Friday, May 25, 2018


The title of Eric Gansworth's new book is Give Me Some Truth. As I read about Carson and Maggi, I marked one page after another. The truths in their lives made me laugh and made me cringe, too!

There were moments when I thought "Don't do that, Maggi!" and others were I cheered for what she was doing.

What I share today are specific passages from the first two chapters of the book and why I like them. Let's start with a description of the book:

Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. A rock band -- and winning Battle of the Bands -- is his best shot. But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or his brother getting shot by the racist owner of a local restaurant.
Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation with her family. She's dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. She might like to fall in love for the first time too.
Carson and Maggi -- along with their friend Lewis -- will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference.

Now, my thoughts!

In chapter one, we're inside Carson's house on Memorial Day weekend, 1980. His brother, Derek, comes into Carson's room. He's got a bullet wound in his rear end. Carson helps him stop the bleeding. They're doing this as quietly as they can because they don't want their parents to know about it. In the description, you read that Derek got shot by the racist owner of a local restaurant. We learn about how that happened, later in the book.

A passage in chapter one that I like a lot is when Carson tells us that Derek had "hit the jackpot in the Indian Genes roll of the dice" (p. 4). You wondering what that means? When Derek came into Carson's bedroom, Carson noticed he was not looking so good and tells him "You look kind of, um, pale." What Gansworth is getting at, there, is the range of what Native people can look like--even within the same family. Most people in the world think that we all have straight black hair, and dark skin, and high cheekbones...  You know what I mean, right? If you don't, take a stroll down the aisle of the romance novels next time you're in the bookstore. Or, pull up a book seller website. Look for the ones about about Native men, you'll see what I mean.  The fact: that image is a stereotype -- and it is something that Carson is dealing with.

In chapter two, we meet Maggi! The book description tells us that she has just moved back to the reservation, but that happens at the end of the chapter. Chapter two opens with Maggi and her sister, Marie, who are sitting at a table at Niagara Falls, selling handmade Indian souvenirs they've made. We learn that Maggi likes to do beadwork that isn't traditional. And that she likes to sing and use a water drum. And that it is helpful to their sales if she'd sing and drum, because it attracted tourists. These two girls know how to play to the White guilt of the tourist crowd in other ways, too. I think what they do is hilarious!

Packed in that chapter, though, are some of those truths I was talking about earlier. A certain kind of beadwork is much-loved on the reservation. Now--I imagine some of you read "beadwork" and thought about beaded headbands--but Maggi is thinking about things that tell readers that Native people today... are of this day. We wear baseball caps, but sometimes, those caps are beaded. And because I'm writing this post in the midst of graduation celebrations, I'm seeing a lot of friends and colleagues sharing photos of mortarboards that are beaded (do a search using beaded baseball cap, or beaded mortarboard and you'll see what I mean).

We get another truth on page 17, as Maggi thinks about the permit they have to sell their work, and how it is "keeping the Porter Agreement alive, though the State Parks official vendors have tried for years to break the treaty)." That right there is definitely something that some Native readers will know about, and that the rest of us have to look up. It is history that isn't taught in textbooks--but that is known by those that it directly impacts. I'm really glad to see it and hope that people will look it up. Citizens of the US don't know much about Native history--but it matters a lot in ways they ought to know!

Another part in chapter two that made me laugh was Maggi imagining a painting or beadwork she might do--in the conceptual style that Andy Warhol did... but she'd do "rows of Commodity Food cans, maybe ones we liked ("Peaches") and one we hated ("Meat"), with their basic pictures on the can in case you didn't know how to read" (p. 17). Native people who grew up during that time and got "commods" know exactly what those cans look like. 

As the chapter closes, Maggi's mom tells them they're moving back to the reservation, and we shift back to Carson. I might be back with more thoughts, but for now, I'll point you to Traci Sorell's interview of Gansworth, over at Cynsations. And I'll recommend that you get a copy of Give Me Some Truth. It comes out on May 29. I've read the ARC I got some weeks back, and have an e-book copy on order. And--if you're going to ALA in New Orleans, get a signed copy! Gansworth will be there.

Published in 2018 by Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic), I am pleased as can be to say that I highly recommend Give Me Some Truth! 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Debbie--have you seen HOW RAVEN GOT HIS CROOKED NOSE, by Barbara and Ethan Atwater!

Most emails I get are from people who see things of concern (like stereotypes) in a children or young adult book. Once in a while I get an email from someone who enthusiastically talks about a book. That's the case with How Raven Got His Crooked Nose by Barbara and Ethan Atwater. 

I took a look at what is available online and see why this looks promising. It opens with a grandmother of the present day, talking to her granddaughter:

On that page, the grandmother says "Slow down, child, It is better to take your time and do things right. Do you know the story of how Chulyen the raven got his crooked nose?"

On the next page, her granddaughter is shown, swinging her buckets of berries. Some are falling out. She's in a hurry and so, her grandmother decides to tell her the story of How Raven Got His Crooked Nose. Here's the cover:

This looks great! I hope that person who wrote to me will do a review for AICL! How Raven Got His Crooked Nose came out in April of 2018 from Alaska Northwest Books.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Not Recommended: THE GREAT BIG BOOK OF FAMILIES by Hoffman and Asquith

A reader wrote to ask if I had seen The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith. Published in 2011 by Dial, the page of interest to anyone who pays attention to the ways that Indigenous peoples are depicted in children's books is this one:

The text on the first page is "Some children get new clothes. Others have hand-me-downs... Or their clothes come from charity shops."

Now, here's a larger image of the children under the "Fancy Dress" sign.

Clearly, the children are meant to be in costumes, playing dress up.  As you see, one child is dressed up in what we're meant to see as an "Indian" or "Native American."

Update (1): Shortly after I published this post, a reader wrote to say that their copy says "Costume Party" instead of "Fancy Dress." They have a 2010 copy with a "reprint" year of 2011. I wonder when and why that change was made? I assume the original said "Costume Party" and that someone objected right away, and so those words were changed to "Fancy Dress." It doesn't make a difference. We know what they're doing. What it is called doesn't matter.   

Update (2): Celeste submitted a comment that I'm inserting here because it may explain the differences we're seeing. Celeste wrote "The difference in language might be a British/American edition thing. British English uses "fancy dress party" where American English uses "Costume party." Inexcusable either way." 

The problems in that choice are many. First, it is a stereotypical illustration. Second, even if it were accurate, it ought not be shown as an option in an array of dress-up costumes.

Regular readers of American Indians in Children's Literature know that I suggest a radical action for books like this: take out a marker and fix it the text. But that won't work in this case. The best option is for the illustrator to revisit the page and remove that illustration.

It reminds me (and maybe you, too) of the Alvin Ho book I read some years back. People may feel they're honoring Native peoples by dressing up in something they bought at a store (like Alvin did), or that they created using a craft store kit, but please don't do that.

Some might argue that kids dressing up like that is an accurate reflection of what kids do, and it is, but it should not be something they do! Books like this reinforce that play and encourage stereotypical thinking about who we are---and that, of course, is a problem! Dressing up like that is similar to the mascots that were created to "honor" Native peoples. If people really wanted to honor us, they'd hear us when we say "stop doing that" instead of trying to defend what they're doing.

The Great Big Book of Families is much-loved by a lot of people because the author and illustrator included families with two moms or two dads, and because the people in the book are a range of skin and hair color. People will likely think that the child in that headdress is insignificant. I don't think it is insignificant. Stereotypes of Native peoples are not acceptable. They can be harmful to Native children's sense of well-being, and they affirm or misinform non-Native children about who Native peoples are.

The Great Big Book of Families is not recommended.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018


A reader wrote to ask me if I've seen Journey on a Runaway Train, which is book one in a new set of books about the Boxcar Children. That series was created by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Journey on a Runaway Train is a 2017 title, written by Dee Garretson and JM Lee.

The description is a clear indicator why someone might ask me about it:
In this all-new very special mini-series, the Aldens have been recruited by a secret society to return lost artifacts and treasures to their rightful locations—all around the world! After finding a painted turtle figurine, the Aldens are introduced to the Silverton family and Reddimus Society, a secret guild whose mission is to return lost artifacts and treasures to the sites they were taken from. The Aldens board a private train to New Mexico to return the turtle to its original home, and they encounter enemies of Reddimus along the way! The trip is a success… but instead of returning home, there’s a last-minute change in plans. The Boxcar Children must continue the mission for the society and deliver more things, all around the globe!

My reaction to that: oh dear.

In the US, there is a law about returning remains and artifacts to the Indigenous people they belong to. That law is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation (NAGPRA) Act, enacted on November 16, 1990. It came about due to the work of Indigenous people.

So... who is in the "Reddimus Society" in this new series? That matters to me because if not done carefully, this story could be a wreck of appropriation, misrepresentation and erasure. 

Poking around a bit, I see that the Boxcar children are headed to Acoma Pueblo. Again: oh dear!

How did the authors of this story decide that the turtle belongs at Acoma?

I'll see if I can get a copy of the book. When I do, I'll be back with a review.

Alia Jones Reviews nipêhon/I Wait, by Caitlin Dale Nicholson and Leona Morin-Neilson

Eds note: AICL is pleased to share this review of nipêhon/I Wait. The review is by Alia Jones. Her blog is Read It Real Good


nipêhon/I Wait by Caitlin Dale Nicholson and Leona Morin-Neilson is a follow up to their 2008 book Niwechihaw/I Help. This time, instead of a little Cree boy following his grandmother to pick rosehips, we meet a little Cree girl out with her grandmother and mother to pick wild yarrow.

This story is simple and the words are few and powerful and sweet; Nôhkom (grandmother) does something, then her granddaughter follows suit and finally the girl’s mother follows along. Everyone is connected. The story begins with Nôhkom standing outside their motorhome, getting her tools and bags ready to head out for the day. The little girl and her mother wait. I love how the author breaks her storytelling format to add some humor; after they pray, Nôhkom picks yarrow and granddaughter picks yarrow...but mom? The illustrations show us that she takes a moment to softly blow a bunch of yarrow flowers and then they wait for her!

Caitlin Dale Nicholson’s acrylic illustrations are thoughtful and gorgeous. I love how they dominate the page, with the story’s text taking up only a small space at the bottom. Her illustrations bring the reader along with the family on a warm summer day, where the greens and yellows of the grasses are vibrant against the blue sky. I really like how we can see the canvas underneath the paint; I think it gives the illustrations a really nice raw charm.

Every block of text in the story, from the jacket flaps to the acknowledgements at the back of the book, are written first in romanized Cree (Y dialect), then in Cree syllabics and finally in English. Niwechihaw/I Help did not include Cree syllabics. The inclusion of syllabics in this book is wonderful; it’s great for Native and non-Native kids to see. It’s also an important addition for young (and old!) Cree language learners.

nipêhon/I Wait is a very pretty celebration of Cree womanhood, family and joy! The little girl learns traditional ways from her elders all while having fun on a beautiful summer day (there’s a cute puppy too!). There’s even a recipe in the back of the book for yarrow tea. While preparing to write this review, I did some research on yarrow and enjoyed some tea with my own mother. Here is some of what I learned about yarrow and I encourage you to learn about it too:

Yarrow (Wâpanewask) is a traditional medicine with many, many uses; it’s well known as women’s medicine and is good for cleaning the blood. The flowers can be dried then crushed into powder and used as trap bait for lynx or marten. It’s also used as a smudge to keep mosquitoes away. [1] The whole plant can be used from the  roots to the leaves; chewed roots help relieve muscle sprains or strains and the leaves, when placed on wounds, can stop bleeding. Yarrow tea treats headaches, fever, hemorrhoids, nausea, colds, influenza, and more. [2]

Thank you to author/illustrator Julie Flett for sharing with me a memory tied to sweetgrass and for the Cree and Métis resources she shared as well. I recommend watching this beautiful short film created by her cousin Shannon Letandre called Nganawendaanan Nde'ing (I keep them in my heart):

Like the family in nipêhon/I Wait, Shannon spends time with her family (her grandfather in particular) collecting traditional medicine (weekay). In the film, she reflects on how she keeps her culture, family and traditions with her though she no longer lives at home, on her family’s land.

I hope you’ll take time to enjoy the beautiful book nipêhon/I Wait, a cup of warm yarrow tea and the lovely short film Nganawendaanan Nde,'ing (I keep them in my heart).

[1] Sagow Pimachiwin Plants and Animals Used by Mikisew Cree First Nation for Food,
Medicine and Materials: Public Version (Winnipeg, MB: Centre for Indigenous
Environmental Resources), 58.

[2] Belcourt, Christi, Medicines to Help Us: Traditional Métis Plant Use (Saskatoon, SK:
Gabriel Dumont Institute, 2007), 65.

Twitter Thread on Justina Ireland's DREAD NATION

A blog post with my analysis of the Native content in Justina Ireland's Dread Nation is in process. 

For now, here's a record of the tweets I sent out on Twitter. The first one went out on the morning of April 28 and the last one on the evening of April 29th, 2018. I've inserted tweets from Cynthia Leitich Smith that I think are helpful. (Update on May 2: I'm inserting numbers for each tweet to help with further analysis and conversation, and I'm inserting additional comments for some of the tweets).

1. Last week I finished reading Justina Ireland's DREAD NATION. I found many parts--including the Author's Note--unsettling and alarming. Thursday I got an email from a young woman who had read it and was very upset with the Native content.

2. Because the book is doing so well, she wrote to me because the book's success made her doubt her own reading of it. The young woman is Native. I wrote back to her right away to tell her that my notes look much like hers.

3. One major problem is author using “well meaning” to characterize the creation of the boarding schools.
Update on May 1, 2018: Debra J. and Tanita Davis submitted comments about "well meaning." Both think that Ireland was being sarcastic. In the author's note, the word is not set off in italics or with quotation marks. Either one would convey sarcasm. Maybe that can be done in a next printing of the book. Several Native readers did not catch its sarcasm. I didn't, either.

4. Because the description said "Native and Negro Education Act" I expected a lot of content specific to Native people. There isn't much, overall, and what is there is... not great.
Update on May 2: In 1819, Congress passed the "Indian Civilization Act" which provided funds to Christian missionaries who would establish missions to "civilize" Native people.

5. And some of it is bad. A lot of historical fiction that could and should include Native people but doesn't, is a problem of omission. This is a different kind of problem.

6. For Native people, there's been wave after wave of government efforts to get rid of us. Some were straight up "kill them" and there are the assimilation ones which sought to kill us off as nations of people by killing our identity as Indigenous people.

7. Mission and boarding schools were designed to "civilize" and "Christianize" us. In author's note, Ireland wrote "This exploitative school system became the basis for the fictional combat school system in the alternative historical timeline of Dread Nation."

8. She goes on to say "Because if well-meaning Americans could do such a thing to an already wholly subjugated community in a time of peace, what would they do in a time of desperation?" There's a lot wrong in that sentence.

9. There's the "well meaning" (which I hope you should not be characterized that way, alone); there's the "already wholly subjugated community" (a collapsing of hundreds of Native Nations into a singular group); and there's "a time of peace" (peace, for what nation?)

10. When people make errors in fiction, it is not hard to say "this is an error of fact". Because Dread Nation is an alternative fantasy, it seems like there's a buffer of sorts. An author is in fantasy space, so in theory, anything goes.... but...
Update on May 2: Dread Nation is alternative history. In the tweet directly above this update, I said "alternative fantasy" but meant something more like "fantasy with alternative history."

11. I kept having to read and re-read passages to try to make the logic of what the author was doing, work, in this alternative space. I couldn't do it. It was (and is) a mind warp of some kind for me to be trying so hard to do that.

12. Hmmm.... would I get it if I wasn't an Indigenous woman who knows all this history--not from a history book but from family stories?

13. On page 17 we learn about Congress funding "the Negro and Native Reeducation Act" that created these combat schools. During that time period, people said "Indian". At the boarding schools, students were treated like if they were in the military, but...

14. ... they weren't given training in weapons or fighting. The military character of the schools was uniforms they were forced to wear. At some they were marched here and there. People in the dorms were/are "matrons".

15. Today at the schools, kids talk about this or that student being AWOL. They ran away, a lot, then.

16. On p 33 of Dread Nation: "I [Jane] heard that in Indian Territory they tried to send Natives from the Five Civilized Tribes to combat schools but they quickly figured out what was what and all ran off. The Army was too busy fighting the dead to chase them..."

17. "... so the government gave up and just focused on us Negroes." Knowing the real history, that's a kick in the gut.
Update on May 2: See tweet #47 for info on why I said "kick in the gut". Also relevant to seeing "Five Civilized Tribes" on page 33 are two other facts. That phrase refers to five nations: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole. Make time to watch the Trail of Tears episode in the PBS series, We Shall Remain. Amongst the things you'll learn there, is that some Indigenous people had slaves.

18. Backing up a bit to page 19, that passage abt Miss Preston (she runs the combat school) having had a Sioux lover and that she keeps an eagle feather in his memory... is perplexing. Jane thinks it isn't true. That's good but what does that bit do for the arc of the story?
Update, May 2: Someone asked for detail on what I meant by "that's good." I appreciate the question. The entire passage is this: "There were whispers that Miss Preston had taken a Sioux lover while out west and that she keeps an eagle feather in his memory, but I don't believe any of that." I think Jane is saying she doesn't believe Miss Preston had the Sioux lover. But--the passage is here. If it is going nowhere, it could have been deleted. I wonder if we'll learn in book two that Miss Preston did, in fact, have a Sioux lover?

19. I'd really like input from other readers. I come into this reading from a specific place, and because she's an author who understands far more than most writers do abt power/racism, I'm feeling a bit lost.

20. I'm feeling that way, too, about the Custer part. Getting bit by a zombie used to take days for the person who was bit to become a zombie, but, there's a new strain that the scientists are calling the Custer strain.

21. This new strain makes the person who is bit turn into a zombie much quicker: "It's named after Custer's stunning defeat in Cleveland at the hands of his own infected men, of course."
Update, May 2: In tweets 42-46, I circled back to my question about the Custer passage.

(hitting pause for now; more later).

22. Back and picking up thread. I'll come back to the Custer part later. One thing that lingers in my head, from the start, is who are these dead that rise, in the first place? All the land was/is Indigenous land. The dead that rise when this rising of shamblers (zombies) begins...

23. These dead who are rising from the land... some would be the soldiers who were fighting in the Civil War, and squatters/invaders/settlers... but this land would have thousands of years of Indigenous peoples who died pre 1492.

24. Native people fought in that war, too, by the way. But setting that aside for now, let's talk about Daniel Redfern. He's the only Native character in the story. When Jane first sees him, she notes how he's different from the Indians in the stories she reads.

25. I am glad to see that, for sure. Jane wonders if he went to the boarding school in Pennsylvania. Later (p. 163) Jane asks him what tribe he's from. He says "I doubt you've heard of us, my people don't exactly get featured in the weekly serials."

26. Lenape is his nation. Jane asks him if Redfern is a Lenape name, and "His lips tighten. 'No, it was the name given to me by a teacher at the school I was sent to when I was six." That doesn't quite work.

27. There are many accounts of Native kids being given an English name at the schools. My Hopi grandfather had a Hopi name, but when he went to boarding school they gave him this name: Rex Calvert. The point was to erase Indigenous culture. To 'kill the Indian.'

28. Why would a teacher at the school Redfern went to give him "Redfern" as a name?

29. Did this guy arrive at the school when he was six, with a Lenape name that, when translated into English, became Redfern? Maybe. But it would have taken a lot of work to make that happen. That teacher (or someone else there) would have to know the Lenape language.

30. But remember--these schools, for real, were meant to 'kill the Indian.' Kids, for real, were beaten for speaking their own languages. That changed later, for sure, and it is possible that this was a kind teacher but...

31. ... Daniel says that "They took me from my family, cut my hair, beat me every time they felt like it, and sent me to work for the mayer when I was eighteen." So--my effort to make his name, Redfern, work... fails.

32. There's a thread from yesterday that has bearing on my analysis of any book. In a nutshell, it is that writers aren't writing a textbook and that they want to make things up and have fun.

33. Ethnographic writing in fiction is something that Native writers have said 'no' to for a long time, too. I understand all of that.

34. I don't like ethnographic writing either. It is a fact for most of us in the US that for all our lives (and those of our parents, grandparents, etc), we've read White-centered fact and fiction forever. That's the Center of US publishing.

35. As I sit here and think about sci fi and fantasy and how important the knowledge we bring to a viewing or a reading matters, that scene from Galaxy Question comes to mind... the one where the aliens have been watching TV shows that got beamed into space...

36. ... and they thought all that was real. Remember? The captain said something about Gilligan's Island and the alien said "those poor people." I cracked up. I got it. I knew it was just a show. Our collective knowings made that story work.

37. My primary concern is as an educator who is also Native. We (Native ppls), have borne the brunt of bad, misinformed, well-intentioned, deliberately misleading, politically-biased writing for hundreds of years.

38. What we're striving for, I think, is a point in Knowing, where readers know who Native people are, and can spot the playful or artful worldbuilding that any writer does with a Native nation's people, as that writer's craft at work.
Tweets from Cynthia Leitich Smith, @CynLeitichSmith:
Yes. On a related note, in certain cases, the use of front and/or back matter can be helpful to authors in clarifying our fantastical frameworks. 
E.g., In Feral Curse and Feral Pride (books 2 & 3 of the Feral trilogy), I used the author's note to make clear "the shape-shifter fantasy elements...are not inspired by or drawn from any Native...traditional stories or belief systems." 
I'd suggest considering forward matter for stories in which the fantastic shift is the focal element of the story--to lay it all out from the start (as opposed to my example wherein the concern was more about misconceptions that may have arisen from reading other books).

39. I will stress that there are writers who are trying very hard to do right by marginalized peoples. This is way different than, say--anything that a racist like Custer would write.

40. So, back to say a bit more about the alternative history treatment of Custer in DREAD NATION. To refresh: a new strain of the plague that makes victims turn into zombies faster is named after Custer. The professor who names it that, is racist.

41. He thinks there's something about Negroes and Indians that makes them more resistant to the plague. 42. Here's what he said about naming the new strain: "It's named after Custer's stunning defeat in Cleveland at the hands of his own infected men, of course."

43. I read and re-read that part and couldn't make sense of it, so I asked two people with expertise in literature and history. They both said the same thing: that he's being depicted as such a fool that his own men took him down.

44. I'd really like to hear from other readers on how they interpreted that line about him. In my conversation with the two people I asked how Lakota people might feel about his death being depicted in this way.

45. In fact, he was killed by Lakota and Cheyenne men when he attacked a village. Custer thought he was going to have a victory, but it was the other way around. It was an important victory... it is commemorated, today.

46. There's a video of it here. Go watch it and then imagine how the people in it would feel if they read that line in Dread Nation.

47. Also: I appreciate the person who wrote to me privately to ask why that part about kids running away from boarding school and not being chased by Army was, as I wrote "a kick in the gut."

48. As I noted, Native kids ran away from the schools. More info: many died as they tried to get home. The school administrators called them deserters and tried to find them. As Brenda Child writes in BOARDING SCHOOL SEASONS...

49. ... (I highly rec that bk, by the way; I taught it in AIS 101 courses when I taught at UIUC), rewards were offered to people who would capture the kids who had run away. Railroad workers were asked not to let kids get on the trains.

50. Parents were notified when their child had run away, and then their wait began. Would their child make it home safely? Some Native communities would take the kids in, hiding them from administrators. In BOARDING SCHOOL SEASONS, Brenda Child quotes from docs:

51. "Superintendent Peairs at Haskell [...] complained that the Iowa Indians "harbor the Indian boy runaways and do everything to assist them in avoiding arrest." (Kindle location 1378).

52. So, that's what I meant when I read, in Dread Nation, that the Army chased Negro kids but not Native ones.

53. On page 139, we read that Confederates surrendered and that "President Lincoln would issue the Writ of Concession..." that made slavery illegal. That happened on Jan 1, 1863. But... any time I read Lincoln's name in nonfiction or fiction, I wonder if the writer knows...

54. .. what Lincoln did on December 31, 1862? Do you know that on that day, the largest mass execution in the US took place? Info here:

55. I hope you went over and read that news item about the executions. If you did, you know that history of that time was not a time of peace. Native Nations and the US were at war. There was a lot going on that isn't depicted in DN.

56. No book can "do it all." That's a given. But I will say this: I get tired of the pretty constant erasures of us in historical fiction (and in alternative history). The author of Dread Nation was trying not to do that erasure.

57. And as you likely know, readers love Jane. I see the many reasons why. Because of her, some might say "this book is not for you, Debbie" (so back off). But, I think the author DID want it to work for Native readers, too.

Update on May 12, 2018: Last weekend, Justina Ireland and I exchanged a series of tweets that began when I saw her sharing an article about the outing system in government boarding schools. In short, she incorrectly named the funding for the schools. In the exchange (and through other sources) it became clear to me that the reason her book fails in its representations of Native peoples is because she relied heavily on archival research. The "primary sources" she used are items in government archives--that are heavily biased. Though she lists several books about boarding schools, by Native writers, it seems to me that she did not read them carefully. I am working on a post about that, and the book itself, and noting here to, that I do not recommend Dread Nation.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Debbie--have you seen Marie Lu's "The Journey" in A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS?

A Native reader wrote to ask me about Marie Lu's "The Journey" in A Tyranny of Petticoats" published by Candlewick Press in 2016, and edited by Jessica Spotswood. The reader said:
  • There aren't any Alaska Native authors in the anthology - just an outsider writing about one.
  • The story is about the Inupiaq protagonist's 1st contact with white people, and that alone is something I'm not really ok with non-Natives writing. On top of that, the protagonist's parents are both killed by white people - her mom is shot on the page and dies on the page, and then white people burn her village. Why is this necessary for an outsider to write?! Who is Marie Lu writing for? Because Natives already know how violent our deaths were at 1st contact at the hands of white people. We don't need to see that on the page in a non-Native's words. This is trauma porn for settlers.
  • The protagonist is rescued by missionaries. They're portrayed as the good guys. One of them even says "We are not all like them." Did Marie Lu just use "Not all settlers"!? I get the impression Marie Lu has no idea about the depth of atrocities against Natives committed by missionaries. Most Native authors would never write missionaries as the saviors of a story.
  • In the author's note, Marie Lu says Julie of the Wolves was one of her favorite childhood books. That book seems to have inspired her to write this story. Considering how problematic Julie of the Wolves is, which Marie Lu would know if she did a simple google search or actually talked to Native people, that's a big red flag.
  • The author's note also says "I loved reading about the Inuit culture." What sources did she read from? Because non-Native sources are always problematic. And did she do any research besides reading? Did she consult with Inupiaq/Inupiat people?
  • That leads me to my next question - since the protagonist is Inupiaq, why did Marie Lu say she read about "Inuit culture"? Inupiaq/Inupiat and Inuit aren't the same thing.
  • And more from the author's note: "The facts already feel magical." I'm uncomfortable when non-Natives use the word "magic" to describe our cultures. Both the author's note and the story itself come off as exotifying us.
The Native reader also said:
I'm sure an Inupiaq person could find a lot more problems. This anthology prides itself on diverse representation, so this is especially disappointing. The rest of the stories might be good, I don't know, but I'm not going to read the rest because it obviously wasn't put together with Native people in mind.

If I get the book, I'll be back with a review. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A reader wrote to me to ask about a line in DEAR MARTIN, by Nic Stone

Update on Thursday, April 19, 2018: Nic Stone is working with her editor on that line. AICL thanks the reader who wrote to us, and, Nic Stone, too, for her understanding! 

Have you read Nic Stone's Dear Martin? Published in 2017 by Random House, it got favorable reviews, including a starred review from Booklist.

I haven't read it yet, but last week, I got an email from a Native reader who had started reading it. When she got to page 22, she was struck--not in a good way--by a class discussion the characters in the "Societal Evolution" class are having. The main character is Justyce McAllister, a 17 year old senior. He's a scholarship student at Braselton Preparatory Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. He's one of eight black students at the school.

Chapter three opens with Justyce walking into Societal Evolution class. The teacher ("Doc") writes "all men are created equal" on the digital chalkboard. He asks the class about the origin of those words. Jared says it is from the Declaration of Independence.

Here's the dialog. Earlier, we read that SJ is Sarah-Jane Friedman, who has been Justyce's debate partner since they were sophomores. She's likely to be the valedictorian (page 21-22):
Doc: Now, when we use our twenty-first-century minds to examine the quote within its historical context, something about it isn't right. Can you explain what I mean? 
Everyone: [Crickets]
Doc: Oh, come on, y'all. You don't see anything odd about these guys in particular making a statement about the inherent "equality" of men?
SJ: Well, these were the same guys who killed off the indigenous peoples and owned slaves. 
Doc: Indeed they were.
Jared: But it was different then. Neither slaves nor Indians--
Justyce: Native Americans or American Indians if you can't name the tribe, homie.
Jared: Whatever. Point is, neither were really considered "men."
Doc: That's exactly my point, Mr. Christensen. So here's the question: What does the obvious change in the application of this phrase from 1776 to now tell us about how our society has evolved?
[Extended pause as he adds the question to the digital chalkboard beneath the quote, then the scrape of a chair as he takes his regular seat in the circle.]
Jared: Well, for one, people of African descent are obviously included in the application of the quote now. So are "Native American Indians." 
Justyce: [Clenches jaw.]
It is SJ's comment that the Native reader wrote to me about. Let's look at it:
"Well, these were the same guys who killed off the indigenous peoples and owned slaves."
If you're a regular reader of AICL, you likely know why that line is a problem for a Native reader. Today, too many people think that all of us were "killed off" and that we no longer exist. That line reflects that idea--but it isn't true. We're still here.

As the conversation continues, Justyce corrects Jared's use of "Indians." That's great! Though I haven't read the book yet, it seems to me that Jared is a character who is meant to signify resistance to social change. That's reflected in the author's use of italics to emphasize Jared's use of "Native American Indians" in his reply to Doc.

Several writers have asked their publishers to make small changes to future printings of their books. In particular, those are instances in which an author used "low man on the totem pole" or "spirit animal." Their publishers agreed to their request.

Jared's comment that people of African descent and Native peoples are "obviously" included in "all men are created equal" might be how Stone intended for readers to understand that we're still here, but I don't think it is explicit enough to have readers move away from the vanished Indian idea.

In that conversation, Justyce corrected Jason. In future printings of Dear Martin, I think Stone could use Justyce to correct what SJ said, too. Or, she could modify what SJ says. What do you think? What kind of edits could be made?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Two Cool Tweets (about me)

At the Kweli Conference in NYC on April 6-7, Ibi Zoboi spoke on a panel about how she wanted to "Debbie Reese" a book about Haiti. I saw that just at the moment when I was taking my highlighter to a copy of Little House on the Prairie to highlight passages that I wanted to focus on at an upcoming workshop. I snapped a photo of me doing it and tagged Ibi, telling her I was doing that 'Debbie Reese' thing right at that moment:

A few days later, on Twitter, Ibi replied:
To ‘Debbie Reese’ is to read closely & critically, w/ love & deep compassion for your people, w/ a keen understanding of history & power structures & how that affects young readers.
Cool, right? WAY COOL. And then, Rita Williams-Garcia replied in that tweet thread, too. She said 
Common use: "Yes, but has this galley been ?" "Yes. Thoroughly ." Error: "thoroughly" is redundant here.
Again, cool, RIGHT? I was delighted but beneath that delight was a powerful surge of appreciation for the meanings that my work has for Ibi and Rita. I like my name being turned into a verb that has such significance!


Update: April 17, 2018 

Last night (April 16, 2018), Jace Weaver, the director of the Institute of Native American Studies at the University of Georgia, posted a comment about John Sedgwick's Blood Moon to his Facebook page. With his permission, I am quoting parts of it.

Dr. Weaver began with this word: "Warning." He then said that the publisher, Simon and Schuster, had asked him and Colin Calloway (a professor of history and Native American Studies at Dartmouth) to vet Blood Moon. It was already typeset in galleys, and, Dr. Weaver said, "it was horrible." It had "numerous factual errors" and "faulty interpretations." It bought into and trafficked in "the worst stereotypes." Both professors provided detailed readers' reports, but Sedgwick (the author) did not correct all the factual errors, and he "did nothing about tone or stereotypes."

Dr. Weaver's post ends with this:

"The worst of it is, we're thanked as 'two of the most authoritative contemporary scholars of Native Americans.' Arg! Avoid this book!" 

Here's a screen cap from the book:

See that? Sedgwick writes that he owes Weaver and Calloway "great debts." I think he owes them an apology. And that last line "I take full responsibility for any mistakes that remain" is Sedgwick's shield. It is a disclaimer that tells us, without telling us, that he ignored some of their input. His use of "mistakes" is also worth thinking about. Factual errors are one thing but the tone that Weaver objected to? That sort of thing can be put forth as point of view. What Weaver and Calloway (and me, below) say is derogatory stereotyping, Sedgwick can say he sees it differently. Someone once told me that what I call a negative stereotype can be seen by someone else as a heroic image.

Based on what Weaver said in his Facebook post and what I saw of the book, John Sedgwick's Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation is definitely in the Not Recommended category. 

Because of Simon and Schuster's marketing budget, it is going to be crucial that we use word-of-mouth to let others know there are problems in this book. It should not be used in high school classrooms.


Below is my original post, published on April 12, 2018.

A reader wrote to ask if I've read John Sedgwick's Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation. It isn't for children or young adults, but, the reader notes, some people might get it for a young adult or a young adult collection in a library.

I haven't read it. I can make some initial observations, based on how I go about analyzing books. I'm using what I see in the preview from Google Books for some of these observations and I'm using information made available about the book, including the book trailer at the Simon and Schuster website. Let's start with that video.

Sedgwick begins with "who knew" in an astonished tone, that Native people fought in the Civil War. Whenever someone uses that "who knew?" phrase that way, we are told a lot about that person. In this case, Sedgwick means that he didn't know, and that people he knows didn't know. From that body of people who did not know, he utters the "who knew" phrase. You know who knew? Cherokees. They know. So do a lot of Native people, including those of us who read beyond the master narratives of history. Then, he talks about how people know about the Trail of Tears, but that they don't know about a disagreement within the Cherokee Nation, about removal.  That's what his book is about.

Now, the book itself: 

First: Is Sedgwick (the author) Cherokee? Answer: No. Does that mean he cannot write this book? Obviously, no. The book is out there, from a major publisher. Does it mean he should not write the book? Again, no. Anyone can write about anything they want to. The significant questions are these: are the contents of the book accurate? Who vetted the book? When/if I get the book, will I find that Sedgwick worked with the Cherokee Nation on this book? Was their feedback used? If their feedback was ignored (that happens in children's lit, for sure), it sure would be good to know, but, that sort of feedback isn't usually provided. Sometimes, it comes out, post-publication.

Second: What is Sedgwick's source for what he says about a blood moon? In his "A Note on the Title" page, he writes this:
A blood moon is a rare form of lunar eclipse. For the Cherokee, any vanishing from the night sky was troubling, as it threw their cosmos out of order. A blood moon was especially terrifying, since the moon did not disappear, but turned bloodred. Meteorologists now see that a blood moon is actually lit by an unusual sunset glow picked up from the earth's atmosphere as the sunlight brushes past. But the Cherokee considered the sight an ill portent. The moon was red with rage over what lay below.
Some will find that note compelling. Obviously, Sedgwick is taken with it. He used it as the title and framework for his book. If I was doing an in-depth analysis, I'd try to find out what his source is. Is there a source for it in the back matter of the book? Maybe. If there is, I'd verify that source, too. There's a whole of of "knowledge" out there that gets put forth as being from this or that unnamed Native person that is actually some of the White Man's Indian imaginings. The note is also one that puts one peoples ways of viewing the world into a framework that casts them as simple, primitive, superstitious, etc. Opposite of them are meteorologists. Science. There's a whole lot of denigration and misrepresentation going on in that sort of binary!

Third: What is Sedgwick's orientation to Indigenous peoples? The introduction gives us a lot of insight to it. He writes:
While the Indians were skilled as scouts, trackers, horsemen, and sharpshooters, their greatest value may have been their fighting skills. Shaped by a warrior culture, most were used to violence, and they took to battle. Their long black hair spilling out from under their caps, their shoddy uniforms ill-fitting, their faces painted in harsh war colors, they surged into battle with a terrifying cry, equipped not just with army-issue rifles but also with hunting knives, tomahawks, and often, bows and arrows. Even when mounted on horses, they exhibited a deadly aim, and their arrows sank deep, leaving their victims as much astonished as agonized. They'd close fast, whip out a tomahawk to dispatch their man, then pounce on the corpse with a bowie knife to shear off a scalp to lift to the sky in triumph.
Sedgwick says they were "shaped by a warrior culture." I think Sedgwick's thinking is shaped by that master narrative and its stereotypes. Shall we count them?

  1. warriors
  2. long black hair
  3. face paint
  4. terrifying (war) cry
  5. knives, tomahawks, bows and arrows
  6. scalping

A few pages later, I see "Great Spirit" and another problematic binary (would they "run to the wild" or to the "bright promise of industrial civilization").

Having read that much, I have serious doubts about this book. Sounds to me like stereotypes form the foundation of how he's writing. If I get the book and read it, I'll be back with a review. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

What's On Your Shelves? (A workshop, led by Debbie Reese)

I've been spending the last week days preparing for my visit to Eureka, California, where I'll work with school, public, and tribal librarians on collection development! Hope you can come! Thank you, Jessica, of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria for arranging it, and thanks to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for supporting it!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Not recommended: ORPHAN TRAIN GIRL by Christina Baker Kline

In 2013, Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train was published. In 2017, a young readers’ edition came out. Here’s the description:
This young readers’ edition of Christina Baker Kline’s #1 New York Times bestselling novel Orphan Train follows a twelve-year-old foster girl who forms an unlikely bond with a ninety-one-year-old woman.

Adapted and condensed for a young audience, Orphan Train Girl includes an author’s note and archival photos from the orphan train era. This book is especially perfect for mother/daughter reading groups.
Molly Ayer has been in foster care since she was eight years old. Most of the time, Molly knows it’s her attitude that’s the problem, but after being shipped from one family to another, she’s had her fair share of adults treating her like an inconvenience. So when Molly’s forced to help an a wealthy elderly woman clean out her attic for community service, Molly is wary. 
But from the moment they meet, Molly realizes that Vivian isn’t like any of the adults she’s encountered before. Vivian asks Molly questions about her life and actually listens to the answers.
Soon Molly sees they have more in common than she thought. Vivian was once an orphan, too—an Irish immigrant to New York City who was put on a so-called "orphan train" to the Midwest with hundreds of other children—and she can understand, better than anyone else, the emotional binds that have been making Molly’s life so hard.
Together, they not only clear boxes of past mementos from Vivian’s attic, but forge a path of friendship, forgiveness, and new beginnings.
As the description indicates, there are two main characters in this story. The one of interest to me is the sixth-grade girl, Molly, who is Penobscot. She is named after Molly Molasses (p. 64):
…a Penobscot Indian born the year before America declared its independence. […] The Penobscots said Molly Molasses had powers, m’teoulin, given by the Great Spirit. People with those powers, her dad told her, could interpret what dreams meant, cure diseases, and tell hunters where to find game. It’s too bad Molly didn’t wind up with any of those powers herself. 
Kline's story is set in Maine. Molly spent her early years living on the reservation on Indian Island with her dad, who was Penobscot, and her mom (her identity is not specified, which means, she's white. You know--the default is always White). 

When she turned eight her mom made macaroni and cheese for the two of them and then they waited for Molly’s dad. Her mom tries calling his cell. He doesn’t pick up, but Molly hears her mom hissing into the phone “How could you forget your daughter’s birthday?”  After a while she goes to bed and wakes him when her dad is there, shaking her shoulder telling her to hold out her hand (p. 166-167):
She did, and he pulled three little cards out of the bag. On each one a small charm was wired into place. “Fishy,” he said, handing her the small pearly blue-and-green fish. “Raven.” The pewter bird. “Bear.” A tiny brown teddy bear. “It’s supposed to be a Maine black bear, but this is all they had,” he said apologetically. “I was trying to figure out what I could get you for your birthday. And I was thinking. You and me are Indian. Your mom’s not, but we are. So let’s see if I remember this right.” He moved over to sit on the bed and plucked the bird charm out of her hands. “Okay, this guy is magic. He’ll protect you from bad spells and stuff.” Then he picked up the teddy bear. “This fierce guy is a protector.” 
She laughed, relaxing. Her dad was home. Now her mom wouldn’t be mad anymore. Everything was all right, and it was okay that she’d had a birthday after all. 
“No, really. He may not look like much, but he’s fearless. And he’ll make you brave, too. All right. Now the fish. This one might be the best of all. He’ll give you the power to resist other people’s magic. How cool is that?”
She smiled sleepily. “But magic’s not real. Just in stories.” Her father’s face grew serious.  
“No, there’s a real kind of magic, Molly Molasses. You’re old enough to know about it now.” She felt a thrill that climbed up from her stomach, hearing her father say that. “It’s not like bad spells. It might be stuff that looks real good and sounds real nice. It might be—oh, I don’t know. Like maybe somebody telling you it’s okay to steal a candy bar from the Mini-Mart. You know it’s wrong to steal a candy bar, right? But maybe this person has a lot of magic and he’s saying, ‘Oh, come on, Moll, you won’t get caught. Don’t you love candy, come on, just one time?’” He wiggled the fish in his fingers and pretended that it was talking. “‘No, thank you! I know what you’re up to. You are not putting your magic on me, no sir, I will swim right away from you, y’hear?’”
Molly smiled. Her dad smiled back. “But now you’re protected from that sort of magic. Nobody can make you do stuff you don’t want to do. Nobody can tell you who you are, nobody but you.” 
Before then, her dad had given her a corn husk doll but she didn’t much like it. She would have rather had a Barbie doll. Two weeks after that birthday evening is the car crash. Her mom is having a hard time with his death, so, a case worker steps in, and six months later she's put into the foster system (p. 10): 

There weren’t any foster families on the reservation who could take her, so she ended up getting shuffled around before landing with Ralph and Dina.
That placement with Ralph and Dina is where this story takes place. There's a lot about emotional interactions Molly has with foster families and other children but almost nothing about emotions over her parents. She's snarky about her mom, but her dad is pretty much just... not in her head or heart. 

Molly’s social studies class is studying the Wabanaki Indians, and for the first time since she started at this new school, she’s interested because she’s learning things about the Wabanakis that she didn’t know. She’s angry, for example, when she learns about the treaties and how land had been taken from the Wabanakis, and how people called them “dirty, redskins, savages” (p. 125). When someone in the class says that the Wabanakis just have to deal with what happened, she raises her hand, tells them she’s part Wabanaki, and that (p. 125):
… what happened to the Native Americans wasn’t a fair fight. You can’t take everything away from someone, everything they own and care about, and then just say, ‘Deal with it.’ That’s not okay.”


That, in short, is pretty much all that Kline tells us about Molly and her identity. Orphan Train Girl is really about the girl who was, in fact, an orphan train girl. That girl, Vivian, is the other character in the story.  The book description tells us that Vivian asks Molly about her life, but there's very little of Molly's life in comparison to what Vivian tells her about her own life. Molly’s identity and purpose for being in this story is to provide a way for Kline to tell a story about Vivian.

In the Acknowledgements, Kline wrote that when she was writing this book, her mother was teaching a class at the University of Maine. That class was “Native American Women in Literature and Myth.” A final assignment was to (p. 226):
…use the Indian concept of portaging to describe “their journeys along uncharted waters and what they chose to carry forward in portages to come.” The concept of portaging, I realized, was the missing strand I needed to weave my book together.  
Kline’s mother used portaging for her own purposes. Kline apparently liked that idea so much that she had Molly’s teacher give Molly’s class that same assignment. They were to interview a parent or grandparent and (p. 63-64): 
… interview someone in your family. Someone older. Your mother or father, a grandparent, someone who’s lived through things you haven’t. And ask them about a time they had to take a journey of some kind. Maybe it was an actual journey, maybe just a change of life, trying something new. Ask what they took with them from their old life and what they decided to leave behind. You’ll turn the answers they give you into a report for the class.” 
And that, speaking frankly, is how a major publisher can turn a best seller into something that will bring in more money: adapt it for young readers and put it forth as if it is a Native story. It isn't. Orphan Train Girl is (if you can't tell), rubbing me the wrong way. 

But there's more. I think somebody read Orphan Train and told Kline that Molly's identity as a Native child being put into the foster system was a problem. Someone told her about ICWA. But, she (or perhaps--Sarah Thompson--the person who adapted the story for young readers) didn't incorporate any of that into the story. Instead, Kline put this in a note in the back (p. 227):
In a case like Molly’s, when a Native American family is not available to foster a child, the Tribal Court will allow her to be fostered to a non-Indian family.
She also says, in that note, that Donna Loring, a member of the Penobscot Nation read the manuscript (p. 227):
...advising me on issues related to the ICWA, and adding shading and nuance to some complicated questions about Native American symbols and laws.
As I noted, though, there's no ICWA in the story. I assume the "symbols" has to do with those charms that Molly's dad gave to her. But all in all, the story that Kline tells is one where she's using a Native character and Native content to tell a story that is--at its heart--about a White woman. It is a history Kline clearly wants to tell but she could have done that without this decorative use of Molly. 

In short: I do not recommend Orphan Train Girl. Published in 2017 by Harper, this is another instance of a book written by a non-Native writer who is using Native content (poorly) and getting published by a major publisher. For the sake of every child in the US, this has to stop.