Thursday, February 12, 2015

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, by Adam Rex

Note on 2/20/2015: Children's literature scholar Perry Nodelman submitted comments that I am inserting in the body of this post, below the book list. Please read his thoughts on The True Meaning of Smekday. (See review of Smek for President, posted on May 7, 2015.)

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In 2007, Disney Hyperion published The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Years ago, someone wrote to tell me it has Native content and wondered if I'd read it. I had not, but today I see that it is to be a movie. So.... here's my analysis of the book (note: I'm reading an electronic copy and using the copy/paste function on Kindle for Mac for page numbers I provide). I provide summary of the book in regular font, and use italics used to indicate my thoughts/analysis.

Let's start with the synopsis posted at Amazon:

It all starts with a school essay. When twelve-year-old Gratuity (“Tip”) Tucci is assigned to write five pages on “The True Meaning of Smekday” for the National Time Capsule contest, she’s not sure where to begin. When her mom started telling everyone about the messages aliens were sending through a mole on the back of her neck? Maybe on Christmas Eve, when huge, bizarre spaceships descended on the Earth and the aliens - called Boov - abducted her mother? Or when the Boov declared Earth a colony, renamed it “Smekland” (in honor of glorious Captain Smek), and forced all Americans to relocate to Florida via rocketpod? In any case, Gratuity’s story is much, much bigger than the assignment. It involves her unlikely friendship with a renegade Boov mechanic named J.Lo.; a futile journey south to find Gratuity’s mother at the Happy Mouse Kingdom; a cross-country road trip in a hovercar called Slushious; and an outrageous plan to save the Earth from yet another alien invasion. Fully illustrated with “photos,” drawings, newspaper clippings, and comics sequences, this is a hilarious, perceptive, genre-bending novel about an alien invasion.


As the story told in the school essay begins, it is Moving Day, 2013. We learn (later) that everyone is being relocated to Florida by the Boov (aliens), taken there in Boov rocketpods. People are behaving in crazy ways. Tip (the main character) sees a lady running down the street with a mirror as if she was chasing vampires. Then (p. 4),
I saw a group of white guys dressed as Indians who were setting fires and dropping tea bags down manhole covers.
Debbie's thoughts: I don't get why they're setting fires. Maybe that will make sense as I read further. They're dropping tea bags, too. Definitely a reference to the Boston Tea Party, but why are these white guys doing this? If people are behaving in crazy ways I could see individuals doing odd things, but a group of guys doing the same thing? 

A few paragraphs later, we learn that aliens called Boov arrived on earth on Christmas Day of 2012. By June they have taken over and decided that "the entire human race" would have happier if they were all moved to an "out-of-the-way state where they could keep out of trouble" (p. 6).

Debbie's thoughts: This is definitely a colonization story. It parallels the invasion (yeah, I know some of you don't think it was an invasion) of the Americas and subsequent decisions to remove Native peoples from our homelands to Indian Territory or onto reservations. I wonder if there is an interview of Rex, somewhere, wherein he talks about why he chose colonization of the Americas as the basis for this story?

In The True Meaning of Smekday, the initial place for removal is Florida. Tip decides to drive there instead, taking her cat, Pig, along. Recall from the synopsis that her mom was taken on Christmas Eve, so, Tip is traveling alone.

Tip meets up with a Boov alien named J.Lo who becomes her sidekick. He tells her that they've named the planet Smekland because “Peoples who discover places gets to name it” (p. 28). When Tip tries to tell him it is called Earth, he smiles condescendingly. He also tells her the aliens don't like humans celebrating their holidays, so they (the aliens) replaced them with new ones. Christmas is now Smekday. The alien leader is Captain Smek, who discovered this "New World" (p. 30) for them. Hence, places and holidays are named after him.

Debbie's thoughts: I'm wondering how Rex is going to wrap all this up. He's making intriguing parallels to history.

The letter that Tip is preparing for future readers is supposed to tell them what it was like to live during the invasion. In her account of how the Boov conquered the human race, Tip describes a message from the Boov:
A. The Boov had discovered this planet, so it was of course rightly theirs.
B. It was their Grand Destiny to colonize new worlds, they needed to, so there really wasn't anything they could do about that.
C. They were really sorry for any inconvenience, but were sure humans would assimilate peacefully into Boov society.
Debbie's thoughts: Note the use of "discover" and that discovery means ownership, the use of "Grand Destiny"--which is otherwise Manifest Destiny, and the use of "assimilate" which for Native peoples, took the form of "kill the Indian and save the man." So far in Rex's story, no killing or war or disease either, which is a considerable departure from the parallel he's constructed so far.

When the Boov move into the towns, they praise Captain Smek "for providing so many pretty, empty houses in which to live" (p. 60).

Debbie's thoughts: Use of "empty" echoes a lot of writing and stories that characterize the Americas as empty, virgin, plentiful land that nobody was using. You see that a lot in Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. What makes Rex's book different from Wilder's is that in her book empty land was presented as a fact, while the colonization theme in Rex's book implicitly tells us that this emptyness had prior owners and was being taken.

On TV, Smek calls humans "the Noble Savages of Earth" (p. 63) and shows footage of the Boov making treaties--not with world leaders--but with ordinary people.

Debbie's thoughts: Rex using "Noble Savages" --- readers get that the humans are not really savages, but I wonder if Rex's use of it has enough weight for readers to see the use of "savage" to describe Native peoples, or Iraqi's as savages is also wrong (see my post about American Sniper)? Regarding treaties, this is definitely intriguing! People who know Native history know that there are many "treaties" that were made with people who had no authority to make treaties.  

When Tip and J.Lo get to Florida, they don't see anyone. Tip recalls (p. 92)
"people in concentration camps in World War II, told by Nazi soldiers to take showers, and the showerheads that didn't work, and the poison gas that tumbled slowly through vents until every last one was dead."
Debbie's thoughts: Because this is a humorous story, some of the references to history--like that one--are jarring. If you read only the paragraphs before and after that passage, you won't find the humor that characterizes the tone of the book. 

In Florida, there is a Mouse Kingdom. Tip finds other kids there and learns from them that the Boov decided they wanted Florida for themselves because the aliens found out they like oranges. They chose another state to send humans to: Arizona.

Debbie's thoughts: Again--if you know Native history, you'll recognize that decision, too. The oranges are a parallel for gold or other resources that were/are on Native lands. Learning of the resources prompted the government to take aggressive action against Native peoples. 

Tip and J.Lo head to Arizona. J.Lo is wearing a ghost costume to disguise his alien identity, thereby protecting him from the Gorg, another alien race that wants the earth and seeks to displace the Boov. On the way they pass a sign for Roswell. Tip notes that it is known as a site where a spaceship crashed. J.Lo wants to go to Roswell to see the spaceship, even though Tip tells him people think it isn't true. Then J.Lo tells her that maybe it was a Habadoo ship and moves right to telling her a joke about a Habadoo, a Boov, and a KoshzPoshz. But, Tip's mind drafts off and she doesn't laugh at the joke. J.Lo asks her (p. 204)
"You are not a fan of ethnical jokes, ah? Look, is okay if I tells it, I am one-sixteenth Habadoo--"
Debbie's thoughts: J.Lo thinks that Tip finds the joke inappropriate, but J.Lo thinks it is fine for him to tell it because he is of one of the groups in the joke. This is, of course, the on-going debates about ethnic jokes and who can tell them, but it also strikes me as relevant to this story overall. If Rex was Native, might I be responding differently to the humor and tone he uses?

When they get to Roswell, New Mexico, they meet a group of people. A woman introduces herself as Vicki Lightbody. Tip introduces herself as Grace, and J.Lo as her little brother, JayJay (who, through Tip's quick actions is disguised as a ghost). They head to Grace's apartment, which is across the street from a UFO museum. Others they meet include adults named Kat, Trey, and Beardo.

Tip tells the group she plans on continuing to Arizona. She's seen lots of abandoned cars they could borrow if necessary (theirs was in need of repair). In particular, Tip mentions a turquoise truck someone was driving (p. 228):
"You saw Chief Shouting Bear," said Beardo. "He's a...he's just an eccentric old junkman that lives around these parts. He's kind of a town legend."
"Ha--yeah. The Legend of the Crazy Indian," said Vicki. Then she looked sideways at J.Lo and me and added, "No offense."
"For what?" I asked. "We're not Indians. Or crazy."
I am one-sixteenth Habadoo," said J.Lo.

Debbie's thoughts: First, I don't much like that name, "Chief Shouting Bear." Naming and names are important to people, no matter their heritage, but there's quite a few examples of white writers using Native and Asian names as fodder for jokes. Second, why does Vicki say "no offense" after saying "legend of the crazy Indian"? Did she think Tip is Indian because of her dark skin? Remember--Tip is biracial. Third, J.Lo's response is intriguing. He uses a fraction and a word. The way that sentence is constructed could easily be spoken by someone who is claiming Native identity, not as a way of life, but as a piece of who they are. But why would J.Lo--the alien--say that? What does he know about Native identity and the blood quantum terminology he uses?

The legend they are talking about is this: in 1947, Chief Shouting Bear found a flying saucer. According to the legend, he had been in Roswell in the Air Force during WW2 and was kicked out of the military for believing in UFOs. Now, he keeps that flying saucer in his basement, runs a junkyard, and uses the flying saucer as a way to make some money.

Tip sets off to find Chief Shouting Bear's house because she wants to see the flying saucer. His house is in the midst of a junkyard. When she and J.Lo get there, she is peering over a fence surrounding the junkyard when she hears "That's where the UFO stopped" and looks down "to see a thin, dark man, like a strip of jerky--the Chief" (p. 252). He is wearing a red cap with flaps and a strap (p. 252):
"He otherwise wore the same clothes as anybody else--no buckskin or beads or anything. I'm probably an idiot for even mentioning that."
Debbie's thoughts: I like what Rex did there, acknowledging a stereotypical expectation and pushing back on it. Here's the illustration of the man.

Rex's drawing of "the Chief" in shirt and jeans


Chief Shouting Bear takes Tip and J.Lo to see the spaceship. Tip sees it is made of papier-mache and not really a spaceship but pretends it is, thereby occupying Chief Shouting Bear so that J.Lo can go look for the telecone booth they've been looking for. She snaps a photo of the spaceship, and Chief Shouting Bear looks at her, puzzled that she seems to think it is an authentic spaceship.

While Tip, J.Lo and Chief Shouting Bear are looking at the telecone booth (the Boov are also searching for it), Vicki Lightbody and Kat show up, prompting Chief Shouting Bear to call out (p. 261):
"DON'T STEAL MY LAND, JERKS!" 
and
"YOU PALEFACED DEVILS!" 
Debbie's thoughts: There isn't any context (yet) for the shouting that he does. I've read a lot and don't recall any Native character calling a white person a devil. I've certainly seen white characters use that word to describe Native ones. I'm not sure what to make of Chief Shouting Bear using that word.

As Tip gets get ready to leave, Chief Shouting Bear asks Tip to come back tomorrow with her car so they can trade it for the telecone, but Vicki says that Tip and J.Lo were going to spend the day with her. Chief Shouting Bear says
"LET 'EM COME, INDIAN GIVER! I WON'T KEEP 'EM ALL DAY." 
Debbie's thoughts: Why is he using that phrase, "Indian giver" in his remarks to Vicki? 

Vicki replies, argumentatively, that it is dangerous for them to be around rusty junk. Chief Shouting Bear says that rusty junk will be all that is left soon, and then shouts (p. 262):
"HAWOOOO WOO WOO WOO." 
His dog, Lincoln, sits at his feet and "howled with him." Chief Shouting Bear says "JERKS" to Vicki and Kat, and Vicki tells him he could have a more positive outlook.

Debbie's thoughts: "Howled" bothers me. And the dog howling with him? Also not cool. This is war whooping straight out of Hollywood, and though we might see a dog joining its owner in making noise, this particular person and his dog howling are problematic because of the long history of characterizing Native people as animal-like. It seems to me that Rex takes two steps forward in this book and then one step back. 

The next day, Tip and J.Lo head to Chief Shouting Bear's place. They talk about people who seem to be crazy. Tip says that maybe Chief Shouting Bear wants people to think he is crazy. When they get to his house and are visiting with him, Tip asks about his shouting, saying (p. 273):
"You didn't raise your voice once when it was just the three of us. [...] But then Vicki and Kat show up and you're all 'GO AWAY, TREATY-BREAKER! DON'T...UM...DON'T--"
Chief Shouting Bear cuts her off:
"I never said 'treaty-breaker."
Their conversation continues:
"Yeah, well, that was the basic theme, anyway."
"I only usually shout at the white people," he said. "Tradition. I've got no beef with you."
"I'm half white," I said, folding my arms.
"Hrrm. Which half?"
I blinked. "Uh...dunno. Let's say it's from the waist down."
Chief Shouting Bear nodded. "Deal. I only hate your legs."
Debbie's thoughts: It is Chief Shouting Bear's tradition to shout at white people? That strikes me as inadvertently making light of actual Native traditions, none of which include shouting at white people. Chief Shouting Bear asking Tip "which half" is akin to the things I've heard a lot of Native people say in response to someone who claims they are part Native. It is a cynical response because Native identity doesn't work that way. Nobody is of this or that identity in a partial way. I should probably re-read the parts of Alexie's book to see how he handles that "part time Indian" in the title of his book.  

The two shake hands on that deal (that Chief Shouting Bear only hates Tip's legs). Tip introduces herself using her real name (Gratuity) and Chief Shouting Bear tells her his name: Frank. She is surprised by that name (p. 274):
"Oh," I said. "I thought...I heard..."
"You heard my name was Chief Shouting Bear," he said. "It doesn't matter. You can call me whatever you want, Stupidlegs."

Debbie's thoughts: I love that Rex is giving us a real name: Frank. Having the character introduce himself with that name humanizes him. With it, he seems to be distancing himself from the name that others call him (Chief Shouting Bear). That isn't a name he acknowledges as his own. With his "call me whatever you want" remark, he also seems to be telling us that such names are easily--but not appropriately--used as a means of belittling someone.

J.Lo hands "the Chief" a card that explains he is in costume as a show of solidarity with his Boovish cousins in their fight against the Gorg.

Debbie's thoughts: There aren't quotation marks around the words "the Chief" in the book. I'm using them there and throughout the remainder of my summary, because rather than call him Frank, or Chief Shouting Bear, Rex defaults to "the Chief." Why? I would have loved it if whenever Tip thinks or speaks about him, she uses his name (Frank). Using "the Chief" moves him back out of a real person and to a dehumanized entity. 

The "Chief" read the card aloud in a monotone voice and then hands it back, saying (p. 275):
"Nothing wrong with that," he said. "Hell, I wore a feather headdress for a while in the sixties."
Debbie's thoughts: Here, I infer that Frank is calling the headdress a costume that he wore in the 60s. It makes me wonder what tribe Frank belongs to. If he was of a Plains tribe, he wouldn't call the headdress a costume. 

While "the Chief" looks over Tip's car, the Gorg arrive, hunting for cats (the Gorg are allergic to cats). "The Chief" scoops Pig up and heads to the house, telling Tip and J.Lo to hide under the car while he runs off to hide Pig and the telecon booth. A Gorg finds Tip and J.Lo and asks where the telecon booth is. Tip plays dumb, and the Gorg asks her (p. 278):
"ARE YOU LOUD BEAR CHIEFTAIN?"
When she says "who" he replies:
"CHIEFTAIN LOUD BEAR MAN!"
Debbie's thoughts: More play with Native names. No doubt, readers find that hilarious--but that hilarity is less likely to be shared if it is your people or culture whose names are mocked like that.

The Gorg grills her until Chief Shouting Bear appears, telling it to leave her alone. The Gorg swung one of its arms, striking "the Chief" and knocking him out. Then he tears "the Chief's" house to the ground, looking for the telecon booth. It finds the basement door, enters, and when it reappears, it takes off, into the sky. Chief Shouting Bear is still knocked out. Tip sees he is bleeding. He needs more than she can do for him, so they get him into the car and go to Vicki's apartment which is next to a UFO museum. There, Kat and Trey ease "the Chief" out of the car. He comes, too, but his speech is slurred. Vicki asks if he had been drinking.

Drinking? Is that a realistic response to someone who has a bleeding head wound? 

Tip is furious with that question and glares at Vicki. Beardo tells Vicki that Chief Shouting Bear got hit by one of the Gorg, and she replies (p. 285):
"Don't you look at me like that. I was just asking is all. Indians drink--I saw a special about it."
They carry Chief Shouting Bear into the museum where he asks them for ice and whiskey.

Debbie's thoughts: Indians drink? A special? This idea, affirmed by a special--interesting that Rex brings forth that "drunken Indian" stereotype, but having Chief Shouting Bear ask for ice and whiskey affirms the stereotype. Disappointing. 

Leaving Trey to care for Chief Shouting Bear, Tip and J.Lo head back to the junkyard and figure out that "the Chief" really did have a spaceship, but that he had put papier-mache all over it to conceal it.

Tip and J.Lo resume their trip to Arizona, ending up in Flagstaff, where Tip tries to find her mom at the Bureau of Missing Persons. During this time in Flagstaff, they live in their car on the outskirts of town and use shower and bathrooms on the university campus.  Everyday, Tip goes back to the Bureau to talk to a guy named Mitch to see if they've found her mom. One day nobody is there because everyone is at a meeting where Boov representatives are speaking to people that have gathered on the campus quad. Tip and J.Lo head over there. J.Lo points out Captain Smek. He's one of the Boov reps, and is talking about the Gorg (p. 317):
"They are a horrible sort," Smek was saying, "and will not show the Noble Savages of Smekland the respectfulness that you have enjoyed from to the Boov. The Gorg are known acrosst the galaxy as the Takers, and they canto only take and take and take!"
He continues:
"We knows of the Gorg and Smekland leaders yesterday," said Smek. "The Gorg have probabiles made for you some fancy promises. Do not be believing them! They lie! They will enslave your race, just as to they have done so many others! They will destruct our world!"
The speech ends with:
"In closing," said Captain Smek, "the Boov are beseeching you: do not give up to the Gorg our world because of petty grudgings! Fight with us--" [...] "Fight alongside us," Smek said, "for a brighter, shiny Smekland!"
Then he repeats the speech in Spanish.

Debbie's thoughts: The occupier that has forced all the people to relocate is now telling them that another occupier won't respect or treat them well. 

Tip hears people around her grumbling about what Smek has said. Smek and the other Boov leave the stage, and Mitch, tries to get them to show respect to Smek. But he also then tells Tip that the Boov are on their way out and that they ought to ally themselves with the Gorg. Then he tells her that a Native American gentleman was looking for her at the hospital. She takes off for hospital and when she runs into his room, shouts "Chief!"

Debbie's thoughts: Again, why isn't she calling him Frank? 

Once in his room, "the Chief" tells her (p. 321):
"Mr. Hinkel," said the Chief, jerking his head toward the sleeping man. "He thinks Indians like me ought to live somewhere else. Likes to tell me about it a lot."
Tip replies that maybe he'll be leaving soon, but "the Chief" says he doubts that, because Hinkel was badly beaten by someone who thinks gay people like him ought to live somewhere else.

Debbie's thoughts: I am trying to sort through Rex's decision to make one oppressed people, embodied by Hinkel, be the one that is being racist towards another oppressed people. It is, of course, plausible, but it doesn't sit well with me. 

Tip realizes that "the Chief" had greeted her as Stupidlegs, and had called J.Lo "Boov." She had thought that "the Chief" believed J.Lo was her little brother.  J.Lo tells her that "the Chief" found out the truth when they were trying to hide the telecloner (back in Roswell). Tip is afraid that "the Chief" will tell someone that J.Lo is a Boov, but he shrugs and says (p. 322):
"When you're Indian, you have people tellin' you your whole life 'bout the people who took your land. Can't hate all of 'em, or you'd spend your whole life shouting at everyone."
Debbie's thoughts: With that, "the Chief" is saying that the Boov are just like the white people, but that he can't let hate consume his life. I need to think about that some more.

Tip realizes that his shouting (we also learn that he is 93 years old) was a way to make people think he was crazy so they wouldn't keep looking for the real spaceship.

While "the Chief" is in the hospital recovering, Tip reads to J.Lo. One of the books she reads to him is Huckleberry Finn. 

Debbie's comments: I wonder if, in the back story for this part of the story, Rex noted that Twain used "injun"?

When "the Chief" is better, he is moved to an "old folks' home" where Tip continues to visit him. On one visit, he tells her he had been sent to New Mexico after World War Two and that he had hated it because of where he was sent (p. 325):
"To a training ground in Fort Sumner. Didn't like it there--lot of bad history for my people. You know I grew up near here? On the res."
"Yeah, you said. So you're...Navajo, then?" I'd been learning a bit about the area.
"Prefer the name Dine, but yes."
Debbie's thoughts: So here, finally, we learn his tribe and what their own name for themselves is (Dine). But what is that bad history? Will kids who read the book wonder enough to look it up? And, a note to writers: the spelling we use is rez (with a z) not res. 

Unhappy being at Fort Sumner, "the chief" asked to be transferred, and that is how he ended up at Roswell. There, he learned the city wanted to build a water tower on a parcel of land, so he bought that land, which meant that the city would pay him rent for building the water tower on his land. The UFO crashed into that tower, but on its way down, it also crashed into a scientific balloon (p. 326):
The tower was totaled, and the city abandoned it--they never much liked our arrangement anyway. Somethin' about paying an Indian for land that rubs white folk the wrong way."
Debbie's thoughts: This sounds about right. Far too many people think that the U.S. government "gives" Native people things, not knowing (or disregarding) that these things (education and health care, for example) were negotiated between Native heads of state and U.S. heads of state during treaty or contract negotiations. I'll also take a minute to note that a LOT of people think we don't pay taxes. We do! Thus, I can imagine people not liking their tax dollars going to pay rent to an Indian landowner. 

"The chief" tells Tip that people knew about the balloon crash but the government was being hush-hush about it because it was top-secret. "The chief" tried to tell people he had a flying disk and an alien in his basement but people thought he was nuts. When they finally came to investigate, he was tired of them and played "the crazy Indian bit."

Tip learns that her mother is living near Tucson in a casino. Mitch passes on this info (p. 335):
"She's living in the Papago lands south of Tucson, in the Diamond Sun Casino."
Debbie's thoughts: Oh-oh. Papago? Hmmm... The people who were known by that name have, for a long time now, been known as the Tohono O'Odham. 

Tip learns that the description Mitch has been using in the search for her mom is wrong (p. 336):
"She's thirty," I offered. "Dark hair. Daughter named Gratuity."
"Black," said Mitch.
I coughed. "Black?"
"I'm sorry," said Mitch. Do you prefer African American?"
"Uh, no, I prefer you call her white, actually, because that's what she is."
"The file says she's black."
"Are you really arguing with me about this?"
Mitch looked tired. "I wrote down 'black,'" he said.
"I didn't tell you to write that," I answered, and then I could see the whole thing. "Have you been telling everyone to look for a black woman this whole time?"

Debbie's thoughts: I like seeing that conversation. Biracial kids and their parents are familiar with assumptions like the one Mitch made. Mitch doesn't answer Tip's question. He moves on. 

Mitch looks up the Diamond Sun Casino and finds it is in Daniel Landry's district (p. 337):
"Daniel Landry's district is far south of here," he said, "on some former Indian land."
"Indian land? Like a reservation?"
"That's right."
"Is this Dan guy an Indian?"
"I don't think so, no. I'm pretty sure he's white. He wasn't a governor or anything before, but he's really rich, so I imagine he's a good leader."
"Uh-huh. But he's white," I said "The Indians elected a white guy?"
"Well...I don't know. I imagine all the other people elected him. It's mostly white folks living on the reservation now."
I frowned. "And the Indians are okay with this?"
"What do you mean?" 
"Well...it was a reservation," I said. "It was land we promised to the Native Americans. Forever."
Mitch looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. "But...we needed it," he said.
Debbie's thoughts: Wow. Where to start?! Glad that the issue of land, and land being taken, is raised. But the way that conversation is laid out is a bit problematic. The way it is presented suggests that the reservation land was taken from an unnamed tribe. At one time in history, all of that land was Indian land. Today, a lot of reservations are what we call "checkerboard(s)" due to encroachment on reservation lands. See page 39 of Matthew L.M. Fletcher's article, Reviving Local Tribal Control in Indian Country for an in-depth look.  

As they head south to Tucson, Tip thinks (p. 340):
We all gained Arizona by coming here, but for the people who already lived here, we could only take something away.
Debbie's thoughts: I am glad Tip thinks this; I wonder how much readers of the book sit with that thought? 

Once they get to the casino, Tip and J.Lo go inside a tent where Tip's mom is supposedly leading a meeting. Inside, they see a redheaded man on stage with the microphone (p. 344):
"I have the stage! All I'm saying is, now that we've all had to leave our real homes, we got a chance to get America right! There can be a place for the Saxon Americans, and a place for the coloreds, and a place for--shut up!" 
Debbie's thoughts: His 'shut up' is in response to the boos coming from the audience. His hate-filled words are ones we hear, today, spoken aloud. It is good that he is booed. 

Then, Tip sees her mom take the stage. Her mom says (p. 345):
"I know, I know," she was saying. "You have every right. Just like he has the right, right? You don't have to like what he says, but letting him say it makes us Americans, and treating people the way we'd like to be treated makes us human, doesn't it? That's how I was raised, anyway."
Debbie's thoughts: Tough to read what she says. Yes, of course, we defend freedom of speech, but "makes us Americans" sounds like American exceptionalism, and "makes us human" sounds kind of like the golden rule (turn the other cheek), when I think we have the responsibility to call out hate speech. 

While inviting people in the crowd to speak, she spots Tip. Reunited, the three leave the tent and enter the casino where slot machines were pushed together to make walls for peoples homes. Tip learns that her mom was among political leaders who met with the Gorg to talk about the Gorg's demands. The Gorg plan to rid the planet of the Boov. They'll let humans have Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, but if the humans were found anywhere else, the Gorg would shoot them. Further restrictions include not using air vehicles and they can't have cats.

Debbie's thoughts: Most people may be unfamiliar with the fact that, when reservations were created, many of them were heavily policed. To leave, you had to get permission from the reservation agent. If you left without permission, you were "off the reservation" and could be shot. I wonder if Rex knew that history when he wrote that part of the book? 

Tip's mom introduces her to Daniel Landry. They'd just come from the airport where Landry needed her to translate for the new settlers who are Mexican families.

Debbie's thoughts: I'm curious about the Mexican families. He didn't say Mexican American. Remember--Tip is now in Arizona, down near the border, so maybe they are Mexican families being relocated to Arizona, but I don't recall the relocation plan including people in Mexico. 

Tip and J.Lo learn that the Gorg are taking over. J.Lo tells Tip that the Gorg "will take peoples for slaves and furniture and kill the rest." The Gorg had done this to the Voort.

Debbie's thoughts: Slaves. Hmmm... I wonder if Rex knows that many Native peoples from the eastern tribes were enslaved? Is that information the source of his reference to slavery? Or, is it specific to African peoples and enslavement of them? Is he mixing behaviors of oppressors?

Tip goes to visit Landry in his office. He tells her the Gorg have a lot to offer to humans. Tip mutters "Nothing that wasn't ours already." But Landry tells her the Gorg are driving away the Boov and that the Gorg "are giving back the whole Southwest." He tells her that humans are fighting Boov and Gorg, but the best thing is for everyone to be good and obedient to the Gorg, and that they'll leave soon anyway. He says (p. 374):
"Their whole society is based on paying and feeding old Gorg by making new Gorg and conquering worlds. They have to keep making more and more, sending them out in every direction. They're stretched too thin. Sooner or later they'll have too many Gorg and not enough resources, and the whole operation will implode."
Tip doesn't buy it. Back home in the casino, J.Lo tells her that the Gorg aren't stretched thin, and that because they can do telecloning, they won't run out of resources. The two keep talking and figure out that the Gorg clones are less-stable than the ones from which they were made. When her mom gets home, Tip asks her about the clones sneezing, but her mom doesn't recall any of that. And, her mom tells her that the Gorg are going to give them a cure for cancer, to be presented as a surprise at a big gathering.

There's a knock at the door, and it is "the Chief." Tip introduces him to her mom, saying "His real name is Frank." They invite him to eat dinner with them. After dinner, Tip walks "the Chief" out to his truck, where he tells her that some of his friends and cousins are "comin' down from the res" (p. 380).

Debbie's comments: I don't think 'from the res' is necessary. It is implied. And I'll note again, that it ought to be 'rez' (with a z) rather than res (with an s).

Chief Shouting Bear tells Tip that he is getting people together, people that they can trust. Tip asks (p. 380),
"Do you know some of the Papago Indians around here?"
"Tohono O'Odham," said the Chief. "The Tohono O'Odham Nation. Papago is derogatory. Means 'bean eaters.' And yeah, I know a few."
Debbie's comments: Glad to see that response to Tip's use of Papago! 

When the Gorg take Tip's mom, Tip and J.Lo note that they are sneezing and figure out that the Gorg hunt and kill cats because they are allergic to cats. They come up with a plan to fight the Gorg using that information.

They finally drive the Gorg away, and Tip, J.Lo and her mom head back to the casino. There, they (p. 419):
...find the Chief sitting atop his truck with Lincoln, looking out over the southern horizon at the big red ball that was slowly sailing away.
"Ha!" I heard him shout. "That's what you get, jerks."
Debbie's thoughts: The big red ball is the Gorg. He's shouting at them now, too. In the end, the Native character shouts at Gorgs and White people.

In the closing pages, some time has passed. Tip reports about stories from around the world, about people that had fought against the Gorg. Among them are "the Israelis and Palestinians, who managed to work together, for a change," and, "a group of Lost Boys living under Happy Mouse Kingdom" (p. 421).

Debbie's thoughts: Wondering how Israeli or Palestinian readers read that line, and, wondering how the Lost Boys are dressed... 

Here's what Tip says about "the Chief":
Frank Jose, the Chief, died this past spring. He was ninety-four. He said it was his time and mine had overlapped more.
Debbie's thoughts: Rex dropped Papago in the story early on and came back to it later, correcting its use. I wish he'd done that here, dropping "the Chief" from Tip's way of thinking about him. Nowhere do I see backstory or story itself that says Frank Jose was a leader of the Dine (Navajo) people; hence, calling him "the Chief" is incorrect. As I read this book, there were times when I thought that Rex seems to know so much! He critiques so much, and yet, leaves this and other things intact. Why? His character knows better, doesn't she?

Update: Feb 14

And... the Native character dies?! With that ending, we're definitely in that space where Indians are gone, extinct, etc. In the story, Rex names two different Native Nations, but without an individualized presence, I think they're invisible to the reader. 

(A bit more to say about the end of the story.)

The Gorg are gone, but the Boov remain for a year, relocating people and signing treaties and then they leave, one year later.

Debbie's comments: Relocating people to their original homes? Who are they signing treaties with? They leave? The colonizers leave?! That is definitely a departure from what actually happened with Native peoples. Check out this video that shows you what happened:






~~~~~~~~~~

Some current thoughts. I may add more, later.

As I reflect on Adam Rex's book, I think of it in layers. At the top is the words on the page and the ways Rex succinctly addressed things like names of tribes.  Beneath that top layer is one that constitutes what the characters know, or don't know, about Native peoples, nations, and history. There's so much misinformation out there. Rex bats down a lot but leaves other things as-is.

And beneath that layer is the premise for the story. Invaders come to the earth and start doing to humans the very things that European invaders did to Native peoples. A lot of what happened is not included in the story Rex tells. Warfare, bounties, disease, death... None of that is in Rex's story. All of that was devastating. Rex's story is not. The True Meaning of Smekday is viewed by readers and critics as funny and entertaining. Should it be? Should the colonization of a people--any people--be used as humor? Personally, I can't see similarly horrific historical events being turned into a funny story. Would we do that to the Holocaust? To slavery? But---I wondered---are there such books?

I asked that question on several listservs. Thus far, people are unable to offer a title in which this occurs. On child_lit, Tad Andracki offered some words that I found helpful. There are books for young readers where an individual's suffering due to oppression has moments of humor, but there aren't any where a peoples suffering is treated with humor.

We are, of course, talking about what is/is not appropriate content for a children's book.

One last thought: I think the ethnic joke J.Lo tells has a far broader application than its role within the story. Who can, with humorous tones, tell a story about a peoples suffering? If a Native writer had done this book, might I feel different about the tone?

This is a very long post, and if you've made it all the way here, thank you. I'm walking away from the book for now but will, no doubt, be back with updates and corrections to typos, etc. There's so much more to address than the notes I've shared thus far.

Update

In my request for similar titles, I received the following suggestions. Ones marked with an asterisk are characterized as problematic because they aren't serious enough, rather than ones whose tone is humor.  I'm grateful to all those who suggested titles. Though I haven't read most of these books, synopsis/reviews of them indicate that while some suggestions are about a serious topic, they aren't meant to be funny in tone.

*Boyne, John. The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas

Briggs, Raymond. The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman

Briggs, Raymond. When the Wind Blows

Clark, Henry. The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens

Dallas, Sandra. Tallgrass

De Brunhoff, Jean. The Story of Babar

Hardinge, Frances. The Lost Conspiracy

Houston, James D. and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. Farewell to Manzanar

Innocenti, Roberto. Rose Blanche

Jinks, Catherine. Pagan's Crusade

Marsden, John. The Rabbits. Illustrated by Shaun Tan.

Oppenheim, Joanne. Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference

Spiegelman, Art. Maus

Stewart, Trenton Lee. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma. Illustrated by Diane Sudyka

Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer

*Wild, Margaret. Let the Celebrations Begin! Illustrated by Julie Vivas

Yansky, Brian. Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences

*Yolen, Jane. The Devil's Arithmetic


On 2/20/2014, I added Perry Nodelman's insightful comments here, in the body of the post. They were submitted in two parts as indicated:


Thanks, Debbie, for getting me interested in this book, which I hadn’t read before you alerted me to it. For the most part, i enjoyed reading it, and I have lots to say about it––enough to go past the number of characters allowed in a comment, so I’ve divided my response into two comments.

Part 1: I think that Rex does some very clever things in terms of paralleling the alien invasion with what happened between imperialist invaders and Indigenous people in North America and elsewhere. I think, though that Rex's main interest throughout appears to be in exploring the humor of the situation, and while that means there’s often clever and funny satire that emerges from the colonialist parallels, that doesn’t happen consistently. Sometimes the novel is a colonial satire, and sometimes it isn’t.
For instance, it seems that the appearance and character of the alien Gorg has satiric implications: they have the uniformity, the self-centered self-importance, and the obsessive single-mindedness of totalitarian overlords, like Hitler or the British raj or the European settlers of North America. But there is no satiric implication that I can find in the fact that the other aliens, the Boov, have a sizeable number of feet. It’s just a joke, just something that defines them as alien.
Similarly, i think, what happens sometimes resonates in terms of the history of relationships between Indigenous North Americans and European colonists and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, much worse, it resonates in what I see as negative ways that I suspect Rex wasn’t even aware of.
I think that happens, for instance, with the portrayal of Chief Shouting Bear. Aspects of it are cleverly satiric. I like how the Chief slyly manipulates stereotypes of angrily politicized Native Americans in order to keep people from interfering in his life. He creates a safe space for himself by pretending to be something that confirms other people's negative stereotypes and makes those other people want to avoid him. But while the distance between the stereotype and the real, clever, kind man who hides behind it seems to imply the falsity of the stereotype, it also in an odd way also confirms the stereotype: the novel never suggests that there aren’t a lot of angry Native Americans who shout too loudly about their land and their rights, etc. Nor does it suggest that the anger is justified and even necessary, or that is anything but just silly and laughable. Indeed, the novel seems to be sending up the supposed silliness of politicized Native people who want to make others aware of their rights at the same time as it seems to be expressing concern about how powerful outsiders oppress people and deprive them if their rights. The novel is just too interested in making jokes and being funny to be consistent enough to be effective as satire. As a result, it undermines its own satire. 
Part 2: My main concern with the novel, though, is that while it makes significant points about how colonizers oppress others, points that seem modeled on the history of European settlers and Indigenous North Americans, it finally seems to want to dismiss the significance of that history and invite readers of all sorts to believe that the past is the past, what’s over is over, and that since we’re really all alike we should be forgetting our differences (and apparently the history behind those differences) and just treat each other as equals and get along. Gratuity, the protagonist who is telling what happened, implies that sort of tolerance message when she says, “The Boov weren’t anything special. They were just people. They were too smart and too stupid to be anythng else.” And the Chief agrees: “When you’re Indian, you have people telling you your whole life ‘bout the people who took your land. Can’t hate all of ‘em, or you'll spend your whole life shouting at everyone.”

The novel also undermines its colonialist satire by identifying a number of other forms of oppressions of weaker people by more powerful ones: women by men, children by adults, etc. Even Gratuity herself has to acknowledge at one point that maybe she’s too bossy and should stop oppressing others. As a result, the specific history and issues of Native Americans become just one example of a more general attack on mean bullies who take advantage of weaker people; and the solution to that particular situation as well as all other situations and relationships is just being nice to others and treating them all as equals.
To me, that reads like a massive copout, a way of avoiding the important political and historical issues that still control and limit far too many lives. And like, for instance, a lot of multicultural rhetoric, it works to erase the ongoing significance of the specific history of Indigenous peoples—what makes their situation different from those of all the other groups who now live together in countries like the US.
One final point: for someone who spends a lot of time attacking and making fun of imperialists blind to the equal humanity of people they see as different and inferior to themselves, Rex himself, quite unconsciously, I suspect, makes a hugely imperialistic mistake. He asserts that the Boov force all the inhabitants of Earth to move to Florida, and then, changing their minds, to Arizona. But he then says nothing about how the Earthlings from, say, Europe or Africa, are going to manage to get to Florida. And when Gratuity arrives in Arizona, there is no mention of people who speak Swahili or Chinese, no mention of there being disputes involving people from different countries or continents, no mention of orders given in any languages other than English and Spanish. In fact, Rex has simply assumed that the Earth = the USA. All the humans who are not American are simply erased. It’s only in one sentence towards the end that Rex hints that maybe the Boov had rounded up other people in other parts of the world in different detention areas closer to where they live--a weird thing to suddenly tell readers about when we’ve been asked all along to assume that all humanity had ended up in Arizona. This is unconscious American imperialism at its finest, and as a Canadian, I found it exceedingly annoying.
All things considered: I think that The True Meaning of Smekday is often a very funny novel, and often a cleverly satiric one. But while it certainly has the potential to give readers of all ages a lot to think about, I find myself saddened by the ways in which it sets up parallels that allow for shrewd commentary on American Indian history and politics and then squanders the opportunity to pursue that commentary in favor of jokes and a kind of obvious and dangerous message of thoughtless universal equivalence and tolerance. 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Dear Writers and Editors: Some Cautions about Selecting Beta Readers

Dear Writers and Editors,

I know that one strategy that you use to check the accuracy or authenticity of a manuscript with characters who are "other" to the writer is to have someone of that "other" group read the manuscript. In the language used in the industry, this means to get a "beta reader" for the manuscript.

I've read several author notes in the last couple of years wherein the author states that they had beta reader(s) from the Native communities featured in their books.

Writers: are you creating a Native character in your story? Editors: is your author including Native content? This blog post is for you. There are several things you should know about selecting beta readers.

Research universities across the United States have guidelines specific to populations that have experienced abuse by researchers. These include children and minorities. These guidelines are also published by government agencies. Do a search and you'll find them. There are many things to consider. A key thing to consider is how the research will impact that person. May they be inadvertently hurt by participating? Are there things you'll do, that you did not realize, that could cause harm? These guidelines aren't just about medicines. They apply to educational researchers, too, who--for example--want to interview youth about their experiences.

You may not work for a university and therefore think you're exempt from those guidelines. When you're doing research within a Native community, however, there are tribal protocols that you must follow.

Native Nations across the United States also have guidelines in place to protect their members/citizens and the tribe's intellectual and cultural property (and yes, that includes traditional stories). Before you are pack your bag and head to a reservation, Native center, or museum, find the website of the specific nation you're planning to include in your story. Many have guidelines posted on their websites, or phone numbers of people you can speak to in advance of your trip.

Some universities have the protocols for nations near them at their site. Northern Arizona University, for example, has the protocols for the Hopi Nation on the university website.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and Montana State University's Center for Native Health Partnerships have a publication that is an excellent overview of working with Native Nations: Walk Softly and Listen Carefully. (Note: if the link doesn't work, write to me directly and I'll send you the pdf.)

Speaking to a tour guide at a museum is not enough. They are not the person with the authority to work with you. Obviously they're interested in education but there's an important distinction in what they do, and what a tribe's research board does.

Perhaps you are a current or former teacher of Native kids, teens, or adults. Your impulse may be to ask them to be a beta reader. In that relationship, there may be a huge power dynamic that you're unaware of. If they consent but then seem to be avoiding you or putting you off, I suggest you take that as a sign that they don't want to hurt your feelings or the relationship you have.

Most writers, editors, critics, and scholars (like me) have studied literary criticism, critical theory, social justice, racism, and the like. That may not be true for your beta readers. Be especially mindful of that difference. If, however, your teen/Native beta reader is involved in Native activism, the chances that you'll get good feedback are better.

In my second paragraph above, I noted authors that have used a Native person as a beta reader. Last year I did a very detailed analysis of an ARC of Sappenfield's The View From Who I Was. She thanked a beta reader in the ARC. My analysis circulated widely amongst Native networks, including amongst students and staff at the school Sappenfield visited for her research. In the published copy of Sappenfield's book, the name and identity of the beta reader are gone. I don't know why, but perhaps you (writers and editors) can find out from Sappenfield or her editor.

Years ago, I pointed to tribal protocols during a discussion on child_lit (a listserv). One response was a somewhat snarky "how are they going to enforce it"? It struck me, then, as dismissive of something vitally important to respectful ways of living. We can do better than that snarky response, right?

The point is--take care in selecting beta readers for your manuscript.



Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Year 2014 at American Indians in Children's Literature

I launched American Indians in Children's Literature in 2006. This is the first time I'm doing a recap of any given year. I started it in 2014, thinking I could post it in time for the end of 2014/start of 2015 when everyone is doing year end reflections, but it took far longer than I anticipated. I hope you enjoy it. It isn't comprehensive. I did over 100 posts in 2014. Here are some high and low points that stood out to me.

I always welcome your comments and emails. I make typos--and am always grateful to those of you who write to tell me about them. I fix 'em, thanks to you!

January

Travers in the Indian jewelry she wore all the time
Saving Mr. Banks came out in theaters. Reading a response to the movie prompted me to write Travers (author of Mary Poppins): "I lived with the Indians..." Do read that post! From the background on Travers to the side-by-side comparisons I did of the first edition and the revised edition without the racist images and text... Well... lots of fascinating info!

Always looking for young adult books set in the present day, and when I find them, hoping they'll be good... Among its many problems, Liz Fichera has Native characters being saved by white ones. Not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely a story line that we see far too often.  Hooked is on my not recommended list. It got a thumbs down, too, from Naomi Bishop, of the American Indian Library Association.

Brian Floca replied to my review of LocomotiveThat post was one of AICL's most-read pages for 2014.

Though Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Tree House series is much-loved, I found many problems with Thanksgiving on ThursdayShe found a new way to misrepresent Squanto in her book (it was published in 2002, but AICL looks at old and new books).

In other media, I learned about murals at post offices. It was interesting to see the differences in murals of Native peoples done by Native artists versus the stereotypical ones done by white artists.

My post about John Green's use of sarcasm regarding Native peoples generated a lot of discussion in the comments to it but also on Facebook. This sarcasm is in The Fault in Our Stars. 

I read--and recommended--The Giant Bear: An Inuit FolktaleIt has a teacher's guide, too! Check it out.

I was thrilled to learn that Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here was chosen as one of YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults for 2014.

And, the American Indian Library Association announced the winners of its Youth Literature awards!

February

I was nervous about being interviewed for a CNN story about young adult literature. As I thought about that interview, I wrote about several books for young adults, noting that librarians and teachers must not let Alexie's young adult novel be "the single story" they read/share about Native peoples.

Tim Tingle's How I Became a Ghost and Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here were selected for discussion at CCBC-Net. The discussion was quite intense! The post includes a link to CCBC-Net. (By the way, CCBC won't be hosting their listserv anymore. I'll miss it.) If you're in a bookstore, these are the covers of their books:


I was pleased to see Laurie Halse Anderson's treatment of Native content in her The Impossible Knife of Memory. 

March 

In my review of Tim Tingle's How I Became a Ghost, I took special delight in his use of "Choctaw Nation" in the chapter heading for his opening chapter.

I had a rather long back-and-forth with Rosanne Parry over problems I found in her Written In Stone. I grew weary of that back-and-forth. It is unfinished. In the summary (above) for January, I noted how white characters save Native ones in Hooked. Parry is a white writer with good intentions, but has blinders to issues in how she went about her story. She asked me for input but then rebutted that input. It is similar to what Lynn Reid Banks did, and what Ann Rinaldi did (invite but reject input from Native scholar).

I did an analysis of books by/about American Indians sent to the Cooperative Center for Children's Books at Wisconsin in 2013. No surprise to see that most books by major publishers were by not-Native writers and that they had a lot of stereotyping and errors, while books by small publishers were by Native writers, and they were definitely far better in quality!

With so much interest in Rush Limbaugh's books for children, I decided I best take a look at the first one. It was just like listening to his show. No surprise there, but important to list its problems, especially since he went on to be named author of the year by the Children's Book Council.

It was a year in which Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington pro football team, preyed on tribes as he looked for Native people to endorse his use of a racist name for his team. My post on March 25 was about the foundation he set up for that preying activity.

April

For over a hundred years, Native people have spoken against misrepresentations of Native people. These things matter. Our youth struggle in school. They're inundated with misrepresentations in their books and other places, too, like with mascots. I looked at some of the data on graduation rates and linked it to stereotyping.

In February, I wrote about being interviewed by CNN. The story was uploaded in April (if the link to he CNN page doesn't work, send me an email and I'll send you a pdf).

I am thrilled to be part of an article that pointed to the work of excellent writers like Matt de la Pena, Sharon Draper, Walter Dean Myers, Cindy Pon, Malinda Lo, Sherman Alexie, Eric Gansworth, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Debby Dahl Edwardson, and, a key person in the book publishing world, Cheryl Klein. Do read the article.




I read--and loved--Chukfi Rabbit's Big, Bad Bellyache by Greg Rodgers. He incorporated Choctaw words into the story. As you scroll down to December, you'll see the cover of Greg's book, and a photo of him, too. Sadly, he passed away in December.

April marks the month when the We Need Diverse Books campaign was taking form. It isn't the first time that a group of people took action to decenter the whiteness of literature. This time--with the demographic make-up of the US about to shift from white majority--could mean whiteness does, in fact, get decentered. My first post about the campaign was uploaded on April 28.

May

In the middle of May I participated in a twitter chat about the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I advocated for books by Native writers and was (as usual) challenged for that advocacy. The outcome was a post about that advocacy that included a photo gallery of Native writers and illustrators who have done books for children or young adults. I later turned that post into a page that is now in my menu bar above (beneath AICL's logo) that I am steadily adding to periodically.



I read a delightful picture book: Hungry Johnny by Cheryl Minnema and Wesley Ballinger! Though it features Ojibwe people, it is a lot like Pueblo gatherings, where elders take center stage.

And, another delightful picture book I read in May is Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk and Alexandria Neonakis.

And yet another delight that month was Arigon Starr's Super Indian comic!

One of the many dreadful books I read in 2014 is Julia Mary Gibson's Copper MagicThe stereotypical mystical Indian theme is front and center in this young adult novel, and, well, it is yet another awful book from a major publisher! It was also disheartening to see stereotypes in the popular Where's Waldo series.

June

First week of June, I wrote about the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I support what they're doing. The WNDB group did a presentation at Book Expo on May 31. My post was a compilation of tweets and photos coming from BEA.

I did an in-depth analysis of Katherine Kirkpatrick's Between Two Worlds. Like too many books from major publishers, it is replete with errors and stereotypes about Native people. Rubbing noses? Sheesh!  It is a great example of the work ahead of the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

Stereotypes like those Kirkpatrick used are one problem. Another is ambiguity. Paul Goble's much-acclaimed The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses doesn't specify a tribe. There is no one-size-fits-all for Native nations.



In the middle of the month I read two outstanding books. Both are tribally specific, both are the work of Native people. I highly recommend them: Donald F. Montileaux's Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend and Arigon Starr's Annumpa Luma--Code Talker.  Also in the middle of the month, Beverly Slapin sent me her review of Joseph Bruchac's Killer of Enemies. It won the Young Adult award from the American Indian Library Association.

Towards the end of the month, I wrote up a review of a "Native American Zodiac" that was circulating widely. One rule of thumb that'll help you know if something is worthwhile is to ask "is this tribally specific." With this zodiac, the easy answer is no. Yet, it is hugely popular, so I hope you'll read the critique and share it with others.

July

The month kicked of with a wonderful look at Tim Tingle's remarks at the American Library Association's conference. He won the American Indian Library Association's Youth Literature Award for How I Became A Ghost and was there to receive his award.

In the middle of the month, I wrote a bit about E. B. White. Did you notice the Native content in Stuart Little? Take a look.

A librarian wrote to ask me about Gary Paulsen's Mr. Tucket. I hadn't read it before. Her request prompted me to read it. I did a chapter-by-chapter analysis. Though Paulsen was tribally specific, he drew heavily on stereotypes.

August

Earlier in the year, a person at the Library of Congress asked if I could recommend a Native mystery writer that they could have at the National Book Festival. I asked colleagues in my Native network of scholars and writers, and was pointed to the work of Cherokee writer, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe. At the end of the month, I wrote about her Sadie Walela series.

As I was recovering from a broken ankle, I didn't do much blogging at all, but I did read Hoklotubbe's books. I like them very much! I'm glad she was able to be at the National Book Festival. In the days following her reading, I thoroughly enjoyed the photos and stories she shared about the experience on her Facebook page.

September

A very high point for the month was reading--and loving--Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices



I was glad to see it getting lot of positive buzz from mainstream journals, too. School Library Journal listed it as Best Book 2014 in the Nonfiction category. It is a terrific example of what we need to see lots of so the publishing industry moves away from what we get from Goble, Paulsen, Kirkpatrick, Gibson, Parry, Limbaugh, Osborne...

Speaking of Goble, I wrote about him, asking Was Paul Goble adopted into the Yakima and Sioux tribes?

I put out a call for books for early readers. A learned that Jack Prelutsky's It's Thanksgiving had been redone in 2007, but that the stereotypical problems in the earlier book (published in 1982) were unchanged.

I read The Education of Little TreeI knew it was deeply problematic, but didn't know just how bad it is. I was surprised at some of its content. Cherokee "mating dances"?! Reading that part, I shook my head. So much wrong with it, and yet, it circulates and sells, and sadly--informs readers and writers, too.

Maybe its power in misinforming people is evident in publication of books like Heather Sappenfield's The View From Who I WasThe author meant well--they always do--but the Native community is quite irate over what she did in her book. I did a careful read of it and shared it with her and her editor. Some changes were made as a result... Instead of "costume" she used "regalia" but those are easy changes and don't get at the foundational problems with the book.

There are problems in Bouwman's The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap (Two Lions, 2012) and Bow's Sorrow's Knot (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013). Lots of writers love the "mystical" Indian. There's a lot of that in Nordgren's Anung's Journey (Light Messages Publishing, 2014),  too.

Looking back, it was a tough month. I also wrestled with Neal Shusterman over his Unwind series. He read my review and responded with a comment. Later in the year I wrote more about his books.

October 

High points first!



Carol Lindstrom's Girls Dance Boys Fiddle is terrific. Published in 2013, it is from a small press in Canada called Pemmican Publications.

From another small publisher, Native Northwest, we got the gorgeous and bilingual counting book, We All Count: A Book of Numbers by Julie Flett.

At the other end of the publishing continuum is Sebastian Robertson's picture book biography about his dad, Robbie Robertson. Way cool.

The low points are two picture books by big publishers that diss Native people. They are As An Oak Tree Grows by Brian Karas (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014) and Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman (Penguin, 2014).

Over in the UK, The Guardian worked with Seven Stories Press on a diversity initiative that includes Amazing Grace and Apache: Girl Warrior. Both stereotype Native people and ought not be on a list of diverse books.

In contrast to those low points is K. V. Flynn's On The MoveFlynn isn't Native but it is obvious he did his homework to write On The Move. His characters are from specific tribes and they're well developed, too.

I ended the month with a look at Virginia Stroud's Doesn't Fall Off His HorsePublished in 1994 by Dial Books, it is excellent and now available in ebook.

November

November is always a stressful month for two reasons. For several years now, the President of the US has designated it as a month dedicated to Native peoples. Because it is also the month that the US celebrates Thanksgiving, things get awfully skewed to a romantic narrative that misinforms and miseducates children about America and American Indians. It is also a month in which I'm asked to do guest posts and lectures.

In preparation for a television interview that would be televised later in the month on CUNY TV, I wrote up Some Thoughts about Native Americans and Thanksgiving. I pointed to some of my favorite books.

Here's info about the Twitter chat I did for We Need Diverse Books. It was storified by the WNDB team. WNDB team member Miranda Paul interviewed me over at Rate Your Story, which is a site designed to help writers and the WNDB team asked me to do a Tumblr post, which I titled Why I Support WNDB.

Beverly Slapin contributed two items: a great review of Kim Shuck's Rabbit Stories and with Kim, a satirical piece, How to Write a Dystopian Young Adult Novel (or short story) with Native Characters for Fun and Profit.

A perfect reference book for the month is David Treuer's Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask. Packed with solid info you can use to enrich your own ability to discern the good from the not-so-good (or just plain awful).

Treuer's book is one that I wish writers who incorporate or feature Native content would read. During a WNDB twitter chat on diversity, Francesca Lia Block's name came up. I tweeted the links to my posts on the problems in her books. To my surprise, she was online, too, and apologized. I was thrilled but then someone else suggested I read her Teen SpiritI did, and its got problems, too. It seemed to me that her apology was kind of shallow, then. Maybe if she'd said, in her apology, that Teen Spirit had the same kinds of problems, the apology would be more meaningful. Maybe writers just do not criticize their own books. Ever. I'm trying to think of an example. If you have one, let me know!

A high point of the month was taping a segment for CUNY's Independent SourcesIt aired around Thanksgiving. I love the images they prepared for it--using books I recommend--and the video itself is pretty good, too.

Two other high points: reading Cynthia Leitich Smith's Feral Curse and Roy Boney's We Speak In SecretI highly recommend both.



And--big sigh--there was a lot of activity related to Peter Pan. It was on television as a life performance. I have two posts about it. "True Blood Brothers" includes a link to the earlier one.

December

Outside of trade books, there are those in basal series. I rarely see them, but should figure out how to do more about them. Starting in November, Native parents in Alaska started writing to me about four books in the McGraw Hill "Reading Wonders" series. Goodness! Some dreadful items there. The outcome of meetings with parents was that the superintendent decided to withdraw the four books.

Back in trade books, I read and do not recommend Nick Lake's There Will Be Lies or Neal Shusterman's Unwholly or Unsouled.  These are from major publishing houses with a lot of heft. A lot of problematic content, in other words, getting pushed out and added to the too-high-pile of misinformation about Native peoples.

On the plus side, I finished the month with reviews of Tim Tingle's House of Purple Cedar and Erika Wurth's Crazy Horse's Girlfriend



I highly recommend both of those books for young adults. And--a rare event on AICL--I recommended a nonfiction book for children. I need to do more on nonfiction! A Children's Guide to Arctic Birds is terrific.

Just before Christmas, the Native community across the country was shocked and saddened to learn that Choctaw writer, Greg Rodgers, had passed away.  His first picture book came out in 2014. A delightful story, we were looking forward to his career as a writer.



I looked over everything I'd read over the year and put together AICL's Best Books of 2014 list. It has 17 books on it. Most--but not all--are by Native writers.

As I post this recap of 2014, we're well into 2015. I'm grateful to those of you who read and share AICL's posts and glad for every comment I get. Keep sending me email! Your emails direct a lot of what I do here.

And remember! All the work I do is with young people in mind. I respect writers and the work they do, but the people closest to my heart are those who read your work. When it has problems, I'll note it because those finely crafted words writers give to children can inspire them, but they can also hurt them. And when those words are well done, I'll celebrate what you do. I'll share it with moms and their kids. Like my niece and her daughter. This is who we're all here for.







Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Paul Goble's CROW CHIEF

This is a how-Debbie-analyzes-a-book post.

Earlier today, a librarian wrote to ask me about Paul Goble's Crow Chief. It was published in 1992 by Orchard Books. Here's the synopsis, from Amazon:
Crow Chief always warns the buffalo that hunters are coming, until Falling Star, a savior, comes to camp, tricks Crow Chief, and teaches him that all must share and live like relatives together.

I don't have the book itself in front of me but am able to look at the first pages via Amazon's 'look inside' option. The full title of the book is Crow Chief: A Plains Indian story. 

Goble opens the story by saying that a long time ago, all the crows were white. Then he says:
In those long-ago days, the Crow Nation once had a great leader. They called him Crow Chief.
With that sentence, Goble moves from the broad "Plains Indian" to the specific: "Crow Nation." When I turn back to his page of references, then, I expect to see a source specific to the Crow Nation, but there isn't one. Here's the list of books he references, and what I've been able to find in them.

Maurice Boyd, Kiowa Voices
The full title of Maurice Boyd's Kiowa Voices is Kiowa Voices: Ceremonial Dance, Ritual, and Song. I can't read it online, but the descriptions of it say Kiowa. My guess is that it does not have a Crow Nation story in it. It might have a Kiowa story about a white crow.

George A. Dorsey and Alfred L. Kroeber's Traditions of the Arapaho
On page 276 of Traditions of the Arapaho, there is a story called The White Crow. This crow keeps all the buffalo for himself, hidden in a hollow mountain. The people plot to catch him. When they do, they tie him to their tent and he turns black. Later they let him go and follow him. They let the buffalo go. It is an Arapaho story, not a Crow one.

Richard Erdoes, The Sound of Flutes
I am unable to see this book anywhere online. It exists, but Amazon, Google Books, Hathi Trust, and Internet Archive don't have any portions of it that are viewable online. I do have a copy of American Indian Myths and Legends edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. In it is "How the Crow Came to be Black." It is on page 395 and is noted as a Brule Sioux story. In it the crow is thrown into a fire and his feathers are charred.

George Bird Grinnell's By Cheyenne Campfires
Grinnell's By Cheyenne Campfires has a story in it called Falling Star about a white crow, but it is a Cheyenne story, not Crow. It starts on page 182. On page 187, an old woman tells Falling Star she has nothing to feed him because a white crow has been driving the buffalo away. Falling Star catches it, takes it to the chief, who decides to put it in the smoke hole of his lodge to smoke the crow to death. It gets away, is caught again, and killed.

James LaPointe, Legends of the Lakota
LaPoint's Legends of the Lakota has a story about a white crow. I'm able to see snippets of the story that appear on page 74 and 75. There, I see that the crow used to be white, and that there were no buffalo. It is set in a Lakota encampment, so I suspect it is presented as a Lakota story rather than a Crow one. I ordered a copy of this book because it was published by the Indian Historian Press. That press is significant in Native studies.

John G. Neihardt, Eagle Voice
Neihardt's Eagle Voice - I couldn't find that title, but did find When the Tree Flowered: The Fictional Biography of Eagle Voice by Neidhardt. It was published in 1951. It has a story called The Labors of the Holy One. In it, Falling Star is a main character. There is a white crow that scares the buffalo when the hunters are coming. It is tricked by Falling Star and ends up being black. But, the story is a work of fiction by Neidhardt, who was not Native.

Vivian One Feather, Ehanni Okunkakan
I am unable to find Vivian One Feather's Ehanni Okunkakan, but information about it indicates the items she wrote are Lakota, for use at Red Cloud Indian School.

Ronald Theise, Buckskin Tokens
The full title of Theise's Buckskin Tokens is Buckskin Tokens: Contemporary Oral Narratives of the Lakota. I am unable to see it but given its title, my guess is that the stories in it are Lakota, not Crow.

Clark Wissler and D. C. Duvall, Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians
Wissler and Duvall's Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians has an introduction that says the stories in it are Blackfoot. On page 40 is a very long story called The Twin Brothers, or Stars. On page 50 is where I come to a part of the story about crows driving buffalo away. Crows used to be white. On page 51, Crow is tied in a smoke hole and becomes black.


So where does that leave me at this point?

Looking through the references Goble used for this book, I am not able to find one that is about the Crow Nation and their stories. Do you know Betsy Hearne's article, Cite the Source? It is about traditional stories. In it, she talks about the importance of citing the source. Goble has cited a lot in Crow Chief but I'm thinking that what he's shared isn't really helpful for anyone who is trying to determine the accuracy of the story he tells. Some might argue that it is not fair to judge Goble's book from this point in time (2015) because it came out in 1992. Hearne's article came out in 1993. He, therefore, didn't have her article for guidance.

It is possible that Goble meant nation of crows-the-birds rather than the Crow Nation of people. If he did, then the story might be ok but I think viewing it that way injects too much confusion, and we still have too much ambiguity.

The Crow Nation is amongst the many Plains Nations, but that doesn't mean they are the same from one to the other. It is interesting to find that the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Lakota, and Blackfoot have stories about a white crow, but they aren't the same. There are variations. Some elements are similar but others are not. I wonder if the Crow Nation has a white crow story? I'll keep looking...

Update, 6:02 PM, Feb 3 2015:

An important bit of information that I must share. In the late 1800s, the Bureau of American Ethnography sent people to gather stories from the tribes out of a concern that we were dying off and our stories would be lost forever. The stories were published and seen as legitimate source material. Sometimes they are and sometimes they are not. Frank Hamilton Cushing, for example, collected stories at Zuni. His are not reliable. Some of the collectors were not aware of their own biases as outsiders. That bias and outsider perspective is in those stories.


Monday, February 02, 2015

Do something dramatic! AICL's recap of ALA's Day of Diversity

Note: AICL is compiling links to reflections of the day. See the list at the bottom of this post.

Last week (Friday, January 30, 2015), I was at the Day of Diversity at the American Library Association's 2015 Midwinter Conference. This is my recap of the highlights (for me) of the day. I am glad I was invited. It provided me the opportunity to meet some terrific people I've known via social media for several years. A more personal reflection of the ALA's 2015 Midwinter Conference is forthcoming.

The keynote was delivered by former ALA President, Dr. Camila Alire. 



She spoke about being in college (grad school, maybe), working on a project in which she did content analyses of depictions of Mexican Americans in children's books. She came across Bad Boy, Good Boy by Marie Hall Ets. It was published in 1967 by Cromwell. Here's the cover:



In her talk, Alire listed some of the problems she saw in it: the father/husband is the stereotypical depiction of violent Mexican American men with machismo, and the mother learned the right way to cook only after she went to work as a housekeeper for a white family. Roberto doesn't speak English and gets in trouble. The heroes of the story are a white policeman and a white teacher. Learning English is important in Roberto becoming the good boy of the book's title. Alire analyzed Bad Boy, Good Boy using the Council on Interracial Books for Children's Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children's Books for Racism and Bias. It failed on many points. 

Alire said that it is hard to find Bad Boy, Good Boy today. She said that it is important that we look for good books that accurately reflect the people being depicted, but that it is also important to talk about problematic books, too. She didn't name any present-day examples, but my colleagues have done similar analyses of Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner. It fails, too. 

Alire shared data from 2002 and 2013 compiled by the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin that shows there has been a decrease in the number of books by/about African/African Americans, American Indians, Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinos:



See the drop from 2002 to 2013 in the American Indian column? In 2002 there were 64. In 2013, the number was 34. Last year I looked at the 34 on the 2013 list. Focusing on those published in the United States, there were 14 books. Five of them had stereotypes and/or bias such that I cannot recommend them. My point is this: we can't look only at numbers. We have to open the books and look at the content, too. At AICL, I talk about the bad in terms of that content. Far too many people do not recognize problematic content. We have to do what Alire asked us to do: talk about the bad, too.

Alire pointed to resources people can use in their efforts to improve their skills in collection development. Among them is The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children, edited by Jamie Naidoo. Written for the Association for Library Service to Children, it includes a link to American Indians in Children's Literature. In the Background section, Naidoo points to librarian Charlemae Rollins. In 1941, she wrote about stereotyping of African Americans in children's books. Back in the 1927, Native parents in Chicago wrote letters, objecting to the ways Native peoples were portrayed in textbooks. And all the way back in 1829, William Apes, a Pequot man raised by whites, wrote about being afraid of his own people. In A Son of the Forest, he wrote this:

[T]he great fear I entertained of my brethren was occasioned by the many stories I had heard of their cruelty toward the whites—how they were in the habit of killing and scalping men, women, and children. But the whites did not tell me that they were in a great majority of instances the aggressors—that they had imbrued their hands in the lifeblood of my brethren, driven them from their once peaceful and happy homes—that they introduced among them the fatal and exterminating diseases of civilized life. If the whites had told me how cruel they had been to the “poor Indian,” I should have apprehended as much harm from them.

These historical moments are important. After Alire's keynote, the first panel began their presentations. Leading them off was Violet Harris. The struggle, Harris noted, is not new. What is different is social media and its potential for effecting change. She pointed to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and to the articles Walter Dean Myers did for the New York Times. His Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books came out in March 15, 2014, but it was preceded by his "I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry" which came out in 1986. 

In his 2014 article, Myers cited the CCBC statistics that Alire used in her chart above. In her remarks, Kathleen Horning of the Cooperative Children's Book Center told us that their phone has been ringing non-stop. Journalists and researchers who read the Myers article want more information. The data from CCBC tells us that, contrary to what a lot of people think, we are not in a post-racial society. She quoted her US Madison colleague, Bernice Durand, Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Climate, who said you need at least three people of color in any group to affect change. When she was in a position to make appointments to award committees, she followed Durand's advice.*

Jason Low spoke about some of the work that Lee and Low has been doing, in particular, pointing to the lack of diversity in movies and children's books. Here's a much-shared graphic they put together using CCBC data:



The panel was followed by a breakout session that I found disappointing. Much later, I realized that the breakouts were geared more towards the people in the audience who are new to all of this--those who are just starting out and want to make change in what they do in their libraries. 

Lunchtime was a powerful hour as Sara Farizan, Ellen Oh, and Cynthia Leitich Smith did a "Lightning Talk" about their work as writers, and Namrata Tripathi spoke about her work as an editor. What made the four talks so riveting was that the four women shared personal stories from their own lives that shape the work they do. 

Books are not mere entertainment. They inspire us, but they can hurt us, too, and we must speak about up more about problematic books. Pointing to problems can lead to change. 

I'm running out of steam right now, but don't want to close this off without saying a few things about Satia Orange's closing. A former director of ALA's Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, she moderated the last panel. I'm paraphrasing and wish I had a recording so that I don't misrepresent what she said. 



This is a dangerous time for black and brown children, she said. More than anyone, she called out the power structures that aren't with us in this struggle.* More of us have to step up. We have to challenge publishers and do more, like selling books in non-traditional places. She challenged the gathering to do something dramatic next week, and next month, for children of color. 

The Day of Diversity began with a request that we call people in rather than calling them out. I understand that it is important to assume the best of people, but being nice, in its way, lets the status quo continue unchallenged. 

Challenging the status quo is uncomfortable for me, and it is uncomfortable to those who I challenge. Most recently, David Arnold (author of Mosquitoland) blocked me from being able to see what he tweets because I pointed to his use of "warpaint" for his "part Cherokee" character. That book is getting starred reviews. Obviously people love it and see nothing wrong with its use of "warpaint." That sort of thing affirms misinformation about Cherokee people, and it is an affront to Cherokee children and their families who are weary of being misrepresented again and again and again. 

During the day, I spoke with Kathleen Horning about the work of the Council on Interracial Books for Children. She said she thinks they made a difference because they called people out. I think that is what Satia Orange is asking us to do, too. Speak up. Be dramatic. The lives of children of color matter. 

________

For more, see these personal and professional reflections. I'm adding others as I see them. Please let me know of ones you see, too. 




*Edited to reflect clarifications provided to me by KT Horning in comments (below) and others who were there.