Monday, June 02, 2014

AICL Stands With We Need Diverse Books and Small Publishers

Saturday morning (May 31, 2014) I woke early with a feeling of joy and excitement. Several hundred miles away from me, a group of eight men and women were in New York City, getting ready for their session at Book Con 2014 (BookCon is part of Book Expo America, BEA for short). The weeks, days, and hours prior to their session were--for me--a roller coaster of highs and lows. I cannot imagine what it was like for them. What follows is the story of We Need Diverse Books as I experienced it. It is my thank you and shout out to a group that sparked a moment and movement that may mark the turning point in the all white world of children's books...

In April, two things happened. BEA announced a panel of blockbuster kidlit writers. That panel was composed of four men and a cat. And, BookCon announced its line-up of authors. This "blindingly white" situation prompted indignation amongst a lot of people. A group was formed. That group is We Need Diverse Books. Their goal was/is to promote books that showcase and promote diversity of content, and diversity of authors that create that content. On May 28th, Aisha Saeed wrote about the upcoming trip to NYC.

I followed the campaign when it was launched in late April, offering help as I could behind-the-scenes, but mostly I used social media to promote the We Need Diverse Books campaign. This is the first graphic the WNDB team released:

Gorgeous, isn't it? The energy radiating from the team was inspiring. With twitter driving it, the campaign took off around the world. Media covered it. The result? BookCon invited the team to do a session in NYC on Saturday morning.

On the 29th (Thursday), I made a graphic with the WNDB logo and location info for their session. I started to tweet it:

On Friday morning (May 30), excitement was building. Ilene Wong of the WNDB team sent this tweet:

My excitement grew when I saw tweets of photos of large displays announcing the location of the WNDB session:

That excitement was tamped down a bit as I read tweets from Cheryl Willis Hudson of Just Us Books. She was walking through the exhibit halls at BEA, looking for books within the diverse framework.  She didn't see much, but did take photos and sent them out. Aren't they terrific? Here's her photo of Because They Marched at the Holiday House booth:

And here's a photo she snapped of Jacqueline Woodson signing books. See what Cheryl said? "Long line" --- cool!

 Here's more photos Cheryl sent out:

As I read tweets from Cheryl and those in the We Need Diverse Books hashtag on twitter, I saw that Cinco Punto Press had tweeted a photo of Tim Tingle's House of Purple Cedar. It was there, on their table, at BEA. I retweeted their photo:

There were to be two other sessions at BEA that focused on diversity. I tweeted info on them, too. One was "Multicultural Publishers in Conversation." Here's that flyer. As you can see, Just Us Books and Cinco Punto Press were scheduled for that conversation on Saturday at 12:45.

Here's the flyer for the third session, "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?":

But look! See the time slot in the red bar at top of the graphic? Saturday, 10:00 AM... The same time as the We Need Diverse Books session! I was stomping mad about that, with various obscenities whirling in my head. Then I saw this set of tweets by Ellen Oh (retweeted by Ilene Wong):

What obstacles, I wondered? I figured one was the overlap of the WNDB session and the conversation with publishers session, but Ellen said "obstacles" (plural), so what else went wrong?! Lights out for me... I went to bed. 

Early Saturday morning I was up and catching up on tweets from the night. I learned that the hard copy of the conference program did not have the WNDB session in it. 

People at the Javits were sending out tweets and photos:

And Jacqueline Woodson snapped a way-cool photo of Matt de la Pena arriving at her house. They were going to head over to the Javits center together.

As 10:00 AM drew near, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tweets from the conference were growing in number.

I saw that the WNDB team had created swag!

And panelist Grace Lin had a "cheat sheet" handout with ways that booksellers can hand-sell books to consumers who shy away from books by or about people of color (get the pdf from her blog):

I wondered how big the room was but when the first photos of the room (as it filled up) started to come across twitter, I estimated 200 chairs. This photo was taken by Ilene Wong, as she notes, 35 minutes before the panel started.


And of course, people in the audience were taking/tweeting LOTS of photos of the panelists:

The room itself filled up and people were turned away (media reports later said there were 300 people in the room, with people in the aisles and three-deep along the back wall). Meanwhile, in the room, the panelists received a terrific reception from the audience:

Panelists delivered powerful remarks that were tweeted and retweeted. Again and again I wished I was in that room rather than hundreds of miles away. I was glad to see tweets indicating that Matt de la Pena had a few things to say about the shut down of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson Unified School district. Over and over, I was glad for twitter. The emotion captured in photos was astounding.

An unedited audio of the session is now available at the We Need Diverse Books tumblr. No doubt the panelists and WNDB team was bursting with joy once the session ended. Marieke Nijkamp's tweet captures some of their emotion:

I was especially moved by Mike Jung's tweets as he left the conference:

It was VERY poor planning on the part of BEA to offer WNDB and the "Where are the People of Color" session at the same time. I assume it and the "Multicultural Publishers in Conversation" session were both in the program. 

A curious thing, though, was the floor announcement, as captured in this photo tweeted by Daniel Jose Older (photo taken by Tiffany D. Jackson). See the title for the session? How small it is in comparison to the titles of other sessions? And doesn't it look like it was pasted on there? Why?!

Of course, Daniel's jab ("Diversity is so awesome!!!!) is directed at conference planners, and not diversity itself. I don't know if he made it to the 12:45 session. Cheryl Willis Hudson was there and tweeted some photos. Here's one:

Today (June 2, 2014), several recaps of BEA were loaded online. I especially liked what Lyn Miller Lachmann said in her piece, and what Allie Bruce said in hers. Both are committed to diversity, and their commitment shows in their writing. I loved hearing the voices of Ellen Oh, Lamar Giles, and Jacqueline Woodson in their interview with NPR. Claire Kirch's recap for Publishers Weekly is here. Among the things you'll read is that WNDB is working with the National Education Association, and that Lee and Low is launching a "New Visions Award." The big news? That a book festival is being planned...

A good many people have been pushing for diversity for a very long time. With respect to Native people objecting, I think back to William Apes, a Pequot man who was raised by a white family for a portion of his childhood. He read the books they gave him, and because of what he read, was afraid of Indians! He wrote about that fear as an adult, in his Son of the Forest, published in 1831.

In June of 2014, it feels like some substantial change will take hold because the demographics in the country are shifting dramatically. I am optimistic. And--I look forward to meeting members of the WNDB team in Washington DC in 2016 at a festival of diversity in children's books! The plans are in the works. Till then, AICL stands with We Need Diverse Books. This is a cheesy closure but I'll use it anyway... STAY TUNED.

A special note of thanks to Cheryl Willis Hudson of Just Us Books for all that she shared from BEA. I know from 20 years of reviewing children's books that small independent publishers are more likely than the big publishing houses to give us wonderful books that accurately reflect the lives of people of color. For that reason, I've been standing with small publishers for a long time. They embody a commitment to truth over profit.  

Thursday, May 29, 2014

WHERE'S WALDO being added to The Foul Among the Good

Last week, Sharon H. Chang tweeted a couple of images from a 1987 copy of Where's Waldo (by Martin Handford, published by Little, Brown) that I am adding to AICL's page, The Foul Among the Good. Here they are:

My response?

May 29, 2014

Dear Waldo,

Yes, in fact, I've seen that a lot in children's picture books and in dog photos created by people who apparently don't know much about Native peoples. For us, feathers are not playthings. They are sacred. I am guessing you know that eagles are protected in the United States. I'm guessing that you do not know that there are also laws that recognize that eagle feathers have religious significance to Native people. If you want to know a bit more about it, the New York Times ran a story about this in 2011

I'd also like to note, Waldo, that your depiction of "Indian" people is stereotypical. You drew a tipi, the fringed clothing, and what I think you meant to be a "peace pipe." There are over 500 federally recognized Native Nations in the U.S. Rather than anything meaningful, you're giving your readers monolithic imagery that doesn't do anyone any good. 

I'm hoping that line in your post card, the dog, and the tipi are gone from later editions of your book. 

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

COPPER MAGIC by Julia Mary Gibson, or, an emphatic "Cut it out!" from AICL

In Copper Magic, twelve-year-old Violet Blake is digging by a stream near her house in Michigan and finds a "talisman" -- a copper hand that she comes to call "the Hand." Violet feels that this hand has some kind of power. She thinks she can use it to make wishes come true. Course, her first wish (for a new dress) does come true (actually she gets TWO new dresses), so she's thinking about how she'll use it to get her mom and little brother back home. Her mother is half Odawa.

Well, it turns out there was more than just that copper hand in the spot where Violet was digging. There's also a skeleton there that is dug up (another kid finds it), reassembled, and displayed as a curiosity in a local hotel.

Cue some fake Hollywood Indian music...

Can't be messing around in them Indian burial grounds, right?! We've seen THAT enough times in movies and TV shows to know that messing with bones and artifacts means bad things are gonna happen. And of course, bad things happen to the people in Copper Magic. Lots of bad things. A wicked storm. Lake water behaving in odd ways. Death. Before all that happens, Mercy (Violet's new friend) talks about how there might be a curse on the grave... Violet and her mother (remember--her mom is half Odawa) have special powers, too. They can see things other people can't.


Cut that fake Hollywood Indian music, that is, and an emphatic "Cut it out!" as my parents would say when I was doing something wrong.

Cut it out, Julia Mary Gibson! 
Cut it out, Susan Cooper! 
Cut it out, Rosanne Parry!

"Cut what?" you may wonder... Quit writing about Native spirituality! You mean well, but you don't know what you're doing. From a place of ignorance, you're adding to an already-too-tall pile of garbage that gets circulated as information about Native people.

A good many writers have a moment in their life that touched them in such a way that they feel they must write about Native people. Gibson's moment is described in her Afterword. When she was eleven years old, she and her family found some bones near their summer cottage in Michigan. "[A]n expert" said they were "most likely American Indian but not old enough to be archeologically significant" (p. 329), so her grandfather "pieced together a skeleton and mounted it on plywood." Her "superstitious" grandma didn't like it and insisted the bones be reburied. This took place in the late 1960s or early 1970s (my guess, based on Gibson's bio at Macmillan that says she was born "in the time of Freedom Rides and the Vietnam War").

Gibson goes on to say that her grandfather didn't know better.

In Copper Magic, Violet is Gibson. The person who puts the skeleton on display is Mr. Dell, a hotel owner intent on increasing his business. The superstitious person who wants the bones reburied? Well, that is Mrs. Agosa, an Odawa woman who tells Violet to "Watch out for ghosts out by you" because "mad ghosts can throw out curses" (p. 134).

Gibson, Cooper, Parry and many other writers poke around a bit and pack their stories with bits of info that make it sound like they know a lot about American Indians. Gibson does that in Copper Magic when she has some of her characters talk about grave robbing and why it is wrong. She also does that when she has Mrs. Agosa talk about the hotel owner burning her people's village and orchards because he wanted their land. In the Afterword, Gibson tells us that part of the story is true (p. 330):
"The real people of the Chaboiganing Band were yanked from their houses by a crooked land grabber and the local sheriff, who flung kerosene over homes and orchards and burned down the whole village, just as Mrs. Agosa tells it."
The burning of that village is important information. It is what major publishers like Macmillan (publisher of Copper Magic) ought to make known. I wish Gibson had made it the heart of her story. Instead, she chose to tell a story about grave robbing, curses, and mystical Indians. There's more to the "mystical Indians" theme... Interspersed throughout Copper Magic are pages about two ancient women: Crooked Woman and Greenstone. Those parts of Gibson's novel are presented in italics. They feed the mainstream monster of stereotypical expectations--where people love to read about "mystical Indians" and our tragic history.

In Copper Magic, Violet's dad is a steady voice saying that Indian graves deserve respect and ought to be left alone. Violet parrots some of what he says but doesn't really understand. Ironically, Gibson is more like Violet than she realizes. Her understanding is superficial. Violet wants to use the hand to get what she wants. Gibson uses the childhood story to do what she wants.

As you may have guessed by now, I don't like what Gibson has done in Copper Magic. And of course, I do not recommend it. Copper Magic is another FAIL from a major publisher (published in 2014 by Starscape, which is in Macmillan's Tor/Forge line.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Arigon Starr's SUPER INDIAN

If you're Kickapoo author/illustrator Arigon Starr, you gotta be dancing every time you pick up Super Indian and read what Charlie Hill, one of the best Native comedians ever (sadly, he passed away a few weeks ago), had to say about Super Indian:
"Great Scott! The long awaited indigenous super hero has arrived."
If you never saw Charlie Hill perform, those words probably don't move you the way they do me. His humor was perfect. His voice as he told jokes and stories? Perfect.

In Super Indian, Starr's own wit shines. From minute details in the art to the words on the page, I found a lot to like about Super Indian.

Starr opens with a jab at those who create The White Man's Indian. By that, I mean prose riddled with "ancient" and "proud" and "noble" and "fierce" and "sacred quest" and "mystical knowledge." Those words and more are on the very first page, but they're there to tell you that you will not find that guy in Super Indian. Instead, we have Hubert Logan who, as a boy, "attended a birthday party for the local bully, Derek Thunder." At that party, the boys "consumed mass quantities of commodity cheese tainted with "Rezium," an experimental element developed by Government Research Scientist Dr. Eaton Crowe."

My guess is that most readers of AICL are going "huh?" because they don't know what commodity cheese is, but I guarantee that Native people on reservations know exactly what that is, and they're laughing (like I was) as I read that part of the intro.

Cheese aside, Hubert is kind of like Clark Kent: a studious guy in glasses and braids. He works at the Leanin Oak Bingo Hall. "Leanin Oak" is another joke, by the way! It is a poke at a line of over-the-top greeting cards with bogus Native proverbs and the like. Hubert's alter ego is Super Indian. He's got some side kicks, and a dog, too that lends his own thread to the stories in volume one.

Volume one has three different stories in it. After introducing us to the characters we'll meet as we read Super Indian, we begin with "Here Comes the Anthro." It is a perfect opening. The art shows a scary looking anthropologist on the cover, about to grab Super Indian.

Yep--that title is another jab. This one is at the discipline that has been causing Native people headaches (to say the least) for a very long time. I gotta pause here, and drop in Floyd Crow Westerman's song, "Here Come the Anthros" so that you get a full sense of what anthropologists mean to Native people:

Starr's anthropologist is German. I think him being German is a jab at Karl May, a German writer who wrote a bunch of novels about Native people. Goofy ones, that is, that--unfortunately--people don't see as goofy. Starr clearly had a good time writing Super Indian. If you're Native or well-versed in Native life as-it-is (not as outsiders imagine it to be), you'll like Super Indian. One of the characters is a blogger! How cool is that?

Back in 2012, Indian Country Today published an interview with Starr. Check it out. It has good background info. Go to the Super Indian website. Order a copy of Super Indian, and if you're a fan of comics, keep an eye on the Indigenous Narratives Collective of Native American comic book writers and artists. Good stuff.

Published by Wacky Productions Unlimited in 2012.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

SWEETEST KULU by Celina Kalluk

Sweet! Sometimes, that exclamation (Sweet!) means something is endearing, and sometimes, it means something is way cool. Both meanings apply to Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis.

Kulu is an Inuktitut term of endearment. The babe who is the sweetest kulu in this book is Inuit (Inuktitut is one of the languages spoken by Inuit people). I got it yesterday. The sense of peace and promise in Kalluk's book was just what I needed on a particularly trying day. See the cover?

Kalluk's words and Neonakis's art work beautifully together as we learn Inuit values in which people and animals coexist as caretakers of the land. In Kalluk's hands, this is not the stereotypical one-with-the-animals story that we see all too often.

This is a terrific book for those who have a newborn in the house... And for those of us who just need a book that rights the world for us, that reminds us of that world in all its richness.

Sweetest Kulu is another great book from Inhabit Media. By the way! If you're interested in Native music, you ought to add Kalluk to your playlist. She is a throat singer. Check out this video. She was performing in New York with a cousin. You MUST ALSO watch the set of short videos here.

Note (added May 27, 2014): Sweetest Kulu will be available in October. I reviewed it from a bound galley.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Dear First Book: Step Up Your Game!

Editor's note, May 22, 2014: In response to concerns I raised about the information on First Book's Native American Heritage Month page, First Book removed the page. I look forward to one with accurate information about Native people. Thanks, First Book!

May 19, 2014

Dear First Book,

I've been tweeting at you over the last week or so, especially in the last 24 hours. Some might think I'm being unfair to an organization that is doing good work.


I agree that you are doing some pretty good work. The list of books you have on your "Native Interest" page? For the most part, it is an impressive list. It includes a good many Native authors. That, in and of itself, is unusual. So, I am very glad to see it. It isn't perfect, though, and I'd really like to see some books come off that list, including:

Island of the Blue Dolphins --- Yeah, I know. It won the Newbery and is on umpteen lists of favorite books. It isn't on my list of favorites. Far from it! It has stereotypes, bias, and misinformation. I'm sure Scott O'Dell meant well, but he goofed. Given its ubiquity in American society, I am concerned that teachers, parents, librarians---whomever it is that orders books from your site---will see it and spend their precious dollars on it because they recognize the title. They may have fond memories of it that prompt feelings of nostalgia. But! I think it ought to be set aside in favor of books that do a far better job of providing children--via fiction--information about Native peoples.

Starfish --- I was astounded when I read that new book. The stereotypes and sensationalism in it are evidence, I think, of how powerful stereotypes of Native peoples are within the minds of writers (like Crowley) and editors at big publishers (like Hyperion).

You, First Read, are a non-profit. You're not trying to make money, right? You're trying to give kids good books, and you're especially interested in diversity. Seems logical to me that you'd stay away from books like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Starfish. 


Your page on Native American Heritage Month needs some work. You link to New Age music. Not cool. You feature Pocahontas: Princess of the New World. She was not a princess! The whole idea of royalty is European. Promoting that book, you promote misinformation! There are far better choices, many of which you actually have on your Native Interest list! Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, or Kunu's Basket are both excellent.

That page links to New Age music rather than Native music. In a tweet, I suggested you use the Black Lodge Singers instead. Their kid pow wow songs are terrific!


Your CEO, Kyle Zimmer, gave an interview to NPR this weekend. Zimmer noted that the We Need Diverse Books is the most recent effort to call attention to what some of us call 'the all white world of children's books.'

I wish that Zimmer had named the men and women who created this latest effort. Most of them are people of color. (For the record, I'm not one of the creators of WNDB.)

In an earlier blog post and in a twitter chat with First Book, I advocated for Native writers/illustrators because I think the identity of an author/illustrator makes a difference. It presents a child with a possible-self, which is a phrase used in psychology. It means 'what I imagine as being possible for myself as an adult.' That idea is more commonly known as a role model.

Imagine what a boost it would be for the children of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, if they'd heard the name of their mom or dad on the radio! White kids hear the names of people that look like them all the time. They get that in books, too. All the time. Lot of possible selves.

That is not the case for children of color. You can do that, First Book. You can offer lots and lots of possible selves.

I want First Book to use their power and influence to do precisely that. Feature and promote writers and illustrators who are outside what we call 'the mainstream' or 'the norm.'

As reported on your website, First Book, you are making a difference. Step up your game. You have nothing to lose and the entire country as everything to gain by such a move.

First Book! Step up your game!


Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

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?