Friday, September 07, 2018

Not recommended: THE SPIRIT TRACKERS by Jan Bourdreau Waboose and Francois Thisdale

A reader wrote to ask me about The Spirit Trackers by Jan Bourdeau Waboose (illustrations by Francois Thisdale). Here's the description:
Cousins Will and Tom have always wanted to become Trackers just like their uncle.
While spending time with Uncle he shares the story of the Windigo with the boys. A story that seems to be coming true when Will and Tom hear strange noises outside of their bedroom window. And then they find the huge tracks in the snow. It has to be the Windigo - the Wandering Night Spirit of Winter!
And the boys know what good trackers would do so they follow the trail deep into the dark forest to uncover the mystery.
Young readers will be able to improve their tracking skills as they find clues hidden in the illustrations along with Will and Tom.
I like Waboose's other books very much, and thought I'd be using a "recommended" label for this one. But then I got to the page where the boys are outside about to follow that trail into the forest. They're afraid but intrigued, too.
The cousins stand like totems.
Totems? That threw me. I asked a lot of Ojibwe friends and colleagues in Education and English, and they all thought it an odd word to use there. The cousins are standing, still. Does "totems" gesture somehow to totem poles? I didn't like Thisdale's illustrations, either. There is a new age quality to them that I don't like at all. Published in 2017 by Fifth House Publishing, I do not recommend The Spirit Trackers. 

Some thoughts on the use of the word "tribe" by teachers and schools...

Eds. note on Sunday, Sept 9, 2018: Many people responded to the thread I started on Sept. 7. Several asked if I knew about the Tribes Learning Community program. That question prompted me to add to the thread. I am adding the additional tweets as an update at the bottom of the post, along with a summary of some of the responses.


"Some thoughts on the use of the word "tribe" by teachers and schools..."
September 7, 2018

Below is a thread I did on Twitter this morning. I used the spool app to compile the individual tweets so I could paste them here.

A conversation is taking place on Twitter, where some teachers are asking other teachers not to use "tribe" to describe their classrooms of students. 

Some people are trying to push back on those asking that it not be done. They are pointing to dictionary definitions of the word (tribe) to say that it does not mean only Native people--that it has roots elsewhere. 

That's true. The word 'tribe' is not an Indigenous word. It is used to describe many other nations/peoples around the world. But--we are talking about the US. Here, that is precisely what it evokes. 

And one need only do some google image searching to see that teachers are definitely using their ideas of Indigenous people to create classroom materials for their "tribe" of kids. (I did the red x overlay to indicate NOPE.)

Here's another one (and again, I added the red x):

And here's another! I could do this all day long. If you are a teacher, please reconsider. This is a new-ish fad, but like many fads, it is harmful. Don't do it!

I took a look at the site "Teachers Pay Teachers" and found many similar problematic ideas there. "Create a tribe" is one. It is like the too-many "what is your Indian name" activities that are everywhere. They draw on stereotypes. 

When you do these kinds of activities, teachers, you are introducing and/or affirming stereotypes. Remember! You're a teacher and you have a responsibility to educate children. Stereotypes do not educate! They misinform! 

Librarians: when you do these kinds of activities in your libraries, you are also misinforming children. 

Writers/illustrators: when you use stereotypes in your books for kids, you contribute to this problem. Case in point: Lane Smith's picture book, THERE IS A TRIBE OF KIDS, and kids in it shown like this: (……)

Bottom line: there's too many ways this can--will--and DOES go wrong in a society that knows so very little about Indigenous people and our nations. I recommend you step away from using "tribe" to describe your classrooms.

Update on September 9, 2018:

Picking up on my thread yesterday about teachers using "tribe" to refer to their classrooms.... Several people have written to ask me about the pre-packaged "Tribes Learning Community" and its use of "tribes". 

I gather it was created in the 1970s by Jeanne Gibbs and that its goal is to create classrooms where there was an emphasis on positive environments in the school and classroom. As the project was being developed, someone said "We feel like a family... we feel like a tribe."

Gibbs and all those involved in the development and implementation of this "Tribes Learning Community" meant well. But I wonder--given the length of time it has been in use--if any of the teachers using it had a Native child in the classroom? 

If one of my daughter's teachers had been using it, I would have had a meeting with the teacher. I support efforts to foster a positive environment (I was a classroom teacher, too), but there's no need to use "tribe" to do it. 

When I started this thread yesterday, I shared a few images of how "Tribes" materials look. A lot of those materials reference the Tribes Learning Community. Gibbs and her team are probably not monitoring the kinds of materials teachers use when they adopt Gibbs's program. 

But Gibbs and her team -- however -- are aware that some question its use. One of their trainers is Ron Patrick. On her website, Gibbs has a letter written by him, defending the use of the word. 

Correction: it isn't a letter. It is a statement 'Why the Name "Tribes"'. In it he says his tribe is Eastern Band of Cherokee. In his signature line, he used a phrase I associate with Navajo people (May you walk in Beauty). That's a bit odd, to me. 

Also on Gibbs's website is a pdf "What Tribes Are and How They Work" that opens with this:
"A Native American teacher, Paula Swift Robin, is talking with four other teachers at a conference in eastern Washington."
Let's look at that sentence, critically. 

Why did TLC start with that particular person? With that particular name? I think they are using that person and her identity to protect them from being questioned. 

Now let's look at how they described her, as a "Native American." Is Paula Swift Robin a real person? If so, what is her nation? Does Gibbs know that Native people prefer to be identified by their specific nation? 

Gibbs writes that the Tribes Learning Community is used in Native schools. There's a comment from a person in one, in Ontario, but I don't think she is Native. If you are Native and it is used in your child's school, what have you seen? 

Given that the Tribes Learning Community emphasizes listening and positive classroom environments, I wonder if there's anything in any of their books about stereotyping of Native people? Do they help teachers with any of that? 

I can see parts of REACHING ALL BY CREATING TRIBES LEARNING COMMUNITIES online. It has a "Matrix for Achieving Equity in Classrooms." Columns include linguistic bias, stereotyping, invisibility/exclusion. But

... there's a reference to having a "council meeting" where students can make presentations. A council meeting? Hmm...

On page 140 of the book is a:
"Step by Step Process for Group Problem Solving. 1) Ask the tribes to discuss how they feel about people spraying paint on the wall of the school." 
The "tribes" discuss & then "tribe by tribe" they vote on a solution. 

Are there more than one tribe in any given classroom? Or is this example one where all the 3rd grade classrooms (for example) are participating? How does the person managing all of this designate a particular "tribe"? Is it by teacher name? 

If you have the book, can you share (in a reply, here) how tribes are delineated?

Summary of responses:

One parent said that her child's classroom has a "tribes agreement" and asks if it is part of the Learning Communities program. It is a key component. She also says that arrows, dreamcatchers, and teepees are everywhere. She plans to speak to the principle and is optimistic. 

Many people asked about other words they could use. Others responded, suggesting team, squad, house, and family. In daughter's middle school they used "pathfinders" and "navigators" which I liked ok because they're about action and don't default to imagery that has problematic stereotyping associated with them. 

A parallel conversation evolved about the use of "spirit animal." I've written about that before: What is wrong with Buzzfeed's WHAT IS YOUR SPIRIT ANIMAL and Neal Shusterman's UNWIND dystology

Some raised questions over other problematic phrases. I've been working on a list of them, here: Common phrases

Some are working hard to understand why it is a problem. They see or use the word to describe their (or a friend's) classroom. I appreciate that they're trying to understand. They strike me as receptive to critical thinking. Others are resistant. They assert that they (or their children) are "part Native American" and think that carries weight. A claim to being "part Native American" is used as a defense of mascots, too. These are well-meaning but ignorant and ultimately, harmful to education. 

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Recommended! Rebecca Roanhorse's "Thoughts on Resistance" in HOW I RESIST: ACTIVISM AND HOPE FOR A NEW GENERATION

Editors note, Dec 31, 2018: Yesterday, I was updating the photo gallery of Native writers and went to Roanhorse's website to make sure I identify her as she identifies herself, but her bio no longer says she is Ohkay Owingeh. On Twitter today she said she's Indigenous. I'm not sure how to refer to her at this point. "Indigenous" without a specific tribal affiliation is not sufficient to be included on AICL. This has never happened to me before, so... not sure what to do! --Debbie

Yesterday, I wrote about the work of an Indigenous artist in We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, an anthology edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson. Today, I'm back to talk about a different Indigenous artist, in another book with the theme of resistance.

I'm talking about Rebecca Roanhorse's "Thoughts on Resistance" in How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation, edited by Maureen Johnson. Here's the cover--and isn't it gorgeous?

Second from the right on the top line is Roanhorse. She is Ohkay Owingeh/Black. In her essay, she writes about being asked to participate in this project:
I felt a mistake had been made. I'm not an activist.
She goes on to say she's a writer off science fiction and fantasy. That's not activist work, she thought, but then, she remembers that she's an Indigenous woman, and...
Every day I am alive, I am resisting those who would reduce Native Americans to a footnote in a bad history book. 
There's several more "Every day I am alive..." passages and then,
Some of us have been resisting since 1492.
Awesome, right? She then refers to the Indigenous people who went to Standing Rock. She didn't go, but tells us that we can't all go to sites like that, and that some of us aren't "cut out to be frontline pipeline warriors." If, she writes "you're more like me, write." She suggests that Indigenous teens imagine worlds with Indigenous people in them--where they are not just surviving, but thriving. This, next part, for me, is precisely what I think this anthology is meant to do: inspire teens, to write!
... imagine Natives in space stations, Natives battling the Empire, Natives slaying dragons...
There's more, but I want you to get the book and read the rest of her essay, and the others in How I Resist, too! They're all different in length, style, and format (some, for example, are interviews). Published in 2018 by St. Martin's Press, I definitely recommend it!

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Recommended! Roy Boney's "Tell It in Your Own Way" in WE RISE, WE RESIST, WE RAISE OUR VOICES

When you read through We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, you're probably going to do a double take when you get to this image:

It is by Roy Boney. He's Cherokee. His essay, "Tell It In Your Own Way" is one of the many splendid items in this terrific volume:

Roy Boney is one of the coolest people on the planet. I've written about his work before. He's done some excellent work in the Code Talker series, published by Native Realities. And--kidlit folks--if you're organizing a conference, invite him to sit on panels! I was blown away by the panel that he, Arigon Starr, and Lee Francis did at Returning the Gift last year.

In his essay for We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, he writes that he's a full blooded Cherokee and grew up hearing Cherokee spoken aloud. In school, people noticed that he liked to draw and thought he should draw Native people like the ones in westerns, but he didn't like that because (p. 60):
...those types of images didn't express what my life was like. My family never ran around in buckskins, and we never lived in tipis. We drove cars, lived in houses, and watched TV like everybody else. And we laughed a lot! If I was going to make art, it would be art that I enjoyed and that expressed my experience as a Cherokee person living in the modern era.
I love reading that, and think Native kids who read his essay will rise, too, to resist mainstream expectations of who we are, what we look like, what we should do...

Here, again, is the illustration Roy Boney did, to go with his essay:

About that illustration, he says:
The actual piece is called Simpquoyah, and it is a cartoonized version of Sequoyah based on a popular television illustration style. [...] The caption in the drawing is written in Cherokee and translates as "Do you understand Cherokee?" The background is made up of the Cherokee syllabary as originally designed by Sequoyah himself! In the corner is my signature written in Cherokee. This is one of my favorites pieces because it combines several loves of mine: the Cherokee language, humor, cartoons, and digital illustration.

I highly recommend We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson. Published in 2018 by Crown Books for Young Readers, it is easy to see why it is getting starred reviews from mainstream reviewers.

Monday, September 03, 2018


This post was initially titled "Debbie--have you seen American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle for Self Determination by Stephanie Woodard" but as I did some research on that book, I grew increasingly furious at Kirkus. I put that original title in parenthesis and inserted "An F'ed up KIRKUS Review" because that's where I am at the moment.

A reader wrote to ask if I've read American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle for Self Determination by Stephanie Woodard. Published by Ig Publishing on July 1st, 2018, it isn't a book meant for children or young adults, but it is the sort that I think teachers might find useful. I haven't read it, but am intrigued. Here's the description:
In recent years, events such as the siege at Standing Rock and the Dakota Access pipeline have thrust Native Americans into the public consciousness.
Taking us beyond the headlines, American Apartheid offers the most comprehensive and compelling account of the issues and threats that Native Americans face today, as well as their heroic battle to overcome them. Author Stephanie Woodard details the ways in which the federal government, states and counties curtail Native voting rights, which, in turn, keeps tribal members from participating in policy-making surrounding education, employment, rural transportation, infrastructure projects and other critical issues affecting their communities. This system of apartheid has staggering consequences, as Natives are, per capita, the population group that is most likely to be shot by police, suffer violent victimization by outsiders, be incarcerated, and have their children taken away. On top of this, indigenous people must also fight constantly to protect the sacred sites and landscapes that hold their cultural memories and connect their spirituality to the nation’s mountains, plains, waterways and coastlines. Despite these many obstacles, American Apartheid offers vivid pictures of diverse Native American communities that embody resilience, integrity, and the survival of ancient cultures.

Looking at the Barnes and Noble website, I see that Louise Erdrich and Tim Giago blurbed it. I often go to B&N to see reviews because they usually post complete reviews. Amazon will use only positive excerpts from reviews, thereby mis-using the reviews (leaving out less-positive or outright negative critiques). As of right now (Monday, Sep 3, 2018), Amazon doesn't have any professional reviews at all. Barnes and Noble has one: from Kirkus.

And--that Kirkus review--made me utter WTF when I got to these lines:
However, the book is marred by some misleading contentions. Woodard laments the disproportionately high incarceration rate for Native Americans as compared to whites, but she does not address the question of whether the former commit crimes at a higher rate than the latter. Moreover, her assertion that in 2016, Standing Rock Sioux confronted construction of the Dakota Access pipeline only through "nonviolent demonstrations" is not entirely true; there were numerous reports of violent acts committed by the protestors, including stampeding bison and hurling projectiles at law enforcement personnel. 

That reviewer says the book is "marred" by "misleading contentions" and then that reviewer gave two examples that make the reviewers ignorance or racism visible.

Apparently this reviewer thinks that we commit crimes at higher rates than White people. Then, the reviewer talks about "violent acts" at Standing Rock. I assume the reviewer brought that up as evidence of our "violent" ways that make us commit more crimes than Whites. That reviewers remarks tell us that they believe stereotypical ideas of us as violent people. That is utterly disgusting and harmful, too, in so many ways. 

Kirkus--whether this is ignorance or outright racism on the part of your reviewer and that reviewer's editor, you really ought to address the content of that review! It was published in your May 15, 2018 issue. I wonder how many librarians saw that review and decided not to order the book? How many are reading the online review and making that same decision? How many readers are seeing that review at Barnes and Noble and deciding not to get the book? All of those decision are based on the ignorance of your reviewer. If you choose not to, your silence will be telling us a lot.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Best Graphic Novels by Native Writers

This morning, I read Diversity in Graphic Novels at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) website. I hoped it would include graphic novels by Native writers, and I was disappointed. [Note: this blog post is being added to the article. Thanks, NCTE!) I clicked through a few of the links and saw that Laura Jimenez's list of Graphic Novels to Keep includes Trickster, edited by Matt Dembicki. But there's so much more than that, NCTE! There's anthologies, super heroes, historical and realistic stories... See?

I've read many! And reviewed several, and so, I decided to create a list. I hope NCTE will add it to their article. Hurray! NCTE is going to add it to their article. Some links below are to my reviews; others are to author sites, articles about the graphic novel, or Native bookstores I recommend. This is a list-in-progress! I'll be back to add to it from time to time. It will help if you submit ones you know of (use comment option below or send me an email). I'll add it to the list and credit you with the suggestion.  And... I don't have age-of-reader listed for any of these because that varies tremendously, depending on the reader! My request: order them for your library and then decide where, on your shelves, they ought to go.

Suggestions for anyone interested in graphic novels by Native writers:


And now... the list (in progress):

Henry, Jr., Gordon and Elizabeth LaPensée. Not [Just] [An]Other, (Sovereign Traces, Vol I), Makwa Enewed, 2018.

LaPensée, Elizabeth. Deer Woman: An Anthology. Native Realities, 2017.

Nelson, Jonathan. The Wool of Jonesy. Native Realities. 2016.

Nicholson, Hope, (ed). Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Vol I. Alternative History Comics, 2015.

Nicholson, Hope, (ed). Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Vol II. Alternative History Comics. 2017.

Robertson, David Alexander. Will I See? HighWater Press. 2017.

Starr, Arigon. Super Indian Vol. IWacky Productions Unlimited. 2012.

Starr, Arigon. Super Indian Vol. IIWacky Productions Unlimited, 2015.

Starr, Arigon, (ed). Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers. Native Realities Press. 2016.

Storm, Jen. Fire Starters. HighWater Press. 2017.

Tso, Theo. Captain Paiute. Native Realities. 2015.

Van Camp, Richard. The Blue Raven. Pearson. 2015.

Van Camp, Richard. A Blanket of Butterflies. HighWater Press. 2015.

Van Camp, Richard. Spirit. South Slave Divisional Education Council. 2016. 

Vermette, Katherena. A Girl Called Echo. HighWater Press. 2017.

Update: I'll be adding suggestions from readers, below:

Grant, Andrea. Minx: Dream War, published in 2011 by Copious Amounts: Ardden; recommended by Lorisia MacLeod.

Hope, Ishmael. Strong Man, published by the Association of Alaska School Boards in 2007; recommended by Kelly Eldridge and by L'aakaw Éesh Kyle Wark. 

Laboucane-Benson, Patti. The Outside Circle, published in 2015 by House of Anansi Press, recommended by Gail Arlene de Vos. 

Mitchell, Brandon. Various titles in the comics for youth, published by The Healthy Aboriginal Network

Odjick, Jay. Kagagi, The Raven, published in 2010 by Arcana Comics, Inc. 

Robertson, David Alexander. 7 Generations series, published by Portage and Main Press; recommended by Monique Woroniak. 

Robertson, David Alexander. Tales From Big Spirit series, published by Portage and Main Press; recommended by Monique Woroniak. 

Van Camp, Richard. The Three Feathers, published in 2016 by Portage and Main Press, recommended by Allie Jane Bruce. 

Wade, Katherine. Tsaani (The Grizzly Bear Story), published in 2005 by Nay'dini'aa na' Publishing; recommended by Kelly Eldridge. 

Yahgulanaas, Michael Nicoll. Red: A Haida Manga published in 2014 by Douglas & McIntyre; recommended by Gail Arlene de Vos. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Highly recommended! DREAMERS by Yuyi Morales

The first library I knew as a child was a cardboard box full of books. You see, I went to a government day school on my reservation. We didn't have a library. What we had was a librarian from the nearby public school, who would drive to our school every couple of weeks, with a box full of books. That was our library. That I remember it is an indicator of how much books mattered to me then, and now.

Libraries of books are, indeed, special places.

Books in libraries, can be very special, too. A lot of people have warm memories of a book they liked. They've also got memories of horrible books, too, so I'll note that as well!

The point is, books touch our lives. Some of them find a place in our beings. They snuggle in and keep us warm in ways that we might not be conscious of all the time, but, they are there. That warmth is what I've feeling today (again) as I read (again) Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.

Why? Because within its pages are books that have found a place in my being, and seeing them in the pages of Dreamers warms me all over again. (A note to my friends and colleagues who study children's books: what is the word to describe an author or illustrator referencing the work of another author or illustrator in their book? Is it intertextuality?!)

Let me show you what I mean. Here's Home to Medicine Mountain by Chiori Santiago. Its illustrations are by Judith Lowry. Published in 1998 by Children's Book Press, I remember it well because it was the first picture book I found that did right in telling readers about boarding schools.

And here is When We Were Alone. Written by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett, it is also about boarding school. It was published in 2017 by HighWater Press.

Dreamers is essentially a book of memories wrapped up in the embrace of what is possible. We see a mom, and the love she has for her baby as they take journeys together: from one country to another, from one book to another, from one age to another.

Gosh--as I pore over the art and the words and the book covers, I smile again and again. I remember reading some of the other books Morales depicts to my kindergarten and first grade students (they're all grown up now) at Pojoaque Elementary School in the late 80s and early 90s and when I chose to be a stay-at-home mom, I read those books to my dear little one (she's all grown up now, too!).

Dreamers is one I would definitely have read to my students and my daughter. Today, it will invite conversations that will vary tremendously, depending on locale, students, and the dreams of the teachers who gathers students around them at storytime. And the back matter will appeal to puzzlers. Well, maybe "puzzlers" isn't the right word. The back matter includes a list of books that inspired Morales. Finding their covers would be lots of fun! And she's got a paragraph called "How I Made this Book" that lists items she photographed to create the book. With a little one on my lap, I'd be reading that list and looking for the items in the pages of the book. [Back to say that if you head over to The Making of Dreamers at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, you can see photographs of those items.]

My heart is warmed, too, by Yuyi Morales, the person who I've come to know over the last few years. I met her in person in June of 2018 in New Orleans for the American Library Association's annual conference. After lunching together in a tiny eatery, we walked over to the convention center so I could register. My name tag said "retired" because that's what I said when I registered. She said something like "you're not retired" and I told her I didn't have a university affiliation. I didn't really know what to put on the registration form. I said something like "I wonder if I can submit something like bad ass as my occupation (my daughter said that to me once, which was way cool). We laughed and she told me to put it on there. Then the next day when I got my copy of Dreamers, she signed it for me...

See? It says "To Bad ass Debbie!"

That day, we walked and talked for a couple of hours. Laughing and learning from each other: two women who want the world to be better than it is and who--with our work and our words--are trying to help it become a better place. Here's a photo she took:

I didn't mean to make myself such a big part of this review, but in fact, I guess I'm coming full circle at this point.

Books can wrap us in warmth, and those who create them can be beacons for us in difficult times. That's Yuyi Morales. A beacon of warmth, of light, of delight, of life.

Note: Yuyi is not a Native woman. On her website, she writes that was was born in Xalapa, Mexico, and that she is Mexicana. Her book is being reviewed on AICL because it includes Native content.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Highly recommended: We Are Grateful/Otsaliheliga, by Traci Sorell

I love to see Indigenous languages on book covers! Check out the cover of Traci Sorell's We Are Grateful/Otsaliheliga: 

What you see on that cover is the words "We Are Grateful" in English, and then in Cherokee, and also in the Cherokee syllabary. The illustrations in We Are Grateful are by Frané Lessac.

Sorell is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. The weekend of September 1st, she will be at the Cherokee National Holiday, signing her books. If you click on the link for the Cherokee National Holiday, and then go to the link for the online Google map tour, you'll see that there will be a lot of activities taking place that weekend. I'm pasting a screen cap of the book signing here, because it is WAY COOL!

The Google map on the Cherokee Nation that shows the cover of We Are Grateful, somehow, echoes what I see in the book. It is about a nation of people who go through each year, each day--really--being mindful of the world they're in, where they've come from, and why all of this is important to the well being of their community. With its seasonal arrangement, we see families planting gardens and playing in snow. In various ways, the events of the Cherokee National Holiday reflect the seasons, too.

What makes We Are Grateful exquisite is that Sorell's book touches on the Trail of Tears, naming of children, and the importance of listening to elders at the Cherokee National Holiday. These parts of the book are depicted in a matter of fact way. They aren't emotionally weighted--and they don't need to be. They are parts of the lives of Cherokee citizens. I think it is Sorell's identity that makes it possible for these parts of the story to work as beautifully as they do!

It is easy for me to say that We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, published in 2018 by Charlesbridge, is highly recommended!

Oh! You gotta take a look at this video... it is the Cherokee Nation choir singing Celebrate in Cherokee--and interspersed in the singing are the words you'll find in We Are Grateful! 

Congratulations, Traci Sorell! I look forward to reading a lot more, from you, in the coming years.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Highly Recommended: HEARTS UNBROKEN by Cynthia Leitich Smith

I'll start by echoing the title of this post. I highly recommend Cynthia Leitich Smith's Hearts Unbroken. Lou, the main character, is a senior in high school. There's a lot in here that I love, for several reasons. There are spoilers below, so you might want to read the book and come back, later. 

My ARC (advance reading copy) of Hearts Unbroken book has so many corners turned up or down. See? The top end looks that way, too.

I wasn't marking my place. I was marking a page that has something I want come back to. Something that moved me--to a smile, a squeeze of my heart, a laugh, or an UGH--because it captured life for so many Native teens who most of America doesn't see, even though they are right there, in front of you.

By that, I mean that Native people are everywhere. Too much of America thinks that we no longer exist. Or that if we did make it to 2018, we are living in some remote place. In a tipi. And that we have dark skin. And long black hair. And high cheekbones. And wear fringe and feathers. Today, in 2018. 24/7. If that is what you expect, you're hurting Native and non-Native kids and teens in your schools and libraries.

The Native kids in your schools and neighborhoods may be invisible to you but they see a lot that is also invisible to you.

For example, most people see right past the hurt embodied in an "Indian" mascot. Most don't even see the stereotyping in the "Indian" woman on the butter they buy at the grocery store (yeah, I'm talking about Land O'Lakes). A lot of Native kids see these things. Their families see them, too...


Here's the description of Hearts Unbroken:
When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off and dumps him over e-mail. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time with her family and friends and working on the school newspaper. The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting The Wizard of Oz has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town. From the newly formed Parents Against Revisionist Theater to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students — especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man. As tensions mount at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey — but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?
Lou, we learn on page 7, is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She reminds her then-boyfriend, Cam, of that fact when he goes on about how his mom doesn't like Andrew's (his brother) fiancée because "the girl is a Kickapoo Indian, so, you know" (p. 6). Lou asks for more info, and Cam says that the girl wants Andrew for his money (Cam's family is rich). Then he says that his mom thinks that Kickapoo sounds like a dog (p. 7) : "peekapoo or cockapoo. Get it?"

Ugh. Cam is speaking to Lou as if her Native identity is of no importance. And then he claims to be "part Cherokee." What will Lou did with any of that?! What does any Native teen--where hears this sort of thing--do with it?

Lou is upset about all of that but tries to stay calm.

Staying calm is a cost to her. It is a cost to other Native teens, to, when people around them don't realize they are, in fact, Native or that a Native identity has tremendous significance. Later in the book, Lou has a heck of a mess to deal with when she tries to tell Joey (her boyfriend) that she's Native. She thinks he doesn't know. He does, and that all works out fine, but it is the struggle that Lou has that makes me think that Hearts Unbroken will be embraced by Native teens like Lou.

When and why would a girl like Lou speak up about their identity, or about something they see or hear that is stereotypical, or biased, or outright harmful? What are the costs, to Native kids, when they share their Native identity with peers or teachers who don't know enough about Native peoples to understand the significance of being a Native teen, today? What do they risk when they speak up? Sometimes, it is easier to just be quiet. But what is THAT cost?


The description (above) of Hearts Unbroken is primarily about The Wizard of Oz.  The movie was part of my childhood, growing up on our reservation. The movie and book are, even today, everywhere. I always thought it was a bit creepy. Maybe it was just too White. In the author's note, Smith writes that she didn't know--until she was an adult--that L. Frank Baum was racist. I learned that, too, as an adult.

In Hearts Unbroken, Lou's brother, Hughie, is in a tough spot when he learns about Baum. Does he stay in the play? Be the Tin Man, thereby standing in solidarity with the other cast members, against the racist townspeople who think Native and students of color ought not be playing those White roles?

I had such a lump in my throat as I read through those parts, and my heart swelled with Hughie's decision.

And I think Smith did all of that with such care! Lou and Hughie's parents knew about Baum but they let Hughie learn about it on his own. They were there to support him once it became known to him. But they let him sort through it. My heart clenched, thinking about all the Native parents all across the country who make these kinds of decisions all the time. Bring it up? Or not? Like Lou's struggle with her identity. Speak up? Or not?

That is Native life.

There's so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken.  And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves! On page 122, my heart (hmm... I've written the word 'heart' a lot in this post. That's worth pondering!) did a flip. I was reading Hearts Unbroken in an airport and when I read page 122, I wanted to stand up and shout out "HEY EVERYBODY! Eric Gansworth's book is in THIS book!" At that point in the story, a library aide gave Lou a book that Hughie had asked for:
The novel for Hughie was If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth of the Onondaga Nation. It was lacking a clear protective jacket cover or any library catalog markings. The price sticker on the book was from an independent bookstore in Lawrence.
There's a lot in that passage. First, of course, my joy at seeing Gansworth's book get that attention in a book by another Native writer. That's a huge move on Smith's part. There's a lot of books for kids that reference racist ones, like Little House on the Prairie or Gone With the Wind. Writers who write those books insert a reference to those two books from a place of nostalgia that--in fact--does a disservice to Native and African American readers, in particular, because the stereotyping and bias in those two books is harmful to them. That is not what Smith did, though. What she did was help readers find a book by another Native writer that can reflect their lives as Native youth in the US.

I have a lot more to say about Hearts Unbroken that I will save for later. Clearly, I love this book and highly recommend it. Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith is published by Candlewick and will be released in October. Pre-order it!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Not Recommended: STONE FOX by John Reynolds Gardiner

Stone Fox is shown on bottom row
Update, September 16, 2018: On the Facebook page for the Units of Study group, Dr. Lucy Calkins announced that they are removing Stone Fox from the Units of Study materials. The new edition (Units of Study is published by Heinemann) will have a different book. The Facebook group is a closed group but Dr. Calkins said that anybody can request to be added and that "we say yes in seconds." They approved my request a few months ago. I am not a classroom teacher (and not using the materials), but I do study literature and am glad they are open to my participation in conversations.


Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner was published in 1980 by HarperCollins. It is part of a literacy program used in classrooms across the United States: “Units of Study for Teaching Reading”.

Because of its many problems, I do not recommend the book and think that it is vital that Professor Lucy Calkins (she created the Units of Study program) revisit its use in her curriculum.

Leaving it there means she--a trusted educator--is miseducating all the children who are in schools that use her curriculum. That sounds harsh--I know--but a key reason that I'm writing about this book is because Native parents and Native educators have written to me about it.

Here’s the book description, from the HarperCollins website:

Based on a Rocky Mountain legend, Stone Fox tells the story of Little Willy, who lives with his grandfather in Wyoming. When Grandfather falls ill, he is no longer able to work the farm, which is in danger of foreclosure. Little Willy is determined to win the National Dogsled Race—the prize money would save the farm and his grandfather. But he isn't the only one who desperately wants to win. Willy and his brave dog Searchlight must face off against experienced racers, including a Native American man named Stone Fox, who has never lost a race.

The story takes place in the early 1900s, in what is currently known as the state of Wyoming. Prior to European and later, American, invasion, it was Indigenous land. A little over half of what is, today, Wyoming, was part of the Louisiana Purchase. The US bought it from France in 1803--but how and why does that narrative get told that way? Why do history books leave out the fact that it was Indigenous land before it was France or the US claimed it? These are not rhetorical questions! When teachers who teach students in those areas, today, leave out the history of Indigenous peoples, they tell Indigenous students that their history does not matter.

How the people of an Indigenous nation are depicted is also tremendously important. Rather than depicting us as peoples of distinct nations that traded with peoples of other nations, and that had diplomacy with those other nations, we are shown as generic primitive, simple minded children or animal-like savages. None of that is accurate. That is, however, what we see in Gardiner’s Stone Fox.

In that dogsled race, Searchlight (Willy’s dog) will pull a sled that his grandfather had “bought from the Indians” (p. 25). Indians is a generic term. Not naming who he bought the sled from contributes to that generic image that falls into stereotypical thinking. We see that again when Willy learns that the race will be especially exciting this year because “that mountain man, the Indian called Stone Fox” (p. 45) might be in the race, and he has never lost a race he’s entered.

The name that Gardiner created for this Indian man is “Stone Fox.” Chapter six--titled “Stone Fox”--is where readers get details about him. The chapter opens with Willy inside the bank. He’s paid the fees to sign up for the race, gotten a map of the route, and is outside with Searchlight when something catches his eye: Stone Fox’s team of Samoyeds, pulling Stone Fox (p. 50):

The man was an Indian--dressed in furs and leather, with moccasins all the way up to his knees. His skin was dark, his hair was dark, and he wore a dark-colored headband. His eyes sparkled in the sunlight, but the rest of his face was as hard as stone.

Moccasins up to his knees? Furs and leather? While that is plausible, I wonder if it was typical dress at that time. By then, Native peoples wore some of the same clothes that Americans were wearing. A face as hard as stone? Now we see why Gardiner named this character Stone (Fox). That is a common stereotype. Native people are often depicted as stoic--lacking in display of any emotion… rigid, unmoving. Stone Fox brought his sled up to Willy, who tilts his head way back to look up at “a giant” (p. 50):

“Gosh,” little Willy gasped.
The Indian looked at Little Willy. His face was solid granite, but his eyes were alive and cunning.

Cunning! Like…. A fox! Now we know why Gardiner created this name for this Indian. He wants readers to understand that this Indian is hard and cunning. And--he’s a giant! With a face of “solid granite”! All of this is negative stereotyping. Willy greets him, but “the Indian” doesn’t reply. Instead, "the Indian" looks at Searchlight. That makes Searchlight moan. Readers have come to like Searchlight by this point, and its moan tells them that Searchlight is worried or afraid of "the Indian". I'm intentionally using quotation marks for the Indian because Gardiner's repeated use of "the Indian" objectifies and others him. He's a man, for goodness sake. He could say that, instead!

This "Indian" is legendary. There are many stories about him. In Denver, he "snapped a man's back with two fingers." Willy learns a lot about him (p. 53):

Stone Fox refused to speak with the white man because of the treatment his people had received. His tribe, the Shoshone, who were peaceful seed gatherers, had been forced to leave Utah and settle on a reservation in Wyoming with another tribe called the Arapaho.

It is good to finally have some specific tribal nations named in that passage, but “peaceful seed gatherers” plays into the stereotypical idea of primitive Indians. And, there’s more than just one nation with the name Shoshone. In fact, there are several, currently located in California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming. Who, specifically is Gardiner talking about? And he tells us they had been forced to leave Utah? By… whom? And… why? And how?! Those are huge gaps in Gardiner’s story.

Biased history and storytelling being what it is, readers fill those gaps with problematic information. Most likely, readers will think about courageous pioneers. But if you think about that history from a Native perspective, the accurate word isn’t pioneer. The right words are squatters and invaders. The next passage is also biased:

Stone Fox’s dream was for his people to return to their homeland. Stone Fox was using the money he won from racing to simply buy the land back. He had already purchased four farms and over two hundred acres.

That Stone Fox was smart, all right.

In that passage, readers learn why Gardiner decided to call this character “Fox” and “cunning” and “smart”? Gardiner doesn’t say so, explicitly, but he’s telling us that Stone Fox has chosen to embrace American capitalism. He’s using money to get that land back. Sounds heroic but what would we find if we looked into the Shoshone peoples and the efforts they made to protect, retain and recover their homelands? What treaties did they make? What parts of those treaties were -- and are -- ignored?

Gardiner tells readers that the Shoshones of his story are in Wyoming, which suggests to us that he’s referring to the Eastern Shoshone, who negotiated the Ft. Bridger treaty in 1863. According to information on the Eastern Shoshone’s website, that treaty established the boundaries for what is currently known as the Wind River Reservation. In size, it was over 44 million acres and it covered parts of Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. In 1868, a second treaty was negotiated. The outcome of it was that the reservation was reduced to 2,774,400 acres in Wyoming. Today it is approximately 2.2 million acres. With that as context, Stone Fox’s purchase of 200 acres is bit silly to me, but to Gardiner and most readers, it will seem heroic in an American pull yourself-up-with-your-bootstraps kind of way.

A few pages later when Willy reaches out to pet one of Stone Fox’s dogs, he’s surprised by a movement to his right, which turns out to be Stone Fox (p. 59):

A sweeping motion, fast at first; then it appeared to slow and stop. But it didn’t stop. A hand hit little Willy right in the face, sending him over backward.
“I didn’t mean any harm, Mr. Stone Fox,” little Willy said as he picked himself up off the ground, holding a hand over his eye.
Stone Fox stood tall in the darkness and said nothing.

Willy continues talking to Stone Fox, telling him that he (Willie) is going to win the race, and that if he doesn’t, “they” (the government) are going to take their farm away from them. The next day (race day), Willie's eye is swollen shut.

There’s a lot to say about that particular passage in the book. Stone Fox is violent and clearly willing to strike a little boy in the face, knocking him down and hurting that boy’s eye. That plays into the stereotype of the cruel Indian who has no compassion or human-like feelings for others.

It is also interesting to think about why Gardiner has Willie tell Stone Fox about his reason for being in the race. Given what we already know about Stone Fox needing money to buy land for his people, I suspect we’re supposed to make a connection between Stone Fox and Willie. Missing (again) is any reference to the greater injustice that Indigenous peoples experienced at the hands of those who took their lands from them.  

Towards the end of this story, Gardiner depicts Stone Fox as a good guy. When Searchlight dies just before crossing the finish line, Stone Fox pulls his sled up beside Willie. He could easily win the race, but instead, he draws a line in the snow and takes out his rifle. When the other racers reach them, he fires his rifle into the air and speaks, for the first time in the story:

“Anyone crosses this line--I shoot.”

That sentence is the way many writers depict Native speech. Where is the word "if" at the start of that sentence, and where is the word "will" in the last part?! After uttering that sentence, Stone Fox nods to Willie, who then carries Searchlight across the finish line, winning the race. He’s gone from Willie’s threat to Willie’s savior, but his “help” is just like he has been throughout: violent. His only words of the entire book are that he will be violent. The stereotypical ways that he is depicted are a problem. They do not interrupt the existing stereotypes that children bring to their reading of Stone Fox. It is a dramatic ending. The story itself is thrilling and teachers report how well it works with reluctant readers. Those who object to the book do so based on the death of Searchlight. That, some feel, is inappropriate content for young readers.

I looked for reviews that are critical of the Native content in Stone Fox and found the following:

The Alaska Native Knowledge Network has some book reviews on its site. Richard Schmitt, a student in ED 693, reviewed it on March 6, 2006. He notes similar problems in stereotyping. In 1991, Christine Jenkins and Sally Freeman raised questions about it in Novel Experiences: Literature Units for Book Discussion Groups in Elementary Grades. So did the teacher, Paul, in McGee and Tompkin’s 1995 article, “Literature-Based Reading Instruction: What’s Guiding the Instruction?” in Language Arts. My point in listing these articles is that the analysis can be done. The problems are there. People have seen then since 1991 (and likely earlier!).

As noted above, Stone Fox ought to be removed from the Units of Study for Teaching Reading program. It will cost the publisher (Heinemann) money to do that, and Calkins will have to spend some time looking for a book to insert in its stead. I don't know that program well enough to suggest an alternative. If you do, let me know in the comments.


Some brief notes on the illustrations in Stone Fox

The original illustrations for Stone Fox were done by Marcia Sewell. This is the original cover (1980):

Here’s Sewell’s first illustration of Stone Fox:

More recent publications had a new illustrator, Greg Hargreaves. Here's his depiction of Stone Fox:

Over time, book covers can change quite a lot. These three show the last part of the race, just before Searchlight dies:

Here's an interior page that shows Stone Fox and his team. Do his dogs look mean to you? They do to me! I wondered how dogs look when they're racing. I found lot of photos. Mostly their tongues are hanging out. They don't look mean to me. These ones look kind of... sinister!

Here's the 30th anniversary edition cover.

Stone Fox was also made into a movie, which is evidence of how well this story plays to non-Native readers. And, to Lucy Calkins. And to so many others. But again--the Native content is deeply problematic! 

Published in 1980 by HarperCollins, John Reynolds Gardiner's Stone Fox is not recommended.