Saturday, March 09, 2019

Are you planning to do a Land Acknowledgement?

This post on Land Acknowledgements is long over-due. I promised to do it last year, but one thing after another meant I put it off. This morning (Saturday, March 9, 2019) I did a twitter thread about land acknowledgements, and am pasting that thread here. There's more to say, but I hope this is helpful. 

1) More and more I am seeing people in the US talk about doing a Land Acknowledgement at their meeting, conference, or event.

2) If you're wondering what a Land Acknowledgement is, it is opening remarks that say the land that the event is on is (or was) the homeland of a specific Native Nation. It is meant to create awareness.

3) At first glance, cool, right? Progressive-minded, right? They have a lot of appeal, for sure. But... that is where they can go wrong.

4) I've seen scripts that people write that a presenter/speaker can use. The use of it is well-meaning, but we all know about good intentions, right?

5) If you do one because you think you should, but that's as far as you go with it in your own thinking or what you impart to others, you're just doing it as a box-checked sort of thing that is no good.

6) If you're not mindful of what you are doing, then, you are turning a land acknowledgement into a token. It becomes an empty gesture to "honor" Native people. It becomes this century's mascot.

7) Listen to Hayden King's 'I regret it' about his reflections on a land acknowledgement he helped draft at his university. He makes many excellent points. Listen and share it! He's Anishinaabe.

8) If you're going to do one, you gotta do some research! If, for example, you are in Oklahoma, you might want to acknowledge one of the 39 tribal nations there today, but you know (right?) that many of them are there because of the Indian Removal Act.

9) How might you incorporate that history into your acknowledgement?

10) Find out what the nation(s) you are naming in your acknowledgement are doing, today. Tell your audience about it. Tell them how they can support that nation's work. See? That means you have to do some research so your Land Acknowledgement is meaningful.

11) Annoying fact: lot of people think children's literature is not worthy of the same kind of study that English departments give to bks for the adult market. But you know that people want their kids to read! In your Land Acknowledgement, recommend a book by a Native writer!

12) I've got links to lists of books by Native writers, here: Best Books I'd love to see ppl who do Land Acknowledgements in California say "hey everybody, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS is not a good book." Because it isn't.

13) And, I'd love to see people in California who are doing Land Acknowledgements say "hey everybody, let's look critically at the mission projects teachers are doing..." Start by reading Teaching the Truth about California Missions.

14) And, wouldn't it be terrific if Land Acknowledgements in California and Alaska and Georgia included "let's think about the impact the gold rush had on Indigenous people..."

15) In other words: do some work before doing a Land Acknowledgement. Make it meaningful. Give your audience a task.

16) And when you speak those words... don't do it in a somber tone. You're not in church! When you're teaching, you don't speak in a reverent, prayer like way. Don't do it for a Land Acknowledgement, either.

17) By this point in this thread, some of you are wondering what to do. How, you might wonder, can you 'get it right' (or close to right)?

18) Most of you have a lifetime of unlearning to do. Some of you have a family story about a Native ancestor and you think that puts you in a place to say this or that about an issue, but if you don't know more than just "Native ancestor", you're probably relying on stereotypes.

19) Some of you might have taken a DNA test and in your head and heart, think that validates your family story, but it doesn't. To understand why it doesn't, read Kim Tallbear's work. Start with her article, 'There is no DNA test to prove you're Native American' Get her book, too. And follow her on Twitter.

20) Most of the mainstream media does a terrible job reporting on Native issues. They can flail about as they've done for hundreds of years, or they can take a look at the resources developed by the Native American Journalists Association.

21) There are resources available from the American Indian Library Association, too:

22) Do you listen to podcasts as you drive, walk, or exercise? Subscribe to All My Relations: And Media Indigena.

23) And give a listen to Henceforward.

24) One issue you could address in your land acknowledgement is mascots. There are far more than you may know. Zoom in on this interactive map. Note on Oct 30: the interactive map is offline for revisions.

25) And if you want to incorporate something about why mascots are unacceptable, start by reading Stephanie Fryberg's research.

26) Get a copy of Daniel Heath Justice's WHY INDIGENOUS LITERATURES MATTER. It doesn't matter what YOU teach... we all read, buy, and share books... Daniel's book will help you a lot.

That's it for now...

---Back to add one more tweet---

28) This is a great resource for doing land acknowledgements. Make sure you read the articles there, and take a look at the teacher's guide, too! Here's the link that will take you right to the map. Read the disclaimer that pops up when you go to the map.

---Update on Oct 30, 2019---

In August, I was at the Indian Ed for All conference, held on the Pala homelands in California. There were several excellent presentations but my reason for doing this update today is because some of the most powerful remarks came from Dr. Joely Proudfit. She's the chair of the American Indian Studies at Cal State San Marcos, and the director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center. She said a few things about Land Acknowledgements that prompt me to add what I'm saying next.

When the acknowledgement is a "thank you" it suggests that you (the speaker) are replying to someone. Is it a specific person in a tribal nation? Or, is it Native peoples in the abstract as in no-longer-here? If it is the former, name that person. If it is the latter, reconsider saying it because it comes off as prayer-like.

When you say you're a guest on a specific nation's homeland, it implies that you were invited. Were you, in fact, invited to be there by someone of that nation?

Some people say "uninvited guest" but doesn't the word "guest" embody invited?

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

A Critical Review of THE ABC OF IT: WHY CHILDREN'S BOOKS MATTER by Leonard Marcus

On Monday, March 4, 2019, I started a twitter thread as I read through The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter by Leonard Marcus. It is the companion book (also called a catalog) for the exhibit of that name that was in New York City, and is now in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota's Elmer L. Anderson Library. It was put together from the children's literature research collections curated by Lisa Von Drasek, but especially from the Kerlan Collection, which is, according to the website, "one of the world's greatest children's literature archives." 

I did two more twitter threads on Tuesday, March 5th, and used Spooler, to combine them into this post. I've done some minor edits to fix typos. 
Update, April 9, 2019: I am inserting a few photographs I took of the catalog and making small revisions so that my critique flows a bit better here than it did on Twitter. I'm also changing the style I used on Twitter for book titles (cap letters) to italics. 

Monday, March 4, 2019
My copy of The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter by Leonard Marcus, arrived yesterday. I bought it because of the exhibit currently at the Elmer L. Anderson Library in Minnesota and concerns that the exhibit is lacking in context. 

By that, I mean that the exhibit itself seems to be avoiding critical conversations about racism of some authors, like Dr. Seuss. 

Sometimes, people object to critiques (like mine) that point out omissions. Their idea is that you should review what you have in front of you (in the book) rather than what you wish was there. I don't know what theoretical framework that idea comes from, but...

...I think that idea protects the status quo. It helps everybody avoid things that make them uncomfortable... that remind them of racism, for example. 

Or facts like this one: You can call Europeans who came to what is currently known as the Americas "explorers" but from a Native point of view, they were invaders. 

"Visions of Childhood" is the first section of The ABC of It. Its first subsection is "Sinful or Pure? The Spiritual Child." It begins with the Puritans. Cotton Mather. The book: The New England Primer. Obviously, I can't fault Marcus for what the Puritans left out of that book. 

But it is fair, I think, to ask for more than what he offers in his description of the book (see below). What would it feel like, for example, if he included something about the Native Nations and people whose lands the Puritans were invading?

In the last sentences (of the description), Marcus noted that later editions were changed "to make note of changing worldly concerns." He notes, specifically, changes to the "K" rhyme:
1727 edition: "Our King the Good/No Man of Blood"
1791 edition: "The British King/Lost States Thirteen."
Marcus is able to address specific "changing worldly concerns." He notes revisions that actually got done from the 1727 to the 1791 editions. 

Couldn't he insert something in his description about Native peoples? or slavery? 

Without that, he is giving readers of the catalog (and if the actual exhibit is similar to the book) his version of the All White World of Children's Books. 

Have you been to the exhibit at the Anderson library? Does it have the New England Primer on display? The "sinful or pure" section includes William Blake's Songs of Innocence on the next two pages. 

Next is "A Blank Slate: The Rational Child." Marcus begins by writing about Orbis Pictus by Comenius and Some Thoughts Concerning Education by John Locke. 

Those of you in children's lit know that, in 1989, the National Council of Teachers of English established the Orbis Pictus Award to honor Comenius's book. You can see Orbis Pictus, online.

Marcus's book, The ABC of It, has two photos of interior pages of Comenius's book. Each takes up half a page. One is the title page and image of Comenius; the other is "Fruits of Trees." The description for the two pages is: 
"Although spiritual matters received due attention in Comenius's "pictured world," his most famous book gave pride of place to worldly matters--geography, weather, place [...] among others."
I wish the pages about spiritual matters received attention by Marcus! It would have let readers/exhibit visitors see Comenius's point of view of those spiritual matters. Go here to see. He wrote: "Indians, even to this day, worship the Devil." 

Including that page would have made for some really interesting conversations there at the exhibit. Lest you try to wave Comenius's words away as a "product of his time," missionaries are still at work, today. 

And, children's books that are read today--like Little House on the Prairie--have characters with that point of view, too. Here's Pa (who so many people think is the good guy, sympathetic to Native ppl):

Excerpt from Little House on the Prairie

One thing that many of us (scholars) ask is "who edited this book" because we think editors should catch problems (in this case, an editor with an eye towards whitewashing and racism might have asked Marcus to provide a more critical description of some of these books). I'm wondering that as I page through Marcus's The ABC of It. Who was his editor?  

The next subsection is "From Rote to Rhyme." In it, there are 4 illustrations of McGuffey's Reader. Here's the first double-paged spread, with three of the illustrations on the right side:

And here's the second double-paged spread:

As you can see, on the left is a full page image of one page from inside a McGuffey reader. Facing it is a page with the cover of the Indian readers by Ann Nolan Clark (Singing Sioux Cowboy; see "To Remain an Indian" for a Native POV on the readers), and the covers for Bowwow Powwow and the English and Ojibwe covers for When the White Foxes Came. Marcus includes a description of the Clark book (here's an enlarged copy of the description beneath the cover of Singing Sioux Cowboy):

See? He describes the white-authored book, but includes nothing other than the citation information for the Native-authored books on that page. 

Those three covers are books by Native writers. I have lot of questions. Why are they in this "From Rote to Rhyme" section? Here's the opening paragraph for Brenda Child's Bowwow Powwow:

See? There's no rhyme there. Did Marcus read the book? Did he make a judgement about the contents about the book because the title rhymes? 

Bowwow Powwow is excellent, by the way, and if I was doing that ABC book, I'd have cut some of the McGuffy pages so it could have more space. 

The other Native-authored book on that page is When the White Foxes Came.  I don't know that bk, but I do know some of the people (Margaret Noodin and Mary Hermes) who put it together. Marcus included the English and Ojibwe covers, which is good but I'd rather see less of McGuffey and more of Native writers. 

Next in that section is page 28, about Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss). There's a photo of him and the covers of The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Those bks rhyme, so it makes sense that they'd be in this section of Rote and Rhyme. But, in the accompanying text, there is no mention of Seuss's racist cartoons. 

Seuss is in the news a lot of late because of this article: The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books. If you listen to NPR you heard abt it. If you read People (the news and entertainment magazine), you saw it there. 

If you see the exhibit at the Elmer L. Anderson Library, what do you notice about its POV? Its whiteness? I welcome your observations.

Tuesday, March 6, 2019

Starting Day 2 of my review of Leonard Marcus's The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter. I read up to page 29 yesterday. 

The next subsection of "Visions of Childhood" is "The Work of Play: The Progressive Child." It begins with Lucy Sprague Mitchell's Here and Now Story Book. In my doctoral studies, I read abt her, the Bank Street school, and her ideas about what children need, in their bks. 

Mitchell said that kids need "here and now" rather than fairy tales. In The ABC of It, Marcus includes the cover of Mitchell's book, the intro (which says the stories in the book are "experiments in content and form"), and "Marni Takes A Ride in A Wagon."

You can see Mitchell's Here and Now Story Book here (in original format) and here (transcribed). It was published in 1921.

On page 290 is "Five Little Babies." It is racist, as you'll see. The intro to it says: 
"This story was originally written because the children thought a negro was dirty. The songs are authentic. They have been enjoyed by children as young as four years old."
Screen cap of Five Little Babies

In his description of Mitchell's book, Marcus doesn't mention its racist contents. Yesterday's thread on his bk, The ABC of It, is meant to ask questions about what gets put into books about children's books--and what is left out. 

In the Five Little Babies (that Marcus didn't include), there's a "yellow" baby "in China", a "brown" baby "in India," a "black" baby "in Africa" and a "red baby" who was an "Indian baby" who lived "long, long ago" in America... And of course, a "white" baby that is "in your own country every day and he is a little American baby."

Screen cap of Five Little Babies

The physical descriptions for the babies are racist. "Slanted" eyes, "kinky" hair and wearing "a loincloth" or nothing at all. 

American babies have white skin, blue eyes, and gold hair. 

Mitchell wrote Native ppl out of existence, and placed all others, elsewhere on the globe (not in the U.S.). 

You know that Native people exist, today, right? Surely Mitchell knew that, too. 

And you know that in 1921, the US wasn't populated exclusively by people with white skin, blue eyes and gold hair. Surely, Mitchell knew that as well. 

So, how do we explain Mitchell's "Five Babies"?! And why did Marcus choose not to refer to that story in Mitchell's book?

These are the kinds of questions that an exhibit at an institution like University of Minnesota's Elmer L. Anderson library ought to engage with, in some way. 

In January, Lisa Von Drasek (the curator) gave an interview to Betsy Bird at Fuse 8 (Bird's blog at School Library Journal) about the exhibit. In the interview, Von Drasek said 
"U of M is a land grant university. This is important because our mission is to research, create, and disseminate knowledge." 

From what I see so far there seems to be a choice about what knowledge the exhibit disseminates. 

It seems like The ABC of It -- the physical exhibit and the book (catalog) of it -- are in that "warm fuzzy" space that is very white and best characterized as nostalgia. 

Why did Marcus avoid telling us that Geisel did racist work? And that Mitchell created racist stories? 

Obviously, THAT is not the point of the exhibit. 

So, what IS the point? 

The exhibit opened on February 27th. Over in a corner, there is a rack of articles that has a copy of the Seuss article by Ishizuka and Stephens, "The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books" but...

... why can't excerpts from the article be part of the exhibit that has the Seuss books? 

Marcus tells us that Margaret Wise Brown was Mitchell's "literary protégée" (p. 30). On page 33, he gives us covers of three of her books (The Noisy Book; The Seashore Noisy Book; The Indoor Noisy Book). Pages 34-37 (four entire double-paged spreads) are devoted to Goodnight Moon. He could have shown us one of her racist books (David's Little Indian) but he didn't. 

Marcus writes that Maurice Sendak put Mitchell's ideas to work in his books. On page 38, he includes Ruth Krauss books that Sendak illustrated. Sendak is a towering figure in kidlit. But he also did lot of stereotypical Indians AND...

What was he doing with a feather on his head?! Go here for details. 

Next up in "Visions of Childhood" is "Building Citizens: The Patriotic Child." It starts w/ Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book. Marcus writes that Webster "yearned for an American English purged of what he believed to be the excesses of British aristocratic influence."

On p. 42 are the cover and two interior pages from The American Spelling Book and a print of Webster titled "The Schoolmaster of the Republic." So... what did that schoolmaster have to say about Native words? 

Webster didn't want British influence, and he didn't want "guttural sounds of the Natives" either. Marcus felt it important to note that Webster didn't want British influence but Marcus chose to ignore what Webster said about Native language. 

"gutteral sounds of the Natives" screen cap from Webster's spelling book.

On page 45, Marcus has Ann Nolan Clark's In My Mother's House. Its illustrations are by Velino Herrera of Zia Pueblo (published in 1941). Marcus writes that Clark worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and that her bks played a key role in the US governments "new, more culturally respectful approach to the education of Native American children." There are several of these books, most written by Clark and with illustrations by Native artists. (See "To Remain an Indian" for some discussion of the books.) 

I'm glad to see that Marcus included In My Mother's House but wonder what it looks like in the physical exhibit. Do people who see it know what preceded this more "respectful approach"? Do they know about the 'kill the Indian and save the man' philosophy of the US government schools for Native kids? 

I hope #DiversityJedi see the exhibit (or the book/catalog about it) and offer critiques of content for which they have expertise. There's a lot I don't know anything about. On page 48-49, for example, Marcus shows comic books published in Mumbai. 
Update on Thursday, March 7th: A colleague wrote to tell me that the Amar Chitra Katha stories that Marcus has in his book on page 48 and 49 are racist. She recommends an article in The Atlantic by Shaan Amin: The Dark Side of the Comics that Redefined Hinduism, published on December 30, 2017. About the series, Marcus's description says that these comics "introduced tens of millions of English-speaking predominantly middle-class Indian youngsters to their religious and cultural roots."

On page 52 is a new subsection, "Down the Rabbit Hole," which is about Alice in Wonderland. Marcus gives eight pages to it. 

A new section starts on p. 60: "In Nature's Classroom: The Romantic Child." On p. 67 is Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. (Image below is from my blog post about the image and book.)

Pages 68-69 are about E.B. White. About Charlotte's Web, Marcus writes: "In the atomic age, he [White] recognized, the earth was perishable and in need of protection. What could save it? Wise leaders like Charlotte, or a world forum like this story's barnyard, where even a rat may realize the sense of keeping the web intact."

E.B. White did some stereotyping of Native people in Stuart Little and in Trumpet of the Swan (are you getting a good sense of how many esteemed and famous writers/people in children's literature held/hold stereotypical views?!):

Excerpt from Trumpet of the Swan

The remaining pages in this section are about Hans Christian Andersen and Gustaf Tenggren. Several years ago, Marcus did a book about the Little Golden Books, so he probably saw Tenggren's Cowboys and Indians, but he chose not to include it in The ABC of It. 

It may be that Cowboys and Indians isn't in The ABC of It because that art is not in the Kerlan. Marcus could have noted it, somewhere in the book. And, it could be noted in the physical exhibit. 

Tuesday, March 7 -- late afternoon

Day 2-late afternoon thread on The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter, a physical exhibit (and companion book/catalog) at the Anderson Library at the University of Minnesota.

I did a thread yesterday and one this morning and am doing this one because tomorrow (Wed) night, Shannon Gibney is on a panel, there, about the exhibit.

Shannon does some terrific work on issues of representation and misrepresentation. One of her areas of interest/expertise is about Native peoples. 

I was paging through The ABC of It and noticed the Wizard of Oz pages in the "Art of the Picture Book" section of Marcus's book. 

There are two pages on The Wizard of Oz

The accompanying text notes that L. Frank Baum had been an actor, a farmer, and ... a newspaper editor. Marcus knows that Baum was a newspaper editor. I am going to assume he knows about the newspaper editorials that Baum wrote. 

He doesn't mention the contents of Baum's editorials, but I think he should have. You may know about them if you listened to this NPR story in 2010. In one of his editorials, Baum called for "the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians."

Marcus and Lisa Von Drasek could have created a way for visitors to "speak back" to that editorial--if they had included it. 

These aren't abstract or academic concerns. Native people know about Baum's editorials. We don't have a warm fuzzy for Oz. 

Native people who come to the exhibit will see Baum, glorified. 

In many places (books/articles/online), there are conversations that tell ppl to keep the art and the artist separate. That's handy for some. It doesn't work for me, and it doesn't work for others, either. 

In her 2018 novel, Hearts Unbroken, Muscogee Creek writer Cynthia Leitich Smith takes up that "separate the art from the artist" idea. Her book is set in a high school that is doing an Oz play. Lou (the main character) and Hughie (Lou's brother) are citizens of the Muscogee Nation. 

Their mom is in law school and is especially interested in protecting the rights of Native children via the Indian Child Welfare Act. 

Their mom knows about the Baum editorials. 

When Hughie (Lou's brother) learns about them, he has a hard time deciding what to do. Go ahead and do the play? What is the cost to him, emotionally, if he goes ahead? 

Smith lays all that out in her book. 

The ABC of It book/catalog for the exhibit avoids Baum's editorials. It looks the other way. The exhibit is in Minnesota. It looks away from racism, on land that once belonged to Native people. 

There are eleven tribal nations located in Minnesota. 

There is an American Indian Studies department at the University of Minnesota. 

What does this exhibit's treatment of Oz/Baum tell the faculty, their students, their children?


I may continue my review of The ABC Of It but wanted to bring what I've done so far on Twitter, here, because AICL is where I publish most of my writing. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Debbie--have you seen THE LEAGUE OF SEVEN by Alan Gratz and Brett Helquist?

A reader wrote to ask if I've read The League of Seven by Alan Gratz and Brett Helquist. It came out in 2014 from Starscape (Macmillan), which publishes sci fi and fantasy for middle grade, ages 10 and up.

Here's the description, from Gratz's website:
Thirty days hath September. Seven heroes we remember. 
Young Archie Dent knows there really are monsters in the world. His parents are members of the Septemberist Society, whose job it is to protect humanity from hideous giant monsters called the Mangleborn. Trapped in underground prisons for a thousand years, the Mangleborn have been all but forgotten–until now. 
Evil genius Thomas Alva Edison and his experiments in the forbidden science of electricity have awakened a Mangleborn in the swamps of Florida. When Archie’s parents and the rest of the Septemberists are brainwashed by the monster, it’s up to Archie and his loyal Tik Tok manservant Mr. Rivets to assemble a new team of seven young heroes to save the world: the League of Seven.

No mention of Native content in that description, but the person who wrote to me noted that one of the main characters is Seminole. You can see here here, on the cover:

Her name, I learned by reading reviews, is Hachi. I also learned it is an alternative history, set in America in 1875. I'm intrigued. I'll try to get a copy and do a review. 

Have you read it? What are your thoughts?

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Not Recommended: IF YOU LIVED IN COLONIAL TIMES by Ann McGovern

Yesterday (March 2, 2019) I read a post at Social Justice Books about If You Lived in Colonial Times by Ann McGovern. Social Justice Books is a project at Teaching for Change that I am part of. Here's an except from their post, Whitewashed Colonial History Children's Book Still in Print.

On the last day of Black History Month, children at a predominantly African American elementary school in D.C. were each given a book to keep. 
The title given to the daughter of one of our Teaching for Change staff was If You Lived in Colonial Times (Scholastic, 1992). While this outrageous book all but erases African Americans and demonizes Native Americans, it ironically came along with an “I am Black History” bookmark.
Their review included the book cover. I shared their review on Twitter, but used my own image of the cover. For some books, I'll place a red X on the cover. It is eye-catching and communicates that the book has significant problems.

In their review, they shared some pages from the book. Here's the last page, about who wanted to live in New England. See the last paragraph?

I did a bit of research as I shared their review. They note it first came out in 1964. I found the cover of that first printing:


From what I'm able to see online, the words in the 1964 edition (with pictures by Brinton Turkle) are the same as those found in the 1992 edition, when the illustrations were re-done by June Otani.

What, I wonder, was the conversation that took place in Scholastic offices, in 1990 or 1991 when they discussed updating the illustrations. Obviously they decided they needed to update those illustrations--but what about the words? Did they think those were ok?

Social Justice Books shared part of page 65, about mail delivery:
Sometimes the letter was never delivered. The man you hired might be killed by some Indians.
Regular mail service began in 1672, the text reads, when "post riders" were hired:
The post rider rode with the mail through forests, along narrow Indian trails, and across streams. He kept his gun loaded. There might be a hungry bear or wolf nearby. Or an unfriendly Indian.
In this moment in the US, with so many news stories of Native and People of Color being shot and killed, I find that passage chilling. And it is missing so much. Why, for example, might a Native person be "unfriendly"? Might it be because people had invaded his land and killed his family?

Why, Scholastic, do you keep this book in print?

Part of the work I do with Teaching for Change is its #StepUpScholastic campaign. Many of you reading this post have fond memories of your school days, when your teacher would hand out a flier of books you could get at a reduced rate. Studies have shown that, today, the selection of books offered is lacking in diversity. We created a webpage through which you can write to Scholastic to ask them to make the selections in the book fliers more diverse, but you can use it to write to Scholastic about any book that you see and have concerns about. If You Lived in Colonial Times is definitely one of those books that is generating concern.

Again: why, Scholastic, do you keep this book in print?

Your brand--your profile--is that your books are educational. With this book, you are not educating children. You are, in fact, hurting any child who reads this book.

Once I hit publish on this post, I'm going over to the Teaching for Change page to submit a comment. I hope you (teachers, parents, librarians) do so, too.

Willa of the Wood

Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty. Disney-Hyperion, 2018

Willa of the Wood is described as a middle-grade adventure. It's also a "series starter" -- other titles are in the works. It features some characters who are identified as Cherokee, which is why AICL is taking a look at it.

Spoilers ahead, probably.

Robert Beatty writes the extremely popular Serafina series. He has lots of fans. Evidently many of them are on a "team" that reviews free advance copies of his books on Goodreads, Amazon, etc. Willa of the Wood has received hundreds of favorable reviews, many of them over-the-top with enthusiasm for the plot, the main character, the fantasy world, etc. Quite a few of the reviewers acknowledge being part of the review team. Not saying that's wrong. But the boost is impressive, and I'd love to see Native writers get that sort of advance attention! More about the reviews in a moment.

Willa is a fairy-story of sorts, set in the very early 1900s in the mountains of what is currently called Tennessee. I was reminded (not always happily) of Ferngully, Avatar, and My Side of the Mountain. And even of Anthem. Why does anything in this fairy story sound like Ayn Rand? More on that shortly.

One of the themes here is assimilation vs cultural survival -- not of human societies but of a fantasy society the author calls the Faeran. They look kind of similar to humans, but have quills on their necks and sharp teeth. They have long kept their existence separate from humans, though the Cherokee supposedly know about them and tell stories of them "around their campfires at night." The Faeran have magical connections to nature. Or at least, they used to. Few of them still do when the story begins.

The Faeran are governed by an autocrat who says they must use the "Eng-lish" language,  for their own survival. (But if the Faeran must also hide their existence from humans, why would speaking English-only be an advantage?) This supposedly god-like charismatic leader is fascinated by humans' technology. He sends squads of teen and pre-teen Faeran to take things from the humans at night. He deals with dissent as power-hungry fearful dictators do. His mantra is "There is no I, only we." (That's what made me think of Anthem, Ayn Rand's teen-friendly allegory on the evils of cooperative societies in general.) To the Faeran, that means everyone must do what the leader wants. Willa soon runs afoul of him and finds herself homeless and on the run.

Willa's grandmother ("Mamaw"), her last living relative, is murdered as the plot heats up. She has taught Willa her "wood witch" knowledge of magic, herb-lore, etc., setting the child apart from other Faeran as well as from the humans. She has also taught Willa the old language, in secret. It's part of their bond, so I wondered why Willa doesn't call her grandmother by a Faeran name instead of one that's used by real-life English-speaking humans.

Some of the human characters in Willa are white-skinned invaders -- homesteaders and greedy, forest-killing loggers. The most sympathetic white character ("the man Nathaniel") becomes Willa's friend. The other whites are destroyers of the beloved trees. We eventually learn that Nathaniel was married to a Cherokee woman who has been killed. He believes their three children were also killed, but as Willa discovers, they were kidnapped by the Faeran.

In some ways (which might or might not be intentional on Beatty's part), Faeran existence parallels the experience of those Cherokee who managed to remain on their ancestral homelands when the rest of their people were forced westward during Removal. Their land and places that were home are damaged by greedy, murderous invaders. They're under intense pressure to change in order to survive. But the book isn't about Cherokee life in the early 1900s.

Not that Cherokees are erased in Willa. The word "Cherokee" appears more than 30 times. But the Cherokee Nation itself isn't mentioned -- not its existence or its history, including Removal (which in real life enabled people like Nathaniel and the tree-killers to do their things in the mountains). The Cherokee homelands are merely the setting for Faeran vs human and Faeran vs Faeran conflict.

Some mentions of "Cherokee": Willa recalls that Mamaw told her of a "lake that the Cherokee called Atagahi". The Faeren are eager to have "Cherokee arrowheads" as tips for their spears. Willa visualizes "Cherokee farmers" and has seen them walking on the road and "trading peacefully with homesteaders." She sees a dozen "Cherokee families" fleeing some disaster, including one boy who "definitely wasn't from the same clan" as the others and who, the author hints, may not be a typical human (Willa thinks his scent is that of a mountain lion). She has overheard Cherokees and homesteaders telling stories of a black panther. She recognizes that the names on 4 grave markers are probably "Cherokee names," and she recalls that "most of the Cherokee" lived on the other side of a mountain that is important to the Faeran. The "Cherokee called it Kuwa'hi" and settlers called it Clingman's Dome.

In his author's note, Beatty thanks three Eastern Band Cherokee people by name. All three are involved in preservation/renewal of the Cherokee language, and one is described as a storyteller. Beatty doesn't make clear how their "guidance and assistance" was useful in writing Willa. I think readers would benefit from knowing that.

The Cherokee children speak English in conversation, even with each other.  And though Cherokee names, storytelling, and geography figure in the book, the Cherokee characters themselves don't mention such things. In ways that aren't explained, Willa recognizes some people on sight as Cherokee. Other than that, it's as if they're Cherokee in name only.

Speaking of names, searching on the names of the 3 children (Iska, Inali, and Hialeah) and their mother, Ahyoka, didn't turn up an authoritative source to confirm whether those would be Cherokee names. At least three of them might be, but my search didn't confirm or refute authenticity. If you're familiar with the Cherokee language or history, maybe you'll know.  I also found suggestions that a hidden lake called Atagahi is actually part of Cherokee oral traditions, but again the sources may not be trustworthy (see list of questions below). Maybe the names and stories are what Beatty asked the three Eastern Band sources about.

How might Cherokee kids feel about the way Cherokees are represented in Willa of the Wood? Is it a mirror that reflects their lives or identities in some way?

As a non-Cherokee, I saw overall positive images of Cherokee people but didn't come away with a greater understanding about Cherokee life, history, or language. If anything, I have Questions. Such as:
  • Does Beatty use the concept of "clan" correctly re: Cherokee society? Maybe not, if I'm understanding info about clans on the Cherokee Nation website. 
  • There's a troubling passage where Nathaniel tells Willa that his wife "was a respected member of the Paint clan, the great-great-granddaughter of a famous chief.” While it's probably fine for a white man to know his Cherokee wife's clan, why is it necessary to have her descended from "a famous chief"? Echoes of "My great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess".... 
  • Is there an unimpeachable source for the story of Atagahi? What I found online is all questionable, including a book written by Shirley G. Webb who, according to the back matter on the book, is "of Cherokee heritage." But at least one of her stories has a character named Nokomis, which I'm pretty sure is an Ojibwe name, so that put the authenticity in doubt.
  • And I wonder if the Cherokee boy with the mountain lion scent will show up later in the series as a shape-shifter of some kind. Shape-shifting Indigenous people seem to be really popular in fiction/fantasy by non-Native writers.
I checked to see what all those Goodreads/Amazon reviewers made of the Cherokee "presence" in the story. But surprisingly few reviewers even used the word Cherokee. One mentioned liking to hearing the names they knew, like Cherokee and Clingman's Dome. Another said that Willa is supposed to be a Cherokee night spirit. And another commented that they aren't sure if Beatty's references to Cherokees are respectful or accurate, though part of the story was based on Cherokee stories. Evidently, the Cherokee content didn't make a big impression on most of the book's early fans.

So overall, the Cherokee presence in Willa seems too generalized to provide a clear window into Cherokee lives of that time period. In fact, it barely makes an impression on a fair number of early reviewers. So, why are they there?

I'm not sure.

What might a fantasy story like Willa of the Wood gain from having Cherokee characters? Maybe a touch of historical authenticity; Cherokee people were certainly present in that part of the continent during the early 1900s. Maybe some help with the magical world-building and set-ups for future plots: Atagahi seems likely to play a role in what happens later in the series, as do the three children and that Cherokee boy who might be a something else. The Cherokee content feels like a device, or set of devices, rather than an occasion for truly representing Native people. That may become clearer with later books in the series.

I don't recommend Willa of the Wood -- because of its puzzling references to Cherokee people and its lack of transparency regarding some of the names and stories attributed to the Cherokee. If you're Cherokee citizen and have read this book, we'd like to hear your thoughts on its Cherokee content. Please comment!

--Jean Mendoza

Friday, March 01, 2019

Not Recommended: A MONSTER LIKE ME by Wendy S. Swore

Earlier this week, a reader wrote to ask me about A Monster Like Me by Wendy S. Swore. I was able to get a copy from NetGalley. Published by Shadow Mountain Press, it is due out on March 6. Here's the description:
Sophie is a monster expert. Thanks to her Big Book of Monsters and her vivid imagination, Sophie can identify the monsters in her school and neighborhood. Clearly, the bullies are trolls and goblins. Her nice neighbor must be a good witch, and Sophie’s new best friend is obviously a fairy. But what about Sophie? She’s convinced she is definitely a monster because of the “monster mark” on her face. At least that’s what she calls it. The doctors call it a blood tumor. Sophie tries to hide it but it covers almost half her face. And if she’s a monster on the outside, then she must be a monster on the inside, too. 
Being the new kid at school is hard. Being called a monster is even harder. Sophie knows that it’s only a matter of time before the other kids, the doctors, and even her mom figure it out. And then her mom will probably leave—just like her dad did. 
Because who would want to live with a real monster?

The description of A Monster Like Me is kind of awkward. We're told that Sophie can identify monsters. Some are "bullies and trolls and goblins" but does the mention of "fairies" within that framework tell us that she thinks they, too, are monsters? 

I'm going to go along with the use of the word, but doing so is unsettling when the monsters are Native characters. Equally unsettling is that A Monster Like Me got a starred review from Booklist.  

Sophie has a hemangioma on her face. The author, Wendy S. Swore, had one on her forehead, which is why some of the promotional materials say the story is inspired by real events in the author's life. 

The story is set in Portland, Oregon. Most people know that there are many Native nations in the place currently known as Oregon. 

In chapter thirteen, "Ghostly Falls," Sophie, her friend Autumn, and her mom are at Multnomah Falls. As they walk on the trail, Sophie sees something in a puddle and picks it up (p. 127):
A picture of a beautiful Native American girl in a white dress stares back at me from the soggy flier with the headline Princess of Multnomah Falls. Gently I turn it over, but the print is dirty and hard to read.
"What did you find?" Mom peeks over my shoulder. "Oh, the legend of the falls. I always liked that one."
"The paper says something about a princess?" Autumn points to the faded image. "I didn't even know there was a king here." 
"No king," laughs Mom. "She was the Multnomah chieftain's daughter."
With a gasp, Autumn claps her hands. "A princess and a chief? How romantic!"
Her mom goes on to tell her that people were dying of a "great sickness." The "chief" called his council and "best warriors" together to find a cure (p. 127).
"Then, an old medicine man told them the only way to save the tribe was to sacrifice a young woman by throwing her off the mountain to appease the Great Spirit."
Sophie's mom tells her that at that time, there was no waterfall there. The chief didn't want to sacrifice any of the girls, but then, his daughter's betrothed got sick. The daughter/princess decided to save him and everyone. So, she jumped. Sad, the chief asked the Great Spirit for a sign that his daughter was (p. 128):
"safe in the land of the spirits. That's when water started flowing over the top of the cliff." 
Sophie has the story of the princess in her mind as they walk on the trail. At the top, she holds to the railing and peers over (p. 129):
Someone walks up beside me and thin white gauze brushes my face. I brush it away and scoot over so the lady's dress doesn't blow into me again. Then I freeze as I take in her wispy white dress and long black hair. Her face looks different than it does in the picture, but the ghost of a Native American princess can probably look however she wants to look.
The woman starts talking to Sophie, pointing with her chin, telling her that she had fought alongside fireman when the lodge was on fire. Sophie wonders if the fireman knew that "the spirit of a Native American princess was standing beside them, adding her magic to the fight that night." She wonders if her mom and Autumn can see the woman. The woman is wearing a pendant that is a crystal nestled in gold leaves. Sophie asks if it is magic. The woman says it is, to her, because she had made it herself, and that the magic worked for her. When the woman touches Sophie, she feels a jolt of electricity. She's never been touched by a ghost before. Autumn and her mom rush up beside her, looking over the railing, too. Sophie asks Autumn (p. 131):
"Did you see her?" I whisper in her ear.
"See who?"
"The princess!" I point down the trail and gasp.
The path is empty.

Debbie's comments:

"The path is empty." is the last sentence in that chapter.  So--one question is this one: Is that "Princess of Multnomah Falls" a story that Native people told/tell? Or is it a White Man's Indian? I use that phrase from time to time, borrowing it from Berkhofer's book (that's the cover on the right side of this paragraph). It is an "account of the self-serving stereotypes Europeans and white Americans have concocted about the “Indian” [...] and manipulated to its [western civilizations] benefit." 

I've spent the afternoon looking through my sources but can't find anything (other than a sketchy website) that says it is a Native story. A "medicine man" telling his people they have to sacrifice a young girl to appease a wrathful "Great spirit"---that doesn't ring true to me as a Native story. 

I did find a site that has a detailed history of the dedication of The Vista House--and information about "Chief Multnomah." The person who wrote it, Dr. David Gene Lewis, worked for several years for the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde Community of Oregon and is a member of that nation. He wrote:
On June 7th, 1918 the state of Oregon dedicated the Vista House built between 1916 and 1918, at the crest of Crown Point overlooking the Columbia River. The opening of the house, really a scenic vista wayside and pioneer memorial, commemorated and called attention to the opening of the Columbia River Highway. The House was to be the memorial to the spirit and grit of the pioneers who first came down the Columbia to the Oregon Territory.
Dr. Lewis has several historical photos on his site along with the research he's done. The Oregonian (newspaper) published a narrative of the dedication ceremony. The ceremony and narrative, too, were created by "the Rosarians." Lewis writes that the Rosarians were a romantic cultural organization with a king and a queen. In their ceremony, they meet a "redskin" called "Chief Multnomah" who realizes that "his days of rule are over." So, he lays down his bow and arrow and leaves, disappearing near the base of the falls (go read the whole thing). 

I include Dr. Lewis's account here because the Rosarians wrote about the Native man as being "a ruler" much like kings and queens of Europe. Characterizing him as a "ruler" (king) creates the space for a daughter who would be a "princess" like the one that Swore wrote into her story. Sophie's mom rebuts the "king" part of the "legend" but doesn't tell Autumn that her use of "princess" is wrong, too. Sophie and Autumn's thinking of a Native American "princess" remains intact--and so does the reader who holds that wrong idea of Native princesses! 

In the rest of that legend, we're expected to believe in a wrathful "Great Spirit." That doesn't work for me. It sounds far more like a white writer--maybe a Christian one--creating a legend. Indeed, in the twitter thread I started on March 1, an individual pointed me to "The Legend of Multnomah Falls" written in 1905 by Susan Williamson Smith. You can see the digitized copy online. It lines up with my thinking that this whole princess story is a White Man's Indian. 

Moving to the woman Sophie meets at the rail... the spirit, we're told, of that princess. I took care to include the way Swore has her pointing: with her chin. I did that because she seems to have a bit of info about Native gestures. Many Native people do that and I've seen some White writers use it. To them it might seem to lend authenticity to their writing but within the larger picture of what they've written, it is a #fail. This princess is wearing a crystal that the wearer (and Sophie) think has magical power. 

That crystal is a significant problem. It fits right in with the New Age writings. It is important to the arc of Swore's story and how Sophie deals with the hemangioma, but tying it to this "princess" is a major problem.

In chapter sixteen, "Zoos Are for the Birds," Sophie, Autumn, and Sophie's mom are at the zoo. There's a totem pole there, with an eagle at the top. In her pocket is the crystal necklace she found in chapter 15. Sophie thinks (p. 156):
" was a normal thunderbird who got tired of throwing lightning bolts and decided to sit up there and rest, but then got stuck and couldn't leave." 
A crow lands on the totem pole. Sophie thinks it is a Crow God who can see that she is a monster. She stares back at it and says (p. 156):
 "No tricks, Chulyen." I've got enough trouble without a Native American trickster god running amok. 

Debbie's comments:

I don't like the flip and dismissive tone Sophie has about the totem pole and I don't like the tone she has towards what she's imagining as a trickster, either. I can't put my finger on why it is bothering me. I do wonder why she thinks this god is named Chulyen, and, I definitely don't like the generic "Native American" attribute Sophie/Swore is using there.  Looking around a bit, I see "Chulyen" in a "Fantastic Fest" that took place in 2015. It was, I gather, a short film and it seems to fit within this "monster" framework that Swore developed for this story. There are--in fact--Alaskan Dena'ina stories about Chulyen (a raven) but they're not like Swore's Chulyen. 

As Sophie and Autumn move on into the zoo exhibits, Sophie is so absorbed in looking at a woman she thinks is Medusa (the woman has green ribbons woven through her dreadlocks, and long green nails that are more like talons than fingernails) that she almost bumps into an elk. She grab's Autumn's hand to stop her, too, but there's no elk there (p. 156):
...there's only a man in a worn cowboy hat with feathers tucked into the band on both sides.
This man has a dusky tan face, a million wrinkles ("like the inside of a walnut"), wisps of gray hair, braids, and
...a thick beaded string with a clasp hangs around his neck like a tie, and a leather pouch dangles dead center on his chest.
He winks at her when he sees her looking. Chulyen caws overhead and lands in a tree behind the old man who seems to understand what the bird is saying. Chulyen follows Sophie, her mom, and Autumn through the zoo. They get to the Birds of Prey outdoor show and settle down on the grass to watch.

Sophie pulls her crystal out of her pocket and is holding it in her hand. Suddenly, Chulyen swoops in and takes it. He sits on a nearby pole. Sophie goes to the pole and tells him to give it back. She's startled when she hears "He doesn't give things back." It is the old Native American man with the feathered cowboy hat. First, he tosses popcorn to entice Chulyen but that doesn't work. Then, he tells her to look away. "As long as you're watching, he'll hang onto his prize only because you want it." She watches the bird show for awhile. The man tosses more popcorn around. Then, the crow is at her feet to get some of the popcorn. Her crystal falls by her feet. She grabs it, tears try to leak from her eyes.
"That necklace is special to you, eh?" he asks.
She nods and he says his is special, too. His is that leather pouch. She asks if it is magic. He nods and tells her it is his medicine bag. She asks how he knows what to put in it.
"Many things have power, but some things call to you so strong, they make powerful medicine for you."
"They say your name?" How weird would that be if a rock started calling for me? Hey Sophie! Over here! But then, the crystal kind of called to me, didn't it? 
"Not in words." The man taps his heart. "They'll call to you in here. It could be anything. A pinecone. A bead. A carving. A stone. Each person's medicine is different."
"And it heals you?"
"It heals my heart, my spirit."
Sophie's mom calls to her; she rejoins her and Autumn. She looks back to the man and sees he is walking away, with Chulyen on his shoulder. They seem to be talking.
Just before he turns the corner, he casts a shadow on the wall of a building and I see the shadow of an elk.
No. Not an elk, a caribou.
I'd spoken face to face with the Caribou Man. 
She wonders what to tell Autumn about Caribou Man. He's a leader for all animals. When he speaks, they listen.
That the tribes feared and revered him so much, they were careful to treat all their hunts with great respect so he didn't get angry.
She realizes that he's very powerful, but he chose to speak to her. She feels a warm bubble at that thought. As they get to their car Chulyen and some more black birds appear. They tumble about in the air, and then glide away. Something white flutters down. It is part of a white peacock feather. It is, she thinks, a gift of healing medicine from Chulyen. It has power. (In the next chapter, we read that she has attached the peacock feather to the crystal.)

Debbie's comments

So... Caribou man isn't a real person. He's a figure in the book of monsters that Sophie carries around. He, like the princess, appears in this story, to help Sophie. 

The way that Swore depicts this man, works, for a white audience. He's got some wisdom and some teachings that whiteness fawns over. As Caribou man, he has power and if you don't treat him right, well, it won't go well. There... again, is the depiction of wrath. As with the "Great Spirit" at the falls, I think this is more White Man's Indian. 

Swore's book is introducing stereotypes to readers who aren't aware that they're stereotypes. For those who open her book with stereotypical ways of thinking about Native people, her words affirm their "knowledge." That, ultimately, is harmful to what they grow up "knowing" about Native people. 

It is also, of course, harmful to Native readers who know this is all nonsense. If they've picked up the book on their own accord, they can set it down but if a teacher assigns the book, they're in a difficult position. Some will be unsettled by the nonsense. The impact can be unsettling in the moment, but later, too, when they're supposed to be doing other schoolwork. 

Published in 2019, I do not recommend Wendy S. Swore's A Monster Like Me.