Monday, October 21, 2013

Beverly Slapin's review essay of Helen Frost's SALT

Editor's Note: Beverly Slapin submitted this review essay of Helen Frost's SALT, comparing it to Bruchac's ARROW OVER THE DOOR. It may not be used elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013. Slapin is currently the publisher/editor of De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children.

A few years ago, a colleague and I facilitated a workshop in Albuquerque. The workshop dealt with evaluating children’s books about Indian peoples. It was a small group, about 20 or so participants, mostly teachers and librarians in the area. Of these, some were Diné (Navajo) and some were white. At one point, we brought out one of the worst historical fiction books in our collection, Scott O’Dell’s SING DOWN THE MOON.[1] We asked the participants to read sections of this book and, based on a series of evaluative questions, to review it. They did, and almost all of them agreed that this was not a book they’d use in their classrooms or libraries.

Except for one, a Diné elder, who worked specifically with Diné young people—“reluctant readers” at risk for dropping out of school. This elder said that each year, she purchases a new class set of SING DOWN THE MOON because it’s the first book her students actually get excited about. My colleague and I were astonished. We just looked at each other. We weren’t about to confront an elder, especially a Diné elder, especially about a book purporting to be about Navajo people. So we waited.

What seemed like an eternity was actually just a couple of minutes. This elder told us that she brings SING DOWN THE MOON into the classroom each year, opens it up and starts reading it aloud. The reaction, she said, is immediate. “They just can’t stop laughing,” she said, in disbelief that a book about their Diné people could be this bad. We’d never leave our sheep in a storm. This isn’t how our ceremonies go. We don’t talk like this. They reach for the books. They read the story, again and again. They laugh about it. They talk about it. They critique it. They write about it. The books get marked up, some pages get folded over and others get torn out. It doesn’t matter, the elder said, because her students have gotten excited about a book. Then, she said, she introduces them to BLACK MOUNTAIN BOY: A STORY OF THE BOYHOOD OF JOHN HONIE[2] and other books published by Rough Rock Press and the Navajo Curriculum Center, traditional stories they recognize and new stories they appreciate.

SING DOWN THE MOON received the Newbery Honor Award. It received rave reviews from all of the “mainstream” reviewers, including The New York Times. Not one of the reviewers saw any of what made the Diné students fall out of their chairs.

If there’s a moral to this story, it might be this: Some really terrible books can probably be used in good ways. (But I could not bring myself to purchase a class set of them.)

Here are some questions I’ve used and taught in evaluating historical fiction: Is this book based on true events or are the details rooted in actual history? Is this book based on the lives of real people or could these people really have lived? Does the author have an understanding of and respect for the era and the characters? Are the characters believable and does the author present the characters’ ways of seeing the world respectfully? Does the author explain cultural nuances that may be misunderstood? Are the language and the dialogue believable? And finally, does the book read well?

Which brings me to one of my favorite historical novels for young readers: Joseph Bruchac’s THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR.[3] Bruchac is a gifted writer, and one of the things he does well is breathe life into historical events.

Told in alternating voices of two young men—Stands Straight, an Abenaki, and Samuel Russell, a Quaker—the story is based on an actual incident that took place between the Abenaki and the Quakers during the summer of 1777.

As British troops near Saratoga, the young Quaker wrestles with his pacifism and the taunts of his neighbors, and Stands Straight—whose mother and brothers were killed by the Bostoniak—joins his uncle in a scouting party. Surrounding the meetinghouse, the party of Abenaki encounters a group of Quakers engaged in a “silent meeting.” As Stands Straight and Samuel Russell sign their friendship to each other, they place an arrow—its head broken off—over the door. There will be no war in this place this day.

In an interesting author’s note, Bruchac recounts the research that he and his sister, Marge Bruchac, conducted, notes how several accounts of this historical event differ, and further denotes the changes he made in his telling.

While SING DOWN THE MOON would not measure up to the standards of the questions listed a few paragraphs above, THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR would shine. 

Which brings me to a young adult novel currently being discussed,[4] Helen Frost's SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR [5]. As with THE ARROW OVER THE DOOR, this story is also told in alternating voices of two young men—Anikwa, a Myaamia (Miami) living in Kekionga, and James, son of a trader family, living outside of Fort Wayne, inside the stockade. SALT takes place in 1812. “As the British and American armies prepare to meet at Fort Wayne for a crucial battle…James and Anikwa, like everyone around them, must decide where their deepest loyalties lie. Can their families—and their friendship—survive?”[6]

In reading SALT against ARROW, I don’t see Anikwa and James as believable as Stands Straight and Samuel, and I question some of the introductory description, such as

• “Kekionga is part of the Miami Nation, a Native American community made up of villages along the rivers…”  (In the year in which this story takes place, the Myaamia Nation was the seat of a huge political confederacy of nations. The terms “community” and “villages” diminishes the size and political structure—and, for young readers and their teachers, the importance—of the Myaamia. In an attempt to equalize Anikwa’s people with James’ people—who really were a small trading community—Frost diminishes one and emphasizes the other.)

• “Although there is sometimes distrust and fighting between the two communities, friendships and intermarriage are also common.” This was wartime; there was lots of killing going on. Although it’s possible that friendships between enemy peoples may have occurred, to describe the horrors of war as “sometimes distrust and fighting” minimizes the depredation of Native peoples and the wholesale theft of land. (And notice that, while the word “sometimes” is a descriptor for war, “common” is a descriptor for friendship. Here, in her “story of friendship,” she minimizes the larger and emphasizes the smaller.)

• In places, Anikwa seems to step out of the story to inform readers about how his family lives and how things are done. This is probably for the benefit of young readers and their teachers who may not be familiar with how the Myaamia people lived in 1812, but it disrupts the flow of the narrative.

• And, as Debbie Reese comments, “We don't know enough about that period of history, or about the Miami Nation and its resistance to encroachment, to be able to read the sparse text within a context that this story needs.”[7] Reading the treaty of 1803[8] might help, as well as reading the material on the Myaamia Center website.[9] But are young students and their teachers going to dig as deeply as they need to, to get the real story?

Myaamia children who may read SALT will undoubtedly have the historical and cultural knowledge they’d need to deal with the inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies present in Frost’s book. For children and their teachers who are not Myaamia, not so much. Since historical fiction is often used in classrooms to supplement the teaching of history, accuracy is especially important in these books for young readers. When it comes down to it, it's the responsibility of an author—especially a children's book author—to get the history right.

—Beverly Slapin

[1] Scott O’Dell, Sing Down the Moon (Houghton Mifflin, 1970). See a critical review of this title in Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, eds., A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children (AltaMira, 2005).

[2] Vada Carleson and Gary Witherspoon, Black Mountain Boy: A Story of the Boyhood of John Honie (Rough Rock Press, 1993).
[3] See a review of this title in Seale and Slapin, op. cit.

[4] See Debbie Reese’s discussion and comments in “American Indians in Children’s Literature” (

[5] Helen Frost, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

[6] This text is from the publisher’s copy.

[7] Debbie Reese, op. cit., October 13, 2013.

[8] This treaty is between the US and Delawares, Shawanoes, Putawatimies, Miamies, Eel River, Weeas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws, and Kaskaskias nations of Indians. Article 3 can be found on Debbie Reese’s page, op. cit., and the entire treaty (entitled “Treaty with the Delawares, etc., 1803”) can be found at


Saturday, October 19, 2013

President Obama, Mascots, Children's Literature, and American Indians

Listen to President Obama's remarks regarding the Washington Redskins:

At the :43 mark, President Obama says "I think all these mascots and team names related to Native Americans... Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it, and I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things."

Let's think about attachment. How do we become attached to something? How do we become attached, specifically, to a stereotyped mascot that is meant to represent Native people? Here's a photograph of Zema Williams. He's been dressing up to personify the Redskin's mascot for many years.

Photo credit: Jonathan Newton, Washington Post

The photo is from a Washington Post article Mike Wise wrote about Williams. In the article, he says that his job is to entertain people. This started back in 1978 when he went to a costume shop and bought feathers and a spear. His costume is more elaborate now. If you do an image search on "Chief Zee" you'll find plenty of photos of him. He wears a feathered headdress.

Let's turn, now, to children's books. They tell us that kids have been playing Indian for a long time.

We'll start with Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages. Set in Canada, it was published in 1903. It is about how a boy named Yan who loved Indians and animals. By the end of the story, he is living like an Indian. Here he is in the final pages:

Seton established the scouting tradition.  Playing Indian was--and is--a big part of scouting, but scouts don't call it playing Indian. How do they, I wonder, speak of what they do? They associate it with positive feelings. They are emotionally attached to what they do.

Dressing up like an Indian/playing Indian takes place a lot in life. It is captured in children's picture books. They embody that attachment to playing Indian, and playing Indian as a form of entertainment, too.

Do you recognize these characters? Do you know the book in which they appeared? Do you know the author/illustrator that created them?








No guessing on this one! This is Leo Politi's autobiography.

The characters above are from older books, but characters dress like Indians in newer ones, too. Take a look at these ones, in books from the 90s to the present:





That's a lot of playing Indian, isn't it? Let's turn, now, to American Indians.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) put together a report titled Ending the Legacy of Racism. It includes a timeline on page 18. Here's some things to note:

In 1919, American Indians on reservations were not allowed to leave those reservations without written permission. Did you know that?

In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was signed into law. It allowed American Indian citizens the right to vote, but, most were still confined to reservations. Moreover, "Civilization Regulations" criminalized traditional practices, dances, ceremonies, and ways of being Native. I'm going to repeat and emphasize what the Civilization Requirements did: criminalized traditional practices, dances, ceremonies, and ways of being Native.

In 1926, "Chief Illiniwek" started dancing at the University of Illinois. In case you don't know what that mascot looked like, here's a photo of a recent portrayer:

The mascot "Chief Illiniwek" began doing its half-time routine during a period when it was illegal for actual American Indians to carry on with our traditional dances.

I'm glad there's a lot of pressure on Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, but I'd like all of us to think about the role that children's books play. In past writing at AICL, I've referenced research studies that document the harm that stereotypes do to Native and non-Native children. The NCAI report references Stephanie Fryberg's study, in which she and her colleagues found that the self-efficacy of Native youth was depressed by these images, while the self-efficacy of non-Native youth was enhanced. The impact on non-Natives can be seen as proof that such mascots --- meant to inspire --- are doing what they're supposed to do, and they help us understand why Snyder and fans rise to defend the mascots, too.

Would Snyder and fans hold to that attachment if they knew what Fryberg found? Would you?

Regular readers of AICL would say no, and a good many of those readers are attentive to the kinds of books they buy, too. Children's books and children's play have a role in the attachment President Obama referenced. The problem, quite simply, is larger than just mascots.

We have a lot of work to do.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Where would we be without whites who like Indians? Or, a critical look at Susan Cooper's GHOST HAWK

As expected, Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk is a contender for the Newbery Medal (2:26 PM Note: I do not have inside knowledge of the Newbery Committee's deliberations. My post is about Ghost Hawk being discussed as a contender in the mock Newbery discussion at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog).  Ghost Hawk is the topic today (October 15, 2013) at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog. The author of the post, Jonathan Hunt, thinks that the plot twist at the end of part one is "the best of the year."

The plot twist he refers to? The character, Little Hawk, is killed by a Pilgrim, but that's not the end of him. He goes from being a living person to a ghost that narrates the rest of the story, which focuses on John Wakely, a colonist who grows up and saves the life of a Native boy named Trouble. That Native boy grows up to be Metacom/King Philip. Yep--a leader of the Wampanoag, according to Cooper's story, only gets to be that leader because a white person saves him when he was a child.

Throughout part two and three, Little Hawk can reveal himself to John at a certain time and place on an island. He does so several times during the story. That's because, when Little Hawk was killed, he was unable to rest or go home because John has a stone blade that belonged to Little Hawk's ancestors.  

By the end of the story (part four in the book), we're in the present day. A woman lives on the island. With a helper, she works the land. That helper finds Little Hawk's tomahawk and gives it to the woman. The next day, she's holding the tomahawk in her hand and Little Hawk reveals himself to her (page 316):
"She sees a bare-chested American Indian, in deerskin pants and moccasins, his hair greased up into a scalp lock--but the body has no substance, and through it the trees are still faintly visible."
She is startled but they begin to talk with each other. They have what I find to be a troubling conversation about the land itself and land ownership, and she learns that he is kept from resting because of the tomahawk blade she now has in her hands. She realizes that she can free him by burying it. The tomahawk, he tells her, has been buried a long time. Strains of "bury the hatchet"--don't you think?! So, she plants a hickory tree and buries the blade with it. Then, we read (p. 320):
Time breaks open around me, and all at once there is more light than a hundred suns, more light than I have ever seen.
I am gone to my long home at last, set free, flying high, high beyond the world. High, high, into mystery.
With those passages, Cooper is imagining what a Wampanoag person experiences when they die. It is a bit ironic, I think, that it is a person named Cooper doing that imagining, because another person named Cooper did a whole lot of imagining when he wrote his stories about Indians... Course, I'm thinking of James Fenimore Cooper. Remember that guy? He wrote Last of the Mohicans. 

Key points in Susan Cooper's story? White person saves Metacom. White person frees Little Hawk. In his discussion of the book, Jonathan says that Cooper's story, written from Little Hawk's perspective,
"engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture."
Perhaps it does, but how what does that empathy mean? What does IT engender? Below is the comment I submitted to Jonathan's post. As of this moment (9:26 AM, Central Time), it is in 'moderation mode' but I expect it to appear shortly. I encourage you to follow and participate in the discussion that will take place. Here's a link to the page:

Jonathan Hunt's post about Ghost Hawk

And, my comment to Jonathan's post (awaiting approval from Jonathan or whomever moderates comments for him):

Hi Jonathan,
As some people know, I blogged Part One of Cooper’s ( story in early June. The technique I used in that post is one that is very popular with my readers. They want to know about the process I go through as I read and analyze a book about American Indians. Some people feel strongly that doing that is unfair, particularly because I haven’t yet provided answers to concerns and questions I raised in that post. I have similar notes for posts about Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four and intended to write them up and post them, too, inserting answers to my questions/concerns as I conducted research necessary to answer my questions.
When I read the Author’s Note, however, I decided to write and post my overall thoughts on the book ( because I don’t think the answers to my questions/concerns will change my primary concerns with the book. In a nutshell: we have an author using seventeenth century sources to imagine the life of a Native character, and then (presumably) using those same sources to imagine the after-life of that Native character. I see no evidence that she consulted any sources that counter the bias and misinformation in the ways that American Indians are portrayed in those seventeenth century sources. In the Author’s Note, she sends us to two websites, but the first one is sketchy and further adds to my concerns that she did not read any of the critical writing by scholars who counter bias and misinformation in materials about American Indians. As such, she’s doing a whole lot of imagining. She imagines the life of living/breathing Native people, and then she takes a huge leap and imagines how that tribe has laid out its spirituality. Given its glowing reviews, what she does works for most people, and that’s troubling. Shouldn’t we be past that kind of imagining that romanticizes American Indians?
A second concern is that in her story, her fictional main character, John Wakely, saves the life of Metacom/King Philip. According to the entry in Hoxie’s ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, he “personified native resistance to colonial power in southern New England in the seventeenth century” (p. 373). John is so adored by the Indians, that they hold their children up high so they can get a glimpse of him. In a way, this is the John Smith/Pocahontas story all over again. But again–shouldn’t we be past themes in which whites save the day?
Obviously, I disagree that the writing is skillful and the themes distinguished. Cooper’s story, as Jonathan says, “engenders empathy for the disappearing indigenous people and their culture.” His use of “disappearing indigenous people” is telling, I think, because that is exactly what I’m talking about. As a society, most Americans want to love a certain kind of indigenous person and story about indigenous people. It is a superficial love for something imagined. Unfortunately, the kind they love is the kind that was mistreated but then disappeared.
Where’s the love of modern day American Indians critical of that superficial love?
It was/is a bit unnerving to read the comments to Jonathan’s earlier post (“October Nominations”), in which commenters discourage others from reading what I said in my post about Ghost Hawk.
I’m not hoping for people to love what I or any Indigenous people say. What we all need is a different perspective of Native/White relationships, past and present. What we need is a citizenry that can see and reject stereotypes of who American Indians are, and a citizenry that wants accurate, not romantic, stories about who we are. Heralding books like GHOST HAWK or SALT will keep us stuck in that same old place of honoring Indians, and that kind of honoring is superficial and not helpful to anyone.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Initial Thoughts about Helen Frost's SALT: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP IN A TIME OF WAR

Helen Frost's newest book, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War is getting a lot of good press, but I'm having trouble articulating what it is that doesn't work for me as a reader.

The novel is set in 1812.

In the introductory pages, Frost tells us that there is "sometimes distrust and fighting between the two communities" but that friendships and intermarriage are common (p. xiii).

The two communities live in two places. One is in Kekionga, a village that Frost tells us is part of the Miami nation. The other community is Fort Wayne, where 80 soldiers, their wives, and children live. The fort is inside of a stockade. Outside of the fort (but inside the stockade), are a few more families, some fields, and a trading post where a trader and his family live.

Kekionga was actually more than that. It was the seat of a confederacy of Indian tribes. Frost's characterization of it as a village seems a small point, but I think my problem with her novel is that there's lot of small points like that. In isolation, they seem inconsequential. In total, they are what is--for me--the novel's undoing.

The story focuses on two twelve year old boys. It is presented in two voices, each alternating with the other (by chapter) as they view the same events from their distinct vantage points. One of the boys is Miami. His name is Anikwa. On the pages where he is speaking, Frost arranges the text in geometric patterns that were inspired by Miami ribbon work. The other boy is James. He's the trader's son. The text on the pages where he is speaking is arranged in lines that Frost says are like the lines of the American flag. If we step away from that presentation, we have Native people represented as art, and, American people represented as nation. (Sentence in italics added on March 3, 2014.)

The text is sparse, and that, I think is another reason the novel doesn't work. We don't know enough about that period of history, or about the Miami Nation and its resistance to encroachment, to be able to read the sparse text within a context that this story needs.

Anikwa lives with his extended family. His mother died of smallpox when he was two, and his father was killed a year later in "a skirmish" (p. 7).  Given that the novel is set in 1812, we can do some math and see that his father died in 1803. What skirmish, I wondered, would that have been? I wondered, too, about Frost's introductory note about how there was (emphasis mine) "sometimes distrust and fighting."

I started digging and came across a treaty in 1803. It was a treaty between the United States and Delawares, Shawanoes, Putawatimies, Miamies, Eel River, Weeas, Kickapoos, Piankashaws, and Kaskaskias nations of Indians. The treaty was made at Fort Wayne. It is fairly short. You can read it in its entirety at the Digital Library at Oklahoma State. Of particular interest--given the title of Frost's book--is Article 3. It is all about salt! Here's what it says:
As a mark of their regard and attachment to the United States, whom they acknowledge for their only friends and protectors, and for the consideration herein after mentioned, the said tribes do hereby relinquish and cede to the United States the great salt spring upon the Saline creek which falls into the Ohio below the mouth of the Wabash, with a quantity of land surrounding it, not exceeding four miles square, and which may be laid off in a square or oblong as the one or the other may be found most convenient to the United States: And the said United States being desirous that the Indian tribes should participate in the benefits to be derived from the said spring, hereby engage to deliver yearly and every year for the use of the said Indians, a quantity of salt not exceeding one hundred and fifty bushels, and which shall be divided among the several tribes in such manner as the general council of the chiefs may determine.

The treaty says that the U.S. will "delivery yearly and every year for the use of the said Indians, a quantity of salt not exceeding one hundred and fifty bushels, and which shall be divided among the several tribes in such manner as the general council of the chiefs may determine."

We have a treaty in 1803 that says salt will be delivered. I assume that means Indians won't have to buy salt. But in Frost's novel, Anikwa's family has to buy salt from James's family. How do we go from a treaty that says the government will deliver salt to the Miami Indians, to the Miami Indians having to buy salt? See? That's one of the gaps that I struggle with in terms of the text being sparse. On page 51, Anikwa's family is planning a trip to the trading post. Mink (Anikwa's aunt, who is raising him because, remember, his mother died when he was two and his father was killed when he was three) says they need salt. Old Raccoon (he's Anikwa's uncle/Mink's husband) scowls and says:
"They take it (salt) from our land, then sell it back to us."
When they get to the trading post, Old Raccoon says "We need salt" but James's father says "No more salt" even though the salt barrel, which is visible to all, is half-full.

More digging got at my unease with Frost's characterization of relationships between the Indians and Americans. Remember, she said "sometimes" there was "distrust and fighting" between them. Throughout the first part of the book, there are discussions of an impending siege in which the Americans are afraid that British soldiers and Indians will lay siege on the fort before the American soldiers can arrive. On page 59, James's parents are talking about the siege. James tells his Pa that he thought the Indians are on the side of the Americans. Pa says that there are Indians from all over are coming and its hard to say who among them are friends of the Americans. Ma says "we'll continue to treat the Miami as the friends they've always been."

Does Ma mean that Anikwa's family has always been a friend to her own family? Or does she mean that the Miami have always been friends to the Americans? If it is the latter, she's wrong.

In the 1780s and 1790s, there was a great deal of killing going on. Americans were killing Indians and Indians were killing Americans. This was over the land and who it belonged to. It was over who had the right to enter into a treaty, and with what other nation. The Indians had formed a confederacy and were aligned with the British.

In April of 1790, Miami's attacked a flotilla of military supply boats, killing five soldiers and taking eight prisoners. In 1794, General Anthony Wayne and his troops defeated the Indian confederacy, and in 1795 the Treaty of Greenville was signed. There's more--a lot more--about the fighting that took place in those years that, I think, casts "sometimes" into question.

But let's get back to the story itself for a moment.

There's some inconsistencies, I think, in how the characters act.

One moment, Old Raccoon is talking about needing to save his bullets for something bigger than a duck. He laments treaty violations. A few days later, he's volunteering to guide American women and children in the fort to safety.

James seems to think well of Anikwa and he also seems to disapprove of his father's actions. But on page 70, he sees Anikwa carrying a rabbit from one of his snares, and he thinks that Anikwa isn't his friend after all. That seems abrupt. They struggle and James runs home with the rabbit. Anikwa thinks that "we don't need any of them" (p. 73). That seems a bit abrupt, too.

A few pages later, the trading post is burned and the soldiers and James's family have no meat. Anikwa takes some to them, hiding it in a tree. James retrieves it, and later, James and his dad put some salt into that same tree for Anikwa.

Those friendships shift from friendly to not-friendly and back again a bit too fast. Maybe, in a time of war, that sort of thing happened, but I go back to the overall history and context. The distrust and fighting that had been going on for a long long time was over the land. American settlers kept coming into land that belonged to the Indians. On page 121, James's mother is writing to her sister in Philadelphia, telling her there is good land to be had. Rupert (a person in the fort) tells her "this part of the territory isn't open for settlement yet" and that treaty details still need to be worked out. The way his remarks are presented suggests that the Americans are law-abiding people who wouldn't be squatters. But--that doesn't jibe with the history!

By the end of the story, the homes of both boys have been burned. Soldiers burn Kekionga, its cornfields, and the surrounding forest, too. Anikwa and his family are safe, having steadily moved on until the burning stopped but they decide to return to Kekionga and rebuild. Once there, James and his family bring them items that James's father took from Anikwa's home before it was burned. Anikwa and his family offer food to James and his family. They eat together and then play music together. The story ends.

What do we, the reader, come away with?

Friendships that persevere, no matter what?

Frost's book reminds me of the much-loved Thanksgiving story. Sitting together for meals in the midst of turmoil and war is possible, but I'm not sure how plausible it is. As Frost tells us, there are friendships between the Indians and the Americans. But overwhelmingly, the history is one of loss of Indian life and land. Overwhelmingly. That is the history.

Nonetheless, these two families eat together. In light of what preceded that moment, and what happened after it, the story doesn't work for me. It ends up being somewhat of a feel-good story that suggests optimism and hope for relationships between peoples in conflict, but for me, it masks the truth.

And so, I can't recommend Frost's Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War. 

On the back of the book, Daryl Baldwin, Director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University, says that Frost "dives below the simple narrative of natives versus settlers to give us a refreshing look at the human side of events in the War of 1812." I'd like Daryl to read it more carefully. I met him some years ago and will send my review to him. I'll share whatever I get back from him, and I'll keep thinking about Salt. 


Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War 
Author: Helen Frost
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published in July 2013

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dear Jon Scieszka: I've got a bone to pick with you...

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July 15, 2013

Dear Jon Scieszka,

I've got a bone to pick with you. Are you following the recent news story about the names of the pilots of the Asiana flight that crashed in San Francisco? Someone made up some names for those pilots. The newscaster read those made-up names on the news cast. Did you read about it? Here's those made-up names:

Sum Ting Wong
Wi Tu Lo
Ho Lee Fuk
Bang Ding Ow

The person who created those names, no doubt, had a good time doing it and probably laughed pretty hard at the people at the TV station who put those names into the script for the newscaster. That person probably laughed pretty hard at the newscaster, too, as she read the names and didn't realize they were made-up names that mock Asian people. 

Lot of people read your books, Mr. Scieszka, and a lot of people laugh when they read the ways you use humor. You don't mean to be offensive or insensitive, right? Just in case you don't realize that some of your humor is precisely that---offensive and insensitive---let's revisit what you did with humor and names in Me Oh Maya. 

In Me Oh Maya the boys in the Time Warp Trio find themselves in a Mayan ball court. A "short brown-skinned guy in a wild feathered headdress stood on top of the wall looking down" at the boys. This guy turns out to be an "evil high priest" who is named Kakapupahed. The boys hear the high priests name and think "Cacapoopoohead." They struggle to contain their laughter. 

For those who don't know, the Time Warp Trio series is pitched to kids who are "reluctant readers." This sort of book provides readers with clever writing that functions as a hook to draw in a kid who might otherwise not read. In the Time War Trio series, the hook is puns, lots of action, and, as the reviewer at School Library Journal notes, "a little bathroom humor." 
Reviews of the book say that kids can learn a lot about Mayan culture by reading this book, but if that learning starts with the reluctant reader laughing at Mayan names, I have to wonder about your treatment, Mr. Scieszka, of the culture, too.  

Do you see the connection, Mr. Scieszka, between what you did with names in Me Oh Maya and what happened at the news station and the mockery of the names of the pilots? 

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time. On the child_lit listserv, we discussed problems with names in Arlene Mosel's Tikki Tikki Tembo some years ago. I don't lay the blame for what happened with the Asian pilot names at your feet, Mr. Scieszka, but since your humor encourages mockery of other, I think you're part of what makes that kind of incident possible. 

Given your status within children's literature and education, I think this is a moment for you to issue a statement about humor that relies on ignorance of other. It would be a bold step, but you could even disavow what you did with names in Me Oh Maya! 

I'm sure that many of your fans will come to your defense, chastising me for this letter, telling me to "get a life" and that "it's only a book!" and similar statements, but you and I know how much children's books matter to the children who read them. They can do good, but they can do bad, too, and that's not good for any of us.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

Note: Aug 30, 2014--Here is the link to my critique of Scieszka's Trucksgiving

In a personal note to readers of AICL, I've been away from AICL for a month. During that month, my father became ill and passed away. During this month, your personal notes of condolence have meant a lot to me. Thank you for sending them. One of you said that when someone close to us passes, the ground shifts, but that we learn how to travel on that shifted ground, carrying the spirit of that loved one with us as we go forth.  I'm slowly trying to regain my footing and the balance I need to tell you a bit about my dad. He was a remarkable and special man. I miss him terribly. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Susan Cooper on GHOST HAWK: "The only major liberty I've taken is..."

In the Author's Note of Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk, she says "The only major liberty I've taken is in copying for John Wakeley the whipping inflicted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony on the Baptist Obadiah Homes in 1651" (p. 327).

I beg to differ.

From my point of view, Cooper took many liberties in the ways that she portrays Native peoples in Ghost Hawk. There are so many, that it will take a great while for me to address the questions I've raised in part one, and typing up/uploading/addressing the questions I've got about part two, three, and four.

In part one, we met John Wakeley (he was five years old) when he and his father were visiting an Indian village to learn how to fish. John met Little Hawk (who was several years older than John) at that village. About five years later, John and his dad are chopping down a tree. It falls on John's dad. Little Hawk is nearby and tries to chop a branch to free John's dad, but is shot by a Pilgrim man who thinks Little Hawk was going to kill John.

In part two, the story is told by Little Hawk, but since he was killed at the end of part one, he tells the story as "a spirit" who can see past and present and understand any language, which is why he can tell us what happens to John in the rest of the book. Another important piece of information: As a spirit, he can choose to be seen and speak. In part one, he revealed himself to John and taught John how to speak the Wampanoag language (below, Cooper says "Pokanoket" but the Mashee Wampanoag use "Wampanoag" at their website).

This scene is in chapter 11 of part two.

John is an adult and visiting Plymouth. Little Hawk (the ghost) tells us that there are lot of people in Plymouth, including several Indians. As John walks, he sees a large group of Pokanokets. A wagon comes down the street, and from the group, John sees a small boy run into the wagon's path, chasing a ball.
"Instinctively he dived forward to grab the child, and caught him just in time" (p. 248).
The child is whimpering, and John speaks to him softly in Pokanoket, "it's all right, don't be afraid, everything's all right." (p. 248).

I've got a lot of questions about that passage, but am focusing on one for this post. The child, according to Cooper, is called Trouble. A few pages later, John visits Yellow Feather/Massasoit's village and home. We learn that Trouble is Massasoit's youngest son, Metacom, or King Phillip.

In Cooper's story, a white person (John) has saved the life of a Native person (Metacom) who will become an important leader (King Philip).

That is a major liberty Cooper has taken in telling this story. She's made John Wakeley into a savior. Where would the Wampanoag's in her story be without him?!

Lest you think that Cooper is relating something factually accurate in that passage, I should also tell you that in her author's note, she says John Wakeley is a fictional character. Did a white person actually save Metacom's life? I'll be looking for that info. If you find it, submit it in a comment or send it to me by email.

In Cooper's story, John is so important that the Wampanoag people gather round to see him. Here's that passage:
Gradually the house filled with people eager for a sight of the white man who had saved Yellow Feather's son" (p. 261).
And later on when John leaves the village, people gather round again. One man holds his son up high overhead so he can see the Speaker. The images those two scenes bring to my mind are gross.

I know a lot of people (looking at you, Richie) love this book, but stop and think about WHY you love this story. Why is it tugging at your heart strings?

If you're a writer, don't create a character who rescues a Native person. No doubt that happened, but the larger picture is not one of benevolence.

If you're a reviewer and you read a book where that happens, point it out.

If you're a librarian or a teacher, don't buy books like this. If it is too late and you've already bought it, discuss what Cooper does. Or, see if you can get your money back. Write a letter to the publisher objecting to the story. If they hear from enough of us, hopefully they won't publish a book like this again.

Creating a character that saves Indian lives obscures the reality of what happened. Let's not hide reality. And let's not whitewash it, either.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Update from Curtis Acosta and the shut-down of TUSD's Mexican American Studies program

Editor's note: Late last week, Curtis Acosta wrote to me, asking if I'd share his open letter regarding his work. I'm glad to do it. If you are completely new to what happened in Tucson last year, one place to start is with the chronological set of posts I wrote during that time. See the menu bar across the top of the blog? See the "Mexican American Studies" tab? Click on it. Read through the history and then come back to read Curtis's letter. In his email, he titled the letter "Next Steps."


May 30, 2013

Dear supporters, colleagues, and friends,

Last Thursday my career at Tucson High Magnet School came to an end. It was never supposed to be this way. I always believed that I would leave with a fully gray head of hair and thicker lens than those currently in my black frames. I imagined that there would be a legacy of former students who would take my place and would take our levels of success even further. Instead, I took down each poster and photo from my room with a deep sense of loss and the words of Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” in my mind. It was as if I was participating in self-ethnic cleansing. (A wonderful side note to this story is that Bob Diaz, a librarian at the University of Arizona has decided to create an archive of our classroom so that it can live on forever. Have I mentioned lately how much I love librarians?)

However, the reality is that the room and the power of the space were lost far before the pictures came off the walls. This moment was fated as soon as Tucson Unified School District eliminated our highly successful Mexican American Studies program, banning my colleagues and I from our own curriculum and pedagogy, as well as boxing up books. Yet, I would like to thank my students, compañer@s, parents, and the local and national voices that supported us through these difficult years in building up my resiliency and resolve to stand up and never to submit to acts of education malpractice.

Thus, I am happy to inform you all that a brighter day lies ahead. Yesterday, I held a local press conference announcing that through a partnership with Prescott College, Mexican American Studies lives on through Chican@ Literature, Art & Social Studies (CLASS) where high school youth will be receive free college credit. This is a class that was born from the injustices performed upon our students in Tucson and my indignation toward political opportunists using our students, literature, and history to create a wedge issue founded in hate for their own selfish means.

CLASS had a successful first year as a collection of 10 amazing youth sacrificed their Sunday afternoons throughout the entire year to rigorously study, analyze, and read the world together. It was a thirst of justice and knowledge that fueled them and they will soon be sharing their voice with the world at Free Minds, Free People in Chicago – a national education conference centered upon education for liberation and youth empowerment. However, our youth need financial help to attend, and although I am using the stipend from Prescott College to pay for part of the trip, it is still not enough. We would be humbled by any and all support and you can follow us now on Facebook and donate through the following link: Xican@ Institute for Teaching and Organizing. 

Along with CLASS expanding and continuing next fall, I am happy to announce that I have founded the Acosta Latino Learning Partnership, an educational consulting firm that will continue the work that we started in Tucson throughout the nation. It is my vision to help teachers, schools, and educational organizations empower youth to find their own voice and academic identity through culturally responsive and engaging academic experiences. You can find more information on the Acosta Latino Learning Partnership through my website ( Facebook page.

I look forward to this next chapter of my career as I continue to be an advocate for public schools. After all, we know public education works. We’ve seen it successful time and again, and as teachers we are honored to be the guides and mentors of beautiful young people who will forge a better nation and world. By following the inspirational leadership of the powerful teachers, students, and parents in Seattle and Chicago, this devious trajectory to destroy public education will end. One day soon we will stop the obsession of measuring our children and teachers with corporate driven instruments aimed at eliminating all of the creative joy from public education. And this is why our work here in Tucson must continue, we must never comply to unjust laws and policies that dehumanize and degrade our children in any way.

Let all the reformers be warned that we are aware of why you want to discredit our profession and the heights that we reach with our students every year. We are more than budding market place or real estate to redevelop, and we will not rest until our children are treated with more love and respect than the banks and corporations of this country. Trust teachers to work with their students, parents, and communities as true partners, support us with resources that our children deserve, and then watch the magic of learning take root and grow.

I want to thank you all for your support through the years and truly believe that great victories lie ahead for communities of color, our students and public school throughout our nation.

In Lak Ech (Tú eres mi otro yo / You are my other me),
Curtis Acosta
Chican@ Literature Teacher
Tucson, AZ


Editor's follow-up: A video of Acosta's press conference is available on YouTube. And, Acosta will be participating in an Ethnic Studies National Assembly at Free Minds, Free People 2013 in Chicago on July 14th.