Wednesday, January 06, 2016

"What will they say..." Or, Master Narratives of Smiling Slaves and Smiling Indians

Eds. Note: Please scroll to the bottom of this post to see links to discussions of A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The links are in two sets. The first is to items upon the release of the book. The second set is to items following Scholastic's decision to withdraw the book. 

Back in November or December, I started to hear that people in children's literature were wondering what we (by we, I mean people who objected to the treatment of slavery in A Fine Dessert) would say about the smiling slaves in a book due out this year. That book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, is out now.

It felt, then and now, too, like the people who think A Fine Dessert is ok were waiting to pounce on us. The line of reasoning is this: if the smiling slaves in A Fine Dessert were not ok, then, the smiling slaves in A Birthday Cake for George can't be ok, either. It seemed--and seems--that a test is being put forth. If we don't slam A Birthday Cake, then, our critiques of A Fine Dessert can be ignored.

That situation is disgusting.

A predominantly white institution filled with predominantly white people with hundreds of years of power to determine what gets published is waiting to pounce on people of color if they don't pounce on other people of color.

I ordered A Birthday Cake for George today. I'll study it. I may--or I may not--write about it.

What I want to focus on right now is power and the investment in that white narrative of the US and its history.

Smiling slaves in picture books that, in some way, depict slavery are a parallel to the smiling Indians in picture books set in colonial periods. Those smiles sell. They tell kids things weren't all that bad for those who lived in slavery or those whose communities were being attacked and decimated by those who wanted their land--in many instances--so they could turn those lands into plantations of... smiling slaves.

People in the US are so determined to ignore the ugly history of the US that they churn out narratives that give kids a rosy picture of US history.

Some of you may recall a post here a few years ago, written by a 5th grade girl named Taylor: "Do you mean all those Thanksgiving worksheets we had to color every year with all those smiling Indians were wrong?"

I took a quick look this morning. It was easy to find smiling Indians in picture books for young children. Here's covers of two recent books:

That expectation that we have to throw the team that did A Cake for George Washington under the bus is (saying again) disgusting. Do Native and POC mess up? Yes, we do. We're human beings. Do we want Native and POC who create children's books to do right by our histories? Of course.

The fact is, we're peoples who've been through hell, and survived. Persisted. Indeed, we've thrived in spite of all that got--and gets--thrown our way time and time again.

In whatever ways we choose to write or speak about A Cake for George Washington, I think we'll be doing so from a space of care for each other, because publishing (and Hollywood, too) aren't all that welcoming of the things we want to give to children. Native and POC are, collectively, at a disadvantage. We face difficult decisions at every turn. Native actors need exposure so they can build profiles that give them power to impact what they do the next time, and what those behind them can do, too. Native writers and POC are in that same position. The stakes are high--no matter what one decides to do. Those stakes aren't necessarily the same for white actors, writers, and illustrators.

One of the most important children's books I've read is Simon Ortiz's The People Shall Continue. It is about working together so that we all continue, as people who care about each other. With that in mind, I think the ways that we respond and write about A Cake for George Washington may disappoint those who are waiting for our responses.

Note (Jan 9, 2016): I've been compiling links to discussions of A Fine Dessert and now, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, here:

Or, you can go directly to them as listed here:

In an unprecedented move, Scholastic released a statement that they are withdrawing the book from distribution. The statement was released on Sunday, January 17. Here's the first paragraph of the statement:

Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.
Below are links to items specific to their decision. I am placing Ebony Elizabeth Thomas's Storify in a larger font because I believe it is the single most important response to #SlaveryWithASmile. Today (Jan 22) I am inserting Freeman Ng's page-by-page synopsis at the top of the set of links for those who wish to begin their reading with more information about the contents of the book.

Page-by-page synopsis with screen captures, of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Freeman Ng.


The book is no longer available at Amazon. See the last line in this screen capture, taken at 3:12 PM on January 18, 2016.

Around 4:00 PM on January 19, 2016, the price of the book on Amazon got a bit inflated. It went away pretty quickly. I doubt it sold. Someone at Amazon must have... removed the private seller's account.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016


Today's post is one that walks you (readers of AICL) through my evaluation process (what I do) when I pick up a book that is put forth as a Native "legend."

The focus of today's post? The Legend of the Beaver's Tail "as told by" Stephanie Shaw, with illustrations by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. It was published in 2015 by Sleeping Bear Press. As the note above the cover indicates, I do not recommend it.

First comment
See the word "legend" in the title?  The word "legend" is often used to describe Native stories. It is one of those catch-all words that should be used in a universal way (applied to all peoples stories) but isn't.

Let's pause here. I'd like you to think about all the Bible legends you've read in the children's picture book format. Can't think of one? You're not alone. Most of the stories from the bible are not treated as "legends."

If you look up the definition of legend, you'll find the word is used to describe an old story. You're not likely to find "sacred" as part of that definition. Bible stories are old, but they don't get categorized as legends because they're sacred to the people who tell them.

Native stories are as sacred to Native people as Christian stories are to Christians. I view the selective use of "legend" as the outcome of a long history of Christians putting Native people forward as "other" to Christianity, with Christianity as THE religion that matters. Those "other" religions aren't religions at all in that Christian point of view. Instead, they're less-than, primitive, superstitious, quaint...  You get the point.

So--when I see "legend" used to describe a Native story, I wonder if the person telling that story (or retelling it) is aware of the bias that drives that person to use the word "legend."

Second comment
Who is this "legend" supposed to be about? Who tells it? The front cover doesn't tell us. Neither does the back cover. On the copyright page, we read this summary:
"Vain Beaver is inordinately proud of his silky tail, to the point where he alienates his fellow woodland creatures with his boasting. When it is flattened in an accident (of his own making), he learns to value its new shape and seeks to make amends with his friends. Based on an Ojibwe legend." --Provided by publisher.
Let's consider that last line: "Based on an Ojibwe legend." A lot of those "based on" books for children--the ones about Native people--draw from more than one Native nation's stories. A good example are the ones by Paul Owen Lewis. He used stories from more than one nation to come up with Frog Girl and Storm Boy. On his website, you can read that
"Storm Boy follows the rich mythic traditions of the Haida, Tlingit, and other Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast..." 
Those are distinct nations with their own stories. If you look at his books, they look like they are Native stories, but are they? If they combine aspects of more than one tribal nation? My answer: No. Let's look just at two that Lewis listed: the Haida and the Tlingit. In the US (in Alaska) there is the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes. At their website, you read that they're "two separate and distinct people" and there's also the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe (their direct website is down), also in Alaska. And in Canada, there's the Haida Nation.

The difference in the books Lewis does and Shaw's story is that he names several nations and she names one (Ojibwe). Does that make a difference? Maybe... let's keep on with this evaluation process.

Third comment
Who is Stephanie Shaw? Is she Native? With the "as told by" on the cover, do we have a story being told by a tribal member? At her website, I see that she lives in Oregon, but there is no mention of any Native heritage or working with Native populations or attending Native events... Nothing. None of her other books are about Native people. I assume then, that she is not Native. I wonder what prompted her to do this book?

As some of you know, I do not insist that a writer be Native in order to write Native stories. As I discussed elsewhere, I prefer Native writers, but I also think that a person who is not Native can write a Native story, and do it well--if they are careful with their research. Wondering about Shaw's research leads to my fourth comment.

Fourth Comment
What does Shaw say about her sources? Have you read Betsy Hearne's article, Cite the Source, Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, published in School Library Journal in 1993? An excellent article, it was a call for better source notes. It includes a "source note countdown" that can help reviewers evaluate a source note. The worst kind of note is nonexistent. It is #5 in Hearne's countdown. The best kind is #1, "the model source note."

So... let's look at the notes in Shaw's book.

There is a page in the back of the book titled "The Ojibwe People and Legends." Beneath it is a bibliography. Let's start with the note about Ojibwe people. The first paragraph tells us about various spellings of Ojibwe. The second paragraph is this:
Legends are an important part of Ojibwe culture. They are stories passed from one generation to the next, usually through oral storytelling. They are sometimes meant just for fun and entertainment. Other times they are used to teach a lesson about behavior. In a legend such as The Legend of the Beaver's Tail, we learn about how pride and boastful behavior can drive friends away. We also learn how sharing among friends can build a community.
It starts with that word (legend). I've already said a lot about it, but I invite you to read that paragraph, with Christianity in mind. Some of what we read in the Bible are stories about behavior. Can you think of a picture book that presents one of those stories as a legend?

Now let's look at the bibliography.

It consists of eleven items. Seven of them are about beavers. I assume Shaw and perhaps her illustrator, Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, used those items for information about beavers. The other four (two books and two websites), I assume, are sources for what she provides about Ojibwe people. Let's take a look.

She lists Joseph Bruchac and Michael J. Caduto's Native American Stories published in 1991 by Fulcrum. It doesn't have an Ojibwe story about beaver. Shaw also lists Michael G. Johnson and Richard Hook's Encyclopedia of Native Tribes of North America published in 2007 by Firefly Books. I don't know that book, but from what I can see, it doesn't have a story about beaver in it.

She lists First People--the Legends. "How the Beaver Got His Tail." Accessed December 11, 2012, at  I've been to that site before--and cringed. You're invited to "Click on my little kachina friends" to see what has recently been added to the site. Yikes! "Little kachina friends" is way over the line. Think of it like this: "Click on my little Catholic saint friends below..." instead. Feel uneasy? That's how I feel as I read "my little kachina friends." I wonder who wrote "my little kachina friends"? We don't know who owns, manages, or writes the content of that "First People" site. They use the word "we" a lot but who is "we" anyway?! They've got a section called "our favorite artists that paint Native Americans" --- but the ones they list aren't Native artists. Unless you're doing a study of appropriation, I think this site is one to stay away from.

She also lists Native Languages of the Americas, a site maintained by Orrin Lewis and Laura Redish. Though we do know who runs that site, its content is unreliable. Like the First People site, I've looked it over before and found it lacking. According to the site, Lewis is Cherokee and not as involved with the content as he once was. Redish is not Native.

Maybe the bibliography isn't one that Shaw developed. Maybe that page was put together by someone at the publishing house. Either way, it is troubling to see what gets listed in a book, as information to pass along to children.

Applying Hearne's countdown, I think Shaw's notes are at the not-good end of the scale:
4. The background-as-source-note. Better than nothing but still close to useless, this note gives some general information on the culture from which a picture-book folktale is drawn. It's important to know about traditions, but that's a background note, not a source note. In some ways, it's worse than no note at all because it's deceptive. It looks like a source note, so we let it slide by. Some notes (variation 4A) even manage to tell the history of a tale but avoid citing the book or books from which the tale was adapted. Others (variation 4B) declare that the picture-book author heard many stories from his/her grandmother/grandfather, but beg the question of where he/she heard/read this particular story. Implication is a sneaky and highly suspicious maneuver. Source notes, once and for all, tell sources. How can we know what's been adapted without being able to track down the author/artist's source?

Fifth comment
I imagine you're wondering, "well, what about the story itself?" The answer? It doesn't matter. Shaw may have told what some think is a terrific story, but without the information to support that story, it doesn't matter. It is introducing or affirming the chaos Hearne wrote about in her article.

Conclusion: Not recommended
If you care about providing young people with authentic or accurate stories about Native people, this one won't work. We're told it is an Ojibwe story but have nothing to support that claim and what we are given instead of a good source, is some highly questionable websites. In conclusion: Stephanie Shaw's The Legend of the Beaver's Tail is not recommended.

Monday, December 14, 2015


I find Danielle Daniel's Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox unsettling.

In a 2013 article in The Sudbury Star, I read that she is Métis, but that she wasn't raised knowing anything about her Métis heritage. She didn't want her son to grow up without knowing something about that heritage, so she wrote and illustrated Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox as a self-published book that is out this year in hardcover from Groundwood Books (House of Anansi Press). Here's an excerpt from the article (from October 28):
For first-time author and local artist Danielle Daniel, her new children's book Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox was a way to help her 10-year-old son connect to his Metis roots. Daniel, who stopped working as a teacher full-time last year so she could pursue her art, said she was not encouraged to learn about her Metis heritage when she was growing up. "I didn't want that to be the same for my son," she said. "I wanted him to feel proud about it and to celebrate it. "She dedicated the book - which explores 12 different totem animals -to her son and all the Metis and Aboriginal children who never had a chance to know the totem animals because of the residential schools.
The article suggests that residential schools are the reason she didn't know her culture and that this book can help her son and others, but I'm not sure it can. Daniel says she started dreaming about bears and so feels that a bear is her totem animal. That lines up with what I see in new age writings, and not with what I understand about the ways that Anishinaabe people view any of this. 

In the Author's Note, Daniel writes:
The word totem, or doodem in Anishinaabe, means clan. 
From my reading of key writings, and conversations with Ojibwe friends, I know that clans hold tremendous significance. 

That significance is lost in Daniel's treatment of them in the book. The words on each page start with "Sometimes I feel like..." There are 12 different pages for 12 different "totem animals." On each page, is an illustration of a child whose head/face are modified to look like the animal. This is done with a paper mask tied onto the child's head, or a headpiece that fits entirely over the child's head, or with some aspect of the animal being shown as though the child were part it and part human (the page about a beaver has a child with beaver ears, nose, and teeth). 

That treatment of the clans trivializes the importance of the clan system. Someone who lives with that system doesn't shift from one to another in the way Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox suggests. Daniel's book feels more like playing at being Indian than something that her son or any child can actually learn from. 

That's one part of why I'm unsettled but the other is because I have so much empathy for Native people who lost culture because of the boarding schools in the US (and the residential schools in Canada). Those "educational" systems were--and are--devastating to Native people and our cultures and respective nations. I support efforts to learn, but it must come by way of being with the people one identifies with. Artistic efforts to reconnect will fail without the teachings that come from being with the people you're trying to connect with. 

Not recommended.  


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Cover of Parent Magazine's December 2015 issue

On Thursday, December 10, I learned about the cover of the new Parents magazine (h/t Heid and Allicia). Both are Native women and mothers.

Like them, I found the depiction of a little girl, in that toy headdress, screaming in an out-of-control way, as a play on the "wild Indian" stereotype. You know the phrase, I'm sure: "stop running around like a wild Indian." In 2006, AARP's magazine had a full-page Tylenol ad showing a kid, similarly clad, with a grandparent holding the child's hand and glad that she had Tylenol on hand.

I shared the image on Twitter, questioning editors at Parents directly, and asked others to ask, too. Their Twitter account was inundated. A few hours later, Parents issued an apology.

Here's the apology on Twitter:

And here's the apology on Facebook:

There are a lot of comments to their Facebook apology that suggest that readers are as ignorant of the problem as the editors and designers who put the cover together. Those comments indicate the tremendous need for the editors at Parents to do some follow up articles to help their readers understand the issues at play in their depiction of that child in that toy headdress.

In short: a headdress is not a toy. It holds tremendous spiritual significance to those who have them and to their families and tribal nations. That kind of headdress is specific to some tribes but not all of them, but the general public believes it to be something all tribes use, as if we are a single, monolithic entity.

In comments on Facebook and Twitter, I saw some people making comparisons between the "Bored No More" caption for that photo and the "Idle No More" movement of First Nations people. I think that is a valid point.

I hope the editors at Parents read all the comments and respond in an educational way. In my comment to them on Facebook I invited them to share books with their readers, books drawn from my list of Best Books.

In many places, I saw people appalled that Parents would do that cover in 2015, but we can point to many places in which similar imagery is used, uncritically. Mascots for sports teams is one example. A lot of this imagery is in children's books that I write about here, in the illustrations or in the text. I hate cliched expressions but they do have their place. There is much work to do.

Saturday, December 05, 2015


Editor's note on Dec 8 2015: Perry Nodelman's comment and Philip Nel's response are now in the body of the original post. 

December 5, 2015

Dear Phil,

I read your post about your new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. On one hand, I want to say congratulations, because I know that people buy/read/teach your books, and as such, books that look at racism in children's literature are important.

On the other hand, as an activist scholar from a marginalized population, my thoughts and emotions since reading your post include me uttering "WTF." As I write that last sentence, I imagine a lot of my colleagues in children's literature rolling their eyes--not at you--but at me. The truth is, though, that my WTF won't hurt your career. You're a white male, tenured, at a Research I school. You have all the cred in the world. You also have many books published--books that have been very well received.


I have some questions. I could raise them in an email and thereby have a private conversation with you, but, those private conversations tend to be helpful to those who already have power, so I've chosen to do this publicly.

In your blog post, you said that
"The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children's books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry." 

Let's start with structural racism.

You know We Need Diverse Books is trademarked, right? And you know that the organization itself is a grass roots effort comprised largely of people of color who object to the ways that structural racism consistently rewards white, and specifically white males, for the work they do--over the work of people of marginalized communities, right? Are you in conversation with anyone at WNDB about your book, and/or have you had conversations with anyone there about using that phrase in the title of your book?

I hope so, because if not, you might be rendering them invisible and thereby contributing to "invisibility as a form of racism."

Let's look at that invisibility you reference, next. In your post, you offer
"a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I've presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I've learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book's Acknowledgements!) I couldn't have done it without you. Thank you."
Given your status, it seems to me that you could have done more than list people in the Acknowledgements. This is a huge presumption on my part, but my guess is that I am one of the people who may get listed in your Acknowledgments. Maybe I am, and maybe I'm not, but either way, your hearty thank you--though you mean well--will not be received in the way you might think it would be. There is a robust conversation online about people in privileged spaces being informed by the work of people of color--and using that work with little to no acknowledgement. Being listed in an Acknowledgement is not what people want to see.

Do you quote from Twitter, Tumbr, and various blogs, and do you cite the individuals? I hope so! In a way, this ask is similar to my asking about your use of the We Need Diverse Books phrase. By that, I mean that it is hard to say when a bit of information or knowledge ought to be attributed to a specific person. With social media, the voices we read are much more diverse than they've ever been before. It can mean that ideas and points of view seep into our own heads and shape our thinking and then become our thinking, and then it seems unnecessary to cite a specific person who was instrumental in ones own thinking! But it IS necessary. The community of people participating in conversations about children's books is larger than it has ever been before--thanks to social media--but scholars should not replicate injustices of the past wherein white males profit through the work of those who they and their ancestors, overtly and subtly, oppressed and oppress.

Actually--I think people could fairly wonder about the project itself. It could have been an edited volume, with you using your stature as a means to lift the names and work being done by people who aren't white males.

Course, in wondering that, I make some assumptions that you and I see things from a similar vantage point! Our conversations on your blog suggest that isn't necessarily the case. But you also said in your blog post, that some of those posts (where we conversed via the comments) contain "admittedly flawed" thinking, so maybe you're in a different space today than you were then and could, therefore, lift those voices.

You said that your book is:
"attempting to do for children's books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system." 
We do need to get more people to think about racism in children's literature, and there's a lot of people who have been doing that for a very long time. You say that it is a "tall order" to do for children's literature what Michelle Alexander's book does for the justice system.


You're inadvertently placing yourself on the same plane as a Black scholar like Michelle Alexander? I'm stuck right there. Stuck without words to capture what that feels like to me. A huge problem in children's literature is white saviors sweeping in to help or rescue characters of marginalized populations. And here you are, doing that very thing. Did you realize what that would feel like to people of color? Did you imagine any of us, reading those words, as you wrote them? Did you imagine us as your audience?

You say that you'll also look at institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. Seems to me that gives you space to write about institutional discrimination within the academy, too. I'm guessing you've read the various articles online about the experiences of people of color in the academy. We both know how white our field of study is, so it seems that your book might address barriers we face, as scholars. Does it?

My sense from that line in your post about flawed thinking in earlier posts suggests to me that you're in a more reflective space than you've been in the past, but the things you said also suggest that the flawed thinking is still there. We care so very much about children's books, and the work we do. In that care, we are often blind to what we say and how we say it. Maybe it is the flow of a new project that inadvertently blinded you to the way your words in that post read? Indeed, there are likely things I've said in this letter that are similarly blind and I hope that people will note them in comments.

All that said, I look forward to your book but hope that it is a bit more... reflective of your own privilege than your blog post about the book is.



Perry Nodelman's (Nodelman is amongst the key scholars in children's literature) comment, submitted on Dec 5, 2015 at 1:21 PM:

You raise important concerns here, Debby--ones that are constantly on my mind these days as I continue to think about and write about children's literature. I recently became painfully aware of my own unconscious expression of white privilege as I looked through old articles I was considering uploading to, and came upon one on Scott O'Dell's Sing Down the Moon which was published in Horn Book in 1984. It's full of praise for a novel about the “Long Walk” of 1863, in which American soldiers forced the entire Navajo nation to relocate after destroying their villages and crops. Among other things, I say in this essay that I admire O'Dell's choice of not providing his young Navaho narrator with a name for much of the book--a choice which I saw in 1984 as universalizing her and making her a sympathetic and believable character, and which I now see as a commentary on the deprivation of her personhood that in fact confirms and reinforces that deprivation. I also celebrate O'Dell's depiction of the Navajo stoicism and refusal to express anger at what is happening to them--another confirmation of a hoary stereotype.

Worst of all, it become apparent to me as I read through this old essay that I simply took it as an absolute truth that no one who was Navajo or even remotely like a Navajo would ever be part of the audience of the book: "Sing Down the Moon is about people unlike ourselves," I conclude, clearly and unconsciously assuming that all the readers of this book would all be white like me. I am wrestling now with whether or not I should upload this essay as evidence of how ignorant I was and much I've learned about these matters in the last three decades--much of it from you, Debby. Uploading it would have to potential to be very embarrassing; not doing so would misrepresent who I once was. I’m tending to choose to upload it.

At any rate, I find these issues of unconscious racism--my own and that of other white people, especially other white men--deeply troubling. I don't want to have to remain silent about the racism that I find so troublesome, but I'm also aware of the troubling aspects of my choosing to speak about what so troubles me. My own solution to this dilemma is to forefront in anything I write about these topics my awareness of the potentially poisonous aspects of my speaking about them—to acknowledge my white male privilege and to attempt to become aware of how it might be distorting how I see things and read texts before and during and after my readings of those texts. I want to acknowledge and accept the possibility that I might yet once more be seriously embarrassing myself, in the faith that even if I do, my doing so will help to further a cause I profoundly believe in by confirming the blindness of my privilege. And I would hope that any discussion of these matters by other white men like me would be equally aware of and forthright about the minefield they enter in writing about race, equally open to exploring the possibility of their blindnesses, and equally unwilling to assume a kind of authority that unconsciously replicates the very kinds of unconscious repression they want to argue against.


Philip Nel's response, submitted on December 7, 2015 at 3:35 PM:

Dear Debbie,

Thanks for your critique of my unpublished manuscript. Here are some responses to your queries.

Yes, I cite We Need Diverse Books in the manuscript, and in the conclusion (a manifesto for anti-racist children’s literature) recommend WNDB as a resource. My hope is that citing WNDB several times in the manuscript, and in the title, will draw attention to the excellent work they do. I did not know that the phrase is copyrighted. Prompted by your query, I have sought their permission to use it in the subtitle and, if they prefer it not be in the subtitle, will remove it. (The original subtitle was "Structures of Racism in Children's Literature." I changed that after being told that it was too academic. I thought the current subtitle more clearly expressed the idea to a general audience.)

As is the case in all of my scholarship, this book builds on a lot of research, all of which I cite. I’ve learned from books, scholarly articles, blog posts, tweets, journalism, conference papers, and more. There are children's literature scholars, critical race theorists, children's & YA literature authors, theorists of affect, among many others. Then, in the Acknowledgments, I name people who have been especially helpful. But I haven't finished compiling the Acknowledgments yet, and I didn't want to publish an incomplete Acknowledgments on the blog — so, that's why I left that part of the blog post deliberately vague.

Michelle Alexander's work is amazing. The New Jim Crow should be required reading for every citizen. Even approaching her level of brilliance would be a tall order. So, if the blog post implied that I'm in her league as a writer or scholar, that's not my intent. I aspire to her level of work, which — to be frank — is how I approach all book projects. I want to write something better than I'm capable of, and so I look to other, better scholars as my role models. There are several such models for Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Alexander's The New Jim Crow is one. Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence is another.

I do address my Whiteness in the book, yes. Indeed, I've been deeply concerned about how my subject position (straight White male) may impair my thinking about racism. I wrote a little about that here:

In conclusion, I think that the book will address your concerns. I’d be glad to send you a copy when it comes out.

Thanks for writing.

Best regards,


Thursday, December 03, 2015

E. K. Johnston's PRAIRIE FIRE

E. K. Johnson's Prairie Fire is the sequel to The Story of Owen. Both are works of fantasy for young adults that are also described as alternative histories. Here's the synopsis for The Story of Owen:
"Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival. There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition. But dragons and humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected. Such was Trondheim's fate until Owen Thorskard arrived. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds—armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard. 

Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!"

Henry Ford hiring dragon slayers! Cool? I don't know because I didn't read The Story of Owen. I did, however, read the sequel, Prairie Fire. Here's the synopsis for it:
Every dragon slayer owes the Oil Watch a period of service, and young Owen was no exception. What made him different was that he did not enlist alone. His two closest friends stood with him shoulder to shoulder. Steeled by success and hope, the three were confident in their plan. But the arc of history is long and hardened by dragon fire. Try as they might, Owen and his friends could not twist it to their will. Not all the way. Not all together. The sequel to the critically acclaimed The Story of Owen.
Prairie Fire is primarily about Owen and Siobhan (who tells the story). Their assignment as dragon slayers is to guard Fort Calgary. As I started to read, I saw a lot of place names specific to First Nations but... no people who are First Nations (that comes later).

Early in the book, there's a reference to Manitoulin, a place that (I think) was destroyed in The Story of Owen. I read "Manitoulin" and right away wondered if that is a Native place. The answer? Yes. According to the Wikwemikong website, Manitoulin is home to one of the ten largest First Nations communities in Canada. I understand--of course--that in stories like Prairie Fire, writers can write what they wish--including wiping out existing places--but when the writer is not Native, and one of the places being wiped out is Native, it too closely parallels recent and ongoing displacements and violence done to Indigenous peoples. As such, I object.

We learn a bit more about Manitoulin when we get to the chapter, The Story of Manitoulin(ish) (p. 55):
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island where three Great Lakes met. Named for a god, it could well have been the home of one: rolling green hills and big enough that it was dotted by small blue lakes of its own. It was the biggest freshwater island in the world, and Canada was proud to call it ours.
Named for a god? I don't think so. From what I'm learning, it means something like 'home of the ancestors.' I also wondered, as I read that line, who named it Manitoulin? Canadians? Canadians who are "proud to call it ours"? Another big pause for me. I doubt that First Nations people reading Prairie Fire would be ok with that line.

In Prairie Fire, we learn that the island, situated between the US and Canada, is inhabitable due to American capitalism (p. 55):  
Two whole generations of Canadians grew up, never having set foot on that pristine sand, never staying in those quaint hotels, and never learning to swim in those sheltered bays, but always there was hope that we would someday return.
Hmmm. That sounds to me like White people who are lamenting loss of pristine sand and quaint hotels. Again, no Native people. Kind of shouts privilege, to me. Another place named is Chilliwack, home to the Sto Lo people, but no Sto Lo people are in Prairie Fire. 

The chapter, Totem Poles, is unsettling, too. These poles are at Fort Calgary. Siobhan and Owen get there, via train. As they traveled, Siobhan worried that they'd be attacked by dragons (p. 69):
There are any number of American movies about dragon slayers fighting dragons from the tops of trains, but I was quite happy not to be reenacting one. We made it all the way to Manitoba before we even saw a dragon out the window, and it was far enough away that we didn’t have to worry about it.
That reminded me of westerns in which Indians are attacking the trains, and while I don't think Johnston intended us to equate dragons with Indians, I kind of can't help but make that connection when I read that passage. Anyway, as the train nears Fort Calgary, they see a row of metal teeth that stretch up into the air (p. 71):
The metal teeth were the tops of stylized totem poles, taller than the California Redwoods on which they were modeled, and thrusting jagged steel into the bright prairie sunset. Though most of the poles were around the wall of the fort, they were also scattered throughout the city itself, to prevent the dragons from dive-bombing any of the buildings. 
One of the dragon slayers thinks they are beautiful, but another says (p. 71):
“They’re probably covered with bird crap up close,” Parker pointed out.
Totem poles hold deep significance to the tribes who create them. I haven't studied Parker as a character, and it may be that he's an unpleasant sort who we readers are expected to dislike, but still... Was that "bird crap" line necessary? And why are totem poles cast as tools of defense in the first place? It reminds me of the United States Armed Services use of names of Native Nations and imagery for weapons of war (examples include the Apache attack helicopter and the tomahawk cruise missile). They--like mascot names--are supposedly conveying some sort of honor, but with victory over a foe the goal, are these honorable things to do?

The book goes on and on like that...

In Disposable Civilians, we read about a dragon called the Athabascan Longtail. Athabascan's are Native, too. And then there's the chapter called The Story of the Dragon Chinook. For those who don't know, Chinook is also the name of a First Nation. In Prairie Fire, the Chinook dragons are especially vicious. Their attacks are preceded by smoke. There's more railroad trains in this part of the story. To get railroad tracks laid, the government brings Chinese workers to Canada, "paying them just enough that they might forget about the dragons in the sky" (p. 124). And yes, those Chinese workers are amongst those disposable civilians.

In the Haida Welcome chapter (Owen and Siobhan are visiting Port Edward, on the coast), we get to know a character named Peter and his family. They are Haida. They play drums made of dragon's hearts. There's a stage where they dance. The stage has a row of waist high totem poles (p. 221):
These were wooden poles, traditional and fierce looking, each with painted white teeth inside a grinning mouth and an odd crest upon each head.
Owen, Siobhan, and the others gathered there watch the dancers on stage move in ways that suggest they're in a canoe. Siobhan remembers that the Haida are a sea-going nation. The person in front is their dragon slayer. She throws a rope with a large ring on its end to a dragon. On the fourth throw she catches it, the song and dance change, and the dragon is brought to the totem poles where it lies down, defeated. Owen wonders aloud if the dragon had drowned, and Peter laughs, telling him (p. 222):
“No,” Peter said. “The orcas took care of it.” “The whales?” Owen said. “They’re not called Slayer Whales for nothing,” Peter reminded him.
That part of the story makes me uneasy. What Johnston has done is create what she presents as a Native ceremony or dance. It reminds me of what Rosanne Parry did in Written In Stone. 

After that dance part, I quit reading Prairie Fire. Though I can see why it appeals to fans of stories like this, the erasure of Native peoples, the weaponizing of Native artifacts, and the creation of Native story are serious problems. I cannot recommend Prairie Fire.

Lynne Reid Banks - In the News

Back in November, The Guardian awarded David Almond its children's fiction prize for his novel, A Song for Ella Grey, which is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.  

I haven't read that novel, but I learned about it earlier this week when colleagues in children's literature began talking about a letter Lynne Reid Banks had written to The Guardian, objecting to the book being selected for its prize. (Banks is the author of The Indian in the Cupboard and its sequels. Readers of AICL likely know that there are many problems with that book. From the idea of a white child having life/death power over a Native person and responsibility for the care of that person, to the stereotypes that are throughout the book, the list of what-is-wrong with the series is long. I've written a little about it but am, today, thinking that I ought to do a chapter-by-chapter look at it.) 

Subsequent to the letter Banks wrote to The Guardian, BBC's Radio 4 invited Almond and Banks to be on its Today program. I listened to, and transcribed the program, for those of you who might want to know what was said but are not able to listen to the archived segment. 

Yesterday, The Guardian published a handful of letters others wrote in response to Banks. Among them is one by Perry Nodelman, who wrote:
But some people not yet 12 experience lesbian desire, and/or swear or drink; and others live with older people who drink, swear, and feel no need to hide their lesbianism. I assume, then, that what Banks really objects to is fiction for young people that diverges from a supposed norm of ideally innocent (and heteronormative) childlikeness. Such fiction rarely represents anything like what most young people experience, and exists mainly to assure adults that childhood is actually more innocent and ideal than it usually is. Those who chose Almond’s more honest novel as a prizewinner should be lauded for not sharing in this sad game. Perhaps novels about younger young people might win more prizes if writers could figure out how to make them less dishonest about the lives of “people up to the age of 12”.
Early in graduate school, I read Perry's books and articles on children's literature. His thinking has been important in my thinking, precisely because of what he said in his letter above about honesty and the lives of children. 

As I think about what Banks said, I think she's stuck in that dishonest space Perry writes about, and in some way that I've yet to put into words, it echoes Meg Rosoff's objections to Myles Johnson's Large Fears. Here's my transcription:

BBC Radio 4
Audio available till 12/31/2015: 
Banks/Almond interview begins at the 2:45 hour mark

Moderator: David Almond is a celebrated writer for children and teenagers and he’s just won the Guardian children’s book prize, which is a big prize, for his novel, A Song for Ella Gray. Now, the novelist Lynne Reid Banks, first famous for The L-Shaped Room and then, author of many books, including The Indian in the Cupboard, for children, that sold many, many copies, went out and bought the book, as a result of that winning The Guardian children’s book prize. In fact, she bought two copies for her twelve-year old grandchildren. Then, having looked at them, she went back to the shop and handed them over because, and she said this in a letter to The Guardian itself,
In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children.”
Well, Lynne Reid Banks is with us, and David Almond joins us from our Newcastle studio. I suppose, David, to defend yourself, we’ll talk to you in a minute. Lynne Reid Banks, were you surprised? Were you shocked? And if so, why?

Banks: Well, I was surprised because I’d read David Almond’s really beautiful description of how this book was inspired by the Odyssey and how this had worked in schools and I’m certainly not…

Moderator: And you’re an admirer of David’s writing…

Banks: A great admirer. He wrote Skellig. He’s done some wonderful books. What I’m quarreling with is The Guardian, for giving this prize under the name of a children’s book award. If only there were a separate award for teen aged, young adult writing, then he should have won it, I’m quite sure. I haven’t read the book yet because I am so disappointed that its obviously not suitable for what I call and categorize as children, which are people up to the age of 12.

Moderator: I suppose we’re getting into a categorization argument, aren’t we, David Almond, but just explain who you were thinking of when you wrote the book, what kind of age? I know you don’t target it in that way but what kind of age do you think the readers would be?

Almond: When you write you really don’t think about the target age. You think about the characters you’re writing. You think about the drama that’s involved in the story. The drama is described, narrated, by a teenager of about 17. So I had a sense that yes, maybe the main readership would be of that kind of age.    

Moderator: What they call young adults in bookshops?

Almond: Yes, young adults. But this book is being read by 12-year olds, 13-year olds, and I’m getting fantastic responses from them. They recognize something about the beautiful troubling drama of growing up.

Moderator: Give us a little extract. Could you? Just to give us a feel and then we’ll talk to Lynne Reid Banks again about her feelings. Just tell us where we are in the story and just give us a few lines.

Almond: This is right at the start, where Lynne wrote about and Claire and Ella are on a sleepover together and Claire is telling the story. 
“We were in bed, the two of us together. Ella turned to me, and she was smiling. “Claire! I’m in love with Orpheus." "But he hardly even knows you bliddy exist!" She pressed her finger to my lips. "I keep on hearing his song! Its like I’ve known him forever! Oh, Ella, it's destined! I love him and he'll love me. And if you hadn’t called me that day and told me to listen," she kissed me, "none of this would have happened, would it?" I pulled me clothes on. She kissed me again. Thud went my heart. Thud.

Moderator: Well, that’s pretty powerful writing, Lynne, isn’t it?

Banks: I think David Almond is one of the best writers for young people that we have. But 17 year old adults are not children and although, of course, I didn’t expect him to say ‘thank you so much Guardian, I reject the prize’ because this book is not for children…

Moderator: Let’s not have an argument about The Guardian. Its quite interesting… What are the problems. If you go into a bookshop these days and people often comment on this, is that books are categorized by age.

Banks: No, they’re not. Are they?

Moderator: Yes, I’m afraid they are and it drives authors mad because 10-12, 8-10, 12-15…

Banks: Oh I see what you mean…

Moderator: Children’s don’t think like that, do they?

Banks: No but I think if you would append the word children to a prize as is also with the Carnegie Medal which is the highest award we give here for children’s writing, and if year after year you give it to dark, dystopian, violent, in some cases, downright cruel books, I don’t know quite where people who are writing for children, which of course David Almond has also done, where do we come in? We don’t seem to have a prize of our own anymore.

Moderator: Well, David, you’ve won the Carnegie Medal yourself, for Skellig, I think, what would you say about a parent who is listening to this who may have an 11-12-13 year old who reads a lot and is quite emotionally secure as you can be at that age, and hear this discussion and say ‘hmmm this is the rewriting of the Orpheus story by you, its pretty steamy for a 12 year old… Should I buy it or shouldn’t I?”

Almond: Well of course I’d say… (laughter)

Moderator: Asking an author to say ‘don’t buy my book' yes, tricky one but you know what I’m asking you…

Almond: Absolutely. But the Orpheus story itself is such a powerful, elemental tale. When I was a teacher I used to tell the Orpheus story to 9-10-11 year olds. They were totally gripped by it and this is just a new version of that story. And the thing about children’s books is if you go into the children’s book department you will find all kinds of wonderful, experimental, creative, energetic books. That’s where people should be looking, and not thinking about where should we categorize this book or that book. This is an amazing world. People really believe that books can change peoples lives.

Banks: And they can.

Almond: And they can.

Moderator: A lovely moment of agreement. Lynne Reid Banks. David Almond in Newcastle, thank you both very much indeed.            

Wednesday, December 02, 2015


My grandfather, Rex Sotero Calvert, was Hopi. We never called him grandpa or grandfather. We called him Thehtay, which is the Tewa word for grandfather (Tewa is our language at Nambe Pueblo). Calvert is the name he was given when he went to boarding school, at Santa Fe Indian School. Before that, he was Rex Sotero Sakiestewa. He was born in 1895 at Mishongnovi Village.

At SFIS, he met my grandmother, Emilia Martinez. She was from Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo). They lived at Ohkay Owingeh and had six children: Delfino, Felix, Marcelino, Edward, Andrea, and Cecilia. To me, they were Uncle Del, Uncle Felix, Uncle Mars, and Aunt Cecilia. Edward--we call him Uncle John. He still lives there, at Ohkay Owingeh. Andrea--we call her mom.

When I talk with my mom, we sometimes talk about Thehtay. He lived with us at Nambe Pueblo when I was growing up. I remember him being out back, working the garden with a hoe... Suddenly he'd yell "The beans!" We'd have been playing in the garden as he worked, no doubt un-doing the work he'd been doing to irrigate that garden as we made little dams to divert the irrigation water! Remembering the beans, he'd throw down the hoe and run inside the house to add water to the pot of beans on the stove. When he was older, he'd sit in his wheelchair, softly singing Hopi songs to himself. I wish I'd listened to them, and that I'd learned some of them. What I do have are warm memories of him, of being with him, of his humor.

This morning as I read My Hopi Corn and My Hopi Toys, my thoughts, understandably, turned to Thehtay. Written by Anita Poleahla and illustrated by Emmett Navakuku, the two are board books from Salina Press.

Celebrate My Hopi Corn begins with a single corn kernel telling the reader that she has many sister kernels on an ear of corn, that they grow under a warm sun, and that as the days begin to shorten, the kernels take on different colors. Some are yellow, while others are blue or red or white. After they're harvested, the kernels are shelled off the cobs. For that, we're shown a Hopi girl in traditional clothes shelling the kernels off the cobs. Some kernels are ground into flour to make piki (a traditional food that is exquisite in form and flavor. In form it looks like a rolled up newspaper, with the paper itself being the piki, which is kind of like filo dough in its flakey texture). Some corn is used for dances, and, some is kept inside for the next planting season, when a Hopi man plants corn. That page, especially, made me think of Thehtay:

I don't have a memory of Thehtay planting seeds. My memory is of him in a button down shirt and jeans (nothing on his head; not wearing a belt or mocs as shown in the illustration) using a hoe to rid the garden of weeds.

As you see by the illustration, the text in Celebrate My Hopi Corn is in two languages: Hopi, and English. The illustrations are a blend of realistic depictions of people, and, Hopi images like the one of the sun, and later, one of rain clouds. The book ends with a double paged spread of corn maidens:

Corn. Community. Ceremony. Planting. All are important to who the Hopi people are. I really like this little book and wish I could share it with Thehtay. Poleahla and Navakuku's second book, Celebrate My Hopi Toys is a counting book of items used for play, but also for dance. I like it very much, too. Like Celebrate My Hopi Corn, it is bilingual and shows items specific to Hopi people. Poleahla has been working on language instruction for many years. These little books will, no doubt, be much loved by Hopi children, but they're terrific for any child. For children who aren't Hopi, they provide a window to Hopi culture. A window--I will also note--that is provided by insiders who know just what can be shared with everyone.

They are available from Salina Press.