Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Debbie Reese's Twitter Threads about Nora Raleigh Baskin's Ted Talk

Eds. Note on June 8, 2018: Please see updates at the bottom of this post. Today (June 8) I am adding a link to Mia Wenjen's "Own Voices Controversy" post. She does a marvelous job of connecting threads between White Fragility, Nora Raleigh Baskin's Ted Talk, my response to it, Laurie Halse Anderson's tweets in support of critical analysis of children's books, and David Bowles analysis of Latinx books on the 2017 CCBC website. 


On May 21, 2018, writer Nora Raleigh Baskin did a Ted Talk. I was tagged by the person who loaded the talk to YouTube.

The text of the tweet is this:
"Please watch @noraraleighB's @Tedx talk given at my event. Powerful words about not censoring artistic voice. Discuss, contest, argue if you must but watch it! @ncte @aasl @debreese @triciaebarvia @ToriBachman @amandapalmer"
Baskin's talk is titled "Artists Mustn't Fear the Social Media Call-Out Culture." The description on Youtube is this:
When voices on the internet become so loud and so vitriolic that artists are afraid to experiment and make mistakes, something very dangerous is happening in our society. Award-winning author, Nora Raleigh Baskin, goes on a journey of self-discovery in order to illuminate a disturbing online trend that threatens the power and freedom of creative expression. Nora Raleigh Baskin is the author of thirteen novels for young readers and a contributor to two story collections. She has been published in WRITER MAGAZINE as well as the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Her books have won several awards, including the 2010 ALA Schneider Family Book Award for Anything But Typical and a 2016 ILA Notable Books for a Global Society for Ruby on the Outside. Nora has taught creative writing to both children and adults for over fifteen years with such organizations as SCBWI, Gotham Writers Workshop, the Highlights Foundation, and most recently in Westport at The Fairfield Co. Writer’s Studio. Her latest, Nine/Ten: A 9/11 Story was reviewed in the New York Times and has received starred reviews, from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.
And here is the talk:

Because I was tagged, I thought that perhaps Baskin wanted me to see the video. I thought that maybe she mentioned my post about her book, The Summer Before Boys. So, I listened to her talk. She didn't mention my post. Instead, her talk struck me as one primarily about criticism, broadly speaking. After listening to it, I did a threaded Twitter reply on May 22. I am pasting that reply, here. (Note: The light gray highlight on all the pasted tweets is how tweets look when you copy them.)

First Twitter Thread:

You're right, , writers need not "fear" being called out for misrepresentations of marginalized peoples in your books. They can view it as an opportunity to listen, to hear, to make different choices.

But--the way that you characterize those who speak up says a lot about how you view us.

What you did, speaking that way, works for some people. It gives them comfort. Is that what you meant to do?

When you were called out on American Indians in Children's Literature for having a character who imagined someone as an "Indian captive" whose family had been scalped... [Note: I added this photo to that tweet. ]

... being called out, you said, kept you "up all night" tossing and turning, and that you had your eyes opened.

Then on January 25, 2018, you said that you worked with your editor and that the reprint would have changes. I'd like to see the change. Can you do a screen cap, , and send it to me?

I'm glad, honestly, that you were up all night tossing and turning. I know that Native children who were asked to read your book--or who chose to read it--had a hard time reading those words. They likely didn't sleep well, either.

With that in mind, can you see why people would speak up, sometimes with anger, about misrepresentations and their impact on their own children? Or, on children in their classrooms?

In a response to , sent this example of what she's referring to, and, I was... puzzled. (TW for contents of what she shared.) [Note: I included this screen cap of what Nora said to Sarah, which was "Not sure I completely understand all of your tweets to me...but yes, that is how exactly I describe them. I am attaching a very small sampling which I hope serves as an example of what I am referring to (it was directed to a female POC, if that matters)." The sample Nora sent to Sarah is "I wonder why this slut doesn't go back to India and let guys throw acid in her face...that must be as much fun as the wonderful life of rape, torture, bearings, hangings, blindings and erasure of religion, family history and dignity black Africans endured for over 400 years by their Jewish and Christian slave masters."

Puzzled, because that kind of horrendous comment is not what I see my colleagues saying when they are critiquing misrepresentations. Do you, Nora, really equate criticism with that kind of comment?

Second Twitter Thread:

Nora did not reply to anything I said. Later that day (the 22nd of May), I did another thread:

You know--Nora Raleigh Baskin's Ted talk is not 'new' at all. White people have been writing problematic books forever, and getting called out for doing so, forever.

They sound alarms as if their livelihood and freedoms are in peril.

A couple of years ago, another White writer, Deborah Wiles came to a dinner I was at, and expressed concerns about criticism of her book, REVOLUTION.

Like Nora, she seemed to suggest that criticism of misrepresentations when an author is writing outside of their own experience, is new. It isn't! In 1996, Kathryn Lasky wrote an article titled "To Stingo with Love: An Author's Perspective on Writing outside One's Culture."

Lasky called critics "self styled militias of cultural diversity". Her essay is in Fox and Short's "Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children's Literature", published in 2003 by the National Council of Teachers of English.

In my work, I point to the history -- Native history in particular -- when Native people have said 'no' to misrepresentations. See, for example, this item written in 1829:

You White Writers seem to think you and your work are at risk, and so, you do these Ted talks, and laments on social media, and articles, etc.... And your buddies and like-minded folks gather round and talk about how brave you are.

Frankly, I'm embarrassed for you. And frustrated, too. Your cycles of this... bullshit are why we keep having these problems of misrepresentation! Instead of telling each other 'DON'T SCREW THIS UP' you tell each other "you meant well" and so... there we go again.

The never-ending cycle of misrepresentation and the harm it does to children AND to other writers is on YOU, Nora Raleigh Baskin, and YOU, Deborah Wiles, and YOU, Kathryn Lasky and... I could name a few more, but the point is...

Rather than doing TED talks about how art and expression, own the fact that you can do BOTH. You can do art, and express yourself, and do it well! Do right by ALL your readers. Do right for ALL children.

And as for calling us vitriolic or fervent —- Have you no grasp of history? What would you have said to women who burned their bras?! Who raised their voices? Who put pen to paper to fight for their rights? To vote?! Really, Nora, would you scold them, too?

By the way, I see you over on Facebook, talking about how you are taking a “beating” on Twitter. People are holding you accountable for your Ted talk. Should they not?

Third Twitter Thread:

On the 23rd of May, Nora shared (on Twitter and Facebook), a screen cap of an excerpt of her talk.

I took it to mean that she felt that my focus on criticism (and others, too, because other people responded to the Ted talk) was not fair. To make sure I didn't miss something, I listened to her talk again and tweeted as I did. It was a long thread. Here's that series:

Every word is read/heard by a reader/listener who may or may not think like you do, Nora. Maybe that is why you cannot understand what people are saying. You think that passage tells us that you support diversity, but...

... other things you said tell us a whole lot, too. Those other things make those passages about diversity feel empty. Disingenuous. They look and sound like a shield you're using to say those other things.

You started by talking about how you stumbled on a Twitter feed of another author. It sent you through a cycle of emotions: angry, sad, worried, and then afraid for yourself, and for art, and artists and for the power and freedom of creative expression.

That writer was describing her choice not to write a book she cared about because she didn't belong to the marginalized group imagined in her story. Then, people chimed in, praising her bravery. And someone said "it's time to cede the floor" and...

... then, you said that part about marginalized groups not having had opportunities to write their own stories, and "as a result their stories have often been littered with dangerous and pervasive stereotypes, their lives and histories misrepresented or erased."

It is "a huge issue" you said. Why, you wondered, was this response to that author bothering you? You figured it out when you looked at your own journey as a writer. When you wrote stories about your own experiences, you felt like you were cheating.

I'd like you to sit with that a while. It is cheating to write about ones own experiences? What does that say to Native writers who write about their own experiences? Do you mean to tell us they're cheating when they do that?

Using yourself as a main character, you said meant you weren't having to stretch your imagination. After six bks you secretly believed you couldn't call yourself a writer because you were the main character in those books.

So -- you decided it was time to take a risk to see if you could be a real writer, a real artist. It was 2007 and autism was all over the news. So you created a 12 year old boy with autism. It was things you yourself are not.

You went on to say you weren't trying to speak for autistic people, and you weren't trying to be a doctor or a teacher or policy maker or social worker. You were writing about one boy, one fictional character you had brought into the world.

You hoped his small story would speak to a larger universal truth: "accept me for who I am." It won the Schneider, and because it did, you thought that you "might be a real writer, a real artist" who wasn't creating you, again, as a character.

You said you had done what artists do: look deeply at themselves and the world around them and reflected something meaningful about humanity. Then, you jumped ahead to 2013 and your book, 9/10, a September 11 story.

For it, you wanted to create four characters, and "make them as different as I can so I can reveal how similar they actually are." That goal, Nora, makes me nervous because it seems to erase the real lives of people who have the identities of your four characters.

Yes, you created those four characters, and in some part of each of them you see reflections of you and your experiences. That's fine, but, it feels rather convenient and superficial.

There's a pervasive desire from white writers for a "let's all get along" world where under the skin, everyone is really the same. And because we're all the same in that world, you inadvertently take a swipe at .

You then go on to say you had your books vetted by people who have some experience or are from the groups the characters are from. It is good to do that. But I think the industry has to do more than that.

I'm trying to put this thought into my head into some coherent words... You know how survey questions can be deliberately written in ways that lead people to answer in a certain way? That's what I'm thinking about re vetting/sensitivity readers.

Who they are, how they're chosen, and how they're asked "to read" are important.

I'm not saying you mislead your readers. I mean that, as an industry, we seem not to be getting anywhere in the current "sensitivity reader" moment.

One thought I have as I listen to your Ted talk is that you might inadvertently suggest that vetting and sensitivity readers are going to fix it all, for everyone. But, what gets fixed is highly dependent on many factors.

From there you talk about the work. Of being able to know what you don't know. And that you have to ask yourself if you would be brave enough, "in this heated, angry, bifurcated, social media call-out culture" to have written any of those books?

Your answer, you said, is "I don't know." As I noted yesterday, being criticized for misrepresentations is not a new thing. Social media does make criticism more visible than it ever was before. You see that as a bad thing.

People sharing their emotional responses to misrepresentations, using social media to do that sharing... is not a bad thing, Nora. For sure, it is uncomfortable for the person whose work is being criticized.

And as we've all seen, some people really (to use your FB comment) take "a beating" for the things they say or write.

What you're doing, in characterizing criticism in the ways that you did, is telling people who speak up, HOW they should speak up.

And, might you be telling writers not to listen to "angry" criticism or criticism that makes them uncomfortable?

After that, you talk about how the industry needs to publish more books by minority writers, and if them getting published comes at the expense of your work, "that's how it needs to be." On the surface, that sounds heroic (and tragic), but...

... it is an odd thing to say. You suggest there's a finite number of books that will get published. Is that true? I know for sure that writers from marginalized groups hear "we already have our __ writer" (and don't need YOU, too). Has such a thing ever been said to you?

At the top of your talk you said you'd been rejected a lot before your first book got published, so, maybe it was said to you.

You went on to talk about how the decision of what gets published, what gets bought and what sells "never belonged to the writer."

That power, you said, belongs to the industry, to the publishers, to the editors, to the agents, to the sales and marketing departments, to the big chain booksellers, to the gatekeepers.

"Money and economic factors dictates that market and and it is going to take a united effort to combat those much larger, deeply rooted and complicated issues." I'm a bit lost in your comments at that point.

You follow that with "But when voices on the internet become so loud and so angry and so vitriolic that artists become afraid to experiment, to make mistakes, to be creative, to push boundaries, to do what writers do, to write what they feel passionately about..."

"... then we should all be afraid. Afraid of a world where writers are considered brave for not writing and angry at a society where artists are berated and at times punished for trying to tell a story that speaks to them from a very deep place that few of us can even..."

"...define, and saddened by the message that there is a limited number of spaces at the table and the only way for one story to be told is for another to be silenced." That's the dramatic part of your Ted talk. Some are moved by it, and many others are giving you a side eye.

You speak as if writers are in peril. But if you look at the CCBC stats, clearly that is not the case. More stories about Native/POC are written by people who are not of those groups than --AND they are published by the Big Five. You're in that Big Five category.

As if often the case when something like you've said appears and is criticized, you invite hugs from those who like what you're saying, and pointed questions from those who think you're doing that white fragility thing that gets done, a lot.

Then, you say that one of the most meaningful and powerful things you discovered when you wrote that book about a boy with autism was "completely unexpected." You had "successfully created a character" that wasn't you, when you thought you had "finally become an artist..."

You said that you "took a step back" and saw how much of you is in that character and how much of him is in you. With these remarks, you're echoing what you said earlier about similarities. I didn't and do not like that sort of thing.

Then you said that you and that character know what it feels like to be unseen and unheard. Nora--that's a doozy right there because that is the reality of minority writers who can't get published, much less get in with the Big Five publishers.

Many are asked to rewrite their manuscripts, to make them more acceptable to a white reader. Their real lives aren't seen, and can't be seen, because they're asked to make the books less Native. Or less Black. Or less Latinx.... Less, less, less.

I assume you know that the term for that is "writing for the white gaze." You, Nora, are not unseen or unheard. Hearing you say that is part of why people on the internet are talking about your Ted talk.

Goodness... your next words are about how you and your character both dissociated when the world around you becomes too scary. I understand. Some things, by virtue of what they are, are not visible. But hearing you speak of a world that is too scary for you... gosh.

You and your character, you say, struggle to fit into this world, but neither of you really wants to. You are both human beings, you said, and what you learned "so profoundly" is that "we are all uniformly human in uniquely human ways."

With those words, you're doing that "more alike than not" thing, when it just is NOT the case. Pretty words, but not true. And astonishing in their pretense. A dangerous pretense, Nora.

Then, you backpedaled a bit, saying "of course I can't fully know what it is to be diagnosed autistic or to be African American or to be a white teenager from Shanksville, Pennsylvania."

And then, "I'm still trying to figure out what it means to be me but what I do know and what I can write about is the universal desire for identity and belonging and I need to be free to use as many paintbrushes as possible to try and create that picture..."

"...with the hope that one day I will get closer to the truth, to a truth, in one particular moment in time." Again--pretty words, but what is that truth? It seems to be one that rests on that "we're all the same" idea.

Then, Nora, you say "Artists cannot cede the floor because they do not stand on the floor. They look at themselves and at the world in which they are living and they speak in many voices." I see you're using some writerly metaphoric words there as you finish your talk.

"Writers stare out the window" you say. "They push open the door. They look up at a ceiling poked so full of holes you cannot tell where the earth ends and where the sky begins." Some echoes of Sims Bishop's windows/mirrors/sliding glass doors, and I guess that glass ceiling?!

"And when it's done well, when it's honest and true and done without fear, what we are forced to see is ourselves and we may see something we like but better yet, something we don't." That's it. End of your Ted talk.

I hoped this would be helpful to you, Nora, so shared the thread link to your ongoing FB post. But now you blocked me.

David Lubar's Facebook Post

On May 25, a Newbery medalist did a thread on twitter, about the importance of criticism. She ended her thread with some words supporting my work. She tagged me. I appreciate her thread and thanked her.

Then on May 26, another writer did a thread on twitter, and she ended with a statement of support for me, too (and tagged me). I wondered what was up. Then, this morning (May 29), a friend sent me a link to David Lubar's Facebook page, where (on May 24) he said this (he said a lot more; this is just the first sentence):
Once again, a writer has been the subject of an over-the-top assault by Debbie Reese. 
There, I read that many people felt that my tweets were an attack on Nora. Some mentioned that I had tagged her on every tweet. I went back to twitter to see, and saw that she was, indeed, tagged on every tweet of the third thread. But--that thread started as a reply to Nora. So, Twitter was doing auto-tag and I didn't notice it. If I had, I would have untagged her after the first tweet-reply. I apologize for not having untagged her, but I did not apologize for what I said.

Many people on David Lubar's page are saying that they agree with my criticisms, but not with how I say them. Jordan Sonnenblick said I was "nasty." I've asked him to give me examples of the "nasty" things I've said. He said he'll look for them.

The point of this particular post is to pull my threads into a single place, for my own needs, but for those who might be commenting but haven't seen what I said. I am confident that some will read them and come away thinking "Jordan is right, she's nasty."

Where one stands shapes how they respond to someone else's words. I responded to Nora's words, honestly, because I believe she spoke, honestly, in her Ted talk. She has not contacted me privately or on social media. As noted above, she blocked me on Twitter (and on Facebook, too).

Nora--I'll say again, that I hope you will read and think about what I said. I listened to your talk, twice. I take your words (all words all writers write) seriously because you are creating books for children who will be shaped by your words.

Update on Wednesday, May 30, 2018

David Lubar deleted his Facebook post.

UPDATE, May 31, 2018

On David Lubar's page, on Tuesday, May 29th (before he deleted it), Jordan Sonnenblick gave an example of how I had been "nasty." It was in this tweet, which I am copying from above:
Goodness... your next words are about how you and your character both dissociated when the world around you becomes too scary. I understand. Some things, by virtue of what they are, are not visible. But hearing you speak of a world that is too scary for you... gosh.
Jordan said that that tweet is an example of how I am "nasty" because at that point in the talk (at the 12:31 minute mark), he thinks Nora was referring to things she had said ten minutes earlier (at about the 2:35 minute mark of the video). Early in the video, she talked about her mother's suicide and being kicked and punched by her stepfather.

I didn't make that connection when I listened to the video.

As I listened to her talk about being in a world that "is too scary", my own thoughts went to being racially profiled by a sheriff in Oklahoma, afraid for my daughter's safety (she was in the car; the sheriff had asked me to get out of our car and took me several feet away from the roadside to ask me a series of questions that indicated he thought I was not in this country, legally). I thought about Native and People of Color whose experiences with police have ended with jail and too often, death. I can see why Jordan thought I was insensitive in saying "gosh" to Nora's expression of fear. On David's post, I apologized to Nora (I assumed she was reading or being told about the conversation). Later, Jordan said that I had apologized for mistreating Nora. I did not "mistreat" her and said that I did not want my apology for that part to be construed or interpreted as an apology for "mistreating" her. I was, honestly, acknowledging what I had missed as I listened to Nora's talk.

As far as I know, she has not said anything publicly about it. As for characterizing me as "nasty" -- Many people know "nasty woman" entered public conversations during the presidential campaign when trump said that Hilary Clinton is "a nasty woman." He meant it in a denigrating way but some people claimed it as a badge of honor. I think Jordan used it like trump did and hope that his friends mention it to him.

Update: May 31 at 7:47 PM

Friend and colleague, Mike Jung, pulled together a list of the words/phrases some writers used to describe me on David Lubar's Facebook post. Mike wrote:
In a since-deleted FB post, people used the following words to criticize a diversity advocate for being "unkind": 
"Off the rails" 
"A wonderful antagonist" 
I repeat: these are people demanding kindness.

For those who don't follow children's/young adult literature, some writers periodically use "kind" or "kindness" to push back on criticism. Mike's post shows their kindness in action.

Update, June 8, 2018:
Mia Wenjen (Pragmatic Mom) did a blog post that situates Baskin's talk within DiAngelo's writing on White Fragility: Own Voices Controversy

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Not recommended: INTO THE WOODS (book one in the "Bigfoot Boy" series of graphic novels) by Torres and Hicks

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen the Bigfoot Boy series of graphic novels by J. Torres, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks.

The first one Into the Woods came out in 2012 from Kids Can Press. Here's the description:
Bored while visiting his grandmother for the weekend, Rufus, an ordinary ten-year-old boy, ventures into the nearby woods after he spies his young neighbor Penny heading there. A city kid, Rufus quickly loses sight of Penny, but while making his way back to Grammy's, he's drawn to an unusual object he sees hidden inside a tree: it's a totem, carved out of wood and hung on a cord. Rufus places the odd-looking thing around his neck and reads out loud the word inscribed on it: “Sasquatch.” Suddenly, strange things begin happening all around him --- and to him. Rufus doesn't know what's going on, but he's sure of one thing. He'll never be ordinary again!

Totem? Strange things? Hmm...

So, I took a look at what I can see online. The first pages are funny. Rufus is so bored! His grandmother is watching her soaps. On the wall are photographs of what I take to be Native people. That, I think, is great!

Rufus looks out the window and sees a girl going into the woods.

He decides to do that, too, and is creeped out and awed by the forest (remember, he's a city kid), as he walks through it.

He wonders aloud "where am I?"

Then he comes upon the girl, who tells him "You are in my forest."

See her hair?

The next day he looks out the window and sees a Native teen hanging clothes on the line. There's little hearts floating around him. I think that is a hint that he thinks she's pretty.

She turns around, sees him, introduces herself (her name is Aurora) and remarks on how red his hair is. She's seen photographs of him but didn't realize his hair would be so red, in person. Then.... she ruffles his hair.  So many stories have that Native fascination with blonde and red hair. The Native characters want to touch it. And they do. I don't know how or why that particular idea took root, but it is old and icky. At the moment I am not remembering a Native writer who has their characters do that. Lot of non-Native writers do it, though. It is in Caddie Woodlawn, for example:

Aurora sees her little sister, Penny, watching them, and asks what she's doing. Penny stomps off. Aurora tells Rufus "That's my sister Penny. She's a skunk." Rufus says "I know. I met her yesterday. She was kind of mean." Then.... another problem:

Aurora says "Oh! That's not what I meant. Skunk is her animal spirit guide."

Rufus asks what that is, and in the next panel, Aurora tells him "It's an animal spirit that protects and helps you if you know how to listen to the. Some people take after their animal guides and have similar .... traits."  She goes on to talk about how Penny is like a skunk. She doesn't say anything about that white streak in Penny's hair, but I can't NOT see it as Torres and Hicks are providing visual evidence of Penny's "spirit animal."

Like Native people shown in awe of blonde or red hair, spirit animals are a problem. I was enjoying this graphic novel until we got to the red hair part, and the spirit animal part definitely puts Into the Woods in the "Not Recommended" category.

Friday, May 25, 2018


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

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

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

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

Now, my thoughts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Big Book of Families is not recommended.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018


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

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

My reaction to that: oh dear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter Thread on Justina Ireland's DREAD NATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(hitting pause for now; more later).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

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

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

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Two Cool Tweets (about me)

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

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


Update: April 17, 2018 

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

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

Dr. Weaver's post ends with this:

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

Here's a screen cap from the book:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Now, the book itself: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 08, 2018

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

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