Saturday, May 17, 2014

San Jose State University, College of Applied Sciences, School of Library and Information Science, recognizes Debbie Reese for Exemplary efforts to enhance equity and diversity

"According to her nomination form, she was the recipient of the 2013 Virginia Matthews Scholarship Award for her “sustained involvement in the American Indian community and her sustained commitment to American Indian concerns and initiatives.” Her award-winning blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, shined the spotlight on the Arizona law that led to the recent shutdown of the Mexican American Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District. According to the American Indian Library Association, Reese not only works with the Nambe community and “she strives to inform the dominant culture about issues facing Indian people today.” --Melissa Anderson, SJSU

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Another 'thank you' to Cynthia Leitich Smith

A few hours ago, my daughter called to tell me she'd finished her last exam of the semester. With joy and enthusiasm, she said she was finished with Year One of law school.

I was happy to hear her voice as she described that last exam and reflected on the year. I carried her joy through my day. And then, a hour ago, I was on Twitter when a colleague tweeted a photo from Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that I talk about that book more than any other. It is the one I wish I'd had when my daughter was a three year old and dancing for the first time at home. Our dance, by the way, is like prayer. Not entertainment, and not performance. Prayer. Everyone helps get ready for that first dance. Smith depicts that in Jingle Dancer. 

But the particular page that I'm thinking of right now is this one:

That is Jenna on the left. On the right is Jenna's cousin, Elizabeth. At that point in Smith's story, Jenna is visiting Elizabeth. Elizabeth can't be with Jenna on that special day. She's got a big case she's working on. You see, Elizabeth is a lawyer.

Need I say more about why that page is special to me today? Your book continues to give to me, Cyn. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why I Advocate for Books by Native Writers and Illustrators/Gallery of Native Writers and Illustrators

Editor's Note: Scroll down to see the photo gallery of Native writers and illustrators.

I spent an hour today in a twitter chat hosted by First Book. The chat was part of the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

In the chat I advocated for authors who are Native. 

Right away--as usual--a white writer posed a question about white writers, asking the First Read host if authorship of a book matters.

Not surprisingly, First Book said that authorship does not matter. Diversity of characters is what they're after. That's the answer you get from, I'd guess, every publisher.

I persisted, though, because I do think it matters. Here's why:

Just about every book a kid picks up has white people in it. And, just about every book is written and illustrated by a white author or illustrator. For literally hundreds of years, white kids have seen themselves reflected in the books they read, and they've had the chance to see people who look like them as writers and illustrators of those books. By default, they've been able to see a possible-self. By default, they could imagine themselves as the writer or illustrator of that book. It may not have been a conscious thing, but it was the norm. The default. The air they breathe. Every day.

I want that for Native kids. I want them to see books written and illustrated by people who look like them. I want them to be able to think "Hmmm... I could be a writer, too, just like Cynthia Leitich Smith!" or "Hey! I could be an illustrator, too, just like S. D. Nelson!"

I understand that white authors and illustrators feel threatened by my advocacy, but my advocacy is for Native children who deserve the same affirmations white kids get all the time. 

It is also important that kids who aren't Native see books written and illustrated by Native people. Why? Because there are far too many people who think we no longer exist. There are far too many people that think we were primitive people who grunted and ran around half naked. When reading or booktalking a book written by or illustrated by a Native person, the parent/teacher/librarian can say "Eric Gansworth is Onondaga." That two-letter word, IS, is a powerful one and communicates a great deal to kids. That parent/teacher/librarian can then say "The office for the Onondaga Nation is in New York."

I'm closing this post with a tribute to Native writers and illustrators of books I've recommended on AICL. That tribute is photos of them. They are in no particular order. I'll keep adding to this gallery, because I don't have time right now to be comprehensive. I'll do my best, and I welcome you to write to me to let me know to add someone I've missed. Each person's tribe is beneath their name. If there are errors, I apologize, and please let me know.

American Indians in Children's Literature
A Gallery of Native Writers and Illustrators

Cynthia Leitich Smith
Muscogee Creek
Image source: Cynsations

Michael Lacapa
Apache, Hopi
Image source: Northern Arizona Book Festival

Louise Erdrich
Turtle Mountain Chippewa
Image source:

Eric Gansworth
Image source: Milkweed

Nicola I. Campbell
Nlel7kepmx, Nsilx and Metis
Image source: The Word on the Street

Tim Tingle
Image source: My Very Own Book

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
Lakota Sioux
Image source: Native Daughters

Richard Van Camp
Image Source: Zimbio

Arigon Starr
Image source: Starrwatcher Online

S.D. Nelson
Standing Rock Sioux

Beverly Blacksheep

Lee DeCora Francis, and her boys

Simon Ortiz

Joseph Bruchac

Cheryl Savageau

Donald Uluadluak

Jan Bourdeau Waboose
Nishnawbe Ojibwe

Daniel Wilson

Joy Harjo

Shonto Begay

Cheryl Minnema
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

Wesley Ballinger
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

Luci Tapahonso

Greg Rodgers

Marcie Rendon
White Earth Anishinabe

Art Coulson

Ofelia Zepeda
Tohono O'Odham

N. Scott Momaday

Laura Tohe

Allan Sockabasin

Julie Flett

Richard Wagamese
Wabasseemoong Ojibway

Leslie Marmon Silko

Heid E. Erdrich
Turtle Mountain Chippewa
Deborah Miranda

Anton Trueur

John Rombough
Chipewyan Dene
James Welch
Blackfeet/Gros Ventre

Tomson Highway

George Littlechild
Plains Cree

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Cheryl Minnema's HUNGRY JOHNNY

A significant component of the We Need Diverse Books campaign is regarding the authorship of books. For AICL, that means books written and illustrated by Native authors. In the midst of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, I received a copy of Hungry Johnny. Here's the cover:

The author of Hungry Johnny is Cheryl Minnema. She's Ojibwe, and so is the illustrator, Wesley Ballinger. And the story? It is about an Ojibwe kid. Named Johnny. Who is--as the title suggests--hungry!

When the book opens, Johnny is outside playing, but his tummy growls. He's hungry, and heads inside where his grandma is making wild rice. He spies that plate of sweet rolls on the table and makes a beeline for it, but she tells him "Bekaa, these are for the community feast." The word 'bekaa' is in bold on the page. It is one of several Ojibwe words in Minnema's book. Bekaa, by the way, means 'wait.'

As the cover demonstrates, Johnny lives in a modern home. His grandma, in jeans, sweater, and a ball cap, is at an electric stove, and as Johnny plods to another room, we see hardwood floors and photographs on the wall. When his grandmother tells him it is time to go, he leaps off the couch. He wants to eat, eat, eat! As they drive to the community center, he sings "I like to eat, eat, eat. I like to eat, eat, eat."

I've not said anything about a word that appears in the two paragraphs directly above this one. Community. There is a community feast at the community center. Such gatherings and spaces are common across the U.S. and Canada. It is one of the many ways that Native people maintain our traditions and relationships with each other.

At the center, Johnny has to wait again. An elder says a "very l-o-n-g prayer." Perfect! That is exactly what happens. As a kid, it seemed to me forever, too, waiting for elders to finish praying. But, wait we did, and so does Johnny. I gotta share a photo of that page:

See the elder's vest? That particular page highlights Ballinger's connections to his Ojibwe community. That is Ojibwe beadwork--the very kind that Minnema is known for! Here's a photo of some of her exquisite work:

Back to the story...

Elders eat first, so Johnny has to wait. His grandma waits with him, telling him to be patient. He wonders why she's not eating with the elders, and she explains she is a "baby elder" that is "too young to be old and too old to be young."

When Johnny and his grandma are finally at the table, he is crestfallen because the plate of rolls is empty. It is, however, a feast, and another plate of them is brought to the table. Just then, Johnny sees Katherine (an elder) arrive, and calls her over to take his seat. He isn't glum in calling to her. He understands that elders receive special treatment.

Course, this is a community with elders who pay attention to young ones, so, Katherine invites him to sit on her lap. Johnny finally gets his sweet roll.

There's a lot that I like about Hungry Johnny. The Ojibwe words, the teachings imparted, and, Ballinger's art. In 2000, Simms Taback won the Caldecott Medal for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. I was teaching undergraduates that year in the College of Education. The Jewish students in my class pored over it, pointing to things in the illustrations that affirmed Jewish culture. I didn't notice them, but the students did, and it mattered to them a great deal. That's what Hungry Johnny is like for me, and, no doubt, for Native children who go to community feasts. I imagine Hungry Johnny will be much loved by Ojibwe children who will spot more than I did. What a treat!

Hungry Johnny is published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. A new book, its copyright is 2014. I highly recommend it. When you (parent/teacher/librarian) reads it to a child, you could also pull out a map and show them where Minnema and Ballinger are from: Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

SLJ's "Diversity" Booklist in May issue includes flawed book about Native people

School Library Journal's much anticipated special issue on Diversity was uploaded today (May 1, 2014) in the midst of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, much of which focuses on promoting books by writers who are not white able-bodied males.

Looking over the list of books they recommend, I am astonished to see Rosanne Parry's deeply flawed Written in Stone on the list. Her outsider perspective is all through that book, and she made up several things (which, she says, is "what fiction writers do"), thereby adding to the already-too-high-pile of misinformation that circulates as information about Native peoples.

Why did SLJ choose here, simultaneously contributing to the invisibility of Native writers?

Why did they go with Parry over any of the 30+ authors of the books on the Focus On list that I wrote for them in November, several of which were singled out for distinction by the American Indian Library Association? Presumably they invited me to write that column (in 2008 and 2013) because they trust my work.

What gives, SLJ?

Additional thoughts:

I know many of you are reading my words and thinking that I'm being mean, that my critique and questions are personal and therefore inappropriate. I understand that concern. Nobody likes being poked or prodded. I don't like doing any poking or prodding, but I did and will continue when necessary, because in this day and age, Native children shouldn't have to read books that make them go 'huh?' A Makah mother told me that her daughter got Parry's book in the library, but they took it back because it didn't make sense. Moreover, non-Native children shouldn't have to read books that add to their already-too-big body of misinformation about Native people. Neither group ought to be encouraged to do craft activities that trivialize Native spirituality, either (the teachers guide for Written In Stone suggests that students make a mask).

Children's books are for children. As adults, that is who I think we ought to keep in mind.

Back in 1999 when Ann Rinaldi's My Heart is on the Ground was published and got rave reviews from the review journals, editors of those journals were taken aback at how wrong they were in their reviews of that book. SLJ asked me to write an article about it then: Authenticity and Sensitivity: Goals for Writing and Reviewing Books with Native American Themes.

So again, SLJ, what gives?

Update May 1, 3:32 PM

The Cooperative Center for Children's Books at the University of Wisconsin published a critique of the entire set of books. It is excellent. I encourage you to read it:
Culturally Generic/Neutral?

Monday, April 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

What can you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please join the campaign!

Update: Monday April 28 2014, 3: 15 PM

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

2013: Best Books, High School

If I was starting a library in a high school, these are the first books I'd buy, along with the ten listed in 2010: Best Books, High School.    

Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow

Killer of Enemies, by Joseph Bruchac

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

House of Purple Cedar, by Tim Tingle

Code Talker Stories, by Laura Tohe

The Moon of Letting Go: And Other Stories, by Richard Van Camp

Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson 

Short annotations for these books are at School Library Journal in a column I wrote for them in November of 2013: Resources and Kit Lit about American Indians.

2013: Best Books, Middle School

If I was starting a library in an elementary school or if I was ordering books for a middle school library, these are ten books I'd buy right away, along with the ten listed in 2010: Top Ten Books Recommended for a Middle School Library.

With these books, students will read the works of Native and non-Native writers who know what they're talking about. 

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection. Edited by Matt Dembicki.

My Name Is Not Easy, by Debby Dahl Edwardson

If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth

Triple Threat, by Jacqueline Guest

Under the Mesquite, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky: Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School, edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin; illustrated by S. D. Nelson

Native Writers: Voices of Power, by Kim Sigafus and Lyle Ernst

Super Indian: Volume One, written and illustrated by Arigon Starr

How I Became a Ghost, by Tim Tingle 

Annotations for the books are at a column I wrote for School Library Journal in November of 2013:
"Resources and Kid Lit about American Indians"

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Look at Setting in 2013 CCBC Data on Fiction by/about American Indians - US Publishers

On March 17, 2014 I published my analysis of 14 books on the Cooperative Center or Children's Books (CCBC). The set I analyzed are those published by publishers located in the United States. My findings?

  • With one exception (Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here), the books major publishing houses put out are flawed in one way or another. 
  • With one exception (a book I could not get), the books small publishers put out are ones that I can--and do--recommend. 

Today I am pointing to the time period for the books. In short, are they set in the past? Or are they set in the present?

My findings? Of the 13 books I looked at (remember there are 14 total but I could not get one, which means 13 for this look at time period):

When I looked at the set published by large publishers, I found:

  • Books set in the present: 1
  • Books set in the past: 5

When I looked at the set published by small publishers, I found:

  • Books set in the present: 4
  • Books set in the past: 2
  • Books set in the future 1

Another win, in other words for small publishers, for giving us books that portray American Indians as people of the present day.

Monday, April 14, 2014


I smiled as I read Chukfi Rabbit's Big, Bad Bellyache: A Trickster Tale by Choctaw author, Greg Rodgers. Chukfi Rabbit, we learn as the story opens, is lazy. If I was still teaching kindergarten or first grade, I'd have fun saying this line as I read the story to my students:
"Chukfi Rabbit is lay-zeeee." 

And I'd be sure to point out that Chukfi is the Choctaw word for rabbit!

In the story, that lazy rabbit doesn't really want to help his friends build a new house, but when he learns that freshly made butter is part of the meal they'll share, he agrees to help (not). Remember--he's lazy. He'll find a way not to do any work AND a way to eat that butter while the others work!

Let's back up, though, and talk about what Rodgers shares before and after the story.

In the author's note on the title page, he lets his readers know that this is a Choctaw story, and that he'll be using Choctaw words in it. He tells us what those words are:
Rabbit - Chukfi
Fox - Chula
Bear - Nita
Turtle - Luksi
Beaver - Kinta
Possum - Shukata
In the "Note to Storytellers and Readers" at the end, he tells us he came to tell this story, and he tells us there's Choctaws in two places (the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and, there's the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians) and that each one has its own government. I love that he uses that word: government. Chukfi Rabbit is a picture book and its audience is obviously young children. They differ in their ability to understanding the idea of nation or nationhood. For those who are ready, definitely take a minute to talk about Native Nations.

The story is delightful to read, and the illustrations by Leslie Stall Widener are terrific. They provide the visual clues that this is a Choctaw story. The clothes the characters wear accurately depict the sorts of items Choctaw's wear, from tops like the one Chukfi wears to the baseball cap that Kinta wears.

Of special note is the blurb on the back from Joy Harjo, author of The Good Luck Cat. She just won a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship, by the way. Of Chukfi Rabbit, she says "This book belongs in every child's library and the libraries of some of us older story-lovers." I agree. If you can, order it from its publisher, Cinco Puntos Press. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

American Indian Graduation Rates and Stereotypical Images On and Off the Field

On May 31 of last year (2013), Education Week pointed to a new study of high school graduation rates that reported that the graduation rates of American Indian students had declined in three out of the five years the study examined. In 2010, Susan C. Faircloth and John W. Tippeconnic published a paper in UCLA Civil Rights Project that had similar findings. In their full report, they cite work by previous studies that tries to make sense of why this happens. Some factors are lack of empathy among teachers, irrelevant curriculum, lack of interest in school.

Anyone who follows Native news or political dimensions of sports news knows that for the last year, there has been an increase in the media coverage of the use of Native imagery by sports teams. Some news outlets have decided to stop using some team names in their reporting, and many are critical of Dan Snyder's misguided efforts to garner support from Native people for his entrenched use of "Redskins" as the name of his team.

In 2008, Stephanie Fryberg's research provided empirical data on the damage mascot imagery does to the self efficacy of Native students. Her research was of such import that the American Psychological Association issued statements calling for an end to their use. If her study was replicated with younger children, using images they see in picture books and fiction they read or are asked to read in school, I think the results would be the same.

I am hopeful that increased attention to mascots like the one used by the Washington DC pro football team, or the one used by the Cleveland pro baseball team will bring an end to their use of that imagery. With that increased awareness, I hope that Native and non-Native parents look with informed eyes at images of Native peoples in the books their children read for pleasure or study. The images that adults embrace are images they've seen since they were children. Some of those images were in movies, some on items in the grocery store, and many were in children's books.

On October 19, 2013, I wrote about the Washington DC pro football team and shared images from children's books that are similar to its mascot. Today, I'm showing images that resemble those of Cleveland's mascot.

Here is the "Chief Wahoo" currently in use alongside the image used from 1946 to 1950.

Source: Indian Country Today, June 29, 2013

Here's a page from the 1952 Little Golden Book of Disney's Peter Pan. Is the book on your shelf? Is the CD or DVD amongst your collection?

Syd Hoff's Little Chief came out in 1961. It is an easy reader published by Harper & Row in its "I Can Read" series:

In 1970, Random House published The Nose Book by Al Perkins in its "Bright and Early" books for Beginning Readers. With its image of the Cat In The Hat in the corner, you'd recognize the series right away. In the line-up of animals shown below, Perkins included an Indian. No doubt it seemed clever. But it was racist and wrong. In the 2003 edition with new illustrations, that image was not included. 

Those are older books, but I urge you to look on your shelves. If you held on to books from your childhood, the titles I pointed to above (or others with similar imagery) may be among them. You can do one of two things with them. Put them away and use them later with your child when you teach him or her about stereotyping, or, if you're not attached to the book for sentimental reasons, throw it out.

Here's some images from more recent books. You'll find a lot of them if you look in books about Thanksgiving.

This image is from More Snacks! A Thanksgiving Play. It is in the Ant Hill series of Ready-To-Read books published by Aladdin. Written by Joan Holub, illustrated by Will Terry, it came out in 2006.

Here's a character from the popular Amelia Bedelia books. This image is from Amelia Bedlia Talks Turkey by Herman Parish, illustrations by Lynn Sweat. It was published in 2008 by HarperCollins.

Such imagery is also in newer movies made for children, like last year's Free Birds. Here's turkey Indians from it:

The images I'm sharing in this post are a sample. You will find others. Too many others. They are not harmless. They reduce American Indians to detribalized caricatures or props in stories that misinform readers. They affirm stereotypical ideas, and are part of what I believe causes Native students to disengage from school.

As I noted above, I hope that the increased awareness of the harm in mascots used by sports teams can be brought to bear on children's books and media.

If you are getting rid of those books, replace them with better materials! At the top right of this page, you'll see links to lists of books that I recommend. Order them for your home library, and ask your library to get them, too. Give them as end-of-the-year gifts to your child's teachers!

Let's work together and get rid of stereotypical imagery of American Indians, on and off the playing field.