Thursday, October 29, 2015

Not recommended: A FINE DESSERT by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see links to discussions of A Fine Dessert, discussions I'm framing as what-to-do about books like it, and, 2016 discussions of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (another book that depicts smiling slaves) The list of books that have been revised is no longer on this page. It has its own page: "Stereotypical Words and Images: Gone!" 

Eds. Note, Nov 1, 2015: 
Emily Jenkins, the author of A FINE DESSERT issued an apology this morning, posting it at the Calling Caldecott page and at Reading While White. Here are her words, from Reading While White:
This is Emily Jenkins. I like the Reading While White blog and have been reading it since inception. As the author of A Fine Dessert, I have read this discussion and the others with care and attention. I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry. For lack of a better way to make reparations, I donated the fee I earned for writing the book to We Need Diverse Books.

Eds. Note, Nov 2, 2015:
I'm seeing influential people in children's literature--from librarians to academics--decrying the discussion of A Fine Dessert as one in which people are "tearing each other apart" or "tearing this book to pieces." 

For literally hundreds of years, African American families have been torn apart. African Americans are objecting to the depiction of slavery in A Fine Dessert. 

Please have some empathy for African American parents whose lives and the lives of their children and ancestors is one that is characterized by police brutality, Jim Crow, and the brutal violence of being enslaved.

If you wish to use a picture book to teach young children about slavery, there are better choices. Among them is Don Tate's POET: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. Watch the book trailer. Buy the book. Use it.

Eds. Note, Nov. 4, 2015:
Daniél Jose Older was on a panel this weekend at the 26th Annual Fall Conference of the New York City School Library System. The conference theme was Libraries for ALL Learners, and the panel he was on "The Lens of Diversity: It is Not All in What You See." The panel included Sophie Blackall. Last night, Daniel tweeted about it and later storified the tweets. He also uploaded a video of his remarks:

At Reading While White, an African American woman wrote:
What I see as a black woman is a skilled house slave training a slave girl how to be a proper house servant for the master's family. This skill actually would make her more valuable on the market, so it is important that she learns well. The master would usually have them doing small things like picking up garbage at 3 and fully laboring by 7 years old, so you have the age right. It's likely she would have never known her mother and was being trained to be a proper house slave by a woman she didn't know.The woman would likely be strict, maybe even beating the girl herself if a mistake was made on this dessert, for she too would suffer if it were not right. The girl would know she was property by then and the "beat" you mentioned would be the pace of her heart, for fear of the punishment, if she made a mistake.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Not recommended: A FINE DESSERT by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

Some months ago, a reader asked me if I'd seen A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat written by Emily Jenkins, and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. The person who wrote to me knows of my interest in diversity and the ways that Native peoples are depicted---and omitted--in children's books. Here's the synopsis:

In this fascinating picture book, four families, in four different cities, over four centuries, make the same delicious dessert: blackberry fool. This richly detailed book ingeniously shows how food, technology, and even families have changed throughout American history. 
In 1710, a girl and her mother in Lyme, England, prepare a blackberry fool, picking wild blackberries and beating cream from their cow with a bundle of twigs. The same dessert is prepared by a slave girl and her mother in 1810 in Charleston, South Carolina; by a mother and daughter in 1910 in Boston; and finally by a boy and his father in present-day San Diego. 
Kids and parents alike will delight in discovering the differences in daily life over the course of four centuries. 
Includes a recipe for blackberry fool and notes from the author and illustrator about their research.

Published this year, A Fine Dessert arrives in the midst of national discussions of diversity. It is an excellent example of the status quo in children's literature, in which white privilege drives the creation, production, and review of children's and young adult literature.

A Fine Dessert is written and illustrated by white people.
A Fine Dessert  is published by a major publisher.

A Fine Dessert, however, isn't an "all white book."

As the synopsis indicates, the author and illustrator included people who are not white. How they did that is deeply problematic. In recent days, Jenkins and Blackall have not been able to ignore the words of those who find their book outrageous. Blackall's response on Oct 23rd is excerpted below; Jenkins responded on October 28th.


The Horn Book's "Calling Caldecott" blog launched a discussion of A Fine Dessert on September 23, 2015. Robin Smith opened the discussion with an overview of the book that includes this paragraph:
Blackall and Jenkins could have avoided the challenge of setting the 1810 scene on the plantation. They did not. They could have simply chosen a family without slaves or servants, but they did not. They clearly approached the situation thoughtfully. The enslaved daughter and mother’s humanity is secure as they work together and enjoy each other, despite their lack of freedom. In the 1810 table scene — the only time in the book when the cooks don’t eat the dessert at the dinner table — each of the African American characters depicted has a serious look on his or her face (i.e., there is no indication that anyone is enjoying their work or, by extension, their enslavement) while the children in the family attend to their parents and siblings or are distracted by a book or a kitty under the table. In its own way, the little nod to books and pets is also a nod to the privilege of the white children. They don’t have to serve. They don’t have to fan the family. They get to eat. Hidden in the closet, the African American mother and daughter have a rare relaxed moment away from the eyes of their enslavers.

Smith also wrote:
Since I have already read some online talk about the plantation section, I assume the committee will have, too. I know that we all bring our own perspectives to reading illustrations, and I trust that the committee will have a serious, open discussion about the whole book and see that the choice to include it was a deliberate one. Perhaps the committee will wish Blackall had set her second vignette in a different place, perhaps not. Will it work for the committee? I have no idea. But I do know that a large committee means there will be all sorts of readers and evaluators, with good discussions.

The "online talk" at that time was a blog post by Elisa Gall, a librarian who titled her blog post A Fine Dessert: Sweet Intentions, Sour Aftertaste. On August 4th, she wrote that:
It’s clear that the creators had noble goals, and a criticism of their work is just that—a criticism of the book (not them). But despite the best of intentions, the result is a narrative in which readers see slavery as unpleasant, but not horrendous. 
The Calling Caldecott discussed continued for some time. On October 4th,  Jennifer wrote:
Based on the illustrations, there are too many implications that should make us as adults squirm about what we might be telling children about slavery:1) That slave families were intact and allowed to stay together.2) Based on the smiling faces of the young girl…that being enslaved is fun and or pleasurable.3) That to disobey as a slave was fun (or to use the reviewers word “relaxed”) moment of whimsy rather than a dangerous act that could provoke severe and painful physical punishment.
On October 5th, Lolly Robinson wrote that:
... the text and art in the book need to be appropriate for the largest common denominator, namely that younger audience.  
Robinson's words about audience are the key to what is wrong with this book. I'll say more about that shortly.

On October 23rd, Sophie Blackall--the illustrator--joined the discussion at Calling Caldecott, saying she had decided to respond to the criticism of how she depicted slavery. She linked to her blog, where she wrote:
Reading the negative comments, I wonder whether the only way to avoid offense would have been to leave slavery out altogether, but sharing this book in school visits has been an extraordinary experience and the positive responses from teachers and librarians and parents have been overwhelming. I learn from every book I make, and from discussions like these. I hope A Fine Dessert continues to engage readers and encourage rewarding, thought provoking discussions between children and their grown ups.
In that comment, Blackall talks about school visits and positive responses from teachers, and librarians, and parents. My guess? Those are schools with primarily white students, white teachers, white librarians, and white parents. I bring that up because, while Blackall doesn't say so, my hunch is she's getting that response, in person, from white people. That positive response parallels what I see online. It is white women that are praising this book. In some instances, there's a nod to the concerns about the depiction of slavery, but the overwhelming love they express is centered on the dessert that is made by four families, in four centuries.

Praise is not the response from Black women and mothers.

On October 25 at 12:37, fangirlJeanne's, who identifies as a Polynesian woman of color, sent a tweet that got right to the heart of the matter. She wrote that "Authors who assume a young reader doesn't know about slavery or racism in America is writing for a white reader." In a series of tweets, she wrote about the life of children of color. With those tweets, she demonstrated that the notion of "age appropriate" content is specific to white children, who aren't amongst the demographics that experienced--and experience--bullying and bigoted attacks.

At 1:00, she shared an image of the four pages in the book that Sophie Blackall has in her blog post, saying that these illustrations make her sick and sad:

The conversation about the book grew larger. Some people went to Blackall's post and submitted comments that she subsequently deleted. The explanation for why she deleted them rang hollow. And then sometime in the last 24 hours, she added this to the original blog post:
This blog has been edited to add the following:
It seems that very few people commenting on the issue of slavery in A Fine Dessert have read the actual book. The section which takes place in 1810 is part of a whole, which explores the history of women in the kitchen and the development of food technology amongst other things. A Fine Dessert culminates in 2010 with the scene of a joyous, diverse, inclusive community feast. I urge you to read the whole book. Thank you.
Clearly, Blackall is taking solace in Betsy Bird's You Have to Read the Book. Aligning herself with that post is a mistake made in haste, or--if she read and thought about the thread--a decision to ignore the voices of people of color who are objecting to her depiction of slavery.

My hope is that the people on the Caldecott committee are reading the conversations about the book and that they will subsequently choose not to name A Fine Dessert as deserving of Caldecott recognition.

The book is going to do well, regardless of the committee decision. Yesterday, the New York Times named it as one of the best illustrated books of 2015. That, too, speaks to a whiteness that must be examined.

In this post, I've focused on the depictions of slavery. I've not said anything about Native people and our absence from Jenkins and Blackall's historical narrative. Honestly, given what they did with slavery, I'm glad of that omission. I'm reminded of Taylor, a fifth grader who was learning to think critically about Thanksgiving. She wrote "Do you mean all those Thanksgiving worksheets we had to color every year with all those smiling Indians were wrong?"  The American settings for A Fine Dessert, of course, are all on land that belonged to Native peoples who were forcibly removed and killed to make way for Americans to raise their families, to pursue their American dreams.

I imagine, as I point to that omission, that people will argue that it isn't fair to judge a book for what it leaves out, for what it didn't intend to do. That "not fair" response, however, is the problem. It tells people who object to being left out or misrepresented, to go away. This book is "not for you."

This particular book is symbolic of all that is wrong with children's literature right now. A Fine Dessert provides children with a glossy view of this country and its history that is, in short, a lie about that history.  We should hold those who create literature for children to a standard that doesn't lie to them.

What can we do about that lie? Use it, as Elisa Gall suggested in her blog post, when she wrote:

The only time I’d imagine selecting this book for classroom use would be to evaluate it collaboratively using an anti-bias lens (like the guide by Louise Derman-Sparks found here).

Update: November 2, 2015

As I see blog posts and media coverage of this book, I'll add them here. If you know of others, let me know (update on Nov 14, I added additional links and sorted them into distinct categories). I'm adding them by the dates on which they went online, rather than the dates when I read them myself.

This set of blog posts and news articles are primarily about the book and controversy. A Fine Dessert is not unique. For hundreds of years, those who are misrepresented in children's or young adult literature have been objecting to those misrepresentations.

This set of links are primarily on what-to-do about the controversy over A Fine Dessert and, broadly speaking, diversity in children's/young adult literature. A lot of them echo previous writings. For decades, people have been writing about how writers and illustrators and editors can inform themselves so they don't stereotype or misrepresent those who are not like themselves, and people have been writing about what we, as readers (parents, teachers, and librarians) can do to encourage publishers to publish books that do not misrepresent our distinct cultures. 

This set of links is to items about a 2016 picture book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which also depicts enslaved people, smiling.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Debbie Reese at Chicago Public LIbrary, Edgewater Branch, November 7, 2015

I am pleased to be the keynote speaker at the Chicago Public Library, Edgewater Branch, on November 7, 2015, as the library system there kicks off its programming for Native American Heritage Month.

Della Nohl took that photo of me a few years ago when we were both at a Culture Keepers gathering. Do hit that link and see what Culture Keepers is all about. You'll learn a lot about working with Native people and you'll come to know people like Omar Poler of the Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe of Wisconsin, who was named as one of Library Journal's Movers and Shakers in 2014. And, check out Della Nohl's page. Right now (October 28, 2015) the photo at the top of her page is of the Indian Agency House in Portage, Wisconsin.

Knowing about Culture Keepers and knowing about Della Nohl's work is part of my world. Earlier today, I submitted a comment to Betsy Bird's blog post at School Library Journal. There, she is making the argument that people have to read a book in its entirety to say anything meaningful about the book. I disagree.

I don't, for example, need to read every page of Meg Rosoff's Picture Me Gone to say I don't recommend it. My reason? I got to the page where her main character is in a coffee shop with unusual decor. As her character looks around, she describes what she sees, including:
A painting in a big gold frame of an Indian squaw kneeling by a fire needs dusting.
Rosoff's Picture Me Gone is not about Native people. It is, however, a best selling book, and part of what I do is read some of those bestsellers so that I stay abreast of the happenings, so to speak, in children's and young adult literature.

Rosoff used "Indian squaw" -- a term most people view as offensive. Did Rosoff know it is offensive? Did Rosoff's editor know it is offensive? My guess is no. I speculate that they don't know because they don't step over into the world that I am in.

So many Native children don't do well in school. Might they do better if the textbooks they read were ones that honestly presented their nations, past and present? Might they do better if they didn't come across terms like "squaw" as a matter of course, in the literature they read?

As I write this blog post and think about what I'll say in Chicago, I'm thinking about Rosoff's book, and I'm thinking about troubling books that are being discussed as possible winners of prestigious children's literature awards: Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl and Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall's A Fine Dessert troubling. And Rae Carson's Walk On Earth a Stranger has, perhaps, some of the most damaging content that I've seen in a very long time. It was on the long list for the National Book Award.

I do--of course--know of some terrific books that accurately and beautiful present Native peoples, and I will share those, too, on November 7th. I shared some--for teen readers--in a column that went live a few hours ago at School Library Journal. And I shared even more, there, two years ago. Here's the graphics SLJ's team put together, using the book covers for the books I recommended in that column:

My guess is that people who come to my talk on the 7th will be people who care about Native peoples, our histories, our cultures, and our lives. They will likely want me to talk about good books. It isn't enough, however, to know about books that accurately portray who we are; people have to know the others, too, because in the publishing world, they take up a lot of space.

Please put this day of events on your calendar! Bring your friends! Step into my world, and help me bring others into it, too, so that the status quo changes... So that best selling writers and books deemed worthy of awards are not ones that denigrate Native people.

Below is the press release Chicago Public Library is sending out.


October 20, 2015

Chicago Public Library is "Celebrating Diversity," with its annual observance ofNative American Heritage Month. Throughout November, the Library offers a variety of programs highlighting the history, culture, traditions, and contributions Native Americans have made to Chicago, the state of Illinois, and to the U.S.  In addition, a selected bibliography and the Library’s 2015 Native American Heritage Month Calendar of Events are available at

The opening program for Native American Heritage Month takes place on Saturday, November 7, at 11:00 a.m., at the Edgewater Branch, 6000 N. Broadway St.  Debbie Reese, author, lecturer, and blogger will be the keynote speaker. Ms. Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo and has a PhD in Education from the University of Illinois and an MLIS from San Jose State University. Her research articles and book chapters on American Indians in Children’s Literature are used in Education, Library Science, English, and Creative Writing courses in the U.S. and Canada. Andrea Perkins and the Chi-Nations Youth Council will provide drum performances. A film screening of, From Old to Modern, which focuses modern activism will also be presented by the Chi-Nations Youth Council.

During Native American Heritage Month, the Library will present interesting, entertaining and informative programs for all ages, including storytelling and crafts for children, lectures, film screenings, art exhibitions and workshops, and adult book discussions.

Here are some highlights from the 2015 Native American Heritage Month Celebration:

  • Archery for Beginners
Al Eastman, a certified archery coach with the Olympic Committee’s USA Archery program will teach the ten-step form of safety techniques for a hands-on archery demonstration with Olympic-style recurve bows. Eastman started the archery program at the American Indian Center in 2010 to help youth learn about math, science and history through archery.

  • Ehdrigohr: A Role-Playing Experience
Allen Turner, creator of Ehdrigohr—a table top role-playing game—will present this fun and challenging game that incorporates Naïve American themes. Turner has been involved in storytelling, games, play design, and education for most of his adult life. His work includes coordinating youth and adult programs focusing on literacy, storytelling, role-playing, and team dynamics for developing inference and problem-solving skills.

  • Create a Dreamcatcher
Artist and musician Dan Pierce will explore the meanings Dreamcatcher components and instruct participants in how to use materials to craft Dreamcatchers that they can take home. Pierce has taught music and art in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years.

  • Film Screenings
The Library presents five selected feature films spotlighting Native American culture including:
·         The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie
·         Up Heartbreak Hill by Erica Scharf
·         Sun Kissed by Maya Stark and Adi Lavy
·         In the Light of Reverence by Christopher McLeod and Malinda Maynor
·         Stand Silent Nation by Suree Towfighnia and Courtney Hermann

For more information about the film series, or for the complete listing of Native American Heritage Month events, dates and locations, please visit

Throughout every calendar year, Chicago Public Library “Celebrates Diversity” and its importance to a sustainable society, during all of its ethnic heritage and diversity month celebrations including: African-American History Month, Women’s History Month, Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, LGBT Pride Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Polish American heritage Month and Native American Heritage Month.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Notes: Native imagery in books that have won the Newbery Medal

Today, a colleague asked me if I knew of an article that looked at Native imagery in the Newbery Medal winners. I don't know of such an article and thought I'd just start making notes here. No analysis, yet. I'm using Google Books, Amazon's "look inside" feature, Project Gutenburg... whatever I can to compile these excerpts. The first medal was awarded in 1922. The first one that is about Native people of North America is Waterless Mountain, published in 1932.

1922: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon:

They had tried to use the Indians as labourers in the fields and in the mines, but the Indians, when taken away from a life in the open, had lain down and died and to save them from extinction a kind-hearted priest had suggested that negroes be brought from Africa to do the work.

1923: The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle by Hugh Lofting:

"He is a mysterious person," said the Doctor--"a very mysterious person. His name is Long Arrow, the son of Golden Arrow. He is a Red Indian."
"Have you ever seen him?" I asked.
"No," said the Doctor, "I've never seen him. No white man has ever met him. I fancy Mr. Darwin doesn't even know that he exists. He lives almost entirely with the animals and with the different tribes of Indians--usually somewhere among the mountains of Peru. Never stays long in one place. Goes from tribe to tribe, like a sort of Indian tramp."

1924: The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes, p. 188:

Miles Philips was his name and the manner of his suffering at the hands of the Indians and the Spaniards may serve as a warning. For they flung him into prison where he was like to have starved; and they tortured him in the Inquisition where he was like to have perished miserably; and many of his companions they beat and killed or sent to the galleys; and himself and certain others they sold for slaves.

1925: Tales from Silver Lands, by Charles J. Finger
Note: It is a collection of 19 folktales of the native peoples of Central and South America. Can't see anything on line.

1926: Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1927: Smokey, the Cowhorse by Will James

All the stars was out and showing off, and the braves was a chasing the buffalo plum around the Big Dipper, the water hole of The Happy Hunting Grounds.

1928: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1930: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field, page 28:

They were sure the Indians had carried me away and I think this made Phoebe even more distressed about my loss.

1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1932: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer

Uncle told Father to ride to the trading post for help. At the post the Big Man was very busy trying to do something for everyone. A party of tourists was asking questions about every little thing. One wanted to know if the Indians still scalped people.
"I have never seen it done," said the Big Man as he went on addressing envelopes on his typewriter.
Note: the Big Man is a white trader. The Navajo father wants him to heal his son, who is sick, and calling out for the white trader.

1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

1934: Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women, by Cornelia Miggs
Note: Nothing that I can see online.

That's it for now... More later.

URBAN TRIBES: NATIVE AMERICANS IN THE CITY, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale

Did you read Dreaming in Indian, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale? It came out last year to much acclaim, and last week, it received an award from Wordcraft Circle. Awards from ones own community are especially valuable. They signal to a reader that people who know a people, from the inside, find the book to be amongst the very best available.

Charyleyboy and Leatherdale's new book, Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City, also published by Annick Press, was released in August of this year.

Isn't that cover exquisite? Inside you'll find art, and stories, and poems written by Native people. There's joy, for example, in the photographs of actor Tatanka Means. You may have seen him in Tiger Eyes, the film adaptation of Judy Blume's story. Photographs of him in Urban Tribes include one of his dad, Russell Means, braiding his hair, and several of him holding a mic.

Talong Long, an 8th grader in Phoenix, who is Sicangu Lakota, Diné, writes about how hard it is "to convince people--adults especially" what his life is like. He writes:
There are also a lot of other people here who aren't Native and don't know about Natives. They say things like 'You live in the city? I thought you lived on a reservation. You have a house? I thought you lived in a teepee.'
I find his words striking as I read them this week in light of ongoing arguments made by adults who think kids can spot stereotyping and bias. Long also writes about the Native community in Phoenix that sustains him. Fifteen year old Maggie, and 17 year old Michaela are Cree/Dene. Their thoughts on going back and forth from Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan to Beauval, on the English River First Nation, are spread over six delightful, gorgeous pages.

Urban Tribes includes Dear Native College Student, You Are Loved, an essay by Dr. Adrienne Keene that circulates widely in Native networks online and a two-page spread of the Faceless Doll Project created by students at the Eric Hamber Secondary School in Vancouver, through which students use collage to call attention to the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

And, it includes a two-page spread full of information about Native peoples in the US and Canada.

As with Dreaming in Indian, I find myself studying it, pausing, and thinking about the young Native people who will study it, too, finding possible selves in the pages of Urban Natives. I highly recommend it.



Sunday, October 25, 2015

The "anyone can write" argument in Laura Amy Schlitz's THE HIRED GIRL

As most people in children's literature know, Laura Amy Schlitz's book, The Hired Girl, has been the focus of a great deal of discussion over the last two weeks. That discussion is primarily centered on her use of "civilized" to describe Indians, and, her depictions of Jews. The point of view in The Hired Girl is a 14 year old girl who is Roman Catholic. Her name is Joan.

Today, I am taking a look at a passage in The Hired Girl that has bearing on heated discussions of late about diversity and "who can write." Meg Rosoff's comments on Edith Campbell's Facebook page and Michael Grant's post are two recent examples of the discussions, and I think Schlitz, through her character, is chiming in, too, in the later part of her book.

David, a Jewish character in The Hired Girl, has his heart set on being a portrait painter. He doesn't want to take up a position in his father's department store. He wants to study painting in Paris. He is working on a painting of Joan of Arc, for a French woman named Madame Marechaux. A devout Catholic, Madame Marechaux wants to see Joan of Arc made into a saint and wants to hang a large painting of her at the top of her stairs in her house on Fifth Avenue in New York City. If his painting is chosen, David thinks it will help him in his dream of being a painter. He asks Joan to sit for him because he thinks her physique and her face, are like that of Joan of Arc.

Well, Madame Marechaux does not choose his painting. She chose the painting done by a French painter named LeClerq. David tells Joan (Kindle Locations 4253-4259):
“The wretched woman chose LeClerq! LeClerq, can you imagine? Of course you don’t know LeClerq, but he’s an idiot! He can’t draw, his perspective’s faulty; he couldn’t foreshorten if his life depended on it. All he does is slather on a lot of greasy impasto with a palette knife — it’s sickening; the man’s a fake, but he’s French, which makes him a god to Madame Marechaux, and he’s not a Jew —” 
“The way he carries on about religion, you’d think he was Beato Angelico. Oily little highlights everywhere; it’s enough to make you sick. Madame Marechaux said his sketches were imbued with the deepest piety. Can you imagine saying that — imbued with the deepest piety? Did you ever hear anything so pretentious in your life?”
In the first paragraph, note how LeClerq's abilities are denigrated. In the second one, his speech about his religion (Roman Catholic) is also denigrated--especially in how it informs his art. David continues (Kindle Locations 4265-4268):
She says that I’m bound to be at a disadvantage with Joan of Arc because I’m not a Roman Catholic. What does she know about it? When I’m painting, my religion is painting! I could paint Mahomet flying into the sky on a peacock, or a jackass, or whatever the hell it was. I could feel it, I swear I’d feel it, I’d be imbued with the deepest piety —”
*Two things come to mind. Muslims do not depict Muhammed. People depict him anyway, and use free speech as a defense of their decisions to depict him. What is being communicated to readers through David's words?

Is Schlitz--through her characters--pushing against the growing call for diversity of authors? I think so, and, I think it is an overt move on the part of Schlitz, her editor, and her publishing house.

What do you think?


*Update, October 25, 11:30 AM

In her Author's Note, Schlitz addressed her use of Mahomet:
In The Hired Girl, I have tried to be historically accurate about language. This has led me to use terms that are considered pejorative today, such as Hebrew, Mahomet, and Mahometans. 
I used Mahomet and Mahometan for two reasons. The word Muslim, which is now preferred, was not in use until much later in the twentieth century. And, as a reader of Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe, and The Picturesque World, Joan would have encountered the words Mahomet andMahometan. These are the words that were used at that time. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Native Perspective of Laura Amy Schlitz's THE HIRED GIRL

Eds. note on Oct 25, 2015: Scroll down to see links to discussions of The Hired Girl that are taking place at School Library Journal, Book Riot, Reading While White, and on independent blogs.

Eds. note on Jan 12, 2016: I appended Sarah Hamburg's research on the history of Baltimore during the time period of The Hired Girl.  

On October 2, 2015, I posted a short note about one passage in Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl. Schlitz's book is one of the books the Heavy Medal blog is discussing. That blog, for those who don't know, is at the School Library Journal website, and is where Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt host discussions of books that may be in contention for the prestigious Newbery Medal. Books that win that award are purchased by school and public libraries across the country. Because books that win the Newbery carry such prestige, teachers assign them to students.

When he introduced the book on October 15, Jonathan Hunt linked to American Indians in Children's Literature and summarized my comments about The Hired Girl. 

I appreciate that Jonathan Hunt brought my concerns to readers of Heavy Medal, but he also dismissed them as minor and said that The Hired Girl is among his top three books for this year. I've been active in the discussion and have read and re-read the book as I participate. The discussion has has spread over three distinct pages at School Library Journal, and over at Book Riot, too. The Jewish aspects of the book figure prominently in those discussions.

With this blog post, I'm bringing my thoughts into a single place for anyone interested in focusing on a Native perspective on The Hired Girl. Just below this paragraph is my "For the TL/DR crowd" which means 'too long/didn't read, but here's the key points.' Beneath it is my in-depth look at the book.


The Hired Girl
from a Native Perspective
For the TL/DR crowd

Mascots and Halloween costumes are evidence that 
 adults, much less children, do not have the 
background information needed to see Joan's 
thinking is wrongheadded when she talks about 
"civilized" Indians or when she invites Oskar to play Indian.

Discussing pejorative terms used in the Author's Note, 
but not including "natives" in that discussion 
suggests Schlitz herself may not understand that her 
depictions of Native people in the book is, itself, wrongheadded.

Praising The Hired Girl and ignoring concerns over
Native content is another, in a too-long line of, instances in 
which gatekeepers throw Native people under the bus. 


The Hired Girl
from a Native Perspective
An In-Depth Look

Set in 1911, The Hired Girl is about Joan, a 14 year old Catholic girl who runs away from her father's farm in eastern Pennsylvania. Her mother died a few years prior and Joan's life with her dad and older brothers is, to say the least, devoid of joy. The only source of joy is the teacher who gives her books. Near the end of the first part of the book, the teacher visits Joan. She gives her a bouquet of flowers wrapped in newspaper. Joan takes them in the house and returns outside. The teacher tries to give her some more books but Joan's dad comes upon them and sends the teacher and the books packing.

Back inside the house, Joan reads the newspaper that the flowers were wrapped in.

She reads an article about the Amalgamated Railroad Employees (railroad workers) being on strike and thinks maybe she ought to go on strike, too, so that her dad will give her some money for the work she does. In that same paper, she reads ads looking for "white girl to cook" and "first-class white girl for cooking and housework" and wishes she could be a hired girl. Her efforts to strike fail, her dad burns her books, and she runs away to Baltimore with the idea that she'll find work as a hired girl.

When she gets to Baltimore, the day ends with a near-rape. Joan escapes that, and ends up crying and praying on a park bench. In the midst of her prayer, a man offers to help her. That man is Solomon Rosenbach. His demeanor makes him more trustworthy than the man who tried to rape her. She tells him her story and that she's looking for work. The near-rape makes her wary, but Soloman has a plan that she's ok with, so she follows him to his home. He goes inside and tells his mother about her; Joan waits outside. Mrs. Rosenbach appears, asks her a few questions, and decides Joan--who is now going by Janet--can stay with them a few days if Malka, their Jewish housekeeper, doesn't mind. Feeling safe in their home, Joan decides she'd like to work for the Rosenbach's. She tells Mrs. Rosenbach that "you'll find me very willing" to help out. Here's that part of the story (Kindle Locations 1203-1219):
“Willing to work in a Jewish household?” she said, and when I didn’t answer right away, she added, “You, I think, are not Jewish.” 
“No, ma’am,” I said. I was as taken aback as if she’d asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me — I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then — as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there still are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any. 
Joan is taken aback at the idea that she might be thought of as Jewish, or, Indian because she thought the Jews are like Indians: people from long ago. Joan knows there are Indians now (remember, the story takes place in 1911) and that they are "civilized" and "wear ordinary clothes."

What does Joan think civilized means? Does it mean wearing ordinary clothes like the ones she wears? Does she think wearing those clothes make those Indians civilized?

In the paragraphs immediately following that passage, we learn from Joan that the information she has about Jews is from Ivanhoe, but we aren't told where Joan got her information about Indians.

Let's see, though, what we might find out if we dig into books for children published during Joan's childhood, which would be 1897 (the year she was born) to the year she ran away, 1911. Maybe she read Wigwam Stories Told by North American Indians, by Mary Catherine Judd, published in 1901 by Ginn & Company in Boston. Wigwam Stories is recommended in a lot of publications of that time. It was recommended, for example, in 1902 in the Journal of Education published by Oxford University Press, in 1906 in Public Libraries: A Monthly Review of Library Matters and Methods, published by the Library Bureau, in 1910 in The Model School Library, published by the California Teachers Association, in 1915 in Books for Boys and Girls: A Selected List, published by the American Library Association, and in 1922 in Graded List of Books for Children, published by the National Education Association.

The preface for Wigwam Stories ends with this note from the author:

See that last sentence in the preface? It says "Careful investigations undertaken by the largest of nonreservation schools, at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, prove that 94 per cent of the 4000 students recorded there have never "returned to the blanket," but have become modern home makers."

Maybe Wigwam Stories is the source of Joan's information. Maybe she read it and asked her teacher for more information, and her teacher told her about Carlisle Indian Industrial School. That teacher is sympathetic to the conditions miners work in, so maybe she's also aware of the goings-on at Carlisle. Maybe she's even seen the before and after photographs taken of students--photographs meant to persuade people that the school was changing the children so that they would not, as the note says, "return to the blanket." Here's one of those photos:

Is that what Joan has in mind? Jonathan (at Heavy Medal) is arguing that when Joan thinks "they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes," she is telling us that other people think in stereotypical ways, but she does not. He would have us think that she's more knowledgeable than other people of that time, but later, she invites Oskar to play Indian. At that part of the book, Joan and Malka are taking care of Mrs. Rosenbach's grandchildren. One is a little boy named Oskar. Malka wants him to nap, but he doesn't want to (Kindle Locations 3888-3900):
Malka looked at me with desperation in her eyes, and I rose to the occasion. I remembered how Luke and I used to play on the days when Ma aired her quilts. “I’ll take Oskar up to my room. We’ll make a blanket tent and play Indians. He’ll like that, won’t you, Oskar?” 
Oskar looked intrigued, so I led him upstairs. I rigged a tent by draping the bedclothes over the foot of my bed and the top of the dresser. We crawled inside the tent, and I told Oskar there was a blizzard outside (we made blizzard noises) with wild wolves howling (we howled). Then I was inspired to say that we were starving to death inside our tent, and that we would die if no Indian was brave enough to go out and hunt buffalo. Oskar took the bait. “I’ll go,” he said, and squared his shoulders. “I’ll go kill the buffalo.” 
“I’ll make you a horse,” I offered. To tell the truth, I was starting to enjoy myself. I tore strips from my old sage-green dress to make a bridle, and I tied them to the back of a chair. Oskar rode up and down the prairie, rocking the chair back and forth and flapping the reins. 
Then he demanded a buffalo. I produced my cardboard suitcase, which he beat to death with his bare hands. He dragged the slain buffalo back to the tent, and we pretended to gnaw on buffalo meat. “You’re good at playing,” Oskar said earnestly. 
I felt terribly pleased. But of course, one buffalo was not enough; he had to hunt another one. Then we killed a few wolves. After the last wolf was dead, he collapsed in the tent beside me.
With that passage, we get more insight into what Joan knows about Indians. If Jonathan is correct, doesn't it seem that she would not teach that stereotypical play to Oskar? Jonathan and others who are defending this book insist that Joan's mistaken ideas are corrected along the way. Where is the correction to playing Indian? I don't see it. 

Near the end of the book, Joan and David (another of Mrs. Rosenbach's sons) kiss and she falls in love with him. He is not in love with her.  She thinks about him all the time and at this part, wonders how people can stand to be apart (Kindle Locations 4099-4101):  
I think about the conquistadors and how they left off kissing their wives and went sailing across the ocean to conquer a lot of innocent natives who would probably have preferred to stay in their hammocks and kiss their wives.
There's a lot to say about that sentence, but I want to focus on "natives." Look it up in your favorite dictionary. You'll see it is considered dated and offensive. The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary gives an example "Raleigh wanted the cooperation of the natives and treated the Indians with respect." Now--I believe that Joan would use that word. The problem is that it is not addressed in the story, and it is not addressed in the Author's Note either. In it, Laura Amy Schlitz's wrote: (Kindle Locations 4992-4999):
In The Hired Girl, I have tried to be historically accurate about language. This has led me to use terms that are considered pejorative today, such as Hebrew, Mahomet, and Mahometans. 
I used Mahomet and Mahometan for two reasons. The word Muslim, which is now preferred, was not in use until much later in the twentieth century. And, as a reader of Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe, and The Picturesque World, Joan would have encountered the words Mahomet and Mahometan. These are the words that were used at that time. 
Similarly, many Jewish people today find the term Hebrew offensive, but the fact that many Jewish organizations in Baltimore used it (the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, the Hebrew Literary Society, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, etc.) suggests that at the turn of the century, the word Hebrew was used with pride.
Why didn't she address her use of "natives" in the note? 

Those who praise The Hired Girl are saying that it is clear to readers that Joan is naive and has mistaken ideas about a lot of things. They think we should trust the child reader to know that Joan is naive. 

People who say that we should trust the child reader must not interact much, if at all, with Native people. Do they not know that Native people across the country are sharing blog posts, videos, and posters, asking that people not dress up like Indians for Halloween? Do they not know that Native people are showing up, week after week, to protest the use of Native imagery for mascots, from elementary schools to professional athletic teams? Do they not know that Native parents are at schools again and again to ask teachers not to use books that dehumanize us, or to ask that schools not do things like the Land Run and Thanksgiving Dinners? 

Who is planning all those insensitive activities? Adults. Adults who ought to be able to read such activities critically. They can't. Or won't. Either way, the outcome is the same. And those who praise The Hired Girl think children are capable of reading critically when, all around us, there is evidence that adults can not, or will not read critically about things that are, on their face, problematic? 

Predictably, another defense of The Hired Girl is that the main character is Roman Catholic. "Not enough books about Roman Catholics!" they say. "We cannot let those problematic Indian parts knock this book out of contention for the Newbery!" Come January, we'll know what the Newbery Committee decides. Will The Hired Girl be yet another book in a long list of books that does something so well that the committee decides it has to overlook the problematic Native content? I hope not. 


Blogs discussing The Hired Girl are listed here. I encourage you to read through them, too. In particular, study contributions by Sarah Hamburg. Most Jewish people who are discussing the book are fine with depictions of Jews. Sarah presents a different view that aligns in interesting ways with my view of specific parts of Schlitz's story. I find the parts of the story, for example, where Joan thinks God wants her to convert the Rosenbach's to be troubling because Catholics sought to do that with Native peoples, too. A few weeks ago, the Pope was in the U.S. to canonize a priest who established and oversaw brutal missions and mission work in California. (If you see other blog posts, let me know and I'll add them.)


Update, January 12, 2016
Last week, I added Sarah Hamburg's tweets to a comment I made in the comments section of this post. Today, I'm bringing them up into the body of the post, because Sarah's historical research on Baltimore at that time is significant and I want her research to have more visibility. (Note: all the tweets are hers, but I included her name on the first one.)

Sarah Hamburg ‏@sarahrhamburg 8 Nov 2015
The Hired Girl is set in that year, and follows Joan, a Catholic girl who escapes her farm & is hired by a wealthy Baltimore Jewish family.

In the book, there are no references at all to Black Americans, aside from a newspaper article & people working as porters on the train.

And though the book focuses on religious difference, the only overt act of antisemitism = when a Jewish man is passed over for a commission.

Prejudice in the book is primarily that of individual beliefs & sentiments, which change-- and reconcile-- as people get to know each other.

But researching Baltimore in that year, this is what I found: (this book has an entire chapter devoted to 1910.)

In 1910, Baltimore passed a sweeping Jim Crow housing law.

The law came as a response to George Mechen, an African-American lawyer, moving into a white neighborhood in Baltimore in the summer of 1910.

His residence, at 1834 McCulloh St., would have been half a mile from the house where Joan lives and works in the Hired Girl.

Eutaw Place, where her employers the Rosenbachs live, would have been one of a few neighborhoods in the city where Jews could buy housing.

At a meeting in July, 1910, White residents signed a petition, and expressed fear that Black people would move to Eutaw Place as well.

Milton Dashiell then drafted a bill that would prevent Black people from moving into majority White neighborhoods, and vice versa.

Dashiell cited fear of a "Negro invasion" of Eutaw Place.

In December of 1910, City Solicitor Edgar Allan Poe wrote in favor of the segregation ordinance:

Mayor J. Barry Mahool, a prominent Progressive interested in women's suffrage and social justice, signed that first law a few days later.

This article and book describe what came next.

None of this is in The Hired Girl. Which is set in Eutaw Place, Baltimore in 1911.

I have been thinking a lot, especially this week, about how children's books present history. What is included, and how. And what's left out.

About stories of historical bigotry that focus on personal attitudes-- and their reconciliation through personal relationships.

What does this literature tell children about the past, and in consequence, about our present?

Diversity in children's literature isn't only about numbers. It is about who controls the story of our past and future.

Just wanted to add a link to this article here (with thanks to @debreese for sharing it):

HUNGRY JOHNNY is Amongst the 2015 Winners at Wordcraft Circle

Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers was founded in 1992. Yesterday, they announced the 2015 Wordcraft Circle Honors and Awards.

Among them are ones I've written about here on American Indians in Children's Literature, and ones for which reviews are still in process. Do look at the complete list for items to add to the adult shelves of your library.

I hope that librarians across the U.S. get copies of the award winning books. These books celebrate Native life and lifeways, showing the realities of who we are, but infusing those realities with love and the perseverance that characterizes us as a people.

Congratulations to the winners and their loved ones!

There are two winners in the picture book category. I'm not part of the deliberations but can imagine them reading the two books and thinking both were so strong that they couldn't select just one!

Hungry Johnny, written by Cheryl Minnema, illustrated by Wesley Ballinger, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Sweetest Kulu, written by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis, published by Inhabit Media.

In the middle grades category is Tim Tingle's No Name, published by 7th Generation.

In the Graphic Novel category is Richard Van Camp's Three Feathers, illustrated by Krystal Mateus.

In the Trade Paperback category: Volume 2 of Arigon Starr's Super Indian, published by Wacky Productions Unlimited.

In the Comic Book category: We Speak in Secret by Roy Boney Jr., published by INC Comics.

In the Editor's Category: Lisa Charleyboy, for Dreaming in Indian, published by Annick Press.

The Pathfinder Award is a new category, given to the writer who is "pushing the boundaries of Indigenous literature." Erika Wurth received that award for Crazy Horse's Girlfriend, published by

Repeating what I said earlier... Librarians and teachers! Get these books. Native kids you work with will find their lives affirmed. Non-Native kids you work with will have that much talked about window into Native life.