Thursday, February 08, 2018

Not Recommended: Keira Drake's THE CONTINENT (the 2018 revision)

You may recall that, back in 2016, there was a lot of pushback to Keira Drake's The Continent. 

I recommend you read Zoraida Córdova's critique on November 7, 2016, at YA Interrobang. It is excellent. 

In response to the intense conversations on social media, Drake and her publisher, Harlequin Teen (a division of HarperCollins), decided to postpone the release of The Continent to give Drake an opportunity to revise it. 

I wonder if their decision is based on a multi-book contract? 

The Continent is the first book in a series she is going to write. It is "Book 1" in the series, and will be released on March 27, 2018. 


In their announcement on November 7, 2016 (posted to their Tumblr page), Harlequin Teen said:
Over the last few days, there has been online discussion about racial stereotypes in connection with one of our upcoming 2017 titles, The Continent by Keira Drake. 
As the publisher, we take the concerns that have been voiced seriously. We are deeply sorry to have caused offense, as this was never our or the author's intention. We have listened to the criticism and feedback and are working with the author to address the issues that have been raised. 
We fully support Keira as a talented author. To ensure that the themes in her book are communicated in the way she planned, we will be moving the publication date. 
- HarlequinTeen

I wrote about the 2016 ARC (advance review copy) on January 31, 2017. Over the last couple of weeks, I've read the 2018 ARC. 

My conclusion? 
Drake's revisions are superficial. 
The Continent is not better now than it was in 2016. 


If you haven't read the book, here is what you need to know to make sense of my review:
The main character is a teen named Vaela Sun who lives on a land mass called the Spire. In their heli-planes, people of the Spire like to fly over a land mass they call the Continent, to see the battle there between two nations of people. It reminds them how far they've come. Vaela and her parents are on the tour with Mr. and Mrs. Shaw and their son, Aaden. When their heli-plane crashes on the Continent, Vaela is captured by the Xoe and rescued by Nomo, who is of the Aven'ei nation. 

Let's start with changes to the books description. The first and last paragraphs are unchanged. The middle paragraph has some changes. The word "uncivilized" is gone from the 2018 description. The significant change, however, as shown here in the highlighted text from the middle paragraph, is about who Vaela is:
For Vaela--a talented apprentice cartographer--the journey is a dream come true: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve upon the maps she's drawn of this vast, frozen land. 
For Vaela, the war holds little interest. As a talented apprentice cartographer and a descendant of the Continent herself, she sees the journey as a dream come true: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve upon the maps she’s drawn of this vast, frozen land.
In the revision, Drake has made Vaela a descendent of one of the nations on the Continent. That information is presented on page 18:
“Did you know, my mother says, addressing the Shaws, “that Vaela and I are of Aven’ei descent?”
 Aaden looks back and forth between the two of us. “Are you quite sure?” he says. “Many claim as much, but its rarely true.”
 She smiles. “We can trace it all the way back to one of my ancestors, a Miss Delia Waters. She was a cultural attaché for the East—an illustrious position, all told—and spent a great deal of time on the Continent, back in that all-too-short bit of time when we had contact with those living overseas. Anyhow, we haven’t all the details, but we know she married an Aven’ei by the name of Qia who died soon after their wedding. She returned to the Spire, kept her given name, and gave birth to a baby boy—Roderick—a man of considerable accomplishment, so the story goes.”

At her website, Drake said that she is Sicilian, Native American, French, Irish, and Danish and that she takes great pride in her ancestry. Vaela and her mother, in this revision, have pride in their Aven'ei ancestry. She's got it a bit odd, though. Miss Delia Waters was not Aven'ei. She fell in love and married an Aven'ei man. Their son, Roderick, is the ancestor with Aven'ei heritage. An interesting note: as this story unfolds, Vaela falls in love with Nomo, who is Aven'ei. 

For many years while I was at the University of Illinois, I worked towards helping the university get rid of its "Chief Illiniwek." It was stereotypical, but fans loved and love it. When I or others described its history and its stereotypical aspects, we were sometimes countered by a person who said "well I'm part Native American and I think it honors Native Americans." That claim was put forth as a shield to give their point of view credibility. When pressed, they could not specify a Native nation (some said "Cherokee" -- which is not surprising). For others, a research process was being done--much like the one that Vaela and her mother have done. It'd be interesting to know Drake's backstory for their claim. What was Drake thinking of as she developed this for them? And was she (or is she) undertaking similar research on her own Native American ancestry? Either way, her decision to give Vaela that ancestry feels to me like a shield that gives Drake a way to say that this is not a White savior story. If Vaela's actions in the rest of the story changed in some way as a consequence of that identity, it might have worked, but there isn't any change. That identity is just inserted. It is returned to at the end, but all those pages in the middle are unchanged.

When Vaela's mother tells Mrs. Shaw that they have Aven'ei ancestry, Mrs. Shaw has some racist ideas that she doesn't hesitate to speak aloud. Mr. Shaw replies to her. Here's that passage (p. 19):

“I do hope you haven’t inherited any violent tendencies,” says Mrs. Shaw, before sticking a forkful of duck confit into her mouth, chewing it carefully, and swallowing. “I suspect that sort of thing gets passed right down through the generations. Bit of a questionable lineage, isn’t it?

A hush falls over the table at this remark; my mother and father shift in their chairs, and I sit quietly, poking at my entrée, my face flaming even though I am certainly not the one who should be embarrassed. Eventually, Mrs. Shaw looks round at us, her eyes wide. “What? Have I said something off?”

Mr. Shaw clears his throat. “Now dearest,” he says, “that’s a rather singular way of thinking, isn’t it? An outmoded way of thinking? Violence itself is not a thing exclusive to the Xoe and the Aven’ei. After all, before the Four Nations united to become the Spire, the people of our own lands were ever locked in some conflict or another.”
In recent conversations about racist characters and the words they utter, writers and critics state that there has to be someway to immediately check that racism, on that page. Mr. Drake is doing that, above. But, seeing it in action...  it feels forced. It, like the passages about Vaela's identity, are simply pasted into this story. There's nothing to make them work as part of the story. Cut them out, and you wouldn't miss them. Why, then is all of this here? As I said above, it feels like Drake is inserting them as a shield to protect her from criticism. Another change to the 2018 ARC is that Vaela prays, here and there, to "Maker." I wonder if that is Drake's effort to turn that Aven'ei heritage into some semblance of an Aven'ei religion? That is possible, but I didn't find it significant enough to matter.  


Some of the changes Drake made were easy to do. She was able to easily replace every use of "Topi" with "Xoe." She was able to search for "natives" and replace that, too, sometimes making minor edits in the words before and after the change.  Here's an example (highlights are mine):
2016, p. 15:"Have you any thoughts, Mr. Shaw, about the natives on the Continent?" 
2018, p. 17:"Have you any thoughts, Mr. Shaw, about the Xoe and the Aven'ei?"
Those changes, however, are superficial. You can swap "natives" for "Xoe" and unless major revisions are done to the ways that group is depicted, it doesn't matter. We still see them as brutal, doing things like hurling a head at the heli-plane. There's one part in both books where Vaela tells Nomo that they are people, too, but--as before--that effort is overwhelmed by the rest of the book. Indeed, when the Topi/Xoe are attacking the Aven'ei village, Vaela sets out to kill one with her knife and she kills others, later, on a battlefield. Her statement to Nomo that they're people, too, is feeble in light of all else she says and does, and all the ways that Drake describes them. 

If you read my review in January of 2017, you may recall that I was especially troubled by Drake's description of the Topi village. That is gone, but the changes do nothing, because the Topi/Xoe's character (as a people) is unchanged. Here's a passage about their villages from the 2016 ARC. In each of these two excerpts, I'll highlight the major changes (p. 47):
The architecture is different from that of the Aven'ei: cruder harsher, yet terribly formidable, even in the frozen, icy territory the Topi call home. The little towns, too, are much closer together than Aven'ei villages; I am reminded of an ant colony, with many chambers all connected together, working to support a single purpose.

And here's the revised passage in the 2018 ARC (p. 51):

The architecture is different from that of the Aven’ei: the buildings are small, for the most part, with long triangular rooftops dipping low toward the ground. Roads and walking paths twist here and there, looking around and about the small homes and other structures. All is sturdy and formidable in this frozen, icy territory the Xoe call home. The towns, too, while small, are much closer together than Aven’ei villages. I have the sense of greater cooperation, of community, of connection—of something like we’ve established in the Spire. 
Where she used "war paint" to describe the Topi, Drake is using "colorful tattoos" instead. Instead of having "reddish brown" skin, their skin is pale. What they look like, though, doesn't ultimately matter. What they do, is unchanged. When the heli-plane flies over a field where the Topi/Xoe and the Aven'ei are fighting, there's blood everywhere, spattered on the snow. The Xoe have killed all the Aven'ei and decapitated an archer. The Topi/Xoe then scream, raise their fists in the air, "drunk with victory, reveling in blood" and heave the severed head at the heli-plane (p. 51/56). See what I mean? It doesn't matter if the Topi/Xoe are in face paint or tattooed. It doesn't matter how much Vaela's thoughts here and there seem to think well of them. 

At the end of the story, Vaela returns to the Spire to ask for help. In the 2016 ARC, her idea is that the Spire can use its resources to build a wall between the two nations of people. In the 2018 ARC, her idea is that the Spire can build towers. Here's those two passages:
2016 (p. 262):“Build walls. Destroy access points. Create defenses the likes of which have never been seen on the Continent! Spirian construction is vastly superior to anything the natives can contrive, don’t you see? You can save the Aven’ei without ever raising so much as a finger against the Topi. You have the power to end this. You have the power to stop another war." 

2018 (p. 265):“Build towers, so that the Aven’ei might see when a Xoe force is coming. Establish plain sight of all access points. Create defenses the likes of which have never been seen on the Continent! And then, down the line, perhaps the Spire can help the Aven’ei and the Xoe to meet in the middle, to accomplish a peace of their own accord. Don’t you see? You can help without ever raising so much as a single weapon. You have the power to end this. You have the power to stop another war." 
Having given Vaela Aven'ei ancestry, Drake must think that her not-Spire-alone identity solves the White Savior problem of those passages. Who Vaela is, however, doesn't matter. She went to the Spire--to the more "civilized" people--to get help. By the end of both versions, the Spire arrives. They are exercising their power to stop the war on the Continent. I should note that there's more than one nation on the Spire, and it isn't all four that come to help.

Back on Feb 9 to insert a screen cap of the method I use for this kind of analysis. First column is 2016 ARC; second one is 2018. These four pages are from the first chapter, where most of the book's new content appears.


I think that Drake was also criticized for the language she created for the Aven'ei. They, and the language they speak, she said on her website, were inspired by Asian and European peoples--in particular--Japanese. Here's some of them:

Name changes:
Inzu is now Kinza
Teku is now Nadu
Keiji is now Kiri
Shoshi is now Shovo
Yuki is now Raia
Hayato is now Kastenai

Some are words:
miyake is miyara (supposed to be a term of endearment)
takaharu is tanadai (supposed to mean something akin to a whore)

Some of the physical description of the Aven'ei is gone or changed, too. In the 2018 ARC, Nomo's eyes aren't described as being "almond shaped." 


As noted above, I do not think the revisions are substantial enough to address the issues raised in 2016. There are many who wonder what Drake could have done to fix The Continent. 

Frankly, I think these kinds of books rest on a flawed foundation. They're written by people who want to use race and racial issues, misrepresentations of the past and present, to help -- let's be real -- White readers learn about injustice. Along the way, readers of the groups that, historically and in the present, experience oppression and racism on a daily basis, are essentially asked to be patient. I think that's wrong. Drake is trying to be a savior. Her editor is enabling that motivation. Her publisher is putting money into this project. Those are my thoughts. I welcome yours.

Update, Feb 9, 2017: I will begin adding links here, to some of the conversations that are taking place elsewhere.

Courtney Milan, on Twitter, Feb 9, 8:13 AM: "It feels like the author thought the problem was 'this race described as violent and uncivilized is too much like earth races" and not "maybe your world-building shouldn't present an entire race as violent and uncivilized."

K Tempest Bradford, on Twitter, Feb 9, 8:32 AM: "Surprise, surprise, the revised version of #TheContinent is among us..."

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

BIG NEWS: A possible change in name of ALA's Laura Ingalls Wilder Award!

Editors note: If you are not attending ALA's Midwinter Conference, you can submit a comment directly to ALSC regarding the proposed change to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award name at the ALSC blog. If you are attending, you can go to the meeting on Saturday (Feb 10). I welcome your comments here, as well, but urge you to submit comments directly to ALSC. 


Earlier today, there was some big news!

Way back in 1954, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) established the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. It is given annually to an author or illustrator in the US whose books have made a "substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children."

On Saturday, Feb 10 at the American Library Association's 2018 Midwinter Conference, ALSC will begin a discussion about changing the name of the award.

As I look at the logo for the conference, the line "The conversation starts here..." takes on new meaning!

In Nina Lindsay's (she is current president of ALSC) memo about the discussion, she included information that brought ALSC to this point. Here's some lines from her memo:
Today, this award elevates a legacy that is not consistent with values of diversity and inclusion--something we did not fully understand as a profession when we created the award.
A member wrote to me: “the Wilder is a monument that says something about our profession's history, but every year it is given out it also says something about our present.” 

My work has shown me that critical reflection on Wilder and her books is--for some people--uncomfortable. It is hard to look carefully--and acknowledge--that Wilder's depictions of African Americans and Native people, are flawed and racist.

Some will argue that at the time she wrote the books, things like blackface and stereotyping weren't seen as wrong. But, of course, African Americans and Native peoples knew them to be wrong. Here's some examples from the books:

In Little House in the Big Woods (1932), Pa tells Laura and Mary about his childhood in New York, where he'd pretend he was "a mighty hunger, stalking the wild animals and the Indians" (p. 53).

In Farmer Boy (1933), Almanzo and and Alice play "wild Indian" (p. 277).

In Little House on the Prairie (1935), the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" appears three times. I've written a lot about that book. The memo about the change points to one of my articles. They are depicted in menacing ways:

In On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), Mary tells Laura to put on her sunbonnet because if she doesn't "You'll be brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?" (p. 143).

In By the Shores of Silver Creek (1939), Ma recalls her fear of being scalped by "the savages" who had come into their house on the prairie (p. 100).

In The Long Winter (1940) when Pa mentions an Indian who told him that "heap bad snow come" (p. 61), Ma asks him what Indian, and she "looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian" (p. 64).

In Little Town on the Prairie (1941), Pa does blackface.  The newly released Kindle copies of the series changed the illustrations from black and white into color:

In These Happy Golden Years (1943), Uncle Tom tells about when he was on his way to the Black Hills, looking for gold, and had to go into a "strange depression" that, a prospector told him, the Indians called "the Bad Lands." The depression is a "heathenish" place with skulls and bones. Of it, Tom says "I think that when God made he world He threw all the leftover waste into that hole" (p. 106). When Laura and Almanzo are leaving, Grace runs out with Laura's sunbonnet, saying "Remember, Laura, Ma says if you don't keep your sunbonnet on, you'll be brown as an Indian!" (p. 284).

I was--and am--deeply moved by this news from ALSC! Here's their immediate plan:

In order to further move forward with a deliberate and open examination of our awards program, we suggest, at minimum, both of the following:  
1. Establish a task force to explore the ALSC awards program within the context of our core values and the Diversity & Inclusion goal of our strategic plan, beginning with whether to rename the Wilder Award. The task force should deliver recommendations regarding the Wilder in time for any changes to the 2019 award, soliciting feedback from members and other stakeholders, and consulting with the EDI within ALSC Implementation Task Force, ALSC Fiscal Officer, ALA Awards Committee, and other critical stakeholders upfront. Additionally, the task force may be charged with additional direction formed from the Board’s discussion.  
2. Immediately update the “About the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” webpage with more informed background on Wilder and her legacy, and a statement about ALSC’s values and current actions in regard to the award. A proposed rewrite will be shared with the Board for discussion, and if the Board approves could be uploaded immediately, in time for the 2018 YMA announcements. A rewrite would additionally reaffirm the honor bestowed upon Wilder Award recipients, whose life work contributes essentially to ALSC’s vision of engaging communities to build healthy, successful, futures for all children.
I am a member of ALSC and will find out how I can contribute to the Task Force. I am also going to see how Native patrons of libraries across the country might be able to submit comments to the Task Force.

For me--as a Native parent, educator, and scholar--this has been a momentous day.

Update, 6:45 PM
Nina Lindsay submitted a comment below, which I am pasting here for your convenience. Above, I referenced the announcement and memo. The proper name is Document 29.
Debbie, thank you for sharing this. As the current ALSC President chairing this discussion, I'd invite everyone to visit to find our board agenda and documents; this discussion is title "ALSC Awards Program in Context of Strategic Plan" and is Document 29. 

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Recommended: How Devil’s Club Came to Be

By Miranda Rose Kaagweil Worl (Tlingit)
Illustrated by Michaela Goade (Tlingit)
2017, Sealaska Heritage Institute
Baby Raven Reads Education Program

Library bookshelves virtually overflow with “retellings” of Native American traditional tales “adapted” (stolen) by non-Native writers who then profit from something that’s intrinsically Muscogee, Lakota, Tsimshian -- something that’s not theirs to share. 

You may know that’s an abuse of tribal intellectual property, and that many Native nations now safeguard their traditional stories so that they (or many of them) can’t be shared with the general public. After so many of these stories were collected and disseminated without permission by non-Natives, keepers of the cultures created policies to stop the theft. Some stories are not to be shared, even among people of the nation that holds them, except in special circumstances.

So the following words caught my eye in the front matter of How Devil’s Club Came to Be:
“This is an original story by Miranda Rose Kaagweil Worl. Though inspired by ancient oral traditions that have been handed down through the generations, it is not a traditional Tlingit story.”
Info in the back matter tells us that both the author and illustrator are Tlingit. It also tells us their clans and Tlingit names. So it seems likely that they will not be misrepresenting Tlingit traditions in How Devil’s Club Came to Be. (We also see that Worl wrote this story when she was in high school.)

That statement, “This is an original story” and the detailed author/illustrator information may be part of the reason the Library of Congress designated Devil’s Club a “best practice honoree” in 2017. Readers can feel assured that the book’s Tlingit creators are NOT sharing a sacred or protected part of their culture.

The story starts with a sickness in Raven’s village. The shaman they look to for healing is nowhere to be found. Raven discovers that a terrible giant with a spiked club is kidnapping shamans. He tells his people that he’ll stop the giant – but then falls ill himself. He tells his niece that she must take over for him.

Raven’s Niece does her best to defeat the giant, but her plan fails. To escape, she jumps off a cliff – and finds herself among the Thunderbird people. Like her people, they are ill and missing their shaman. Their leader says they will help her. He drapes his Chilkat robe around her shoulders. The robe turns her into a Thunderbird. She finds the giant, shreds his deadly club, and drops him into the ocean.

She then becomes ill, but the voice of the Thunderbird clan leader directs her back to where she destroyed the club. There she finds an unfamiliar, spiky plant. She chews the inner bark and feels strong enough to get back home. She shares the medicine with her people, and they are cured. The plant (called S’axt in Tlingit and devil’s club in English), still “helps heal and protect us.”

Often I’m of two minds when authors create original stories based in oral traditions of their cultures. It was a bit disorienting to learn, as a child, that “The Ugly Duckling” and “Princess and the Pea” came from Hans Christian Anderson, and not from old Europe! But original stories that feel old can be engaging and worthwhile in their own right. How Devil’s Club Came to Be, with its uncomplicated plot and Miranda Worl's straightforward prose, has plenty of drama without seeming overwrought. It's easy to read aloud. Here's a sample:
The voice of the Thunderbird clan leader boomed in her head. She spread her arms outward, but they were no longer arms. They were the wings of a giant bird -- they were the wings of a Thunderbird.
Micheala Goade’s illustrations make dramatic use of color and line. Goade works in water color and India ink, then adds some digital elements. The end papers feature a misty green forest with black line drawings of large-leafed plants in the foreground – foreshadowing the arrival of something new in this ancient landscape. Raven is given a soulful expression that suits him in this incarnation. The giant and the Thunderbird people are depicted with the suggestion of traditional Tlingit formline designs. As for Raven’s Niece: the text doesn’t need the words confident, courageous, powerful and skilled to describe her, because the illustrations capture those traits.
Raven tells his niece
she must fight the

If you and the children you'll share Devil's Club with are not Tlingit, you’ll want to do some research first, to provide some background knowledge about where the story takes place and what Tlingit people say about themselves. Not being Tlingit, I may be missing some good resources to recommend here. But you can start by visiting the website of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. There's more at the Chilkat Indian Village website. Also, you might want to look in your library for books with photos of devil’s club, the Alaska coast and temperate rain forest, and some traditional and contemporary Tlingit art. 

You might want to keep in mind that, although the Thunderbird is a popular image among non-Native people, it’s not part of every Indigenous nation’s heritage. Shaman is another concept that appeals to many non-Natives, but is poorly understood. Not all Indigenous peoples refer to their healers as shamans. If you've laid the groundwork by offering children tribally-specific information, they're less likely to generalize to all nations from this Tlingit story.

I recommend How Devil's Club Came to Be. You can buy it online through Trickster Company or Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Note to Tlingit readers: I might have missed important points related to How Devil’s Club Came to Be. If that’s the case, we’d be grateful if you’d respond with a comment!

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Cover for Traci Sorell's WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA

On January 18, All the Wonders did the cover reveal for Traci Sorell's We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga.

People who think of Indigenous peoples as "vanished" or no longer "real Indians" if we aren't walking around in feathers and beads may not know just how wrong they are! That idea is silly! Of course we're still here--and let's be real: those stereotypical ideas are harmful to everyone.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, written by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac will be out in September, from Charlesbridge. Head over to All the Wonders to read the author and illustrator interviews, and... order the book! 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Allie Jane Bruce's review of LAURA INGALLS IS RUINING MY LIFE

Eds. note: AICL is pleased to publish Allie Jane Bruce's review of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, by Shelley Tougas. It was published in 2017 by Roaring Book Press (Macmillan). To read the introduction to this review, go to Allie's post at Reading While White.

Here's a description of the book (from the Macmillan website):
A life on the prairie is not all its cracked up to be for one girl whose mom takes her love of the Little House series just a bit too far.
Charlotte’s mom has just moved the family across the country to live in Walnut Grove, “childhood home of pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Mom’s idea is that the spirit of Laura Ingalls will help her write a bestselling book. But Charlotte knows better: Walnut Grove is just another town where Mom can avoid responsibility. And this place is worse than everywhere else the family has lived—it’s freezing in the winter, it’s small with nothing to do, and the people talk about Laura Ingalls all the time. Charlotte’s convinced her family will not be able to make a life on the prairie—until the spirit of Laura Ingalls starts getting to her, too.


Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, by Shelley Tougas.  
Roaring Brook Press.  
Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce.
NB - I read, and used page numbers from, a galley of this book.
At the outset of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, twelve-year-old Charlotte makes it clear that she finds her mom’s obsession with Laura Ingalls irritating. Any time Mom or Rose (Charlotte’s younger sister) reference the Little House books or Laura Ingalls, Charlotte’s reaction is somewhere in the ballpark of “Seriously?” or “Ugh.” On page 8, Charlotte thinks:
Realistically, I was stuck with Laura for a year. I had to deal with her the way you deal with an upset stomach. You wait it out. Eventually you puke and feel better. 
On their move from Lexington, Kentucky to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Mom decides they must stop and eat at a diner they see, called "Prairie Diner". When Mom starts to engage a waitress on the subject, Charlotte thinks (p. 9): 
I needed to shut this down before Mom launched her crazy spirit-of-Laura explanation. 
It is important to note, however, that Charlotte’s negative reactions have nothing to do with any inkling that the books, or Laura herself, are racist or problematic. Charlotte is irritated because she is a snarky, often pessimistic character, and the idea of Laura’s spirit calling out to Mom’s creative soul rubs her the wrong way.

On page 34, in her new classroom, Charlotte notices (p. 34): 
There were twenty-four students in our new class, including Julia [their landlady’s granddaughter], Freddy [her twin brother], and me. Six were Asian. Julia was the only Hispanic student, as far as I could tell. Everyone else was white. 
I wondered, upon reading this, whether all those White kids were actually White, or whether Charlotte might be misidentifying someone; many people present, or pass for, White but in fact identify as Native, Latinx, or multiracial. I wondered more about this on page 36, as the kids are being given an assignment. Mrs. Newman (her teacher) says:
“You will write about how Laura Ingalls and her story have influenced our community and affected your life. [...] You don’t have to be a fan. I know there are students who haven’t read the books, which saddens me greatly, but if you live here, there’s no getting around Laura’s influence. Even if you haven’t read the books, which truly saddens me, you are aware of how she’s shaped our town, and if you’re not aware, that is heartbreaking.” 
I tried to imagine myself as a Native kid reading this passage, or to take it a step further, as a White-presenting Native kid in Charlotte’s class. How would this talk about not reading the books, and not being aware of how Laura Ingalls shaped their town, as “saddening” and “heartbreaking” land with me? Reading it with this mindset, it made me angry. Native people were subject to genocide and forced relocation because of the invasion of people like Laura Ingalls; but what’s really heartbreaking is if someone hasn’t read or appreciated her books?

Charlotte finds the assignment annoying, but not problematic. She writes an essay titled “Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life” and describes how angry she is that her flighty mother moved them to the town of Walnut Grove to chase Laura’s creative energy.

Soon after, Charlotte gets sick and has to stay home from school for several days. Mom reads to her from the Little House books, which Charlotte likes. Charlotte describes how much Ma hates Indians, the first reference thus far to any racism or problematic content in the Little House books (p. 46):
And Ma, who is the sweetest character in the book, hates Indians, and I mean hates hates hates them. Maybe it was because the Ingalls built their cabin on Indian land, and the Indians weren’t too happy about it. In the end, both the Indians and the Ingalls pack up their stuff and move. The Indians are forced to leave their hunting grounds, and the Ingalls end up on the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, because all Pa wants to do is move. 
Charlotte offers all of this without editorializing or offering her opinion on Ma’s opinions, which I found strange, since Charlotte offers her opinion on everything, especially if she finds it annoying. Are we to conclude that Charlotte doesn’t find Ma’s bigotry annoying? At best, she is dispassionate about it.

On page 52, Charlotte’s mom changes her mind about her writing project. Where she’d previously intended to write an historical fiction about an orphan girl moving to the prairie, she now wants to write about (p. 52)
...twins who sneak aboard this space shuttle that’s going to colonize Mars... Mom says it’s the same story because it’s about exploration and pioneers. So we’re still here for Laura. She still needs Laura’s spirit.
This is interesting, because I’ve seen outer space exploration and aliens used as metaphors for colonialism and invasion before, in books like The Knife of Never Letting Go, Landscape With Invisible Hand, and The True Meaning of Smekday. I have mixed feelings about them. I appreciate the emphasis on interrogating invaders; and, I think it’s problematic to draw a parallel between aliens and Native humans, or to cast Native and non-Native people as equal parties in any story about colonization. I think Mom’s idea for a Mars book, which rests on an analogy in which White pioneers are to humans as Native people are to literal Martians, is deeply problematic. Over the course of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, Charlotte and others question whether the Mars book is a good idea, but not for the reasons I state above.

Charlotte reads an essay on Manifest Destiny, and soon after that, on the Transcontinental Railroad. About the Manifest Destiny essay, Charlotte thinks (p. 79-80):

The essay, “Manifest Destiny and America’s Expansion,” was long and boring. If you’ve heard people say something is as boring as watching paint dry, well, the Manifest Destiny essay would bore the paint. [...]  The essay went like this: After colonists won independence from England, American leaders thought it was destiny for our country to grow. If ordinary Americans could own land, not just rich people, then they would be committed to making the country strong and the best in the word. So the government bought land around Louisiana from France and fought with Mexico to get even more land. And pretty soon the country stretched “from sea to shining sea,” just like the song “America the Beautiful” said.

Charlotte’s only problem with the essay is that she found it boring.

On page 82, Charlotte discusses the Transcontinental Railroad with Rose (her younger sister) and we get our first inkling that she’s starting to see some of these problems. After describing the hardships in The Long Winter, Rose says (p. 93-94):

“Finally spring came and the trains arrived with supplies. So many pioneers would’ve died without trains bringing stuff from the East. Trains were lifesavers.” 
I flopped on my bed. “Tell that to Chinese workers. Tell that to the buffalo.” 
“What do you mean?” 
“The railroad company hired workers from China and barely paid them and had them do all the dangerous work, like blowing up tunnels. Lots of them died. When the trains were up and running, men would sit in train cars and shoot buffalo for fun. They didn’t even eat the meat. The buffalo just rotted and pretty soon buffalo became almost extinct.”

I like this exchange, although I wonder why we haven’t heard more of Charlotte’s inner thoughts about this--she seems to be reevaluating her initial take on Manifest Destiny.

Next, Charlotte learns about the U.S.-Dakota War (although the book doesn’t call it this). She reads about the “Dakota Sioux Conflict”.  Her teacher says (p. 114-115):

“I want you to start with the Dakota Sioux Conflict because it was essentially a war that happened right here in southwestern Minnesota. The whole thing was overshadowed by the Civil War, so most people know very little about it. You’ll make some connections between it and the Ingalls family.” 
“Like Ma hating Indians?” 
“In a way,” she said. “No doubt she’d heard about Indians killing settlers in southwestern Minnesota, and she was afraid.” 
“It’s not like she could call 9-1-1.” 
“Indians were afraid of the settlers, too. The government broke treaty after treaty. They didn’t give the Indians supplies that were promised, and the Indians were afraid they’d starve that winter.”

Having learned that one outcome of the U.S.-Dakota war was the largest mass execution in U.S. history, I am troubled by this “fair and balanced” account.

A few pages later, Mrs. Newman assigns Charlotte an essay on the Trail of Tears (p. 126):
She handed me an article. I glanced at the title—something about Native Americans and a Trail of Tears. “Here’s one more thing I want you to read. You can take your time, but I do want to discuss it.” 
On page 132, Charlotte and Julia (their landlady’s granddaughter) have a conversation in which they talk about how “perfect” Pa Ingalls was as a dad (conveniently omitting his blackface performance). Julia also says, describing what she wrote about in her award-winning essay on Laura Ingalls (p. 132):

“The Asians here are Hmong, which is like Vietnamese, but not exactly. Tons of them came to Minnesota after the war in Vietnam.” 
“Seems kind of random.” 
“It’s like a new group of settlers came to the prairie.” 

I cringe at several things here--casually describing Hmong people as “like Vietnamese, but not exactly” (how would that land with a Hmong child reading it?), “random” (in the large picture, Hmong people living in Walnut Grove isn’t any more “random” than Charlotte, or any White people, living in Walnut Grove, but this casts them as “other” and somehow different). As for “a new group of settlers came to the prairie” -- to equate Westward invasion and Manifest Destiny with the experiences of immigrants of color living in a White-dominated society is simply inaccurate, and troubling, in that it ignores the power dynamic Hmong people face and erases the fact that White people invaded Native lands (if White people invading the West were “immigrants” the way that Hmong people are immigrants in this context, Native people would have no legitimate grievances).

There’s an argument, of course, that Julia is twelve years old and doesn’t understand these dynamics; I do not, however, get the sense that Tougas recognizes the problems with what Julia says (at least, she does not recognize them in the text) or is presenting this conversation as a teachable moment, as she never counters Julia’s ideas. On the contrary, I get a strong feeling that we as readers are supposed to be learning and taking in what Julia says here.

In this same conversation, one of the more interesting things in the book happens. Julia describes another classmate, Lanie, whose essay was passed over for an award (p. 134):
“She [Lanie] wrote that we should have a museum for Native Americans because they lived around here first, and they had these battles with settlers.  She said the early farmers shouldn't be called settlers because the land was already settled. They were more like invaders.’ Julia leaned forward and whispered, ‘My grandma heard Mrs. Newman liked Lanie's essay because it showed critical thinking, but Gloria and Teresa said no way.  Basically I was the second choice.” 
(Gloria and Teresa run the Laura Ingalls museum, where Julia and Charlotte work after school.)

I would so, so have loved to see this line of thought extended. Proposing the word “invaders” instead of “settlers” is a big deal, and an important conversation. Alas, this language is never revisited; Charlotte and Julia encounter some mean boys, and further solidify their friendship. Charlotte doesn’t comment on the settlers/invaders question, internally or overtly. This scene factors into my conclusion that Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life evolves, rather than interrupts, racism. More on that later.

The Trail of Tears essay, which Mrs. Newman assigned to Charlotte on page 126, is next referenced, briefly, on page 169, when Charlotte asks Rose if she’s seen the essay (Rose took it to read it). On page 173, Charlotte and Mrs. Newman have a brief conversation about it; Mrs. Newman brings it up again on page 226. Charlotte still hasn’t read it.

On page 198, police show up at Charlotte’s house with the news that someone vandalized the Ingalls museum (spray painted “I hate Walnut Grove I hate Lara”); they suspect Charlotte. This plotline dominates the rest of the book, and culminates in (spoiler) Rose confessing that she did it.  Some relevant passages I pulled (p. 206-207):

Everyone in Walnut Grove was proud of the town’s history. When they drove by the museum and saw those ugly words, they’d feel angry and sad.

But that didn’t explain my feelings, either. They went even deeper than that. I realized I felt terrible for Laura [...] after living on the lonely Kansas prairie, the Ingalls had found civilization in Walnut Grove. They had a real school, a nice church, and good neighbors. [...] 
“Mom, I think I’m feeling Laura’s energy—for real. She’s sad about what happened to the museum. [...] Whoever did it couldn’t even spell her name. They’re stupid and mean.’” 

I paused at this. Are spray painted words on the side of the Ingalls museum uglier than the existence of a museum glorifying participants in Manifest Destiny?

I had similar thoughts regarding this exchange between Charlotte and Mrs. Newman (p. 225-226):

“I know I wrote a negative essay, but I was mad when I wrote it. I’ve spent a couple months in Laura’s world. I like her. [...] Maybe the person who did it doesn’t even hate Laura Ingalls. Maybe they just wanted to destroy something that makes other people happy.” 
“Unfortunately, there are people like that in the world.” 

Then, there’s this conversation between Charlotte and her mom (p. 207-208):

“There’s something about our country and the West,” she said in a dreamy voice. “It’s romantic. [...] we have this sense of pride in conquering the Wild West.”

“When they built the railroad, men would ride the trains with shotguns and kill buffalo just because it was fun, like an old-fashioned version of a video game.” 
“That’s terrible,” Mom said.

“Westward expansion stunk if you were Native American.”

“I know.”

This is never followed up on. Mom never accounts for why, if she knew all along that Westward Invasion "stunk" for Native people, she felt comfortable talking in a "dreamy" voice about the "romance" and "pride" of "conquering" the "Wild West". I conclude from this that Mom values Native lives less than she values the romantic story she tells herself about American history. I wondered if Tougas ever considered having Charlotte ask something like, "Well, if you knew, why did you say what you just said?" and I wonder what Mom would reply. "Because I weighed the injustice of the atrocity of Westward Invasion against the mental discomfort it would cause me to let go of my romantic vision of history and decided to prioritize my gooey feelings," perhaps? Or maybe a simple, "Because I know, but I just don't care that much about Native people." 

On page 275-278, Rose comes clean and admits to vandalizing the Ingalls museum. Her speech is the closest the book comes to actually interrogating racism, and I’m sure will be referenced by many as evidence that Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life is, in fact, anti-racist. Mom puts lavender oil in a diffuser to help them relax and stay focused on why she did it. Here’s what Rose says (275-278):

“I read Charlotte’s school assignment about the Trail of Tears. The article was about how settling the West destroyed the Indians. They literally had to walk hundreds of miles so the pioneers could have their own land. And they got sick and there wasn’t enough food and the weather was terrible, but the government didn’t care and the pioneers didn’t care. The Indians had to keep marching, and tons of them died. Tons!”

At that point, Mom dabbed the oil behind her ears.

Rose said, “We have museums all over the United States bragging about how great we are because we built a new country. We have books and movies and songs. But our stories are wrong.” Her shoulders slumped. “Can I try some of that oil?”

I put a drop on my finger and rubbed it on Rose’s wrist. Freddy said, “I know what you mean, but I’m glad we’re here. I’m glad there are fifty states and roads and the Internet and that I get to live in this country.”

“If you’re glad, then you don’t know what I mean,” Rose said.


“So you decided to spray-paint Laura’s building because the government was terrible to the Indians?” Freddy said. “Am I the only one who thinks that’s ridiculous?”

“No. I think it’s ridiculous,” I said.

“Let her finish,” Mom said. “Go on, Rose.”

Rose frowned. “Here’s something I bet you didn’t know. In the first version of Little House On the Prairie, which came out almost one hundred years ago, Laura described the prairie like this: ‘There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.’ I memorized it.”

Freddy thought for a minute. “So? What’s your point?”

“She said no people. Only Indians. She basically said Indians aren’t people.”

Slowly Freddy’s face registered her point. Mom said, “I don’t remember that. I’ve read that book a dozen times.”

“Someone wrote to the publisher, and they changed the word people to settlers for the next printing. Laura felt terrible above it. She didn’t mean it the way it came out. Still, it bugs me. I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s why I quit reading the biography.”

“I had no idea,” Mom said. “How did I not know this?”

“That’s the way people were back then,” Freddy said. “It’s not right to blame people now for what happened one hundred years ago. Laura Ingalls didn’t force the Indians to move. The museum ladies didn’t force them to move, either. Do you want us to demolish all our cities and make it buffalo land again?”

“That’s not the point!” Rose yelled. “You got me all side-tracked.”

I love what Rose says. Of all the characters in the book, she’s the one who interests me most, because what she learns about Manifest Destiny, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Trail of Tears is real for her. She has, at this point, learned that a societal sickness leads to dehumanizing Native people, and to a museum celebrating Manifest Destiny--and upon learning this, she actively changes.  Early in the book, Rose is downright tickled to be living in Walnut Grove, and wants to be Laura in the annual town play (p. 94). Upon learning that her prior version of reality is wrong, Rose changes her mindset and her behavior. Is she right to spray paint the museum? Of course not, but that act of vandalism is trivial compared to the larger systemic and cultural problems with which she is grappling.

Unfortunately, Charlotte’s reactions, and the ultimate note on which the book finishes, undo much of the good work Rose does in these few pages (and make me wonder if it’s possible for an author to write a character--Rose, in this case--who understands the world better than the author does).

On page 288, Charlotte and Mrs. Newman again discuss the Trail of Tears article, which, again, was introduced on page 126. Charlotte still hasn’t read it, but lies and says she did. Mrs. Newman isn’t fooled, and they talk about why Charlotte hasn’t read it (p. 288-289):

“Did you read the article about Native Americans?”

“The Trail of Tears article?” My eyes went wide, and I stumbled through an answer, trying to remember what Rose had said about it. “Yes. It was interesting and fascinating. And very sad, too, which is why the word tears is in it. Because it’s so sad.”


“Why? Why haven’t you read it?”

I shrugged.


“I don’t need to read it to know it’s really, really bad. I’ve read enough about westward expansion.”

“Reading and understanding are two different things.”

“I know terrible things happened to Native Americans. And terrible things happened to the Chinese with the railroad and poor white farmers in the Depression and all the people fighting over who owned Texas. I’m twelve. I can only take so much sad stuff and guilt before I get Prairie Madness.” Mrs. Newman didn’t respond, so I said, “I will read it. I promise. But not for a while.”

Mrs. Newman thought for a moment. “You have the intellectual capacity to think critically about history. I didn’t consider how overwhelming it might be.”

“I don’t want to hate Laura Ingalls or pioneers or America.”

“That’s absolutely not my intention. It’s just that our country’s story is more complicated than most people realize. Laura’s story is more complicated.”

My heart sank when I read this.  My hopes were up so high, after Rose’s awakening, and then… sigh.

The effect of this passage--especially after Rose’s speech--is to recenter and re-prioritize Whiteness at the expense of Native people.

Let’s unpack. Charlotte says the Trail of Tears is “sad… which is why the word tears is in it.”  It’s supposed to be funny, a moment of lightness and humor. Four thousand people died on the Trail of Tears. Charlotte, and Tougas, trivialize their deaths in this passage. And, ultimately, Charlotte makes an active and conscious decision to prioritize her own comfort over all else. Children younger than Charlotte died because of the 1830 Indian Removal Act (Trail of Tears); Charlotte decides she can’t even read about that, and Mrs. Newman comforts and her affirms her fragility in this moment.

Read this again from the point of view of a Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, or Chickasaw child who has heard about the Trail of Tears since infancy. That child does not have the luxury of waiting until they’re older to understand the concept of genocide. How would Charlotte’s joke about the Trail of Tears, and her decision to wait to read the article until she can handle it better, land with that child? What about Charlotte’s, and Mrs. Newman’s, declaration that they don’t want to hate Laura Ingalls or the government forces that destroyed Native lives--how would a Native child, who feels rightful and understandable rage, feel upon reading those words? I’d feel minimized, gaslit, like my and my people’s concerns had been erased--for the billionth time.

What makes this so infuriating is that it comes on the heels of Rose’s speech about the injustices of westward invasion. It’s like Tougas dangles a book, a world, in which White people are forced to reckon with the ugliness of Manifest Destiny and all that came along with it--and then snatches it away, says “Nope, sorry, Native kids, we have to comfort and prioritize the status quo at your expense.  Again.”

Another example of Tougas’ dangling, then snatching away, genuine equity for Native people is in her treatment of Gloria and Teresa, who run the Ingalls museum. Remember that Gloria and Teresa rejected an essay that argued for justice for Native people (p. 134) Julia tells Charlotte:
“She [Lanie] wrote that we should have a museum for Native Americans because they lived around here first, and they had these battles with settlers.  She said the early farmers shouldn't be called settlers because the land was already settled. They were more like invaders." Julia leaned forward and whispered, "My grandma heard Mrs. Newman liked Lanie's essay because it showed critical thinking, but Gloria and Teresa said no way. Basically I was the second choice.” 
I was sure, when I read this, that at some point Charlotte (or Rose) would hold Gloria and Teresa accountable; that they would have to take a hard look at what it meant to shut down, refuse to hear, a truth-telling essay, and what messages they sent to Native kids when they refused to give a platform to a voice advocating for a Native museum. This never happens. In fact, later in the book Charlotte thinks well of Gloria and Teresa as support for her (p. 149):
Actually, the people who'd been my cheerleaders lately weren't my family.  Mrs. Newman. Gloria. Teresa...” 
Gloria and Teresa also serve to further the Charlotte-as-suspect plotline; thanks to a misunderstanding, Charlotte yells at them, which lends credence to the theory that she was the vandal. Towards the end of the book, Charlotte realizes she needs to apologize to them.

At the end of the day, Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life gives lip service to anti-racist and anti-colonialist advocates. Their arguments and voices are given minimal space in the book; Rose’s speech is great, but it’s three pages in a 296-page book. The book prioritizes White comfort and White fragility over justice and equity for Native people (who are never actually given a voice--no tribe is named, no Native individuals are referenced or quoted, and oh, how great would it have been for Charlotte and co. to delve deep into The Birchbark House series?). Characters like Gloria and Teresa who enact and perpetuate White supremacy are not held accountable, but are framed as overwhelmingly sympathetic--nice White ladies. And ultimately, according to Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, while it’s important for everyone to understand the complexity of history, it’s equally important for White kids to wait until they feel up to the task of learning about other people’s trauma, and to not hate Laura Ingalls or her people. Indeed, the Author’s Note leads me to believe that Tougas is an unapologetic Ingalls fan--she recommends three biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and alas, no books authored by Native people.

While reading Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, and especially at the end, I thought over and over of this quote from The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah. This line is spoken by Mina, who came to Australia as an Afghan refugee, to Michael, a White character learning about his racial privilege (p. 219):
“You want me to make it easier for you to confront your privilege because God knows even antiracism has to be done in a way that makes the majority comfortable? Sorry... I don’t have time to babysit you through your enlightenment.”
Charlotte’s choice to read the essay or not--to include knowledge of the Trail of Tears in her consciousness, or wait until she’s ready to handle it--that choice is the essence of White privilege.

We White people are getting better at making a show of anti-racism. Our methods are becoming more sophisticated. We acknowledge the anti-racist argument, provide it lip service and limited space, before snatching back control of the narrative and recentering our own comfort. Read Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life as the next step, the next generation, the next wave of racism. Watch closely, especially if you’re White; racism is evolving before our very eyes.