what is done to address treatment of American Indians in law, policy, and education--is a band-aid that just won't work. Lewis is fortunate that he knows more than most, but his mom asks, with whom is he going to speak Tuscarora? Other kids on the reservation don’t know it… Deftly and succinctly, Gansworth is hinting that we've got a long way to go in the U.S., with regard to the well-being of American Indians. 

While giving us a lot of information about American Indians, Gansworth also taps into our love of music. 

While he was at Carson’s house, Lewis spied a guitar. He longed to pick it up, but Carson won’t let him. 

That guitar echoes what the book title, and the chapter titles tell us, too: music is a significant part of Lewis’s life. When he gets home, we have another reference to music when his older brother takes one look at his shorn hair and says that Lewis looks like David Bowie on a bad night. Reading that made me laugh out loud. I love Bowie's music. The persona and images he puts forth are always mesmerizing. I'm sure you've got your favorite Bowie pic and song! 

The title for each chapter in the book is the title of a song. At the end of the book, Gansworth provides a discography, which is way cool, but even better than that is knowing he's going to have that discography online! 

Facts of life: being in the armed service, being poor 

On seeing Lewis's bad haircut, his mom gives him a buzz cut, which introduces us to another significant thread: military service. Lewis’s uncle, Albert, was in Viet Nam. He remembers getting a buzz cut, too. Albert lives with them, sharing a room with Lewis. They have a strong relationship that figures prominently several times in the novel. And remember, too, that the relationship at the heart of this novel is between a Native kid and a kid whose father is in the Air Force. 

Last thing to note about the first chapter is that after Lewis’s mom gives him the buzz cut, she says he looks like a Welfare Indian. He replies that they are, in fact, Welfare Indians. As you read, you’ll learn about how poor they are in material things, and how that poverty plays into Lewis’s thinking and experiences as he develops a friendship with the son of a serviceman from the local air force base. And, you'll learn that things like poverty itself is a relative term. People can look like they live in poverty, but there's more to life than things. 

Oh. One more thing before I hit 'upload' on this post: Lewis loves comic books.

So, what do I like about the novel? 

Within children's literature, there's a metaphor about how literature can be a mirror or a window. For some readers, the novel is a mirror of the reader's own life. For another reader, the novel is a window by which the first reader can peer in and see what someone else's life is like. Gansworth's debut novel is  more than a mirror or a window. 

Reading If I Ever Get Out of Here, I sometimes felt it was a mirror. As a Native kid meeting non-Native kids from really different communities than my own, I identified with the things Lewis went through. 

But as a Pueblo Indian woman who grew up on a reservation in northern New Mexico, the novel was more than a window onto the life of a Native family on a reservation hundreds of miles from my own. With his writing, Gansworth brought me inside Lewis's home and heart. Does that mean it was a door that I entered? I don't know. 

Certainly, the music played a part in how he managed to bring me inside. As I read his book, the songs in it played in my head, and when I hear those songs now, on the radio, I'm back in Gansworth's novel. As research studies show, music is a powerful thing. It taps into a part of us, makes us feel things, and know things... 

That's what Gansworth's novel does. I feel and know things I didn't feel or know before. That's what I like about If I Ever Get Out of Here. Thanks, Eric. Thanks, Cheryl, Thanks, Arthur. And thanks, Scholastic, for getting this book in our hands. 

Update: 12:20 PM, Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Praise for Gansworth's novel:

On the cover of the ARC (advanced reader copy), Francisco X. Stork says: "The beauty of this novel lies in the powerful friendship between two young men who are so externally different and so internally similar. Wonderful, inspiring, and real."

Online, Cynthia Leitich Smith writes that it is a "heart-healing, moccasins-on-the-ground story of music, family and friendship."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Cover for Eric Gansworth's GIVE ME SOME TRUTH

If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know I think Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here is outstanding. I recommend it all the time when I work with teachers and librarians.

Today, Nerdy Book Club was the host for the cover reveal for his next book, Give Me Some Truth, which will be out in 2018.

Here's some of what he said:

[W]hen I’m getting ready to write a new novel, I look at my existing cast of characters, and develop a new one by first identifying which other characters they’re related to. I ask the new character, “Now whose kid are you?”

As a Native person, I smiled as I read "whose kid are you" and I wondered who would be at the center of Give Me Some Truth! Who, I wondered, would take me back into a Native community that feels very real to me.

Gansworth doesn't have to sit there at his computer and think "how would a Native kid" think or feel or speak. He's writing from a lived experience. His writing resonates with me and so many Native people who have read and shared If I Ever Get Out of Here.

Head over to Nerdy Book Club and see what else Gansworth said, and keep an eye out for Give Me Some Truth. 


Back to add Gansworth's bio:
Eric Gansworth (Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ) is Lowery Writer-in-Residence and Professor of English at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY and was recently NEH Distinguished Visiting Professor at Colgate University. An enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation, Eric grew up on the Tuscarora Indian Nation, just outside Niagara Falls, NY. His debut novel for young readers, If I Ever Get Out of Here, was a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults pick and an American Indian Library Association Young Adult Honor selection, and he is the author of numerous acclaimed books for adults. Eric is also a visual artist, generally incorporating paintings as integral elements into his written work. His work has been widely shown and anthologized and has appeared in IROQUOIS ART: POWER AND HISTORY, THE KENYON REVIEW, and SHENANDOAH, among other places, and he was recently selected for inclusion in LIT CITY, a Just Buffalo Literary Center public arts project celebrating Buffalo’s literary legacy. Please visit his website at    

Saturday, June 01, 2013

American Indians in Children's Literature's "Show Me The Awesome" post

Design by John LeMasney via
Launched by Liz Burns (she blogs at A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy at School Library Journal), Kelly Jensen (she blogs at Stacked), and Sophie Brookover (she's over at Sophibiblio), Show Me The Awesome is a month-long series in May of 2013 in which people in library land write a post that promotes something about their work that they're especially proud of.

I began my post on Thursday (May 30), but storms that made their way across the nation interrupted me by messing with my electricity and the trees in my back yard, too. So, I'm loading my contribution to Show Me The Awesome today (June 1, 2013)

The storms, in their own way, mark what I try to do with American Indians in Children's Literature, and with my lectures and publications. Storms uproot trees. They change the landscape.

In significant ways, the landscape of children's literature changes organically, as society changes. There are exceptions, of course, and that's what is at the heart of my work.

I've been working in children's literature since the early 1990s. I started publishing American Indians in Children's Literature (AICL) in 2006. It has steadily garnered a reputation as the place that teachers and librarians can go for help in learning how to discern the good from the bad in the ways that American Indians are portrayed in children's books. People who sit on award committees and major authors, too, write to me. So do editors at the children's literature review journals, and, editors at major publishing houses.

Right now, I'm very proud to have played a role in getting a certain book published. That book is Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here. Its publisher is Scholastic, and its editor is Cheryl Klein. It is due out in a few weeks. In it, you'll read this in the acknowledgements:
Nyah-wheh to Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) and her essential work at American Indians in Children's Literature for her courage, kindness, activism, and generosity, and for introducing me to my editor at Arthur A. Levine. Thank you to Cheryl Klein, that very editor, for actively seeking out indigenous writers, and investing in my work over the long haul.
The introduction took place over email a few years ago. Once it was made, I was out of the picture. I wondered, though, if the introduction would bear fruit. And when I learned a book was in the works, I wondered what it was about. Would I like it? Would I be able to recommend it? Now, I know. With Eric's book in my hands, I can Show YOU The Awesome. 


My essay about why it is awesome is here: What I Like about Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE. 

Years ago, illustrator James Ransome was asked (at a conference at the Cooperative Center for Children's Books at the University of Wisconsin) why he hadn't illustrated any books about American Indians. He replied that he 'hadn't held their babies." I've written about his remark several times because it beautifully captures so much.

Lot of people write about (or illustrate) American Indians without having held our babies. They end up giving us the superficial or the artificial. They mean well, but, we don't need superficial or artificial, either. We need the awesomes. Yeah--I know--'awesomes' isn't a legitimate word, but I'm using it anyway. We have some awesomes. I've written about them on AICL, but we need more awesomes. Lots more, so that we can change the landscape.

Won't you join me in promoting 
Awesome Books about American Indians? 

Order Eric's book, and those I mark as 'Recommended' on AICL. You could also check out the short lists (by grade level) at the top of the right-hand column of AICL. Join me. Let's change the landscape together.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Some thoughts on YA lit and American Indians

Eds note, April 3, 2015: This post inspired one that focuses on picture books. I'm pasting it at the end of this one. 

February 6, 2014

Earlier today I spoke with Ashley Strickland, a reporter from CNN, about young adult literature and American Indians. For that conversation, I pored over notes, books, articles, essays... trying to form some coherent thoughts on young adult literature and American Indians. Today's blog post is what I developed as I prepared for talking with her.

A few days ago, CBC News (CBC is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran a story titled "What It Takes for Aboriginal People to Make the News." The reporter, Duncan McCue, is Anishinaabe of the Chippewas of Georgina Island in Ontario, Canada. He opened his article with this:
An elder once told me the only way an Indian would make it on the news is if he or she were one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk or dead.
Skeptical of that thought, McCue did an analysis of news stories and found the elder's comment to be accurate. As I read his article, I thought about children's and young adult literature and the many books I've reviewed here on AICL that have those very things.

Two examples? Fichera's Hooked (Harlequin Teen, 2013) and Cooper's Ghost Hawk (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013). Both have all of the 4Ds, but they also have another tired cliche: in their stories, White characters come to the rescue, saving the lives of key Native characters.  

At first glance, those four Ds aren't problematic. Native people drum. We dance. We have members of our nations that struggle with alcohol, and of course, we're human beings. We die, too. Those four D's are part of our lives, but too many authors sprinkle those Ds in their stories, decorating the story they tell, as if such decoration makes it a story about Native people. Those books get published because, for the most part, publishers want books that will sell. While those Ds are easily sold and easily consumed, stories like that aren't good for what-you-know about Indigenous people.

There are, of course, some excellent books out there! If you find one of the four Ds in these stories, it will have the context and depth necessary for that D to be a meaningful part of the story. Here's seven of my favorite books.

Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here (Scholastic, 2013) is amongst YALSA's 2014 list of Best Fiction for Young Adults. Set in 1975, the main character is a 7th grader named Lewis. He lives on the Tuscarora Reservation and is making his way through school. Author Cynthia Leitich Smith (I discuss her next) read and aptly described Gansworth's novel as "A heart-healing, mocs-on-the-ground story of music, family and friendship."

Upon the publication of her Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), Leitich Smith was selected as Writer of the Year, in the children's category, by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Cassidy Rain, the protagonist is of mixed ancestry but is a citizen of the Creek Nation. As you can see from the cover, she's into photography. But she's also into Star Trek! Having raised a daughter interested in photography and Star Trek (and Star Wars), this is precisely the kind of book I'd hand to her.

Debby Edwardson is not Native, but she's been married to an Inupiaq man for a long time and knows what she's doing. Her book, My Name Is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, 2011) was a nominee for the prestigious National Book Award. Primarily set in the 1960s boarding schools, it is the story of Luke, an Inupiaq teen in high school. As Edwardson notes in the book, Luke is based on her husband and his experiences.

Two of the novels I'm recommending are ones written for adults but that could easily be eligible for ALA's Alex Award ("books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18").

In Louise Erdrich's The Round House (Harper Perennial, 2013), the protagonist in Erdrich's novel is Joe, an Ojibwe man who tells us a painful account. When he was 13, his mother was raped. At the core of Erdrich's story are the foundations of who we are as Indigenous peoples who persevere in the face of waves of adversity.

Tim Tingle's House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Puntos Press, 2014) opens with Rose, a Choctaw girl in Oklahoma in the late 1800s, remembering when a boarding school for girls was set afire, killing Choctaw girls inside. The evil that lit that fire is personified in the sheriff, and the spirit and confidence in justice propels Rose and her community forward.

Two of the books are by writers who are First Nations. The success of their books extends into other forms of media.

Richard Van Camp's The Lesser Blessed (Douglas & McIntyre, 1996) has been turned into a feature film. The story is about Larry, a 16-year old Dogrib who, with the help of Jed--his mother's boyfriend--and the stories he shares with Larry, makes it through some very dark spaces. There is breathtaking brutality, and brilliance, too, in Van Camp's stories.

Drew Hayden Taylor's The Night Wanderer (Annick Press, 2007) is a contemporary story with a twist. There is a vampire in it. How that character became a vampire in the first place is gripping, but so is his plan to get home to his reserve in Canada. Taylor's protagonist is a 16 year old girl. Taylor's writing had me reluctant to glance out my windows at night! The Night Wanderer is now available as a graphic novel.

Now--I imagine some of you are wondering why I don't have The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in my list of favorites. The main reason is that you already know about it but remember:

Alexie's book is only one of many. 
It can't be the single story 
you know about Indigenous people. 

Single stories, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, are dangerous.

Alexie gave us a story. One story that he's said is based on his own childhood. His is a particular kind of story, too, that won't appeal to every reader. We need books about young adults who are from other reservations and nations, too. There are over 500 federally recognized tribal nations! Within them, some of us are living on the reservation, and some of us are in urban areas and cities. We dance, and we drum, and some of us sing our traditional songs, but some of us like rock and roll, too. It doesn't make us any less Native. We are who we are.

Don't let Alexie's book be the only one you read and recommend.

Eds note: The following content is from a stand-alone post on April 3, 2015.

Why you should teach two books by Native writers from different Native Nations at the same time

Earlier today on Facebook, I shared a post I wrote last year about not letting a single book (Alexie's Diary) be the only book about American Indians that you read or recommend. In that post, I talked about young adults books. In an ensuing conversation, Joe Sutliff Sanders, an Associate Professor at Kansas State University, told me that when he taught Alexie's book and Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here at the same time,

...the conversation had to turn to explicating the differences between the books, and we had to stop saying "Indian" and start saying "Spokane" and "Onondaga." In fact, we had to start talking about poverty with a lot more nuance, too. 

Here on AICL, I talk about the importance of naming a specific nation (and of course, accurately portraying that nation), but the classroom experience Dr. Sanders shared is so powerful that I asked him if I could share it. Obviously, he said yes. Thanks, Joe!

Let's bring that idea to the picture book category. We could identify similar pairings that would push students to stop saying Indian.

In the picture book category, you could assign/read Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer along with Carol Lindstrom's Girls Dance Boys FiddleInstead of saying "Indian" you and students will be saying Creek and Metis. Both feature girls and are set in the present day.

Or, you could use picture books set in the past, by assigning Tim Tingle's Saltypie and Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve's The Christmas CoatInstead of saying "Indian" you'd say Choctaw and Lakota.

There are lots of possibilities! I gotta head out for now. I may come back with more pairings. I like this idea a lot.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Some thoughts about Native American Month and Thanksgiving

In the opening chapter of Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Our Of Here (2013, Arthur A. Levine Books), the main character, Lewis, is walking home. The time of year is August.  Lewis lives on the Tuscarora Reservation. Here's what Lewis is thinking:
As I turned the corner at Dog Street, where I lived, I could see my old elementary school. The teachers would be in their classrooms now, decorating bulletin boards with WELCOME TO THE 1975-1976 SCHOOL YEAR! in big construction-paper letters. They were going to be puzzled by the fact that the United States Bicentennial Celebration wasn't exactly a reservation priority, since we'd been here for a lot longer than two hundred years.
That puzzlement is what today's post is about. Lewis's people identify with a tribal nation that has been here far longer than the nation we know as the United States of America. I think it fair to say that the US marks two moments of historical significance. One is its independence on July 4, 1776. But Independence Day is preceded by "the first Thanksgiving" in 1621. (Set aside time to read and study What Really Happened at the First Thanksgiving: The Wampanoag Side of the Tale.)

In schools across the country, Native peoples appear in the curriculum at specific times of the year. Like this month. November. Thanksgiving.

Coincidentally (?), November is Native American Month. I suspect November may have been chosen because that is the month when the US celebrates Thanksgiving. As such, I think it seemed (to someone) to be the ideal month for Americans to "reflect on the profound ways the First Americans have shaped our country's character and culture." That phrase is in the opening line of President Obama's 2014 Presidential Proclamation designating this as National Native American Heritage Month. The first president to proclaim November as Native American Month was George H. W. Bush, in 1990 (see the full list of proclamations here).

People mean well. They have good intentions. But even President Obama's opening remark indicates a framework that doesn't work. Are Native peoples "the First Americans?" I know a good many Native people who would say they're citizens of their tribal nation first and foremost, and I've read that Native leaders who fought the U.S. in the 1800s wouldn't call themselves Americans at all.

A fact: 
Native Nations pre-date the 
United States and all its holidays. 

Our timelines, in other words, don't start at 1621 or 1776, or the year at which any given state in the US celebrates its statehood.

President Obama is right. Native peoples did shape the country's character and culture. Watch this video from Vision Maker Media. It has terrific information about how the Founding Fathers were guided by, and turned to, the Haudenosaunee.

So here we are, a few weeks away from Thanksgiving, in a month designated as one in which US citizens are invited to "work to build a world where all people are valued and no child ever has to wonder if he or she has a place in our society." That is another phrase in President Obama's proclamation. In it, he also talks about sovereignty.

I want librarians, teachers, parents, writers... everyone, really, to move away from talking about Native peoples in the past tense context of Thanksgiving. I want everyone to move away from talking about us only in November.

Buy and share the books I recommend below year-round. Doing that conveys the respect and inclusion that everyone in the U.S. should have as a given. Not an exception, but as a given. Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here and the ones I discuss below are among my favorite books.

Every people has a creation story. Not every person within a group believes in those creation stories, but I think most people respect those stories and the people who hold them as truths.

Simon J. Ortiz's The People Shall Continue starts with Native creation stories (plural because there are over 500 federally recognized Native Nations in the U.S., with tremendous difference in language, location, spirituality, and material culture) and moves through contact with Europeans, wars, treaties, capitalism, and the need for peoples to unite against forces that can destroy the humanity in all of us. Published in 1977, 1988 and again in 1994 by Children's Book Press, this picture book is no longer in print. Used copies, however, are available online, and I highly recommend it for children and adults, too. It offers a lot to think about. Ortiz is a member of Acoma Pueblo, in New Mexico.

Believe it or not, a lot of people express surprise to learn that we are still here. People think we were all killed or died of disease... gone from the face of the earth. Some people think we are still here, but that to be "real" Indians, we have to live like we did hundreds of years ago.

Picture books like Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer (2000, Morrow Junior Books) push against those ideas. The protagonist is Jenna, a Muscogee Creek girl who is going to do the Jingle Dance for the first time at an upcoming powwow. The story of Jenna getting ready reflects what happens in Native communities when a young child is going to dance for the first time. Everyone helps. The cover shows Jenna at the powwow. Inside you'll find her walking down a tree-lined street as she visits friends and family members. At one point she feels a bit overwhelmed at all the work she needs to do to be ready, but her Great Aunt Sis tells her a traditional story about not giving up. Smith is enrolled with the Muscogee Creek Nation.

Native spiritualities are misrepresented as pagan and mystic, and rather than seen as religions with their own integrity, are cast as superstitions of primitive people.

Tim Tingle's How I Became A Ghost (2013, RoadRunner Press) bats down those two ideas beautifully. His middle-grade novel opens with these words on the first page: "Chapter 1: Talking Ghost, Choctaw Nation, Mississippi, 1830." Bam! Spirituality is there from the start. Not in a mystic way. It is an IS. A matter of fact. And nationhood, too! Right from the start.

This is a story about the Choctaw Trail of Tears, told from the vantage point of Isaac, a ten year old boy. Given its topic, it could be a very raw story, but Tingle's storytelling voice and humor (yes, humor) keep the focus of the story on the humanity of all the people involved. Tingle is enrolled with the Choctaw Nation and is working on a sequel to How I Became A Ghost. 

I'll close with a board book that features a Native language. In the U.S. and Canada, government policy was to 'kill the Indian and save the man' in boarding schools run by churches or by the government. Kids were forced to attend those boarding schools (starting in the 1800s) and were punished and beaten for speaking their own languages. The direct result was that many Native languages were lost. Today there are language revitalization programs in which elders who still speak their language are teaching it. In some places, language remained strong.

We All Count (2014, Native Northwest) is a board book for toddlers who are learning to count in English, but in Cree, too. Written and illustrated by Julie Flett, who is Cree Metis (First Nations in Canada), each page is beautifully illustrated, with the Cree word for each numeral written in a large font that complements the page itself.

Get those books! Order them from your local bookstore, and ask your librarian to get them, too. There are a great many that I could write about here, but instead, I'll direct you to my page of links to Best Books lists. Check out my gallery of Native Artists and Illustrators, too. Learn their names. Look for their books. And if you want to learn a bit more about sovereignty, read We Are Not People of Color.

Monday, April 28, 2014

We Need Diverse Books that aren't "Blindingly White"

If you're a white male, you'll have an abundance of opportunities to imagine yourself on the stage this year at BookCon. The list of authors is being called "blindingly white" by BookRiot. If you're a white male or a cat, you could imagine yourself on the Blockbuster Kid Lit panel.

If you're not a white male--or a cat--you're out of luck. Rachel Renee Russell, author of the Dork Diaries (which I haven't read), was offered a set of pre-written questions with which to use to interview what Rick Riordan (one of the panelists) called the "Four White Dudes of Kids' Lit" (see his tweet on April 11, 2014). Russell asked to be a panelist instead, and that apparently went nowhere.

If you've been following this situation, you've likely read some of the responses to it. Over the weekend, a new response emerged that involves ACTION. Here's the poster for the We Need Diverse Books event taking place this week:

Perusing the 15 books in that set, it is clear that the planners of the campaign envision diversity in a broad range. It isn't, in other words, just books by or about authors of color, or authors who are citizens or members of one of the 500+ federally recognized tribes. It is about body type. It is about sexual orientation. It is about all of us.

What can you do?

RIGHT NOW (or sometime before May 1), take a photograph that in some way states why you think we need books that represent all of us. The photo can capture whatever it is you want to highlight. The planners suggest holding a sign that says "We need diverse books because _____." Send your photo to or submit it via the Tumblr page. Starting at 1:00 PM EST on May 1, 2014 people will be using the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks to share the photos.

On May 2, 2014 there will be a Twitter chat--again using that hashtag--at 2:00 PM EST. Share your thoughts on existing problems with the lack of diversity in children's and young adult literature, and share the positives, too.

On May 3, 2014 at 2:00 EST there will be book giveaways and a "put your money where your mouth is" component to the campaign.

Regular readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know that I encourage people to buy books from independent booksellers. My recommendation? Birchbark Books.

The poster (above) includes Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here, which you can get from Birchbark Books.  I want you to get it, but I also want you to get every book on my lists of recommended books. You can start with the lists I put together for the 2008 and 2013 "Focus On" columns I wrote for School Library Journal. Here's the lists:

Native Voices (November 1, 2008)
Resources and Kid Lit about American Indians (November 5, 2013)

Please join the campaign!

Update: Monday April 28 2014, 3: 15 PM

A good sign: BookCon making some changes! Rachel Renee Russell was offered a position on the KidLit panel:

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Editor's Note: My critique of Alvin Ho was posted on Saturday, June 18th, 2011. I let the author know about the critique. She responded. I pasted her response below, and followed it with more questions. 

Today (June 16, 2016), I'm adding this: check out Sarah Park Dahlen's "Who is 'The Other?'" in THE EARLY READER IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AND CULTURE, edited by Miskec and Wannamaker, published by Routledge Press. 
SATURDAY,  JUNE 18, 2011

In comments to "Chief Read Heap Much" on June 16, 2011, Wendy submitted a comment about Lenore Look's Alvin Ho: Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes (2010). The illustrations are by LeUyen Pham. It is pitched at children in 2nd through 4th grade.

Here's what Wendy said:
Have you all read the latest Alvin Ho book? There's an almost astonishing "playing Indian" theme. I can't understand it on multiple levels. Why did the author think this is something kids still do? As an Asian American didn't it seem at all "off" to her? And how on earth did it get past the editors and readers at the publisher? It's a major part of the plot. (My review: 
Her comment prompted me to dash over to the library and get a copy.  Reading the book, I can see why the Alvin Ho books (I think this is the third one) are appealing and getting starred reviews. In writing and format, it feels a bit like Alexie's Absolutely True Diary. By that, I mean it is a quick read, lot of humor, and cool illustrations throughout. See what I mean?

Engaging writing and cool art, but Wendy is right. Below are summary, excerpts, and illustrations. Beneath the summary is my discussion, in italics.


In chapter three, Alvin is going down the street and stops at Jules's house because there's a lot of noise coming from his yard. Alvin peers through the bushes and sees that a bunch of kids (he calls them "the gang") are playing "King Philip's War." Alvin tells us that it was the "war between settlers and natives that nearly wiped out all of Massachusetts a hundred years before the American Revolution wiped out everyone else" (p. 35). Here's the illustration on that page:

The child in the bottom right corner is Pinky, playing the part of King Philip. He tells Alvin that it is "settlers against Indians" and that they're practicing for an upcoming birthday party that Alvin doesn't know about:
"Do you have settler gear?" Pinky asked.
I shook my head no.
"How 'bout Indian gear?"
I shook my head again.
"No wonder you haven't been invited," said Pinky. "No war paint, no moccasins, no fun."
That night, Alvin makes a wish:
"I wish for the Deluxe Indian Chief outfit with fringe," I said, my breath dripping on the glass. "Complete with bow and arrow and the huge feather headdress that makes you look like a giant bird."
In the next chapter, Alvin hopes for the invitation to arrive, but he's sure he actually needs that outfit in order to be invited. He does get an invitation, but it is to Flea's party. She's a girl, and he hates girl birthday parties. His mom wants him to go, and Alvin thinks that if he agrees to go, maybe his mom will get the Deluxe Indian Chief outfit for him:

Having agreed to go to the girl party, he dashes to his room and makes a list of things to do (p. 51):
Get my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Eat breakfast in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Go to school in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Walk down the street in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Sleep in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
Play settlers and Indians with the gang.
Go to Hobson's party in my new deluxe Indian outfit.
In subsequent chapters, Alvin continues to think about the party and how much he wishes he could get the outfit and the invitation so he can "play Indian" (p. 85). In chapter 12, he is at the mall with his mom. They are there to buy a present for Flea (her real name is Sophie). At the store, Alvin's mom pulls a box from the shelf and says "Wouldn't she look adorable in this?" and shows him the box (p. 141) :
I was staring straight into the plastic window of the Deluxe Indian Princess outfit with fringe, complete with baby carrier and explorer map and moccasins.
Alvin sees that the Deluxe Indian Chief outfit is on the shelf, too, but they aren't there to get something for him, and they don't buy it. As the story continues, Alvin gives up. In chapter thirteen, Alvin is hanging out more with girls than guys. He doesn't like that he is more aligned with the girls and the girl party than the guys and the guy party. At lunch one day, he is sitting with the girls. They're all talking about Flea's party and what they're going to wear to it. Alvin is furious, as he chews on his goldfish crackers and thinks (p. 144):
A man wears steel-toed boots. A man wears work gloves. A man wears war paint. A man wears an enormous feather headdress that makes him look like a giant bird. A man doesn't talk about what he's going to wear. He just wears it. 
Then, he burps, spraying the girls with chewed up bits of goldfish crackers. The girls are grossed out, and Alvin races out of the cafeteria. Spraying the girls with goldfish, it turns out, is what gets him invited to the party. On the playground, Hobson tells him to bring a present, and to dress as an Indian.

The problem is, he doesn't have the Deluxe Indian Chief outfit. Another problem, it turns out, is that Flea's party and Hobson's party are at the same time. He tells his dad about it, and his dad tells him that he's got a dilemma. Alvin doesn't know what that word means, and he shakes his head. His dad assumes that he's going to do the right thing and go to Flea's party.

The next morning, Alvin gets ready for Hobson's party, and puts on the Deluxe Indian Princess outfit. It doesn't have a headdress, so he makes one out of buttons, ribbons, and one hundred Popsicle sticks.

When the time comes, he heads to Hobson's party. Before he gets there, he runs into the boys in their outfits. Some are settlers in Pilgrim hats and some are Indians. They're practicing for the party because it isn't quite time to be there yet. Alvin joins in the play:
I ducked. Then I gave a loud whoop.
Loud whoops went round and round.
Invisible arrows went up and down.
Indians fell.
Settlers fell.
Indians rose from the dead.
Settlers rose from the dead.
Loud whoops went round and round.
It was terrific!
Then I stopped.
I could hear my dad's voice in my ears. "You know the right thing to do and you do it. No one has to tell you."
Alvin tries to ignore his dad's voice. He thinks of how fabulous his outfit is, and that playing settlers and Indians is great, but he doesn't feel wonderful. Finally, he decides he has to do the right thing: go to Flea's party instead. He takes off the outfit, puts it in a box and goes to Flea's party where, having eaten a lot of ice cream that gives him gas, he "explodes," excuses himself, and goes home. The books ends with "Alvin Ho's Creepy Glossary" of words.


When I got to the glossary, I thought, "This book needs another glossary entry... STEREOTYPE. And, it needs that word stamped in big letters on the front of the book." From the feathered headdress to the war paint to the war whoops and bow and arrow, all the elements of the stereotyped Indian are in this book.

I want you to imagine a Native parent, reading the book aloud to his or her children. They're having a good time, but then, they get to page 35.  

Or, imagine a Native child... All his friends are into a new series about an Asian American kid named Alvin Ho. He decides he'll check it out, too. So he does, and then... he gets to page 35. 

Suddenly, the fun of the book is gone. Suddenly, a stereotyped image of you is in your face... 

What some people see as harmless fun---dressing up as Indians for a birthday party---is not harmless fun. It is stereotypical, and it is racist. I don't often use that word in my writing. Using it puts up a barrier. Nobody likes to see the word, especially if it can be applied to something they have done. 

And what about that party theme.... settlers and Indians?! That's a new one for me, at least in terms of a child's birthday party. What was Look (the author) thinking as she developed the plot? Was she trying to develop authentic play-Indian scenario, and used King Philip's War as the way to bring in some authenticity? 

This might seem an in-your-face thing to do, but I'm going to hashtag Look on Twitter and see if she might explain what she was thinking about as she wrote this book. Did she, or as Wendy asks, her editor and readers at Random House not pause a moment and consider whether or not they ought to go forward with this book? 

In their review, Kirkus gets it right:
Troubling in this volume, however, is that at the coveted boys’ birthday party, everyone is dressing up as Indians and settlers, and Alvin figures his ticket is a "deluxe Indian Chief outfit." Although there is a brief note in the always-creative glossary regarding the colonization of Native peoples’ land during King Philip's War, there is no textual mitigation of a running joke that seems anachronistic at best--readers may well be left feeling uncomfortable with the stereotype. 

I was uncomfortable, and so was Wendy. How about you? 

Update, 4:24 PM CST, June 18th, 2011

See Sarah Park's blog post about the book. (Thanks, Allandaros, for letting me know the link was not working. I've fixed it.) Sarah wrote, in part:
I’m trying to process this as an Asian American scholar of Asian American children’s literature. How are Asian Americans complicit in perpetuating stereotypes of cultures not our own? Why? And from where (or from whom) do we learn these stereotypes? What makes us think it’s okay?It grieves me that we participate in the denigration of already oppressed cultures, whether intentionally or not (intentionality doesn’t matter – impact matters).
Update, 8:26 AM CST, June 19, 2011

Lenore Look responded in a comment. I'm copying it here as well:

Hi Debbie, thanks for alerting me on twitter. your comments deserve a more thoughtful reply than 140 characters, so i'll respond here. I'm terribly sorry that my work offended you. But stereotypes are offensive. My intention, as from the first of the series, is to highlight seldom-mentioned historical events/facts that textbooks and popular historians tend to exclude, many of which seem to involve a collective shame. In this case, it was King Philip's War, in which the Native population of New England, already thinned by smallpox and other European diseases, fought viciously against English encroachment and in turn was mercilessly slaughtered by the settlers, who were also nearly wiped out by the fighting. It happened 100 years before the American Revolutionary War and forged the beginning of a new national identity, separate from England, for the colonists. It was a seminal event for the later rebellion, yet when is this ever mentioned in the elementary classroom? Or mentioned anywhere at all?

As for the stereotyped play and costumes . . . well, when kids play "cowboys and Indians" or "settlers and Indians" (being that this is colonial Massachusetts history), that's how i imagined they would play and dress, based on how it's been done in the past and as recently as the Disney Pocahontas craze in the mid-to-late 90s. Politically correct? No. But do kids play politically correctly? No. Should I perpetuate play that is not politically correct? No. But I would not be TRUTHFUL if I were to fabricate a scenario for them that conforms to our current, enlightened-adult sense of how kids should play if that’s not the behavior that we’ve already passed to them. And good writing is about being honest, regardless of how discomforting it might be, especially when echoed in our children's play.

My job as a writer is not to erase unpleasantness, stereotypes, or even racism from a child's world. My job is to hold a mirror to that world and allow them to look at it more directly than they might otherwise. I believe in eradicating stereotypes as much as you, but eradication does not include erasing our shameful portrayal of Natives in the past and pretending that none of it has been passed down.

Are kids supposed to “get” this? I expect they will get what they need to ask about King Philip’s War and about juvenile behavior encouraged by adult-generated culture and props. If not, then the adults who get it, should start the conversation.

Thank you for your close reading of Alvin, and for starting the discussion.


Update: 3:08 CST, June 19, 2011:

Thanks, Lenore, for taking time to respond to my questions.

Incorporating history into your books is great, but I'm not sure I understand why you chose King Philips War.  You include that war because you think it is fundamental to an American identity. What do you think is the shame in that war? That's where I'm confused. Is it shame over colonization that you think keeps it out of history books? I'm not sure why textbook writers would feel shame at that moment of colonization. They certainly glorify other wars, periods of conquest...

If it is shame over treatment of Native peoples, then, it makes me wonder why you don't feel shame at using shameful stereotypes. You had other choices for a birthday theme. Like a Star Wars one...  Or a Harry Potter one! Something more contemporary. Course, both of those might have trademark issues, but I think you get my point.

I think in being "TRUTHFUL" to the way some kids in the US do birthday parties, you're passing that practice on to your readers as an ok thing to do. Nobody in your book says "wait a sec." You leave it up to kids and adults to say "oh, they shouldn't be doing that." You assume the adults are going to use it as a teaching moment, but most of the reviews don't even mention it. Kirkus did, but on GoodReads, Amazon... very rarely is someone saying anything about it. Maybe you had to cue them somehow, via an author's note?

If you're comfortable continuing this conversation, I'd like to know if you and your editor, or you and your illustrator, talking about those stereotypes. What did you say to each other?

Update, Friday June 24th, 10:06 AM CST

Author Cheryl Savageau tried to submit a comment but Blogger was not working. She submitted to me via facebook. I'm placing it here:

Cheryl Savageau said:

Look is kidding herself if she thinks what she is writing is in any way true. All it shows is her own ignorance and racism - I am not afraid to use that word. I am Abenaki, and from Massachusetts, and kids here do not, and did not, even in my childhood, play "settler and Indian." We played cowboys and Indians, because that's what we saw on TV. Kids these days (I'm using my grandsons and their friends as references) play aliens, Star Wars, and Mario Brothers. Does she want her children's book to start another bout of "play" that would not be tolerated about any other racial group? As for the King Philip's War reference - His name was Metacom. The "Indians" were Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Pawtucket people and yes, some Abenaki people later in the war. She describes the "Indians" as "fighting viciously." Why is that the "Indians" are the ones who are vicious? They were defending their lives, their land, their families from invaders. Did she mention that the English displayed Metacom's head on a stake in Boston for 20 years? Who's vicious? I suggest that this book is vicious in its stereotypes, its exploitation of a piece of history that she dug up to justify a silly, bigoted, and basically untruthful story. I am going to post on Amazon and I urge others to do the same. (I tried to post this on the blog site, but it didn't get posted somehow. Feel free to copy and post it as part of that conversation.)