Saturday, November 17, 2018

Congratulations to Traci Sorell for Orbis Pictus Honor Award!

Some terrific news today (November 17), from the 2018 conference of the National Council of Teachers of English!

Traci Sorell's We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga 
was selected for NCTE's 2018 Orbis Pictus Honor Award! 

The announcement was made at the awards event. Celeste Trimble tweeted this photo when Traci's book went onto the screen:

And over at the Charlesbridge (publisher of Traci's book) booth on the exhibit floor, the folks staffing the booth probably did a happy dance and put a homemade sticker on the book! Here's a photo from there:

See those stars on the right? Those indicate starred reviews from the review journals: Kirkus, Horn Book, School Library Journal, and Shelf Awareness.

NCTE's award is for nonfiction. Congratulations, Traci! This is wonderful news!

And.... back at 7:09 PM to say that I went over to the Charlesbridge twitter account to share the URL for this post and they've got a new photo up, of the official seal:

Friday, November 16, 2018

Recommended! DACTYL HILL SQUAD by Daniel José Older

Some time back, I learned that Daniel José Older was working on a series that would blend history and fantasy. The first book in the series--Dactyl Hill Squad--is out and I gotta say, I enjoyed it! Older, by the way, is not Native. This is the second time I'm recommending one of his books. He's a terrific writer. There were several terrific passages in his Shadowshaper

Aimed at middle grade readers, here's the description:

It's 1863 and dinosaurs roam the streets of New York as the Civil War rages between raptor-mounted armies down South. Magdalys Roca and her friends from the Colored Orphan Asylum are on a field trip when the Draft Riots break out, and a number of their fellow orphans are kidnapped by an evil magistrate, Richard Riker. 
Magdalys and her friends flee to Brooklyn and settle in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood, where black and brown New Yorkers have set up an independent community--a safe haven from the threats of Manhattan. Together with the Vigilance Committee, they train to fly on dactylback, discover new friends and amazing dinosaurs, and plot to take down Riker. Can Magdalys and the squad rescue the rest of their friends before it's too late?

Dinosaurs? On the streets of NYC in 1863? You bet! I was pretty much hooked when I got to this passage in chapter one:
But it was only a few years ago that New York had passed a law granting black citizens the right to dinoride, and white people in Manhattan still bristled and stared when they saw someone with brown skin astride those massive scaly backs.
Magdalys and the other kids can't ride them, though. The orphanage staff didn't want her near them.
So Magdalys mostly had to be content with watching the great beasts cavort along outside her window: The lamplighter’s iguanodons would pass first thing in the morning, extinguishing the lanterns as the day broke. Then the commuter brachys would stomp past, passengers cluttered on the saddles and hanging from straps along the side. By noon the streets would fill with stegosaurs lugging supplies and the duckbill riders in fancy dress clothes, heading off to important meetings, while microraptors scurried across the roads, carrying messages or making nuisances of themselves. Most of the trikes and raptors had been sent down south to fight the Confederates, but every once in a while she’d see one of those too.
As I read those words, of these specific dinosaurs and what they did, I could see them, in my minds eye. Pretty cool world, Older is building!

What the description doesn't tell us is that one of Magdalys's friends is a Native girl. Her name is Amaya. Her mother is Apache; her father is a White general. We get to know a little about her, in tiny bits as the story unfolds. When she was little, her father worked at a military school in South Carolina. There, he taught her military tactics and weapons. When the war broke out, her father took command of a Union regiment and left her at the Colored Orphan Asylum. The things her father taught her prove helpful as the squad works to rescue the kidnapped orphans from the slaver who intends to take them south. That's all we know about her when the Dactyl Hill Squad ends.

I'm thinking about Amaya's back story. How did her mother and father meet? I'm curious and wonder what we'll learn in the next book in the series! Given what I've seen so far, I think Native kids will like seeing her in this book. And so, I recommend Daniel José Older's Dactyl Hill Squad. And I know my little sister's grandson is gonna like this series. He wants to study dinosaurs.  

Debbie--have you seen THE RANSOM OF MERCY CARTER by Caroline Cooney?

A reader wrote to ask if I've reviewed The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline Cooney. It was published in 2001 by Random House. Here's the overview:
Deerfield, Massachusetts is one of the most remote, and therefore dangerous, settlements in the English colonies. In 1704 an Indian tribe attacks the town, and Mercy Carter becomes separated from the rest of her family, some of whom do not survive. Mercy and hundreds of other settlers are herded together and ordered by the Indians to start walking. The grueling journey — three hundred miles north to a Kahnawake Indian village in Canada — takes more than 40 days. At first Mercy's only hope is that the English government in Boston will send ransom for her and the other white settlers. But days turn into months and Mercy, who has become a Kahnawake daughter, thinks less and less of ransom, of Deerfield, and even of her "English" family. She slowly discovers that the "savages" have traditions and family life that soon become her own, and Mercy begins to wonder: If ransom comes, will she take it?
The Ransom of Mercy Carter is a captivity story. These kinds of story started with Mary Rowlandson's account of her captivity in 1676. There have been many since then, including

  • Lois Lenski's Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, published in 1941. Like Cooney's book, it  also won a Newbery Honor Medal.
  • Elizabeth George Speare's Calico Captive, published in 1957, and based on the capture of James Johnson and his family in 1754. 

It'd be interesting to do a chart of plot points across these three books. Cooney's opens with the place (Deerfield, Massachusetts), the date (February 28, 1704) and the temperature (10 degrees below zero). The first page is about Mercy's family settling into bed for the night, and praying:
Dear Lord, prayed Mercy Carter, do not let us be murdered in our beds tonight.
I'll see if I can get a copy of the book, but some things I see (like that first line) suggest that the book is a sensational telling--more of a thriller than anything else. The word "savage" appears in it 29 times.

Skimming what I can see online, I see there's a scene where the captive kids watch a Native man who had "taken four scalps" earlier. The description of his actions is very detailed as he scrapes flesh away. Pretty gross, isn't it? So, I have a hunch that The Ransom of Mercy Carter will end up with a not recommended tag.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Open Letter: "Trail of Lightning is an Appropriation of Diné Cultural Beliefs." Does the Letter from the Diné Writer's Collective Mark a Turning Point?

On November 5, 2018, Indian Country Today published Trail of Lightning is an appropriation of Diné cultural beliefs. It is from the Diné Writer's Collective and is signed by Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, Chee Brossy, Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, Tina Deschenie, Jacqueline Keeper, Dr. Lloyd Lee, Manny Loley, Jaclyn Roessel, Roanna Shebala, Jake Skeets, Dr. Laura Tohe, Luci Tapahonso, and Orlando White.

All the people that signed the letter are Diné (Navajo). They write poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Some are professors or teach writing. As far as I know, this letter is the first of its kind. These writers are telling everyone not to appropriate Diné culture and beliefs.

Although their letter is specifically about Rebecca Roanhorse and her book, Trail of Lightning, they name others, as well:
There are other examples of literary appropriation of our culture by non-Navajos. Notably Tony Hillerman and his "mystery" books that appropriated and continue to profit off Navajo culture and stories without shame — all while portraying us inaccurately. Once again, there was no Diné "board" or "intellectual property committee" that denounced Hillerman’s use of our property (in the 1970s-90s when he published the bulk of his books) for his gain and it has gone largely unchecked. We think of other non-Navajo writers such as Oliver LaFarge, Scott O’Dell, the infamous Nasdijj aka Timothy Barrus, who constructed Navajo people and our stories from an outsider’s perspective. 
Hillerman, LaFarge, O'Dell, and Barrus aren't Native. Though Hillerman and LaFarge did not write specifically for children or teens, O'Dell did. His Sing Down the Moon came out in 1970. Published by Houghton Mifflin, it won a Newbery Honor Medal in 1971. I have not read Sing Down the Moon but can see that O'Dell brought what he thinks of as Diné spiritual beliefs into his novel (p. 44):
"Jesus Cristo," Rosita said, "is like all our gods if you put them together. He is Falling Water and Spider Woman. But he is not cunning like Falling Water, nor is he vengeful like Spider Woman."
The Diné writers go on to say (I've highlighted a few words):
In doing so [constructing Navajo people our stories from an outsider's perspective], a disservice was done to the Navajos, as it also reinforced old and new stereotypes. Furthermore, Roanhorse’s appropriation, especially as an in-law who married into and lived on the Navajo Nation homeland and as an Indigenous relative, is a betrayal of trust and kinship. We do not want to let such breaches of faith and cultural contract slide any longer. So we write this letter objecting to the book.
Are the writers going to speak up about other books and writers in the future? It sure sounds like it to me, and while it makes me nervous for writers, I also welcome the letter because I think it can have a positive impact on writing.

During Twitter conversations, someone asked if other Native writers have been challenged for writing stories of a Native people that is not their own. Two people came to mind: Joseph Bruchac, and Tim Tingle. Bruchac's Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two came out in 2004 from Dial Books. There are passages of ceremony in that book. More recently, Tingle wrote a series about the Long Walk. Published by 7th Generation, it featured a teenager named Danny Blackgoat. In the third book, there is a chapter called Grandfather's Healing during which Danny recites a prayer.

Did Bruchac or Tingle do what Roanhorse did? The fact is, I don't know. I am of Nambé Pueblo. I don't know what is appropriate regarding the use of Navajo spiritual or cultural ways. When Trail of Lightning came out, I promoted it on social media because I believed Roanhorse had the guidance necessary to share what was ok to share. But then I started to hear from Navajo readers who had concerns over its content. After much thought, I withdrew my recommendation of Trail of Lightning, and as best as I've been able to do, I've inserted a note to that effect on social media in spaces where I had recommended it. That may strike some as an extreme act on my part. Why did I do that? Because Native spiritual ways are so horribly misunderstood and misrepresented in books and films. Instead of the respect that ought to be accorded to our belief systems, they often get characterized as folk or fairy tales rather than sacred stories that guide our lives. The Nov 2018 Scholastic book club flyer is a recent example (red x and words to the left of the image are mine): 

I've shared the Diné letter in several places because I think what they said is important. Some have responded to the letter (not necessarily to me, specifically) by asking questions like 'who gave the Diné writers authority to write this letter?' As the writers indicated, the Diné Nation does not have a committee that has oversight over this but they are--as citizens of a sovereign nation--defending that sovereignty and acting to safeguard their spiritual beliefs. We could turn that particular question onto a writer and that writer's cultural advisors: who gave them authority to write/endorse the book's contents?! Indeed, who gave me (Debbie Reese) authority to review books, at all? Clearly, some of these conversations go nowhere but other ones can help us with our work.

What does the letter mean, for AICL, and for me as a critic and scholar of representations of Indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books?

For now, it means that I will be even more careful in what I do in my review and analysis of children's books. This is where I am, today:

  • when I use the #OwnVoices tag, I will only use it for a book by a Native writer who is writing of their own nation. And I will take care to identify the nation of the writer who is writing outside their own nation. Joseph Bruchac's newest book, Two Roads, is about a Creek boy. We have not yet reviewed it on AICL but when we do, we'll note that Bruchac is Abenaki. Earlier this week, I saw an announcement that, in 2019, Tim Tingle will have a Choctaw detective book out for middle graders.  He's Choctaw; the character is Choctaw, so that would be an #OwnVoices book.
  • when I see any references to the spiritual or religious ways of Indigenous people in a not-own-voices book I am reviewing, I will include a note that I cannot speak with authority about that particular content. If there is a note in the book about a sensitivity reader, I will note that information, but also note that there is a continuum of what people think regarding what can and cannot be shared. Roanhorse's Trail of Lightning is a good example of that. She's not Diné, but Diné readers disagree in their determinations of what can and cannot be shared. 

At this moment, I am most concerned when the content is about religion or spiritual practice. I don't think that other subject matter (like events of the Long Walk) is as problematic but for sure, I'll be paying closer attention than ever before.

One thought is this: how to enforce any of this? Well, the fact is--nobody can enforce anything. This is not a question of a body or bodies of people forcing something to be undone. This is a question of ethics and decision making.

I think that scholars of Indigenous literature will be citing the Diné letter in the future. I don't know what that will look like. Will they embrace it? Or will they reject it, in parts or in its entirety? What do you think about it? If you work as an editor in a major publishing house, has anyone brought this letter to an editorial meeting? Will you take it to the next one you attend? Have you seen the contents of the letter being discussed as a conference yet? Has it been discussed in your social media networks? If you have any thoughts to share, or, if you have seen things said that you'd like to bring to this post, please submit them in a comment.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

NOT RECOMMENDED: The Oregon Trail - The Race to Chimney Rock

A few days ago, people started sharing the books that Amazon has listed as "Best Children's Books of 2018." In the ages 6-8 category, Amazon has The Oregon Trail: The Race to Chimney Rock. 

As you might imagine, it is in that category of books that AICL usually describes as NOT RECOMMENDED.

Published on September 4, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it is book 1 in a 4-book series. The series is like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books where readers make a decision about what they want to do at a specific point in the story. Instead of an adventure, readers of this series choose their own trail. The publisher of The Race to Chimney Rock made a marketing decision that people who liked the Choose Your Own Adventure series and/or those who liked playing the Oregon Trail video game, would buy this series. That Amazon lists it as one of the best books of 2018 tells us that the publisher was right. With this series, it is adding to its profit margin--but miseducating children. Of course, that doesn't matter. What matters more and more in the US is $$.

If we were being accurate about history, the information kids get would be different than what they get in this book. Here's the first sentence in the book (p. 7):
You are loading up your covered wagon to head out to Oregon Territory, where a square mile of free farmland awaits your family. 
The first decision point happens several pages later, but if I was editing that book, I'd edit that sentence a bit, add some more information, and offer a decision point right away. It might be something like this:
As you and Pa load your covered wagon to head out to Oregon Territory, he tells you about the square mile of free farmland you are going to claim. You had read Section 4 of the Donation Land Act of 1850, and know that land was only available to certain people. You know it was designed to displace even more Native peoples from their homelands, and that to get land, you had to be a "white settler" or "American half-breed Indian." You know the law is wrong and racist. What do you do?
If you speak up, turn to page __. 
If you decide to keep quiet, turn to page __. 
I don't have an edit or suggestions beyond that, but I wonder what kids would come up with in a class where their teacher helps them map out different choices than the ones in Race to Chimney Rock? The teacher would have to begin by providing students with an in-depth unit about the history of the area that came to be called the Oregon Territory. It would take a lot of preparation, but wouldn't it be interesting to see it, in action?

It'd have content in it kind of like what Joseph Marshall has in his book, In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse. That book is set in the present day. A Lakota grandfather takes his grandchild, Jimmy, on a road trip. At one point, the grandfather asks Jimmy if he's heard of the Oregon Trail. Of course, Jimmy says yes, and his grandpa says (p. 29):
"Before it was called the Oregon Trail, it was known by the Lakota and other tribes as Shell River Road. And before that, it was a trail used by animals, like buffalo. It's an old, old trail." 
Isn't that terrific? I think Marshall's book is terrific, and I wish publishers would stop putting out books about the gold rushes (there was more than one) and the Oregon Trail! Those books glorify periods of history--and in that glorification, mislead readers about the facts of history. Teachers who use the books, uncritically, are mis-educating their students. To conclude, I do not recommend The Oregon Trail: The Race to Chimney Rock. I've got notes stuck in my copy here and there... there's so much wrong! Avoid it. If you already bought it for your child, see if you can get your money back. 

Monday, November 12, 2018


Published by HarperCollins in 2008, Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot's Dr. Carbles is Losing His Marbles! gets a Not Recommended label right away.

The first chapter, "Squanto and Pocahontas" starts out with this illustration:

The narrator for Dr. Carbles is Losing His Marbles is a kid named A.J. He hates school. That's him in the foreground of the illustration. He tells us that it is time to go home (end of the school day) but the school secretary announces that they all have to go to the all purpose room (p. 2-4):
So we were sitting there, bored out of our minds, when suddenly two American Indians came running down the aisle! They were wearing feathers and head-dresses. They jumped onto the stage, whooping and hollering. 
But they couldn’t fool us. We knew exactly who they were. 
“It’s Mrs. Roopy!” yelled my friend Michael, who never ties his shoes. Mrs. Roopy is our librarian.
“And Mr. Klutz!” yelled my friend Ryan, who will eat anything, even stuff that isn’t food. Mr. Klutz is our principal, and he has no hair. 
“Klutz?” said Mr. Klutz. “Never heard of him. I am Squanto, a Patuxet Indian who helped the Pilgrims survive their first years in America.” 
“And I am Pocahontas,” said Mrs. Roopy. “I helped the English colonists when they arrived in Virginia in 1607.” 
Mrs. Roopy always dresses up like somebody else. She never admits she’s the librarian. 
Mrs. Roopy is loopy. 
“Thanksgiving is coming up,” said Mr. Klutz. “To celebrate, we want to introduce you to a friend of ours.”
Their friend turns out to be a turkey... dressed like a pilgrim woman:

The principal says that if every class makes "a beautiful Thanksgiving display," he will marry the turkey. Everybody cheers, the turkey gets scared, and takes off. Kids freak out. Just then, the school board president, Dr. Carbles, walks in, learns what is going on and fires the principal. There's very little to do with thanksgiving as the story continues.

As noted above, Dr. Carbles is Losing His Marbles was published in 2007 by HarperCollins. The first e-book was published in 2008 and in 2015, Scholastic started publishing it, too.

There's so much wrong with the opening pages of this book. Both, Gutman (with his words) and Paillot (with his illustrations) are giving kids stereotypical, biased, and factually problematic information. They created that content and their editors approved it. Because it part of a series, it doesn't get reviewed closely by the review journals--and because it is a series, librarians purchase the books. Why, Gutman? Why, Paillot? And why, HarperColllins and Scholastic, are you publishing this?

Sunday, November 11, 2018

At last! A writer incorporates a critical take on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE! The writer? Emma Donoghue.

That's a long title for a blog post, but that's what I want people to see right now.

In 2017, Arthur A. Levine (an imprint of Scholastic) published Emma Donoghue's The Lotterys Plus One. Though I've not had time to turn my notes on that book into a blog post, it is one of the rare instances in which a non-Native writer does ok in their depictions of Native content. Here's the description of The Lotterys Plus One (I highlighted the word 'multicultural'):
Sumac Lottery is nine years old and the self-proclaimed "good girl" of her (VERY) large, (EXTREMELY) unruly family. And what a family the Lotterys are: four parents, children both adopted and biological, and a menagerie of pets, all living and learning together in a sprawling house called Camelottery. Then one day, the news breaks that one of their grandfathers is suffering from dementia and will be coming to live with them. And not just any grandfather; the long dormant "Grumps," who fell out with his son so long ago that he hasn't been part of any of their lives. Suddenly, everything changes. Sumac has to give up her room to make the newcomer feel at home. She tries to be nice, but prickly Grumps's clearly disapproves of how the Lotterys live: whole grains, strange vegetables, rescue pets, a multicultural household... He's worse than just tough to get along with -- Grumps has got to go! But can Sumac help him find a home where he belongs?

See that "multicultural household" in the description? On the first page of the book, we get the details (I highlighted the word 'Mohawk'):
Once upon a time, a man from Delhi and a man from Yukon fell in love, and so did a woman from Jamaica and a Mohawk woman. The two couples became best friends and had a baby together. When they won the lottery, they gave up their jobs and found a big old house where their family could learn and grow... and grow some more.
The household, described by some as being hippy-like, is one where there's an awareness of societal ills, like racism. We see that Donoghue take a poke at Little House on the Prairie in the sequel The Lotterys More or Less (published in 2018).  On September 24, 2018,  Dr. Rob Bittner tweeted a photo from an advanced reader copy. The book has since been published. The passage he tweeted is on page 194:
She's trying to find that wonderful Christmas scene in Little House on the Prairie, but she keeps coming across racist remarks about savages, so she gives up.
Here's a screen cap of that passage:

"She" is nine-year-old Sumac. The word "savages" is used three times in Little House on the Prairie (note: the Christmas scene occurs earlier in the book than the passages below. Before then, the ways that Native peoples are characterized as less-than-human is racist):

  • " many of those savages were coming together..." is on page 284
  • " night they heard the savage voices shouting." is on page 286
  • "...more and more savage warriors were riding..." on page 305

It is terrific to see that characterization described as racist. I wonder how readers will respond to it? Will they notice? Some will, for sure. Dr. Bittner did; I care enough to write a post about it, and I bet Native kids will notice it, too. If you have any thoughts on it or see people commenting on it, let me know!

Friday, November 09, 2018

Native Trailblazers, or In Search of “500 Brave Native Americans”

Grandson Will, age 8, sings along to Pete Seeger at the top of his lungs:

“’Tis advertised in Boston, New York, and Buffalo.
500 brave Native Americans
A whalin’ for to go –”

He’s got the lyrics wrong; it’s "500 brave Americans," and I smile because he’s adorable. But then I think, "Wait, though! 500. Brave. Native Americans!"  

In US history classes, kids like Will hear about the bravery of non-Native "explorers"/"discoverers"/Pilgrims/settlers/revolutionaries/pioneers/frontiersmen/the US cavalry.
Sure, they may hear Indigenous men referred to as “braves.” But will they learn about 500 specific, courageous Native people? Or 100? Or even … five?

You know whose names they’ll hear, of course – Pocahontas. Squanto. Sacagawea. Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo. In other words, they’ll learn about some Native people who are viewed as helpful to the colonizers, and some of the ones who fought colonization of their homelands. Will (who's now 12) tells me that he and his classmates definitely don’t hear about contemporary Native people whose courage and commitment make a difference NOW in their communities and in the wider world. 

But we know that all kids benefit from the affirmation that Native people ARE STILL HERE and are deeply INVOLVED in the heavy lifting to make the world a better place. It would be Something if, by the time they graduated high school, every student in the US could name a couple dozen Indigenous people who've made a positive difference.  

Native kids, of course, may have first-hand knowledge of family members who are writers, artists, activists, scientists, and so on. But it's challenging to find reliable information for young people about noteworthy contemporary Native people. Biographies tend to be problematic. Most are not the work of Native writers. Though supposedly factual, they often contain the same biased language and distorted window on Native lives often seen in fiction. And they're usually about figures in the distant past. 

An important exception is the Native Trailblazers Series for teen readers. It’s put out by 7th Generation Press. Each book features 10 or so profiles of significant people or groups, most of them still living. 

The text is straightforward and engaging, and includes lots of direct quotes, so readers see what people say about their own lives and work. The series includes the following four books by journalist Vincent Schilling (St. Regis Mohawk):

  • Native Athletes in Action: Revised Edition (2016) (Review of 2012 edition)
  • Native Men of Courage: Revised Edition (2016)
  • Native Defenders of the Environment (2011) (Published before Standing Rock, it profiles some folks who later became NoDAPL water protectors in 2016-2017.)
  • Native Musicians in the Groove (2009)
That’s 40+ brave, committed, smart, and talented Native Americans right there. There are several other books in the series, written by Schilling and by other Indigenous authors. (Schilling also hosts the Native Trailblazers radio program.) 

I haven’t read them all yet – but I feel confident in saying that the Native Trailblazers series is worth a look. 

-- Jean Mendoza

Friday, November 02, 2018

Highly Recommended: WHEN WE PLAY OUR DRUMS, THEY SING by Richard Van Camp + LUCY & LOLA by Monique Gray Smith

When We Play Our Drums, They Sing by Richard Van Camp and Lucy & Lola by Monique Gray Smith are two outstanding books... in one. Here's the covers:

If you get one, you will have the other. They are bound together in a single volume. When you flip the book over to see the back cover, what you see instead is the cover of the other book. And when you get to the end of each story you'll find these resources:

  • Language Guide
  • Reader's Guide
  • Author's Note

Van Camp's author's note tells us that his mother went to Residential school. He tells us that he recently worked up the courage to talk with his mother about her experiences. In her note, Monique Gray Smith writes that her family members were also in the schools. Both stories provide "insider perspectives" or to use the hashtag used today in literature circles to describe books like this, #OwnVoices.

In the United States, the schools are called boarding schools. These "exceptional nations" -- the US and Canada -- tried to stop Native people from being Native people. But those "exceptional nations"  failed.

Van Camp and Smith and their many books demonstrate the resilience of the people in their families--and the resilience of Indigenous peoples. Both stories are about modern-day kids, their families, and their communities. In them, you'll find pain, but you'll also find beauty in the characters and the writing, too. I highly recommend When We Play Our Drums, They Sing and Lucy & Lola. 

Note! Published in 2018 by McKeller and Martin, you can get them directly from them. Hit the link for instructions.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Apple, Echo, and the Importance of “More Than One Book"

Two Native high school girls, two unique stories about not fitting in, and about trying to make sense of Indigenous heritage/ancestry when something has disrupted their place in a Native community....

Most regular readers of this blog won’t need to be convinced that it takes more than one story about a group of people to adequately portray that group’s experience. Still, we know that in classrooms and in library collections across North America, the pickings are usually slim when it comes to books by and about Native people. So “the danger of a single story” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns about is very real.

Right now I’m revisiting that point -- yet again -- via two recently published books with contemporary Native teen girl protagonists. Dawn Quigley’s (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) debut novel Apple in the Middle (2018) is set in Minnesota and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation in North Dakota. The protagonist, Apple, meets her Native family members for the first time, the summer after her sophomore year in high school.

Katherena Vermette’s A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars (2017) is a graphic novel. Echo, the main character, is 13 years old. She is Metis, as is Vermette. The story is set in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Apple’s mother, who was Turtle Mountain Chippewa, died after giving birth to her. Apple grew up with her dad and stepmother (both white), in their upper middle class suburban world, where she feels like she never quite fits. She carries a sense of guilt for her mother’s death. She’s a bit prickly, and more than a bit socially awkward. Since an incident of open racism during grade school, she has tried to look as white as possible. Her father’s reluctance to tell her about her Native family hasn’t helped. As a narrator, Apple has a lot to say. She can be rude, impulsive, and loud, with a biting sense of humor, but she begins to dial it all down somewhat as she gets to know her Turtle Mountain relatives.

Of her sense of not fitting in, Apple says, “I call it the Ping-Pong effect because you’re the ball, and nobody ever wants you in their space. Have you ever felt like that? Never really belonging anywhere, but trying your darndest to run between two lives only to find you’re always stuck in the middle.”
Apple may feel that she's constantly running, but Echo’s days in Pemmican Wars seem to involve just putting one foot in front of the other, with tremendous effort.
Unlike Apple, Echo is nearly silent. She’s emotionally isolated at school and in her foster placement, and moves as if something is draining all her energy. She spends most of her time with her earbuds in: Guns n Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers. The only time we see anything like a smile on her face is when she finds some graphic novels about Metis history on a library shelf. She’s in a new school and knows nobody, though her history teacher seems to “see” her. When she falls asleep, she dreams herself into events from First Nations history, and it’s in those dreams that she seems to feel most alive -- and where she has a friend.

Her mother stays in some kind of institution – rehab or mental health facility, maybe – which hints at why Echo is in foster care. Echo opens up slightly when she visits her mom. She speaks, asks questions about their family's Metis background, tells her mom what she is learning. The history class, the dreaming, and her relationship with her mom may be what eventually help her find her place. (That's "eventually" because Echo doesn’t find resolution in Pemmican Wars. Vermette’s second Echo book is due out in December, and we can hope that things will be looking up for her protagonist.)

The changes Apple and Echo go through in their respective stories are very different from each other, though both characters move toward a stronger sense of who they are, and what being Indigenous means (or can mean) to them, as they deal with racism, school, family issues, and so on. Young people deserve to get to know both of them.  Their stories belong on the same shelves (and in the same gift bag!) with Cynthia Leitich Smith’s 2018 release, Hearts Unbroken, whose protagonist Louise faces the effects of personal-level and community-wide racism while navigating peer relationships and romance during senior year. 

Three brand-new, strong Indigenous female teen main characters -- now there's a gift for your students, your teen patrons, your children, and your grandchildren!

(Recognition is due Katherena Vermette’s collaborators on Echo – illustrator Scott B. Henderson and color artist Donovan Yaciuk. Because Echo speaks so seldom, it’s on the illustrations to convey key details about her life. And they do so with subtlety and grace! For example, the letters WPG on the front of a bus Echo rides signal that she's in Winnipeg. Or so I'm told.)

--Jean Mendoza

UPDATE 10/29/19: Last week, @debraj1121 commented on Twitter that although she liked Apple in the Middle, she was concerned about negative mentions of "voodoo." One of Apple's distorted ideas about Native people is that they practice what she thinks of as voodoo, which evidently both intrigues and frightens her. Apple's grandmother pushes back on that mistake, calling voodoo "nonsense" and enlightening Apple about their family's actual beliefs.

Reading the Twitter conversation that followed, I realized 1) how much I need to learn, and 2) it's important to make a statement here about how voodoo appears in Apple in the Middle.

Voodoo is widely misunderstood in mainstream Western culture, and is portrayed in horror films and the like, as a kind of magic that can be used to hurt someone or cause chaos. It's often racialized (practitioners shown as African, Afro-Caribbean, or African-American, and scary). Popular (mis) representations reveal little if anything about the actual cosmology, a complex belief system with origins in Africa. It probably had a powerful role in sustaining many people who were enslaved and brought to the continents currently called the Americas. It has many believers in Haiti and elsewhere, and is more correctly called Vodou or Voudon.

I was dismayed to realize that, focused as I was on Apple's ignorance about Native people, I had scarcely noticed the mention of voodoo in the book.  @debraj1121's tweet got me started looking into what "voodoo" really is. Beyond the very general statements above,  I can't be a reliable source of information; still building a sense of what's trustworthy. One scholarly exploration that I'm finding helpful is "Haitian Vodou and Voodoo: Imagined Religion and Popular Culture" by Adam M. McGee, which focuses not on the actual religion but on how it has been sensationalized in the mainly-White popular imagination.

Anyway, part of Apple's growth as a character involves putting aside misunderstandings about Native people. Authors often do that by having events or other characters interfere with the character's ignorance or mistaken ideas. Apple's grandmother's contradiction (voodoo is "nonsense") falls short.
Author Dawn Quigley has said on Twitter that she honors and values @debraj1121's insights,  and has contacted the publisher of Apple in the Middle about the problem

If you've read or shared Apple in the Middle, recognize that voodoo is a real religion and that in the Western imagination it has been heavily colonized by powerful and persistent misrepresentations in films, stories, etc. 

Also on 10/29/19 -- A large and growing number of previously-White-identified people in eastern Canada have begun coopting First Nations identity by being spuriously designated "Eastern Metis." (For more information, see Darryl Leroux's book Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity,  and his Web site Raceshifting.) We want to note that A Girl Called Echo author Katherena Vermette and her character Echo are of the Metis nation in Manitoba, not the pretender group. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Debbie--have you seen SQUIRM by Carl Hiaasen?

A reader of AICL wrote to ask if I've seen Squirm by Carl Hiassen. Published in 2018 by Knopf (Penguin Random House) here's the description:
Some facts about Billy Dickens:
  *  He once saw a biker swerve across the road in order to run over a snake.
  *  Later, that motorcycle somehow ended up at the bottom of a canal.
  *  Billy isn't the type to let things go.

Some facts about Billy's family:
  *  They've lived in six different Florida towns because Billy's mom insists on getting a house near a bald eagle nest.
  *  Billy's dad left when he was four and is a total mystery.
  *  Billy has just found his dad's address--in Montana.

This summer, Billy will fly across the country, hike a mountain, float a river, dodge a grizzly bear, shoot down a spy drone, save a neighbor's cat, save an endangered panther, and then try to save his own father.
The review at Kirkus tells me that, in Montana, Billy learns that his dad--Dennis Dickens--has a new wife and that Billy now has a stepsister named Summer. They're members of the Crow Nation.

From what I can see in the Google Books preview, once Billy gets to Montana and to his dad's house, he meets Summer. Her last name is Chasing-Hawks. A few months after Summer's mom and Billy's dad started dating, Summer and her mom moved in with Billy's dad. Billy asks "Was it hard to leave the reservation?" Summer replies "Life on the rez can be...challenging?"

I'll see if I can get a copy, and if I do, I'll be back with a review.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Not recommended: Scott Kelley's I AM BIRCH

A colleague wrote to ask me about Scott Kelley's I Am Birch. Published in 2018 by Islandport Press, it is getting a 'not recommended' from me.

In the back of I Am Birch is an "About the Book" page that tells readers that:
The legends of Gluskap were part of artist Scott Kelley's childhood. One in particular, "How Rabbit Got Long Ears," was a favorite. In it, Rabbit tells the other animals that the sun is not going to rise again, and Gluskap must set the record straight.
Kelley had been working on a series of paintings of Wabanaki tribal elders, and another series of animals from the Maine woods. The story of Rabbit had been playing in his head for months, until he remembered a little drawing of a birch tree he had made, and at last, I Am Birch came to life: chaos and fear as seen by a birch stump, who, against all expectations, manages to put those fears to rest.

I am a former schoolteacher. Some people think books are just meant to entertain--but they definitely educate, too. What do students learn by reading I Am Birch?

Given the illustrations (I've included several, below) and the information in the "About the Book" page, I Am Birch looks like it is a Native story. So, I would try to figure out a few things.

First: Is the author Native? 

The answer? No. Kelley isn't Native. Course, that doesn't mean he can't tell create words or illustrations that look like they're meant to be be Native, but when someone chooses to create content that they're putting forth as Native, they must do a lot of research, first.

So, that's the second question. Does the author provide us with information about his research? Or, his resources? One of the touchstone articles about sources for  is Betsy Hearne's Cite the Source.

The answer? No. Nothing of that sort is listed in the book. I have no doubt that Scott Kelley meant well. But the images of Indigenous people that most Americans carry around are deeply flawed. Knowing they're flawed is the first step. Becoming aware of the big and small ways they're flawed starts by doing research--not of standard sources--but of books written by the people they are writing about. Because Kelley's book is about the Wabanaki peoples, he could start by reading nonfiction by Lisa Brooks. She is Abenaki. Zooming out a bit, he could also read a book by an Indigenous scholar like Daniel Heath Justice. His Why Indigenous Literatures Matter is new and an outstanding resource about our literatures.

Third: does the author give us anything at all to work with, in order for us to do a critical analysis of the content of their book?

In the back of I Am Birch, there is an "About the Book" page. It has some words to guide our analysis, but it is pretty thin. First is "Gluskap." Someone, we're told on that page, who can "set the record straight." Ok--Gluskap is someone with power or influence.

In that second paragraph of the "About" page, we see "Wabanaki tribal elders." I think we're to assume that the Gluskap of Kelley's childhood is associated with the Wabanaki -- but "Wabanaki" refers to several different tribal nations. Today, in Maine, there are four sovereign tribal nations:

  • Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, 
  • Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, 
  • Passamaquoddy Tribe, and the 
  • Penobscot Nation. 

All four have websites that include links to pages about their histories, cultures, and their respective languages. As far as I've been able to see, none of them call their language Wabanaki and none of them refer to their tribal members as Wabanaki. And, these are distinct nations.

In short, the "About" page gave bits of information that I used, below, when I started looking at the content of the book.

Fourth: Does the author have a website that can help understand what they're doing with their book?

Kelley does, in fact, have a website and there are several news articles about his book.

In the "About" page, I read that Kelley was working on a series of paintings of Wabanaki tribal elders, I thought he meant that elders were sitting for portraits, but that's not the case. Turns out, Kelley is using old photographs to do his series.

You can see his method in a video, Scott Kelley Studio Timelapse, where he's shown doing an eagle (the eagle in the video is not in his book). Figure 1 (below) is a screen cap from the video. In the center is his canvas. On the left are what he's calling "Wabanaki elders." On the right are photographs of eagles.

Figure 1

If we zoom in, we can see that the hat he has put on that eagle is in the photo on the bottom left:

Figure 2

Those photographs Kelley used are what helped me learn that he's not correct in saying "Wabanaki elders." At least one of the people in the photographs he used to create the illustrations in I Am Birch are not Wabanaki. In Figure 3 (below) I put a screen cap of his bear next to a screen cap of the Native man he used for the headdress he put on his bear.

Figure 3

The photograph on the right is in the Massachusetts Historical Society's archive. It is titled "An Ojibwe man in DC." 

Next, look at the photos below (Figure 4) of a Penobscot man and two different Penobscot women. The man is wearing a large collar draped around his shoulders. In the center photograph, a woman is wearing it. In The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine," (published in 1932), Fannie Hardy Eckstorm (she isn't Native) wrote that women "have no right to wear it [that collar]." Is she right? I don't know, but one thing is known: in some of these old photographs, the photographers would ask people to put on items of clothing that didn't belong to them to make the photograph seem more authentic. The first two photographs were taken by A. F. Orr. I don't know if he was among the photographers who asked people to wear this or that, even if it wasn't theirs. Is Kelley aware that he should be careful in using these old photographs?

I haven't found who took the third photograph, of Molly Molasses.

Figure 4
As I compare what I see on his website with what he put into his book, I see that Kelley combined aspects of those photographs to create his Badger. In his Badger (Figure 5), you see the collar, and the cap shown on Molly Molasses. The photo of Molasses doesn't show much detail on the cap, but online you can find detailed photographs of the caps. They were often made of red trading cloth. In his book, Kelley refers to his Badger as a female. If Eckstrom is correct about who can and cannot wear the collar, then it is incorrect for Kelley to put it on Badger. 

Figure 5

On another page, Kelley has Deer (Figure 6):

Figure 6

I think Kelley used a photograph of Molly Muise (Figure 7), who was Mi'kmaq, to make Deer's cap.

Figure 7


Setting aside Kelley's art to look at the story in I Am Birch, the "About" page says that his story is inspired by "How Rabbit Got Long Ears." So far I have been unable to find any versions of that story. Searches of that story name take me to the "Native Languages" site--but those stories aren't sourced and some go to hokey sites. If you know where I can find it, please let me know.

Kelley's story opens with "Everyone calls me BIRCH, for I am a birch tree, much like any other." Turning the page, however, we read that Birch is not a tree anymore because Beaver came along and turned Birch into a stump. Beaver was mumbling "COLD AND DARKNESS." After a while, Porcupine comes along and tells Birch that COLD AND DARKNESS are coming and that everyone is terrified. Birch asks Porcupine who told him about this COLD AND DARKNESS. Porcupine thinks it was Deer. When Deer comes by, Birch asks her if she was the one who started it, and she says she heard it from Badger. This goes on for several pages, with Kelley using photographs of animals in Kelley's versions of Native articles of clothing. Because Birch is the one who finally figures out there is no COLD AND DARKNESS coming that everyone should be afraid of, I think Birch is meant to be Gluskap. Kelley's Birch sets things right.


In I Am Birch, some might find the art and the story compelling, and they might see it as a tribute to Indigenous people. But is it? I don't think so.

Kelley uses what he calls photographs of "Wabanaki elders" to create his characters, but those photographs are from distinct tribal nations--some of which aren't even Wabanaki. To some, his animals are pretty to look at, but this mish-mash treatment of different nations renders his art inaccurate. In creating this art, as he did, Kelley seems unaware of the need to be accurate and to do research to ensure accuracy.

Generally speaking, people don't make up stories like the ones they read in the Bible and put them forth as Bible stories. They understand that is doing that is disrespectful and sacrilegious to Christians who deem those stories sacred. That fundamental respect must be accorded to the stories of Indigenous peoples, too. The Gluskap stories are not folktales. To the people who tell them, they are sacred, creation stories. In creating the story he tells in I Am Birch, I think Kelley is stepping over lines of respect.

In short: I do not recommend Scott Kelley's I Am Birch, published in 2018 by IslandPort Press.

Note: I found the references to Eckstorm's book here:

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Classic, Award-Winning, Popular Books with Racist, Biased Depictions of Indigenous People

In my experience, a lot of people don't remember or realize that classic, award-winning, or popular books have Native content in them that is biased, stereotypical, or just flat out incorrect. I and others have written about several of those books. That writing is here on AICL but in research and professional articles and book chapters, too.

This post is a list of links to some of that writing. If you're a teacher or professor interested in using a children's or young adult book to teach critical literacy, these will work well for that sort of analysis.

Arrow to the Sun

Caddie Woodlawn 

The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Little House on the Prairie

Sign of the Beaver

Touching Spirit Bear

What we need are books by Native writers! Check out AICL's Best Books lists.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Some thoughts on Native identity, in response to #ElizabethWarren (again)

Eds note: Below is a compilation of a tweet thread I did from Oct 20-21. (If you do tweet threads and want to compile them, try Spooler. That's what I used for this post.)

Thinking, today, about Native identity, and how we speak of it. 

I used to say "tribe" but realized that just "tribe" wasn't sufficient. For those who did not (and do not) know that we are sovereignty nations, "tribe" alone let them place us as a race or a cultural group. 

I can talk all day long about growing up on our reservation, doing the things we do as Native people there, and say things like "moccasins" and most people in the US would nod because it would fit with what they know of us as peoples with distinct cultures. 

But doing that is not enough. So--I use "nation." When I'm giving a lecture, I give an example of what it means to be a sovereign nation. A simple one: we decide how fast you drive on our reservation. If you go too fast and get a ticket, it is paid to our tribal gov offices. 

The US has many racial groups and many cultural groups but they don't have a land base over which they have jurisdiction such that they can set speed limits. 

If you're following the #ElizabethWarren news, you may have seen the word "citizen" or "citizenship" or "tribal member" or "enrolled." You may have been surprised to hear those words and/or to learn that tribal nations determine who their citizens or tribal members are...

But, that is how it works. Each tribal nation has ways it decides who its members are... and you can look that up if you know the name of the nation you're interested in. 

As I'm laying it out, it might seem pretty simple but... this is all political! Our tribal leaders and councils and the requirements are imperfect because, we're human beings. 

One of my top concerns is fraud. There's so many people that outright lie about a Native identity. It gets them jobs, or cred in some places, that they ought not have. 

Some people get jobs and cred by claiming it, but they're not outright lying. They really believe a family story. When someone asks for specifics, it can get uncomfortable for everyone. 

Someone who can't get enrolled, but who is definitely Native--that's an entirely different story. 

But those folks can generally point to cousins who are enrolled, who are kin. Those folks are usually known in the nations who they name as theirs. People in the nation will speak for them. 

I've been fooled by someone's claim to Native identity--more than once. When you find out that people tried to tell that person to stop identifying that way and they did it anyway... And they still do it... it is hard! 

There's resources out there. Books that can help you learn some of the nuances of all this. Eva Garroutte's REAL INDIANS is one.

Because of Warren, DNA [testing] is the big topic of the moment. It won't help you [get enrolled with a nation]. Read Kim Tallbear's book: NATIVE AMERICAN DNA: TRIBAL BELONGING AND THE FALSE PROMISE OF GENETIC SCIENCE

Speaking of myself, I am tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo, a sovereign nation that Spain, Mexico, and then the US regarded as a nation. We were a nation before the United States was a nation. 

Some universities, in an effort to stop fraudulent hirings (and there are MANY) are trying to figure out how to stop that kind of fraud. 

There's so many ways I could go with this thread. Things in my head. Like--years ago, Scott Lyons wrote an article in a newspaper, about tribal nations that were disenrolling Black people. That whole convo is very complicated, but, one

... one thing that Scott said was that tribal nations have to exist as nations, and that if we disenroll Black people, we were engaging in a form of ethnic cleansing. 

Some articles, books, etc. have helped me understand many dimensions of the politics of Native identity. Scott's is one of those. Wish I could find it. He's right. Those disenrollments were wrong. 

Native America Calling has had some very good segments on disenrollment. Here's one: Wednesday, April 6, 2016. Disenrollment. 

A lot of people think that it is racist to ask a Native person for "proof" of the identity. They're using a racial framework, and if this was a racial issue, it would be racist to ask -- but Native citizenship isn't about race. It is about nationhood. 

It is more like asking someone for proof that they're a US citizen. That's fraught, too, esp right now with this racist administration in DC, but that's [nationhoood] the framework where the question belongs. 

And--friends/colleagues who are Indigenous--if you see a tweet in this thread that needs clarification, please let me know. 

Another Native scholar who helped me clarify how I speak about Indigenous identity is Elizabeth Cook Lynn. I used her work to write a post for my site, titled Are We People of Color? 

I try to listen, weekly, to @mediaINDIGENA's podcast. I learn a lot from the guests there. Go here, and scroll down to episode 119. It was about DNA testing. 

People who follow me know that most of my work is in children's and young adult literature. My blog, American Indians in Children's Literature, has 11 years of posts on it. ELEVEN YEARS. That's a lot of content, available to you, at no charge. 

I said "at no charge" because most of the writing that we do is in journal articles, magazines, books... that cost money to get to. So--as a former schoolteacher, I do what I can to provide resources to people who want/need them. 

Most children's/YA books out there that teachers assign are deeply flawed. Like, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS. Ugh. Don't assign that, please. Here's my critique of that book.  

Books like that one are huge obstacles to progress in terms of getting Native writers published, and getting their books read or assigned in schools. Seems ppl prefer long-ago-far-away "Indians" over stories that are real! That show our lives as we live them. 

Coming up soon, I'll be on the #NIEABookClub to talk about two excellent books by Native writers. 

One is @DanielVandever's picture book, FALL IN LINE, HOLDEN, which is about a kid in boarding school, where the goal was to stop Indigenous kids from being Indigenous. So--about identity. And asserting identity. 

The second one is @CynLeitichSmith's HEARTS UNBROKEN, where a teen girl in a suburb is navigating challenges to her identity. There's an important thread in Smith's book--about L. Frank Baum. Native ppl know why that's in there. 

Most non-Native people see "L. Frank Baum" and think 'yay' but they don't know that Baum wanted to exterminate Indigenous people. 

Europeans wanted us out of the way. But our ancestors fought back. That's why we're here, today, saying 'nope' to those who misrepresent us in children's books or in national politics. 

Vine Deloria Jr -- in volume 1 of DOCUMENTS OF INDIAN DIPLOMACY -- wrote something abt treaties that sticks with me. To Indigenous leaders/ppl, they were about relationships. To Europeans/Americans, they were about resources. Interesting, eh? 

Circling back to the Elizabeth Warren situation. So many Indigenous people are getting trolled by people who seem to think that, in speaking up abt what Warren did, we are choosing trump or GOP, as if our existence is one or the other. 

That kind of trolling demonstrates a lack of understanding, or, a lack of care if there is some understanding. That kind of response isn't helpful to anyone. 

The response that is needed, is one that is issued after you've read Native writing(s) about identity--specifically right now--about Warren. To help with that, I'm creating a list: A Curated List of Native Responses to Elizabeth Warren 

When I was at U Illinois, we had a couple of instances of ppl making claims... and so we drafted a statement: Identity and Academic Integrity 

I'll be adding to this thread as I see other items that are of relevance. See Dr. Arica Coleman's article in Time magazine: and get her book, THAT THE BLOOD STAY PURE. (…)

See Kim TallBear's threaded response to Zerlina Maxwell's remarks on MSNBC a few days ago:

See Ebony Elizabeth Thomas's thread, with its link to an article by Henry Louis Gates:

As noted in tweets 8, 11, and 12, being a citizen or enrolled in a tribal nation is messy. I'm glad to see threads from friends/colleagues who can add to my/our/your understandings. See Elissa Washuta's thread:
Being an enrolled citizen in a federally-recognized nation is not the only way to be Native. I do not think DNA is valid in determining Indigeneity, but I'm concerned about the reductive takes I'm seeing that equate Indigeneity to citizenship.

See Daniel Heath Justice's thread, too:
In the wake of the Elizabeth Warren debacle, let’s not forget another way in which racial logics have displaced kinship in our own politics and relations: the continuing struggle for Freedmen descendants to be recognized as enfranchised citizens and relatives in the Five Tribes.

And, see Rebecca Nagel's Facebook post about ongoing conversations about Cherokee Freedmen: Here's a screen cap of the first two para's of her post.