Showing posts sorted by relevance for query melanie florence. Sort by date Show all posts
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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Not Recommended: MISSING NIMAMA and THE MISSING by Melanie Florence

Sometime last year, I received a copy of Melanie Florence's Missing Nimama. It is a picture book, published in 2015 by Clockwise Press in Ontario Canada.

I didn't read it, then, because it didn't feel right. The subject of the book is Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. I also got a copy of her young adult novel, The Missing. I tried to read it, but after a few pages, set it aside.

I look at both of her books with the reality of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in mind. Regular readers of AICL know that I think it is important that children have books that mirror their lives. Regular readers also know that I think it crucial that we have books by Native writers who are writing from their own experiences and knowledge of our lives, past and present, in countries whose genocidal policies sought to eliminate us from our homelands. So, it might seem to AICL's readers that I'd welcome these two books by Melanie Florence.

I do not. Indeed, I do not recommend Missing Nimama or The Missing. It has been a challenge for me to articulate why I felt resistant to these two books. The prompt for a writing contest helped me figure out why I felt that way.

The Prompt

On January 10, I saw an announcement for a writing contest for children. Sponsored by World Literacy Canada, the judge for the contest is Melanie Florence. The prompt for the contest was written by her. To the right (below) is the poster that circulated. To the left is the text of the poster.


WRITE FOR A BETTER WORLD. A writing contest for Canadian students in Grades 5 to 8

Stepping up for your friends, your community and the world! With Guest Judge Melanie Florence!

Write an original story describing what happens in 400 words or less:

"I remember how I felt when something was stolen from me. I swore I'd do anything to get it back. Then, Kateri and her grandmother had someone stolen from them. Kateri is my best friend and I knew I had to step up and help. Sometimes a friend just needs a superhero..."

What kind of superhero will you be? What happens next? That's up to you!

Contest theme was created by award winning author of Missing Nimama, Melanie Florence.


I was stunned by that prompt. How, I wondered, could anyone equate "something" that was stolen to "someone" that was stolen. In writing the prompt as she did, Florence characterized Native women who were missing, or who had been murdered, with something a child might have lost.

Clearly, a Native child whose mother was missing or murdered would not fare well in a classroom where a teacher put that prompt on the child's desk. Clearly, Florence was not thinking of Native children when she wrote that prompt.

How could Florence have written a prompt like that?

Her website tells us she has "Cree heritage."

What--in the midst of on-going conversations about Joseph Boyden's identity--I wonder, does "Cree heritage" mean? Does her use of "heritage" suggest she isn't living her life as a Cree person who hangs out with Cree or First Nations communities? Is a remote connection, where that heritage is an abstract concept, responsible for her being able to equate a stolen item with a stolen person?

It might be. As many have written, during these weeks of discussions of Joseph Boyden's identity, many Indigenous people in Canada who, as children were taken from their families, struggle to reconnect with their respective families and nations. It is difficult for many of them to reestablish those connections. Some have not been able to make that connection. If that is Melanie Florence's story, it would explain (to me) how she was able to write that prompt--and these two books, too.

When I saw that writing contest on Twitter, I objected to it. Others did, too. Within a few days, it was changed. Florence re-wrote a new prompt. Does it signal an understanding that she did not have before? The new prompt is this (text on write; screenshot on the right):


Revised story prompt
Introducing our new story prompt!
Use your powerful voice to write an original story...

It can be hard when we lose someone important to us in our lives, or when we watch someone close to us lose someone who is important to
them. I remember how I felt
when I lost someone important
to me. In my case, it was when
my best friend in the world
moved away from her family.


Does that revised prompt tell us that Florence's two books about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are not stories from her own experience?

Missing Nimama

Let's turn, now to her picture book, Missing Nimama. Here's the description, from Amazon:
A young mother, one of the many missing indigenous women, watches over her small daughter as she grows up without her nimama, experiencing important milestones - her first day of school, first dance, first date, wedding, first child - from afar.
A free verse story of love, loss, and acceptance told in alternating voices. Missing Nimama shows the human side of a tragic set of circumstances.
An afterword by the author provides a simple, age-appropriate context for young readers. Includes a glossary of Cree terms.

On the opening page, we see Kateri, a little girl in bed, asleep. She's dreaming of leaning against her mother while her grandmother tells them stories. We read that when she wakes, she'll lose her mother, all over again.

The review at Quill and Quire said that the story is touching. That image--of the little girl waking and losing her mother all over again--is a good example of how the story might be called touching. That tug-on-the-heartstrings quality is present throughout the book.

To me, however, it is like the prompt for the writing contest. Rather than losing a mom all over again when she wakes, a Native child reading this book (or listening to it be read aloud) in a classroom, may be inadvertently traumatized by a teacher who may not know the child's history. As with the prompt for the writing contest, it feels like Florence did not imagine Native children as being part of her audience.

From that opening, the story splits into two voices: Kateri as she grows up, and her mother, watching her. But the second page is very unsettling--again--as I imagine a child whose mother was taken from her, reading Kateri's mother's words:
Taken from my home. Taken from my family.
Taken from my daughter.
My kamamakos. My beautiful little butterfly.
I fought so hard to get back to you, Kateri.
I wish I could tell you that.
And when I couldn't fight anymore, I closed my eyes.
And saw your beautiful face.
"Fought so hard" and "couldn't fight anymore, I closed my eyes" --- that's horrible. Kateri's mother, we know, is dead. We have a murdered woman, speaking, telling her little girl, what happened to her. Would you do that, if you had been murdered and could speak to your child, or a child? I couldn't. I wouldn't. Would you?

As the story continues, Kateri's grandmother speaks of her daughter (Kateri's mother) in the present tense (n.p.)
"Your mother is a beautiful dancer, Kateri. Just like you."  
Kateri's mother is missing for most of the story. Again--thinking of a Native child in a classroom, how does that child process this story if her own mother is missing. In Missing Nimama she learns that Kateri's mother is not missing. She's dead. At one point, there's more about what happened to her. Kateri is older. She's having a dream, calling out to her mother. Her grandmother goes to her, telling her it was a dream. Kateri asks her grandmother to leave a light on because she doesn't like the dark. Beneath that is her mother's words:
So dark.
Dark in the room he took me to.
Dark when he left me. And so dark after.
I never saw a light or a tunnel. Only darkness.
Until my daughter's voice called me back.
What does that do to a child whose mother is missing? Native or not, isn't it just plain wrong to give that child this book?  Later, when Kateri is an adult, she goes to gathering where people are carrying signs about missing and murdered women. On that page, Francois Thisdale (the illustrator for Missing Nimama), has likenesses of photographs of missing and murdered women. I look at them and wonder if he used actual photographs to create those likenesses, If so, did he ask permission to do that? If not, it seems a violation of those women and their families, too.

The story winds down with a phone call to the adult Kateri, who is also now a mother:
Once upon a time, there was a girl,
a little butterfly
who flew to the phone every time it rang.
Hoping against hope
that her mother was coming home.
The phone rang today. I didn't run.
I had stopped running long ago,
hoping against hope.
"We found your mother," they said.
My heart nearly pounded out of my chest
for a moment,
hoping against hope.
But I knew she was gone. I had known for years.
Still, I cried.
Touching? Perhaps. Appropriate for children? No. That's where I end, with Missing Nimama. 

Not Recommended: Missing Nimama and The Missing

It is a picture book, which suggests it is for children, but the content renders it inappropriate for young children--or for children in the 5th through 8th grade (the World Literacy Canada writing contest is for children in those grades). It is where I end, too, with The Missing. I won't read it. I can't read it. The violence we experience is real. Not abstract. Not appropriate subject matter, unless, maybe it is told directly from someone who has experienced it.

Florence won a major literary award for this book. It is the TD Children's Literature Award, which is $30,000 given to the book that is "the best of the year in Canadian children's books."

Published in 2015, in the midst of a time during which Canadians, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are learning about residential schools, it might seem timely. [The prize Florence won is the TD Children's Literature Award, which is $30,000 given to the book that is "the best of the year in Canadian children's books.]

To me, however, Missing Nimama and the writing contest strike me as something Canadians can wrap their arms around, to feel like they're facing and acknowledging history, to feel like they're reconciling with that history.

But are they, really? I read writings from many Indigenous people in Canada. Most feel that reconciliation has become a shallow gesture. It is superficial. It is a token. Empty. Meaningless. Something they can cross off their list and move on, as they were before. Of course, that is far from ok.

To me, it is asking Native people to perform a tragedy on Canada's 150 stage. To many, this review of Florence's work will feel harsh. Most people are likely to disagree with me. That's par for the course, but I hope that other writers and editors and reviewers and readers and sponsors of writing contests will pause as they think about projects that involve ongoing violence upon Native women.

As always, I welcome your comments.


For your convenience, I am adding comments from Native writers and scholars here, as I receive them.

Dr. Luana Ross (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana), Associate Professor of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies and Co-Director of the Native Voices project at the University of Washington, wrote:
Wow. I am shocked at the author equating something stolen (anything, really) with murdered and missing Native women. I am also very tired of people claiming to be Native (this isn't about enrollment) to get published or be seen as credible Native storytellers. If you have "heritage" it would be wise to let the readers know who your relatives are.

Fancy Bebamikawe (Anishinaabe from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory), wrote:
I wanted to share my concerns about Missing Nimama and The Missing by Melanie Florence.
Firstly, I'm concerned about such a mature topic being addressed in a children's book. MMIW is specifically about how native women and girls are targeted for violence and face systemic racism in the justice system. MMIW is not only an issue of violence against women and it cannot be minimized into the story of a girl finding out her mother was murdered. I don't think children this age are able to grasp these social power dynamics. I think most teachers would be unable to confidently field questions on MMIW.
Second, the author's use of violence against Indigenous women is gratuitous. This is a terrible book to teach about MMIW because Melanie Florence specifically writes Kateri's mother to die. The mother is written as a disposable, one-dimensional character that haunts Kateri like a ghost. Even when Kateri gets the call that her mother has been found, we are again reminded that Kateri's mother's death was inevitable and expected. Both of these assumptions tie into the very reason why Indigenous women and girls are being targeted for violence.
As someone that has attended Sisters in Spirit vigils and MMIW events for years, Melanie Florence's narrative is in direct opposition to the way families of MMIW feel and speak about their loved ones. In fact, a major critique of families of MMIW is the dehumanizing way the media reduces the entire life of a woman into a headline of her violent death.
Thirdly, this is a very inappropriate book for any child who has been impacted by MMIW. A native child in particular would naturally relate to Kateri, including adopting the guilt and violence that Kateri experiences. These are unnecessary and traumatic burdens to place on a young reader.
For all of these reasons I find both the author and awards committee don't fully understand the issue of MMIW. The family's of MMIW have led this movement for decades and I seriously question why their voices aren't present and their concerns aren't addressed. Finally, this author seems to use a vague claim on Cree heritage as a blank cheque to write whatever she wants about native people. Similarly to Joseph Boyden, there are specific places in the book that mash-up culture references from very different nations. 
I would suggest having indigenous jurors if you are going to be handing out awards for indigenous works.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Not recommended: STOLEN WORDS by Melanie Florence

I picked up Melanie Florence's Stolen Words with a bit of trepidation because her previous picture book, Missing Nimama, was so troubling. It, and her novel, The Missing, felt off. (Here's my post about them.)

At the time, I couldn't put my finger on why her books were unsettling. Some time after reading the two books, there was a writing contest in Canada. Florence supplied the prompt for it. When I read the prompt, I understood why I had so much trouble with those two books. Rather than holding people with care, she seemed to be using people who had been through traumatic loss as subjects for her writing. Some might say that she's a good writer and that she writes in compelling ways, but rather than moved, I felt manipulated.

With that as background, I am here today with my thoughts on Stolen Words. 


Imagine. That's what writers do. They imagine a place, a time, and the people of that place and time.

It is very hard to do well, especially when the writer is crossing into a place and time that is not their own, where every word they write is drawn from that imagining.

On her website, Melanie Florence writes that she's Cree/Scottish. She also writes that she never had the chance to talk with her grandfather about his Cree heritage and that Stolen Words is about a relationship she imagines she had been able to have with him. In other words, she didn't grow up as a Cree person. She didn't grow up in a Cree community. Without a tangible connection to Cree people, the risk that we have a story that is more like something a Scottish person would write, is very high.

Stolen Words opens with a seven-year-old girl skipping and dancing on her way home from school. She is holding a dream catcher that "she had made from odds and ends. Bits of strings. Plastic beads. And brightly colored feathers." Apparently that was a craft project at school. Why, I wonder, were they making dream catchers at school?

As she walks home with her grandfather, she asks him how to say grandfather in Cree. He doesn't remember how to say it, he tells her, sadly. "I lost my words" he says. She asks "how do you lose words" to which he replies that "they took them away." Her subsequent questions build on the answer her grandfather gives to the previous one. Slowly we read that he was at a residential school. Their words, he says, were taken to the same place he and other children were taken away from home and from their mothers. When asked who took them away, he replies that it was "men and women dressed in black" who locked their words away and punished them if they used those words. The illustration for this part of the story shows a group of children. Thin ribbon like streams flow from their open mouths and take shape in the form of a raven that is being captured in a bird cage by a priest:


I was describing that scene to Jean Mendoza. She said it sounds a lot like the scene in Disney's The Little Mermaid when Ursula takes Ariel's voice from her. Jean's right! It is a lot like that--and therein I come to my greatest concerns with Stolen Words. It is more like a fairy tale than a story about what happened to Native children in the residential schools.

After that, we see the little girl's grandfather in tears. She touches his "weathered" face and tries to wipe away his sadness. She gives him the dream catcher and says she hopes it will help him find his words again, but in fact, it is she who helps him--which dovetails nicely with the fairy tale treatment of the brutal realities of the schools.

The next day when he meets her after school, she's got a worn paperback in hand. She greets him with "Tanisi, nimosom" and tells him that she found his words in a book titled Introduction to Cree that was in her school library. There may, in fact, be a locally published Introduction to Cree somewhere, but I was surprised by this page in the story. It is plausible that such a book would be in the school library, but it feels like a pretty big stretch. We're in fairy tale land, again.

Turning the "much-loved pages" her grandfather finds the word for granddaughter and whispers it. Kind of magical, isn't it? Florence writes that "The word felt familiar in his mouth." The word felt like his home and like his mother.

Pretty words, for sure, that mightily pull on heart strings. In the next illustration he is holding the book to a page where there's a bird cage like the one we saw above. This time, though, ravens are flying out of the cage and a few pages later, we have a happy fairy tale ending, with the two walking together.

Need I say that I intensely dislike Stolen Words? The words and the art exploit readers and turn something that was very painful and genocidal into a fairy tale. For the most part, Florence's storytelling is working on White readers. It is getting starred reviews that it does not deserve. I find this book much like A Fine Dessert with its happy slaves hiding in a cupboard.

Stolen Words by Melanie Florence is much like 
A Fine Dessert with its happy slaves hiding in a cupboard. 

For another critical look at Stolen Words, see Ann Clare Le Zotte's twitter thread on November 22, 2017.

As citizens of the US and Canada learn about the boarding and residential schools that were designed to 'kill the Indian and save the man' we need stories that do justice to the experiences of the children who were in those schools. Because of growing awareness of the schools, we will see writers use them as a topic. That is fine but they must be done with care and respect. Melanie Florence doesn't give us that care or respect. She's given us a fairy tale. The characters aren't real. There was, and is, no magical happy ending. We all deserve better than that, and I implore writers, editors, reviewers, and teachers to keep that in mind.

If I was clever I might come up with some way to critique her chosen title, too. Overall the book feels like a theft, like she's robbed Native people who do not have to imagine--as she did--what this experience was like.

Published in 2017 by Second Story Press, I do not recommend Melanie Florence's Stolen Words. 

Friday, March 06, 2020

Not Recommended: JUST LUCKY by Melanie Florence

Note from Debbie: there is sexual abuse and self-harm in the book and in my review that you may have difficulty reading.  

Just Lucky
Written by Melanie Florence
Published in 2019
Publisher: Second Story Press
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Not Recommended


Just Lucky by Melanie Florence came out in 2019 from Second Story Press. I read the book a few days ago, tweeting thoughts/summary as I read it (scroll down; I pasted the entire thread, for your reference).

I do not recommend Just Lucky. I find it deeply troubling and wonder why Second Story accepted and published it. The entire story feels shallow as it skitters from one horrific episode to the next before an all-too-quick happy ending, and one harmful depiction after another.

There is absolutely nothing in the book to help readers understand anti-Native attitudes that pervade Canadian and American society. Instead, we are invited to gasp at and condemn, for example, Lucky's mother who is an addict.

Today (Friday, March 6) I read The Guardian article on Oprah Winfrey's response to writers who objected to her decision to feature American Dirt in her book club. The article includes a powerful passage from a letter to Winfrey, written by 142 writers, that applies to Just Lucky. The writers said that the novel's treatment of migration, and Mexican life and culture, is
...exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed, too often erring on the side of trauma fetishisation and sensationalism...
That is precisely what Just Lucky does. It is exploitative and oversimplified. And in some places, it is literally sadistic. I'm thinking in particular of the scene where a foster father climbs into bed with 15-year-old Lucky and when she jumps out of the bed, follows her, rubbing himself as he approaches her.

Given the realities of Native children in foster care, Just Lucky strikes me as cruel. Who did Florence imagine as her audience for this book?

Just Lucky is laced with stereotypes that affirm and ensure the further mistreatment of Native children, families, communities, and nations. Many Native children who read this book will feel assaulted over and over by the story Florence created. Again: who is this book for? And what will it do to shape how people think about Native children?

At the top of this review, you see a red X on the book cover. I use those for books that I find especially horrific. To read more on that red X, see The Red X on Book Covers.

Saying again, I do not recommend 
Melanie Florence's Just Lucky. 

I invite you to share your thoughts (you can write to me directly or submit a comment).


Twitter thread I created as I read Just Lucky the week of March 2, 2020.

Melanie Florence's JUST LUCKY. Florence's JUST LUCKY is from Second Story Press, and came out in 2019. Florence has many books out. I've read a few of them and found them terribly lacking. Details here: (……)

But, her books keep getting published. Why? I think it is because they appeal to a white expectation of who Native people are. Many of those expectations are shaped by derogatory stereotypes. Florence seems to trade on that, which is very harmful. 


That derogatory depiction is in the second paragraph of the first page of JUST LUCKY.

Lucky is the name of the main character. She lives with her grandparents because her mom left her (as a baby) in the casino by a slot machine when she went outside to smoke crack. 

When the story opens, Lucky has been living with her grandparents for 15 years. She tells us her grandparents were "long done with their own parenting" and didn't give a second thought to "care and feeding of another kid."

To me that sounds like a White voice. 

Lucky has only seen her mother a couple of times in those 15 years. Certainly, a girl would have strong emotions about all of this but "I'm not even sure I could pick her out of a police lineup at this point" and thinking she WILL do that someday... it feels off, too. 

It is extreme... It is .... melodramatic. Yeah! That's it. In tone, this first chapter echoes what I saw in Florence's other books. 

Florence's writings about Native people are not without consequence. Rather than push back on derogatory images, she's feeding them. If you're reading tweets or news articles about #wetsuwetan, you know Canadians are using derogatory language about Native peoples. 

Still in chapter one, Lucky is trying to write an essay that is supposed to be autobiographical. She thinks about how her family isn't "normal."

Where does Lucky's family live? As I read on, will I learn that they're part of a Native community? Right now it seems, not. Now in chapter 3. Lucky's grandfather brought some books home for her from a used bookstore. One of them is GONE WITH THE WIND.

Anytime I see someone referencing GONE WITH THE WIND in a kid or YA book, I wait to see if they push back on its racism. Will Florence do that? 

Why drop that title into a story, as if it is just fine? FFS. Imagine a Black child reading this book. What does that child do when they come to this page and see this loving grandfather giving his granddaughter GONE WITH THE WIND?! 

WHY is that title in there? What purpose does it serve? Was/is Florence oblivious to its harm? And her editors at @_secondstory, too? Did they not notice that? 

Now in chapter 20 (chapters are very short). In previous chapters, we learn that her best friend Ryan was punched in the face by his father when he came out, that her grandmother's forgetfulness is serious, then, her grandfather dies.

When her grandmother forgets she's put something on the stove, there's a fire. She's ok but children's services gets involved and asks Lucky to call her mother because Lucky can't make decisions (she's a minor) about her grandmother's needs. 

Lucky calls her mom, Christina. 15 years have passed. I am wondering about the back story for Christina and her parents. What did they do? Kick her out of their lives? No mention of her parents (Lucky's grandparents) wondering how she is...

When Christina arrives at the hospital, Lucky notices her physical appearance (stiletto heels; short skirt; bleached hair; lots of make-up; ragged fingernails). She wants money to take care of her mom and daughter. Children's Aid person and doc are shocked at her ask. 

This scene... again, full of melodrama. 

Lucky gets placed in a foster home with a white Christian family that homeschools their son (he's an only child). The father leers at Lucky's breasts. Lucky and the son (Bobby) share an interest in comic bks. The mother warns Lucky not to lead Bobby into sin. 

Ch 28 is titled "An Unwelcome Visitor." Lucky is dreaming and thinks a spider is in her hair but it is Robert (the father) with his fingers entwined in her hair. She moves away from him; he gets into bed with her.

That scene feels gratuitous. Lucky leaps out of the bed; Robert follows her, "rubbing himself through the thin material."

Of course, things like that happen but for a Native person who has gone thru or knows someone who has gone through something like this, it seems callous. After he leaves she can't sleep. She goes to the bathroom and using scissors, cuts her hair off. Then she goes to the kitchen and gets a sharp knife to keep under her pillow. Then she falls asleep. 

Next day, she shaves her head with an electric razor she borrows from Bobby.

Remember: Bobby is 15, too. Why does he have an electric razor?

That night, Robert is back in Lucky's room, drunk. She raises the knife under her pillow, to his Adam's apple. 

She tells Robert that her grandfather taught her how to use a knife and that she can gut a trout in 60 seconds, and "I doubt you'd take much longer." He leaves.

I don't know what to make of that scene. This feels, over and over, like an outline. No depth. Just high points. 

The next morning, the mother confronts Lucky, telling her that Robert told her that Lucky had threatened him with a knife and demanded money, that she's "evil" and that she "won't have evil in my house." Lucky replies that evil was in the house before she arrived. 

I am realizing at this point that in addition to the gratuitous melodramatic scenes all thru the bk, the way that Lucky speaks doesn't ring true. She sounds tough/hard but her 15 yrs w/ her grandparents weren't harsh ones. So, her words don't fit w/ the loving grandparents. 

Another realization is that I'm nearly halfway thru the book, and it doesn't FEEL like a Native character. Any markers or values that would be from a Native home/community... they're not evident in character/story development, words, action, etc. 

As such, it feels like a lot of books by Native writers who tack on a Native identity for a character but leave it at that. 

Lucky has to leave that foster home (the Wilson's). Bobby tells her he knows his mother is covering for his father but he can't speak up because nobody will believe him.

Cynthia (social worker) goes to get Lucky, rips into her, insisting that the Wilson's are a good family. Error in tweet 27!

I meant to say that non-Native writers tack on the name of a tribal nation for a characters identity, but then never do anything else with it. That's decoration, superficial, wrong. 

As the social worker drives, she starts to listen to Lucky and says she'll investigate, and that Lucky's grandmother is now in a facility for people with dementia and Alzheimer's. 

Lucky is furious that she wasn't told about the move. Social worker hands her a paper w/ name of the facility: "Sunset Seniors." Lucky replies w/ some snarky jokes about the name of the facility. 

That snark (again) is jarring and is another instance in which the ways that Lucky speaks doesn't fit with that happy go lucky, warm childhood she's had with her grandparents up till now. 

Lucky is placed in a new foster home; husband/wife are nice and have 2 boys near Lucky's age that they are also fostering. Interactions much warmer than the first home Lucky was in (fundamentalist Christian/pedophile). At her new school, she meets a bunch of kids at lunch. 

The two foster boys, Charlie & Jake, show her around. Kids are friendly but most girls, including a redhead named Elyse, are not. Elyse seems jealous that Jake sat with Lucky instead of her. When Jake and Lucky get up for next class, Lucky is sure Elyse calls her a whore. 

She thinks about responding but remembers her grandfather saying "Don't ever let anyone tell you you're not enough, Lucky. You come from a long line of strong Indigenous people. Do them proud."

That seems an odd thought for her to have, then. 

Even if Elyse said "Indian whore" it wouldn't make sense, because Lucky's thought is abt not being "enough." It would only make sense if Elyse had said "half-breed whore."

What I am getting at is that I don't know enough about Lucky to understand why she would feel "not enough." The author (Florence) hasn't given us enough for Lucky's thought/her grandfather's words, to make sense at this particular moment in the story. 

The theater dept is doing a play. Jake plans to try out; so does Elyse; Jake wants Lucky to try out, too. She doesn't want to but he pressures her into reading with him when he tries out. Everybody--except Elyse and her friends--are impressed by her reading. 

When she's at her locker, she's surrounded by Elyse & her group. Elyse tells Lucky to leave Jake alone and not to walk around in her underwear (she knows Lucky lives in the same foster home as Jake). Lucky tries to leave but Elyse stops her, calling her a "nasty little slut."

In reply to Lucky's 'what did you say' Elyse says "Are you going to go all 'war party' on us?" and starts to whoop and dance around Lucky. Elyse's friends do it, too.

Lucky punches Elyse in the face and then stomach, knocking her down. Lucky is the one in trouble. 

As Lucky is led away by a teacher, Elyse says "What do you expect from someone like her? She's trash." One of the others says "Indian trash."

Several times up to this pt, Lucky has characterized these girls as hostile. As noted in an earlier tweet in this thread, it doesn't feel like there's enough story IN the story so far for this "hostile" characterization or this stereotypical anti-Native scene to make sense. 

Sarah (the new foster mom) is called to school because the initial plan is to expel Lucky, but Sarah listens to Lucky's account, believes her, and persuades principal to give her another chance. 

In ch 43 Lucky talks abt how her grandparents would be ashamed that she got into this fight, but, that she "never had much patience for racist pieces of garbage like Elyse."

As noted before, I'm having a hard time reconciling the things Lucky says/does with the happy home she had with her grandparents for 15 yrs. Overnight (literally), she's got an intense attitude and ready to fight in an instant, several times. 

Jake is in the play; Charlie and Lucky make sets for it. One day as Charlie and Lucky are ready to leave, Elyse appears and implies they are involved. Her tone reminds Lucky of the Wicked Witch; Lucky thinks of her as the witch and her friends as flying monkeys. 

That reference--to the Wizard of Oz--strikes me as odd.

Maybe Florence (the author) is not aware that L. Frank Baum wrote editorials calling for the extermination of Native people. It reminds me of that earlier chapter when Lucky's grandfather gives her GONE WITH THE WIND. 

In neither instance do we see Florence pushing back on either writer or book. Does she not realize that they are problematic? Who was her editor? Did that person not know? Or ... did they discuss these? Will this get resolved in later chapters? 

Elyse starts in on Charlie's identity, telling Lucky "You got yourself a little Mexican boy to play with."

Charlie yells "I'm Dominican!"

Elyse replies "Dominican, Mexican. Who cares? They're both brown. Why don't you just go back to wherever it is that you came from?"

That scene is more of the melodrama I noted in earlier scenes. These scenes are needlessly full of hurtful content.

Things like that get said, today, in the US and Canada, but as written, they seem to revel in the hurt. There's little regard for readers. 

Charlie starts yelling at Elyse, in Spanish. Elyse tells him he can do better than an Indian whore, spits at Lucky and tells her nobody wants her "worthless ass" and that's why she's in foster care. And, she says...

"You're nothing. An Indian whore who has nothing to offer except what's between your legs."

Come on, @_secondstory... part of what you try to do is provide books for Native readers. This book assaults Native readers! 

We (readers) are supposed to know that Elyse is mean, racist, etc. but it is a failure of the writer to inflict hurt in the ways that Florence does. It does not feel to me like she cares about a Native reader. 

Furious, Lucky throws a punch at Elyse but just at the last second Charlie steps between the two girls. The punch knocks him to the pavement where he hits his head, hard. Elyse and friends saunter away, ambulance is called, Charlie has a concussion. 

Lucky imagines that she's killed him, that he'll have brain damage.

Doctors say he'll be ok.

School is expelling Lucky again, so she has to go to another foster home. 

That third foster home is good but the father is being transferred to another location, so, Lucky has to go to another home. This one has several girls near her age in it; Lucky is burned out from trying to make things work at the other foster homes. 

In the morning she puts on one of the sweaters her grandmother had knitted for her. When she initially packed clothes she packed the sweaters, even though they were small. This one is tight. Mia (one of the other girls) says it is a "slutty sweater."

The mom (Janine) works at the school. By the time they get to school and are by the school office, Lucky shoves Mia and gets ready to hit her but Janine stops her and then tells Lucky info from her file that is, to Lucky's surprise, accurate. 

All through her stays in these foster homes, Lucky has visited her grandmother in the senior facility she's in for Alzheimers. Sometimes she recognizes Lucky; sometimes not. To visit her this time, Lucky took $5 from Janine's purse, thinking she'll pay her back later. 

When Lucky gets back that night, Janine is waiting and Lucky expects her to accuse Lucky of stealing and that the social worker is coming to get her but instead, Janine hugs her, saying she was worried about her. Lucky tells her about taking the money. 

But Janine tells her she'll drive her next time. When she goes to her room she sees that Janine left a book for her on the nightstand. The book is Stephen King's THE SHINING.

Again... odd choice, given the Indians in it...

At breakfast next day Janine makes pancakes. The syrup reminds Lucky of maple butter, so she tells them about putting maple butter on bannock. Mia asks what bannock is and--finally! We read a specific tribal name! I'm rdg a Kindle copy and am at Location 2175 of 2367. 

Lucky tells them "It's a kind of bread... we're Cree. My grandparents and I."

Janine suggests Lucky teach them; Mia says she doesn't like Indian food. Lucky thinks Mia is racist. 

As days pass, Janine continues to make Lucky feel welcome. Lucky holds on to hope that her grandmother will get better and that they'll return to their home, but on one visit, her grandmother tells her that isn't going to happen and that she's put their house on the market. 

She gonna put the money from the sale into an account for Lucky to go to college and is updating her will so that Lucky's mother can't get at any of it. In the car, Lucky cries and Janine comforts her.

At Janine's, Mia continues to harass Lucky. 

One day Mia asks Lucky if she likes "showing off your tits" and Lucky ignores her. Mia asks "Are all Indians deaf or just you? Or maybe you're stupid? Is that it?" Lucky clenches her fists. Mia says "Give it your best shot. I've fought girls more savage than you, Pocahontas."

As I noted earlier in the thread, these conflict scenes feel gratuitous and Florence (the author) seems oblivious to how they might impact a Native reader. 

There's warmth in ch 66 when Janine brings Lucky's grandmother, Jake & Charlie and Lucy (from previous foster homes) over for Lucky's birthday. Mia had watched Lucky make bannock and has made some for the party. 

Ryan is there, too (Lucky has stayed in touch with him throughout the book). There are thoughtful gifts; Lucky feels that this is finally like home. The story ends with her blowing out the birthday cake candles.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Debbie--have you seen REZ RUNAWAY by Melanie Florence?

Yesterday's review of Melanie Florence's Missing Nimama generated a lot of private email and social media from Native people who are uncomfortable with it but didn't want to say anything. I also got two emails asking if I've seen her Rez Runaway. Published in 2016 in Canada, with a 2017 publication year in the US, it is in Lorimer's reluctant reader "Side Streets" series. Here's the synopsis:
Raised on a reserve in northern Ontario, seventeen-year-old Joe Littlechief tries to be like the other guys. But Joe knows he's different -- he's more interested in guys than in any of the girls he knows. One night Joe makes a drunken pass at his best friend Benjy and, by the next morning, everyone on the rez is talking about Joe. His mother, a devout Christian, is horrified, and the kids who are supposed to be his friends make it clear there's no place for him in their circle, or even on the rez. Joe thinks about killing himself, but instead runs away to the city.
Alone and penniless on the streets of Toronto, Joe comes to identify with the Aboriginal idea of having two spirits, or combining both feminine and masculine identities in one person. He also begins to understand more about how his parents have been affected by their own experiences as children in residential schools -- something never discussed on the rez. And he realizes he has to come to terms with his two-spiritedness and find people who accept him for who he is.

I've ordered a copy and will review it when it arrives. There is next to nothing available right now that accurately portrays Native LGBTQ teens. Though emily m. danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post is quite popular, the Native parts of it were not well done. That really bothers me! Sometime soon, I'll be back with a review of Rez Runaway. 

Saturday, February 01, 2020

An Illustrated Record of My Indigenous Spotlight Lecture at 2020 Ontario Library Association Super Conference

Devon Kerslake's Illustrated Record of My Indigenous Spotlight Lecture 
at 2020 Ontario Library Association Super Conference* 
by Debbie Reese

Last year, Nancy Cooper (Ojibwe from the Chippewas of Rama First Nation) and Deanna Nebenionquit (Atikmeksheng Anishnawbek) invited me to be a featured speaker at the Ontario Library Association's 2020 Super Conference. Nancy and Deanna are planners for the Indigenous Stream. They wanted me to give the Indigenous Spotlight session. I accepted their invitation and spoke on January 29, 2020.

To prepare for it, I thought about concerns that Native peoples in my networks have been talking about in recent periods. Identity and fraudulent claims to Native identity are a primary concern. So, I settled on Politics, Ethics, and Native Identity as my topic. It was captured in real-time by Devon Kerslake, who sketched as I spoke. This is what it looks like (and isn't it the coolest?!):

To prepare for talks I give at a conference, I look to previous conferences to see what sorts of talks people have given. I saw that Tanya Talaga (Ojibwe) gave the 2019 Indigenous Spotlight talk. And, I saw that her remarks had been captured by Devon Kerslake, a graphic illustrator at Think Link Graphics:

I was psyched as I studied the visual artifact, or graphic recording of her talk (other phrases for this kind of work are story mapping and sketch notes). As I looked around the conference website, I saw that lectures given by other featured speakers had also been sketched out. In particular, I noted that there was one on intellectual freedom, given by James Turk. As I looked at it I saw the usual ideas that people put forth to discredit us when we object to something. I used content of Talaga's and Turk's lectures to frame my remarks. I don't know if I was successful or not. That was the first-time I've given a talk about that particular set of slides and that topic.

I didn't know that a similar record would be made of my talk!

As I set up my computer and tested the microphone, I saw a person come in and realized they were setting up to do one. I asked Nancy if she could take occasional photographs of it, as the illustrator worked.

My goal was to provide some personal historical context about identity, how Native identity was denigrated by state actors (federal government and its employees) in my personal family history, how identity can be monetized for personal gain, and the ethics--or lack of them--when a writer selects content for their stories.

What I'll do in the remainder of this post is tell you a bit more about the illustrations that the illustrator captured. When I have the illustrator's name, I'll be back to add it. I think it is Kerslake but will know for sure, later. [Update on Feb 3: I've heard from Devon Kerslake. It is, indeed, her work. I've added her name to the title of this post.]

The first things I said were about my tribal nation, Nambé Owingeh. I talked about growing up there, what I learned, and I showed some photos from there, including one of three-year-old me on my trike. The "best wheels" remark was about the hard rubber tires on that trike. They never got flat like the bicycle wheels would, later! I talked about liking school and getting a certificate from my teacher at the end of the year. I had the best grades that year. The "Naming Matters" part is about my name. My teacher was sure my parents did wrong in naming me Debbie. She insisted that Debbie is a nickname and not a proper name. Can you imagine that? The audacity of that woman! At the end of the year, she wrote Deborah on my certificate. I also talked about my grandfathers. My mom's father was Hopi. When he went to boarding school his name was changed, forever. My dad's father was White. His name was the same at his birth and death. The federal government ran those boarding schools and changed Native student's names. It was a political effort to turn us into white people. Obviously, it didn't work. We're still here, fighting to protect who we are: sovereign nations.

I showed the 2018 infographic that Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen imagined into being and that David Huyck drew and called attention to the data about Native people. It combines quantitative data from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's metaphor that books can function as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. I call attention to the shards of glass at the feet of the Native and Children of Color, because in that 1% of books, a lot of the content is stereotypical, biased, or wrong. Here's the slide I used:

And here's how it was sketched:

I also talked at length about claims to Native identity, the ways that people speak of their Native identity (and how its shifts over time strike me as indicative of little to no connection with the people they claim to be from) and the benefits some writers receive.

For Bouchard, I talked about his 2016 video, "David Bouchard on Being Métis" and things he said. It begins with him saying "one of the nice things about being Métis is I have no plan." and that "When I was white I had a 10-year plan." I noted that his books are stereotypical and romantic or sentimental in tone, both of which I think obscure who we are as people. I referenced the letter he received in 2007 from the Metis Nation of British Columbia, stating they could not confirm his claim to being Métis.

When I spoke about Melanie Florence, I talked about the ethics of writing a story about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Back in 2017 when I read Missing Nimama I felt it was exploiting pain. I found her writings about why she wrote that book (to give voice to these women and their families) and a children's writing contest prompt she wrote (comparing missing and murdered Indigenous women to having some thing stolen from contest participants) to be insensitive. I believe firmly that some stories are best told by people with the experience necessary to share them with care.

From here on I'll use close ups of the post-talk image. The illustrator added color to what they had sketched during the talk. I continued with the "Is this your story to tell" question by referencing Rebecca Roanhorse and the stories she's chosen to tell in her adult books and her middle grade novel, Race to the Sun. These are stories taken from the Diné people. She is married into a Diné family. I recounted my initial support for her and Trail of Lightning and that I listened when Diné people objected to what she had done with their sacred stories and beings. I withdrew my support for that book because I agree with their objections. In several places, I have spoken or written about what we keep private. I've added "curtain" to Dr. Bishop's metaphor because Native peoples do, in fact, draw curtains on some of what we do (see, for example, page 390 of Critical Indigenous Literacies.)

(Note: A special thanks to Lisa Noble who was at the presentation, for suggesting I add these next two paragraphs and images.) A segment of my talk was about my personal family history and how that would shape my thinking if I was writing fiction. In my slides, I had this image. The top row is my grandparents, the second row is my parents, and the bottom is me. I said that I would feel comfortable writing about my life growing up at Nambé. I could write stories about riding my trike or bicycle, or playing in the river below our house (or any number of things we did!). Although I spent a lot of time at Ohkay Owingeh visiting my grandfather, uncles and aunts, and playing with cousins there (its about 25 minutes away from Nambé), I didn't grow up there and wouldn't feel ethical about writing a story from the point of view of a kid from Ohkay Owingeh. And though we went to Hopi a few times, I wouldn't create a character or story from a Hopi child's point of view. There's too much I don't know about the essence of what it means to grow up at Ohkay Owingeh or Hopi. My personal ethics mean that I wouldn't do it.

That personal history portion of my talk was captured in this sketch ("consider the ethics of identity"). At Nambé Owingeh I was taught what I can and cannot share. I have strong family relationships and friendships at Ohkay Owingeh but my personal ethics about respecting a tribal nations sovereignty and protocols over what they do not want shared means I would definitely not write a story about their sacred songs, dances, or stories.

I talked about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People, which is the book that Jean Mendoza and I adapted from Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz's book. I noted the mirrors for Pueblo children that I added to it (Po'Pay and the seed pot made by Nambé tribal member, Pearl Talachy) and the mirrors that Jean added for Muscogee children. I noted that in chapter ten, we wrote about activism, and I talked about how we used the book's index to decenter Whiteness.

This next illustration captures the Q&A. People wondered what to do about Bouchard's books. I asked them to think about why his books have such appeal. I used the phrase "tugging at your heart strings" to characterize the ways that we (readers) can be manipulated by text and image in ways that are not helpful to the sound education that teachers are expected to provide to children. Our responsibility as educators is to educate, not entertain. Entertainment is fine, of course, but not if the content of the entertainment is misleading or inappropriate. I suggested using such books with kids to teach them how to read critically. I issued a caution about DNA tests--well, it was more of a "don't do them!" statement, and I recommended Kim TallBear's book Native American DNA. The introduction to me and my talk was given by Feather Maracle. She referenced my work on Little House on the Prairie and the name change. In the Q&A someone asked me to talk about it, so I did. In answering that question I also talked about the backlash and security concerns when I speak at some places. In reply to a "what can we do" question, I asked people to speak up and do this work with me.

I think that's about it! As always, if something I said in this post (or in the lecture, if you were there or read/talked about it with someone) is not clear, let me know in a comment and I'll respond.

Additional thoughts about my trip to Toronto

The last event of my trip to Toronto was a visit to the First Nations House at the University of Toronto. There, we laughed, ate, and talked about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People. 

Ishta Mercurio was at the First Nations House, too. She is one of the authors of a letter written to the Children's Book Guild in Washington DC over their treatment of Carole Lindstrom. Ishta, Julie Foster Hedlund, and Martha Brockenbrough's decision to write that letter embodies what I said in the Indigenous Spotlight Q&A (speak up).

A highlight: I met Joanna Robertson, author and illustrator of The Water Walker. She told me about her and Josephine Mandamin reading my review of the book as they drove together one day. I'll remember what she said, forever. I also met Samantha Martin-Bird and Robyn Medicine, who did a session on white fragility at the conference that drew fire from a conservative Toronto newspaper. Talking with them was way cool! And, the time I spent with Nancy Cooper, Deanna Nebenionquit, Jenny Kay Dupuis, and Feather Maracle was filled with affirmation and that strong sense of Native women, doing important work together.


Back to add the illustrated record of Dr. Sheila Cote-Meek's talk! I encourage you to head over to Twitter and see the tweets in the hashtag, #OLASC.

*On February 3, I heard from Devon Kerslake. She is the artist who sketched my talk. I've added her name to the title of the blog post.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Published in 2016: Books by/about Native peoples

We will be updating this page whenever we read something published in 2016.

If you compare what I have here with the CCBC list, you will notice that AICL received some books that CCBC did not, and vice versa. An asterisk indicates a book that appears here and on the CCBC list.

Recommended (N=16)

Not Recommended (N=19)

Reviewed but not able to put in recommended or not recommended (N=1):

Not Yet Reviewed (N=17)
  • Akulukjuk, Roselynn. (2016). The Owl and the Lemming. Inhabit Media. Canada
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). The Long Run. 7th Generation, US.*
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). Brothers of the Buffalo: A Novel of the Red River Way. Fulcrum Publishing, USA. 
  • Bruchac, Joseph. (2016). Talking Leaves. Dial Books for Young Readers, US.*
  • Crate, Joan. (2016). Black Apple. Simon and Schuster. US
  • Daniel, Tony. (2016). The Dragon Hammer. Baen/Simon and Schuster, US.
  • Florence, Melanie. (2016). Rez Runaway. Lerner, Canada.
  • Flanagan, John. (2016). The Ghostfaces. Penguin, US.*
  • Holt, K. A. (2016). Red Moon Rising. Margaret K. McElderry/Simon and Schuster
  • Kwaymullina, Ambelin. (2016). The Disappearance of Ember Crow. 
  • London, Jonathan. (2016). Bella Bella. West Winds. US.
  • Modesto, Michelle. (2016). Revenge of the Wild. HarperCollins, US.
  • Peratrovich, Roy A. (2016). Little Whale. University of Alaska Press.
  • Petti, Erin. (2016). The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee. Mighty Media Junior Readers.
  • Robinson, Gary. (2016). Lands of Our Ancestors. 7th Generation, US.
  • Sammurtok, Nadia. (2016). The Caterpillar Woman. Inhabit Media. Canada.
  • Smith, Danna. (2016). Arctic White. Holt/Macmillan