Thursday, October 07, 2021


On November 3, 2019, Mike M. submitted this comment to AICL's post about Lois Lenski's Indian Captive
I've come to Dr. Reese's review of Indian Captive because of its appearance in Alan Gratz's 2017 novel Ban this Book. Gratz's story is about a schoolgirl standing up against book-banning in her grade-school library. At one point the avid young reader is suspended and grounded with nothing to read except Indian Captive. There is no commentary about the merits of the book, but it is mentioned several times, giving it a prominence above many of the books named in the story -- enough to send me to investigate. I can see no particular reason why this book was chosen for its role in the story (unless it's a very subtle indication that some books are not as good as others -- but it's quite a stretch to find that interpretation), other than mere carelessness by the author, indifference to the reasons a book may be offensive, or lack of awareness of the harm that books can perpetuate -- a naive belief in the magical goodness of every written word. It seems odd considering the theme of the story. Also odd given another theme of the story: good intentions that lead to bad consequences. As adults, we can understand the complexity of the real world, and the value of ambiguity in literature, but seeing that the issues raised by this one book's inclusion is not developed at all, and this in a novel for children, I can only see it as a flaw in an otherwise worthwhile book.
Gratz's Ban This Book came out in 2017. Published by Starscape (an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates with is part of Macmillan), the cover showed a school locker piled high with books. That same year, it was released as an ebook. The cover for the e-book showed three kids on the cover. More on that, later.

Here's the publisher's description of the book:
In Ban This Book by Alan Gratz, a fourth grader fights back when From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg is challenged by a well-meaning parent and taken off the shelves of her school library. Amy Anne is shy and soft-spoken, but don’t mess with her when it comes to her favorite book in the whole world. Amy Anne and her lieutenants wage a battle for the books that will make you laugh and pump your fists as they start a secret banned books locker library, make up ridiculous reasons to ban every single book in the library to make a point, and take a stand against censorship.
The story opens with Amy Anne and her friend, Rebecca, arriving at school. Amy Anne wants to go to the library to check out her favorite book (again) From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. When she gets to the library shelf where her favorite book should be, it is not there. She sees the librarian, Mrs. Jones, enter the row. She describes her as being "a big white lady" (p. 12).

That detail, that Mrs. Jones is white, gave me pause. I paged back (in my electronic copy of the book) to see if Gratz had identified Amy or Rebecca in similar ways. On page 9, I saw that Rebecca's last name is Zimmerman and her parents are lawyers. When I paged back to the cover, I saw that the child featured prominently on the cover is African American. That is probably meant to be Amy Anne. 

On page 16 we read: 
I like a lot of other books too, especially Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Hattie Big Sky, The Sign of the Beaver, and Julie of the Wolves. Basically any story where the main character gets to live alone. Indian Captive is pretty great too, even though Mary Jemison has to live in an Indian village. But I would rather live with Indian kidnappers than live with my two stupid younger sisters.
As you might imagine, I was taken aback by her list of favorites. They are full of stereotypes. And, they are old. Island of the Blue Dolphins came out in 1960, Sign of the Beaver in 1983, Julie of the Wolves in 1972, and Indian Captive in 1941. 

The other three favorites have a word or two about Native peoples. 

In Hatchet the main character, alone in the forest after a plane crash, imagines monsters he's read about, including Big Foot. He's talking about Sasquatch, a figure who has been misrepresented over and over in children's books! Sasquatch is not a monster. In chapter two of Charlene Willing McManus's Indian No More, the main character (Regina) is on the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation in Oregon. When Regina was little, she was afraid to play in the woods. Her dad told her that "Old Sasquatch won't bother you. First, he's shy. Second, he's over six feet tall and smells like a wet dog. And third, well, if he does bother you, you must've been misbehaving." In My Side of the Mountain the main character, Sam, imagines "feathers in an Indian quiver," thinks that "Indian bread" is flat and hard, and when looking at aspen and birch trees, sees that they are "bent like Indian bows." The main character in Hattie Big Sky moves from Iowa to work her uncles homestead in Montana. Several times, there are references to "free" land, but no mention of how or why that land is available in the first place. Hattie must know something about Native people, because when a character's face is covered in soot when a barn burns down, she imagines that he has warpaint on his face. 

I wonder how these seven books shape what Amy Anne knows about Native people?!    

There is no reason for any of these books to be named as favorites in 2017, by any reader. And yet, there they are. Why these ones, I'd like to ask Gratz. His book is well regarded by people who fight censorship, but in that fight, did he have to throw Native readers under the bus?  

There's more.

As the book description noted, Amy Anne and others get organized and start filling out the library's Request for Reconsideration forms that people submit when they believe a book is inappropriate in some way. The goal is to make up reasons to ban every book in the library. On page 212, Janna (a student) has "every one of the Little House on the Prairie books in her arms. She starts to fill out the form and pauses. Janna says this to Amy Anne: 
"But what do I say? There's nothing bad about Little House on the Prairie."
And here's what follows:
She was right. But no--that was true about all the books. I had to think like Mrs. Spencer. 
"They get malaria in that one," I said. "That's scary, right? And the settlers think it's because they ate bad watermelon! But that's not how you get malaria. That's deliberately misleading. That could make a kid think you get malaria from watermelons!"
Nothing bad in Little House on the Prairie?! It, too, is old, and full of dehumanizing stereotypes of Native peoples.  

Remember--Ban This Book--came out in 2017. What's up with the books Mrs. Jones is offering to students? Does she have no money to update the collection, adding books that would in some way, be mirrors for the Amy Anne's who are in that school, and, windows for them, too, so they could get better information about Native peoples? Does Mrs. Jones not know about the hashtag, #OwnVoices? It took off in 2015. 

My questions are really for Alan Gratz. He wrote a book about an important topic. But on the way, he just dumped stereotypes all over Native kids and non-Native kids, too. 

Did his editor notice this problem? Did any of the people who gave it positive reviews notice it? Or, any of the people on state award committees that gave it an award? I guess I know the answer. If anyone had any concerns, they probably stayed quiet. The book is about banning books, after all. 

If Amy Anne's favorites included books that have won a Coretta Scott King Book award, I wouldn't be writing this post. If one of her favorites included a book that won an award from the American Indian Library Association, I'd be giving Gratz's book a "recommended" label instead of its "not recommended" one!

But, here we are. Bummer. 

Friday, September 17, 2021


The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature
Edited by Esther G. Belin, Jeff Berglund, Connie A. Jacobs, and Anthony K. Webster
Cover Art by Shonto Begay
Foreword by Sherwin Bitsui, with Contributions by 
Jennifer Nez Denetdale and Michael Thompson
Published in 2021
Publisher: The University of Arizona Press
Status: Highly Recommended
Reviewer: Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh)


In 2021, two terrific anthologies were published. First was When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry (edited by Joy Harjo). Harjo's anthology has writers from many different nations. I recommend you get a copy of it. Second is The Diné Reader. I recommend you get a copy of it, too, because it gives you depth about one nation. 

Let's start with Shonto Begay's cover art. He is known in children's literature for two books he wrote and illustrated: Ma'ii and Cousin Horned Toad (1992), and Navajo Visions and Voices Across the Mesa (1995). The title of the art on the cover of The Diné Reader is "With Glowing Words." We see a Diné person, reading. In the interview of him on page 182, he said: 
"When I paint people reading, it's also beyond what the picture is, it keeps going on. It's an interpretation of an interpretation of a reader."
As I think about that, I wonder how high school students will interpret what they find in The Diné Reader. Who that reader is and what they've read will shape their interpretations of the poems and stories in the book. 

Sherwin Bitsui did the foreword for the book. Towards the end of the first paragraph, he says that non-Navajo and non-Native people tell him that they learned about Navajo culture through Tony Hillerman's books. Hillerman, you see, is not Native. What he provides is incorrect portrayals of Navajo people. In contrast, when Bitsui talks with young Navajo students who are in universities and learning about Navajo writers, he sees their excitement over stories and poems by Navajo writers that reflect their own experiences. The Diné Reader, he says, provides teachers with authors and resources they case use to bring greater depth and understanding to students who read work by Navajo writers. That depth and understanding is crucial because it can push aside the Hillermans of the book world.  

Are you one of the people who reads or recommends Hillerman? Stop doing that right now! If you're a teacher, your responsibility is to educate students. With Hillerman, you are miseducating them. Get a copy of The Diné Reader and start reading. Find a story or poem that resonates with you in some way, study the interview that precedes that writer's work, and then look in your library for additional materials from that author (start with the Bibliography in the final pages of the reader). If your library doesn't have something you want, ask for it!

And make sure to read Esther Belin's introduction to the history of Navajo literature, Jennifer Nez Denetdale's "Chronology of Important Dates in Diné Political and Literary History," and Michael Thompson's "Resources for Teachers and Readers." All three are excellent for what they provide to teachers who want to step away from the nonsense of Hillerman and do right by Navajo people. Thompson (he is Mvskoke Creek) organized his resources into sections, including one on humor that I like a lot. For each of his sections, he discusses it, follows with "considerations and reflective tasks" and ends with works in the reader that exemplify the idea the section is about. 

The Diné Reader can be used in high schools. As I page through my copy (or click through my e-book copy), I pause to read old favorites, smile at memories of hanging out with the poets, and of course, I read items new to me. As I read the introductory material about Tina Deschenie, I see that her first poem was published in 1973, when she was a high school student. In short, there's so much depth in the pages of this book! Order a copy and sit with it, soon!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Books by Native writers are on list of banned books at Central York High School in Pennsylvania

Update on Friday, September 24: Here is a link to Central York Banned Book List, which is a downloadable pdf of all the books. The pdf was made by the Central York Book Club (they used the original list). The original list was a spreadsheet that had tabs at the bottom to the 4th-6th grade and the high school books. And, earlier this week, news media reports indicate that the school board lifted the "freeze" on the books. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021. This morning, I saw posts on social about books that are being banned in Central York High School in Pennsylvania. The books are outstanding ones by terrific writers like Zetta Elliott, Jacqueline Woodson, Yuyi Morales, Aisha Saeed, Monica Brown, and Minh Lé. It also has a few books on it by white writers like Eve Bunting's Smoky Night (note: Smoky Night is deeply problematic. Its presence on the list tells us the committee may not be aware of those problems.) 

Books by Native writers are on the list, too. 

The list itself is a spread sheet titled Equity Book Resource List. I gather that a diversity committee created the list for teachers to use, but some parents did not like the books and went to the school board, who put the entire list on hold. There are a few media articles about the list and student protests to the books being banned. Some of the articles are disjointed. If you want to get a solid understanding of what is happening, see Kelly Jensen's article at Book Riot): School District Maintains Ban of Antiracist Books Despite Student Protests

The books by Native writers include:

Picture Books K-3
  • Fry Bread: A Native American Story by Kevin Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
  • The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves 

Books 4-6
  • An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (note: because it is listed in the 4th-6th grade section, I think this is the young peoples adaption that Jean Mendoza and I did. Dunbar-Ortiz and Mendoza are not Native, but I am.). 
  • Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis
  • We Are Grateful by Traci Sorell (Sorell's book is a picture book. Perhaps the committee felt it should be used at the 4-6th grade level. I'm among those who recommend picture books for all readers.) 
Update on Sept 24, 2021:  We do not recommend Jane Yolen's Encounter (it is on the list). And, unfortunately, Brad Meltzer's I Am Rosa Parks is being used on many news article and social media posts about the ban. I would prefer books by Native and Writers/Illustrators of Color receive visibility.  

Monday, September 06, 2021



Sharice's Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman
Written by Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) with Nancy K. Mays
Illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley (member of Wasauksing, First Nation)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Harper Collins
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended


In some books, I find one thing after another that I absolutely adore. Sharice's Big Voice is one of those books. First example? The back cover. It is a page from inside. It looks like this:

On that page, Sharice is studying. A stack of books is there. The text on that page tells us that she started law school so that she could work to make US laws more just and fair. Those words are cool, but look at the pages behind her! 

My guess is that most readers will recognize "The Constitution of the United States" but why is our attention being drawn to Article 6? Do you know what Article 6 is about? Hint: it has to do with the other pages you see behind Sharice! 

Sharice's Big Voice is a picture book whose contents make the case for why picture books should be read by everyone. If you're teaching social studies, teach this book and do a study of this page. Start by reading Article 6. Then, ask students to do research on the Treaty With the Winnebago, and the other items on that page. Put them into chronological order, after having read Article 6. 

As I reflect on that page, I'm reminded of the article by Sarah B. Shear, Leilani Sabzalian, and Lisa Brown Buchanan.  It is titled "Affirming Indigenous Sovereignty: A Civics Inquiry" and came out in 2018 in an educator's journal called Social Studies and the Young Learner. Here's the first sentence in the article:
Indigenous sovereignty is an essential component of civics education.
Here's the first sentence in the next paragraph:
Elementary social studies curriculum is notoriously silent about Indigenous sovereignty.
My guess is that most teachers want to give their students a solid education and might know a bit about Native sovereignty--but not enough to feel confident in what they do. And so, they are silent about Indigenous sovereignty. The article has key words and definitions, realistic steps for you to take with your students as you begin to fill that silent space, and links to resources to help you.  

Affirming Indigenous Sovereignty (the article) and Sharice's Big Voice can be your starting place to make a difference in what your students learn about Native peoples. Get the picture book, and if your librarian isn't able to get the article for you, let me know. 

There's a lot more to say about Sharice's Big Voice but I gotta get outside and finish the paint job on our fence. I'll be thinking about this book and may be back to say more. It is one of my favorite books of the year. It affirms Native identity, and being physically, educationally, and politically active. This page is so important! It says (in part): "Growing up, I never would have guessed my path would lead to Congress. I didn't know that I would be one of the first Native American women in Congress and the first lesbian representative from Kansas." 

And if you're wondering if it is tribally specific? The answer is yes! There's a page about kids in school asking Sharice "What are you." She tells her mom about it, and her mom tells her "We're members of the Ho-Chunk Nation." When I talk about the book online I'll use #Ho-ChunkVoice--and you should, too.  

Page after page, the words resonate and educate, and Pawis-Steckley's gorgeous Ojibwe art does, too! Get a copy for your classroom library, your home library, and ask your librarian to get copies. Then, talk about it with others. Share the knowledge that Sharice Davids and Nancy K. Mays provide in Sharice's Big Voice. 


Back to say that good nonfiction for young people is very hard to find, especially biography or autobiography about Native people of the present day. If this book had been available when Betsy McEntarffer and I wrote "Indigenous Nations in Nonfiction" for Crisp, Knezek, and Gardner's Reading and Teaching with Diverse Nonfiction Children's Books, we'd have written about it, with tremendous joy. 

Saturday, September 04, 2021

What a Difference Thirty Years of Hard Work Makes

What a Difference Thirty* Years of Hard Work Makes
by Debbie Reese 

What did the children's books published in 1990--the ones about Native people--look like? How do they compare to the ones published in 2020? 

To get an answer, I did two advanced searches in WorldCat. I used "Indians of North America" as the keyword in both. I narrowed the search as follows:
Year: 1990 (for the second search, I used 2020)
Audience: juvenile
Content: fiction

The total hits for the 1990 search was 122; for the 2020 search, it was 105.  But look at the first ten hits in each search!

Crow and Weasel by Barry Holstun Lopez
The Legend of Jimmy Spoon by Kristiana Gregory
Brother Moose by Betty Levin
Sing for a Gentle Rain by J. Alison James
Ghost Cave by Barbara A. Steiner
Salcott, the Indian Boy by Melinda Eldridge
Big Thunder Magic by Craig Strete
The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter
Nessa's Fish by Nancy Luenn
Little Firefly: An Algonquian Legend by Terri Cohlene

The Only Good Indians: A Novel by Stephen Graham Jones
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom
The Brave by James Bird
The Barren Grounds by David Robertson
Call Me Floy by Joanna Cooke
The Train by Jodie Callaghan
The Range Eternal by Louise Erdrich
Swift Fox All Along by Rebecca Thomas
Molly of Denali: Berry Itchy Day by WGBH Educational Foundation
The Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill

I don't think a single one of the books in 1990 are by a Native writer. In 2020, most of them are by Native writers (Kirkpatrick Hill is not Native)! Some are by major publishers; some aren't. Some are by well-known writers, and some are not. I'm not doing any analysis beyond those observations (I don't recommend, for example, The Brave), and I'm not going to look at the other hundred books in each search. (Note: I don't know why The Only Good Indians is on the juvenile list. That novel is not meant for children or teens.)

I'm just noting what a difference thirty years of hard work makes! If you are one of the people who pushed back on stereotypes and what we call, today, the whiteness of children's literature--either in daily work with your colleagues or in your writing--thank you! If you asked for books by Native writers, thank you!

It can be difficult to push back, but I think this brief comparison tells us a lot. It makes a difference. 

*Oops! The first draft of this post had "twenty" in the title. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021


We Are A Garden: A Story of How Diversity Took Root in America
Written by Lisa Westberg Peters
Illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov
Published in 2021
Publisher: Schwartz and Wade (an imprint of Random House)
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Not Recommended

To understand this critique of We Are A Garden: A Story of How Diversity Took Root in America you must begin with, and hold fast to, the fact that Native peoples were nations of peoples before the U.S. was a nation. Our status as nations is why Europeans and (later) leaders of the U.S. made treaties with leaders of Native Nations. If Native Nations were not seen as nations with leaders who could enter into diplomatic negotiations, treaties with us would not exist. But they do exist and they do matter, today.  We are sovereign nations. None of that is in We Are A Garden. 

Published in 2021 by Schwartz & Wade Books -- an imprint of Random House -- the cover of We Are A Garden shows a diverse group of people. In the foreground, you can see them clearly. As your eyes move to the background, they become specks that I take to be seeds for this "garden" being depicted by the author, Lisa Westberg Peters and illustrator, Victoria Tentler-Krylov. 

Generally speaking, most people view a garden as a good thing. I do. 

The author and illustrator of this book use "garden" as a metaphor for the growth of what people know as the United States, but I view their use of it in a different way: With this book, Peters and Tentler-Krylov encourage the growth of a feel-good story that hides the truths of the United States and its history. 

The back cover says: 
The wind blows in newcomers from all directions. "They" become "we," and we become a garden.
Gosh. The wind did all that? Come on! Was it the wind that invaded and stole Native homelands? No. Was it the wind that captured and enslaved Africans? No! 

Look at the subtitle: "A Story of how Diversity Took Root in America." It suggests that there was a place called America and that this book will tell you how it became diverse. Seems ok, but it isn't. Before "America" was known by that name, it was known by other names by the people who were there before those who called it "America."  

This is, unfortunately, a problem I see a lot. There are children's books with "First Americans" in their title/subtitle. As my red X on this book indicates, that is not ok! Native peoples had names for our respective nations (yes, we were nations before the U.S. was a nation) that pre-date "the United States of America." That fact should be common knowledge. Calling individuals "American" is also a problem. President Obama did that in Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters when he called Sitting Bull one of thirteen "groundbreaking Americans." 

In the last pages of We Are A Garden, you'll find a short glossary and two pages of information that correspond to the pages inside the book. This sort of information is often called "back matter" or "paratext." Here's a screen cap of how they appear:

These notes are on pages 38 and 39. The first note is titled "A Note About This Story." It says in part: 
All Americans are migrants, the descendants of recent migrants, or the descendants of ancient migrants.
That note does the same thing as the subtitle. By saying "All Americans," it ignores the facts that Native peoples used distinct names for themselves and their homelands. It erases who we were, and who we are. It misrepresents history. It miseducates children. Let's go back to the "story" we're told.

When we open the book, the words we read on the first double-page spread of the book are (p. 4-5):
Long ago a strong wind blew. It blew people, like seeds, to a new land.
On the next double-paged spread, we read (p. 6-7):
It blew in a girl and her clan when glaciers still covered the north and herds of mammoths still wandered the frozen tundra. They walked across a wide plain and became the first people to live on the sprawling continent.
In the back matter, the informational note for pages 4-5, and 6-7 is titled "The First People." In that note, we read that (p. 38):
Scientists are still investigating the details of when, how, and why we first came to the Americas.
That first sentence of the note does two things. First, it tells us that what the author wrote on pages 4, 5, 6, and 7 is not fact. If you are a teacher or parent, how will you use that information when you read the book aloud to children? Will you use that note, at all? Or will you try to tell kids that the information on pages 4-7 is not accurate? Quite the mess, isn't it? And second, the use of "we" makes us all the same. It erases the status of Native Nations.

That "First People" note ends with (p. 38):
Many American Indians today accept this migration story, but others do not because it conflicts with their traditional origin stories.
Some of us object to that migration story because it undermines are status as nations! Why is that fact not included in the note? 

The note for page 8 and 9 is titled "Arctic People" and refers to Inupiat, Yup'ik, Cup'ik, and Inuit but in on page 8 and 9, we don't see any of those names. Instead, we see "a boy and his family" and "they."

The note for page 10-11 and 12-13 is titled "Apache and Navajo Ancestors" but those words are not on those pages. Instead, we read "the first people" and "they" and "the people" and we see a southwest landscape with a man, woman, and small child standing together.  

The note for pages 14 and 15 is titled "Spanish" and focuses on "Acoma people" who were attacked and killed by Juan de Onate's soldiers when they would not share their food with the soldiers. On page 14 and 15 we read that the wind "blew in a string of wagons carrying colonists" who settled on a high desert plateau, whose leader soon "slaughtered the tribe that was living there." To me, "slaughtered the tribe" sound like every single person of that tribal nation was killed. They weren't. Onate ordered that the right foot of every surviving man be amputated as punishment, but the people of Acoma were--and are--strong. They weren't wiped out. They are a thriving people, today, whose leadership continues to fight for its people. A recent example is their successful campaign to reclaim a sacred shield taken from them years ago.  

On page 16 and 17 of Peters and Tentler-Krylov's picture book, we read about a sailing ship of boys and men seeking gold and silver. When those boys and men had trouble growing their own food, they took food supplies from the villages. The note in the back matter tells us that the page is about the British and the Powhatan people--but "Powhatan" isn't on page 16 or 17. That's another erasure of Native sovereignty.

At that point, we've read about one-third of the way through a book that tells readers that Native peoples are immigrants. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes:
Misrepresenting the process of European colonization of North America, making everyone an immigrant, serves to preserve the "official story" of a mostly benign and benevolent USA, and to mask the fact that the pre-US Independence settlers were settlers, colonial settlers, just as they were in Africa and India, or the Spanish in Central and South America. 
That passage is from an article she wrote in 2006, for Counterpunch. It could have been about We Are A Garden!   

On page 18 and 19, we read that the wind "blew in slave ship after slave ship full of men, women, and children." And, that "Traders had forced them from their homes" to work in plantation fields for people who did not treat them like humans. Here's how that page looks:

Does that illustration match with your understanding of those ships? Shall I go on, talking about misrepresentations of people? Of history? Of facts?! I'm at the halfway point in the book. Obviously I do not recommend it. Who was the editor that worked with the author and illustrator? Who was the acquisitions editor that bought it for this imprint? Who was the art director that worked with the illustrator on the art that would be developed for each page?! 

I've been fussing with this review for weeks. (If there are typos or unclear statements, let me know!) Rather than fuss any longer, I'm sharing what I've written and hope that you'll speak up about problems you see in the book, or that you'll share what I've noted. I have no doubt that a certain segment of US citizenry will like this book, a lot. It suits their view of the United States--but it misrepresents so much. It miseducates youth--and miseducation is not acceptable. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Milestones: Indigenous Peoples and Children's Literature

Indigenous Milestones in Children's Literature
Compiled by Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh) and Jean Mendoza (White)
American Indians in Children's Literature

In Milestones for Diversity in Children's Literature and Library Services (published in the fall 2015 issue of Children and Libraries) Kathleen T. Horning lays out significant developments in children's literature. In the article she makes the point that progress "is often measured by firsts--the first Newbery Medal given to an author of color" and so on. 

Debbie Reese (tribally enrolled, Nambé Owingeh) launched American Indians in Children's Literature in 2006 with the intent of sharing what she learned as she researched, analyzed, and wrote about representations of Indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books. In some places she has written about key moments that mark progress, but she has not gathered them together in a list of milestones--until now. 

With this post on July 21, 2021, American Indians in Children's Literature begins our effort to bring forth a list of milestones. It includes general milestones (like when the Newbery Medal was established) but its focus is on milestones of achievement--for Native peoples in children's literature. Its focus is on Indigenous Peoples of the Tribal Nations in what is currently known as the United States. Please submit comments about items that can be added, and corrections that need doing! Anything--by anyone--that attempts to list milestones is a work-in-progress. We find new things, and those milestones shift! What we share below is accurate to the best of our knowledge. When we learn that a milestone we've listed is not "a first" as we describe, we will make a correction. [Note: this post will be copy/pasted into a Page that you can see in the menu bar beneath AICL's logo. When updates are done, they will be made there rather than here.]



"Nedawi"--a short story written by Susette LaFlesche (Omaha) is published in the children's magazine, St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks. For the author's name, the magazine used "Bright Eyes" -- an English translation of her Omaha name. It is the first Native-authored story to be published in that magazine.


The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School by Francis LaFlesche (Omaha) is published by Small, Maynard & Company. The cover illustration was by Angel De Cora (Hōcąk Nīšoc Haci [commonly known as Ho-Chunk]). The original printing of the book is available online through Google Books. the book is an account of the author's life as a student in a Presbyterian mission school in Nebraska. On page 93, Robert is asked to read aloud from their reading lesson for the day. He reads "Come, come, come, the Summer now is here." That poem appears on page 17 of My Little Hymn Book published in 1850. For more on boarding schools run by the churches or the US government where the goal was to "kill the Indian, save the man" and to "civilize and Christianize" Native people, see AICL's list of recommended materials (children/YA books/college-level texts, websites, videos) on boarding and residential schools. The Middle Five was used at the Day School at Santa Clara Pueblo (day schools were part of the US government's boarding school system), in 1904. 


Indian Boyhood by Charles Alexander Eastman (Dakota) is published by McClure, Philips & Co. Illustrated by E. L. Blumenschein (not Native). It is based on stories Eastman published in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks in 1893.  Indian Boyhood was used at the Day School at Santa Clara Pueblo (day schools were part of the US government's boarding school system), in 1904. 


The Newbery Medal is established by the American Library Association, with the intent of encouraging distinguished writing for children. 


TayTay's Tales, illustrated by Fred Kabotie (Hopi) and Otis Polelonema (Hopi) is published by Harcourt, Brace and Company. Written by Elizabeth Willis DeHuff (not Native), it is advertised in Volume 130 of The Atlantic Monthly. Kabotie became known around the world for his art. In the preface, DeHuff writes that "Taytay" means "grandfather." It is, in Debbie's view, a phonetic spelling for the Tewa word for grandfather and is the word she used when speaking to her Hopi grandfather. Some of the stories in the book are from the pueblos that speak Tewa; some are not. Also in the preface, DeHuff calls the stories "folktales" but we disagree with that label, when applied to origin or creation stories told by Native peoples. We have not analyzed the stories for authenticity. 


Feast Day in Nambe is published by the Office of Indian Affairs, Department of Interior, with illustrations by students who attended Santa Fe Indian School, including Emilio Sanchez, Ben Quintana, Paul Lucardio, and Seferino Pino. It is the first in a series of primers for use with Native children. The Report of the Department of the Interior for 1936 states the primers were printed as student projects by the Haskell Institute and Chilocco printing department, that the selections were written by Native children (and were edited "only slightly"). 

School Days in San Juan is published by the Office of Indian Affairs, Department of Interior, with illustrations by students who attended Santa Fe Indian School: Jose Dolores Pecos, Tom Jay, Lorenzo Garcia, Margaret Naranjo, Clarence Gutierrez, Joe Aguilar, Marie Trujillo, Tomacita Vigil, and Ben Quintana. It is the fourth booklet in the primer series published at Haskell Institute. It includes writings by children at San Juan Pueblo (currently known as Ohkay Owingeh). 


Third Grade Home Geography is published by Tesuque Printers. Five children at Tesuque Pueblo's day school were the Tesuque Printers. Their teacher was Ann Nolan Clark. They made seven copies of the book in their classroom. The entries in Third Home Geography were written by Clark, based on the children's writings about their homes. Over the next years, Clark went on to do similar books for children at other U.S. boarding schools. Some of the books were also available in a tribal language. One example is Singing Sioux Cowboy / Lak'ota pte'ole hoksila lowansa, published in 1945. Written by Clark, it was translated by Emil Afraid-of-Hawk and illustrated by Andrew Standing Soldier. 


The Caldecott Medal is established by the American Library Association, to recognize the most distinguished American picture book. 


I Am A Pueblo Indian Girl a picture book written by E-Yeh-Shure (English name: Louise Abeita) of Isleta Pueblo was published by William Morrow and Company (founded in 1926 and now an imprint of HarperCollins). Illustration's were done by Allan C. Houser (Chiricahua Apache). E-Yeh-Shure was thirteen at the time of the book's publication. 



Velino Herrera of Zia Pueblo, wins a Caldecott Honor for illustrations in In My Mother's House. It was first published as part of a series of readers for Native children. In that series, its title was Third Grade Home Geography (for more details see the entry for 1936). 


Runner in the Sun: A Story of Indian Maize, written by D'Arcy McNickle (Flathead), illustrated by Allan C. Houser (Apache), is published by John C. Winston Company. It was listed in Anna Lee Stensland's Literature by and about the American Indian: An Annotated Bibliography for Junior and Senior High School Students, published in 1973 by the National Council of Teachers of English and we include it here as the first middle grade book published by a Native writer.


Summer Water and Shirley by Durango Mendoza, Muscogee, takes the Mahan Short Fiction Award at University of Missouri, Columbia. It is the first work by a Native writer to win this award. Mendoza's story has appeared in anthologies used with high school students.


Jimmy Yellow Hawk, written by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Rosebud Sioux) and illustrated by Oren Lyons (Seneca) is published by Holiday House. Sneve's publication was the outcome of advocacy by the Council on Interracial Books for Children, founded in 1965 to promote literature that better reflected society. In 1969, the Council on Interracial Books for Children sponsored its first writing contest, designed to locate and encourage previously unpublished African American, Asian American, and Native American writers. Sneve was among the people CIBC selected. 


Simon Ortiz (Acoma) and Sharol Graves's (Absentee Shawnee) epic history, The People Shall Continue, is published by Children's Book Press. It is the first use of the word "Nation" in a book for children. A 40th Anniversary edition was published by Lee and Low in 2017.


Acoma Partners in Basics, a writing workshop funded by VISTA (a federally funded program created in 1964, called Volunteers in Service to America) to develop materials for instructional use in tribal communities like Acoma Pueblo, publishes two booklets for children of Acoma: Simon Ortiz's Little Blue and Little Red (illustrated by Hilda Aragon) in 1981 and in 1982, The Importance of Childhood.  Unlike the primers written by Ann Nolan Clark in the 1930s, these books are written by a tribal member.  


Homer Little Bird's Rabbit by Limana Kachel is published by the Montana Council for Indian Education. Illustrated by Northern Cheyenne children from Lame Deer School, and from Labre Indian School, it is the first children's picture book about boarding school. 


W. W. Norton & Co. publishes New Worlds of Literature  (Jerome Beaty and J. Paul Hunter, eds.) its first intentionally "multicultural" anthology of US literature. The Norton anthologies were/are widely used in literature survey courses, as they both reflected and (to an extent) determined the canon encountered by freshman and sophomore university students. New Worlds features work by several Native-identified writers, including Lance Henson (Cheyenne), Carter Revard (Osage), Louise Erdrich (Ojibway), Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma), Linda Hogan (Chickasaw), Wendy Rose (Hopi/Miwok), Paula Gunn Allen (Sioux-Laguna), Peter Blue Cloud (Mohawk), Ray A. Young Bear (Meskwaki), Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo), Nora Dauenhauer (Tlingit), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Durango Mendoza (Muscogee).

The Birchbark House written and illustrated by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain) is a finalist for the National Book Award. Set in 1847 on Lake Superior, it is followed by several books that chronicle the story of an Ojibwe family through decades of life as they grow older and adjust to Europeans who come onto their homelands. They are The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, Chickadee, and Makoons.


Our Journey written by Lyz Jaakola (Ojibwe) and illustrated by Karen Savage-Blue (Ojibwe) is the first board book written and illustrated by Native people. A bilingual book, it is published by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.


The American Indian Library Association presents its first biennial American Indian Youth Literature Awards (AIYLA) at the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color. The awards honors the very best writing and illustration by Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples of North America in three categories. The inaugural award winning books are Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story in the Best Picture Book category; Birchbark House in the Best Middle Grade Book category, and Hidden Roots in theBest Young Adult Book category. 


Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns by Richard Van Camp (Dogrib) is gifted to every baby born in British Columbia that year. It is the first mass distribution of a book by a Native writer. 

Super Indian by Argon Starr (Kickapoo) is published. It is the first comic to be written and illustrated by a Native woman.

The American Indian Library Association's Executive Board and its Youth Literature Award Committee rescinds the youth literature award it bestowed on Sherman Alexie in 2008 for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian due to allegations of sexual misconduct. It is the first time a children's literature award has been rescinded. Their statement reads, in part, 
"The books we select represent the very best for our kids and our communities. We believe that writers are members of our communities who we can look to as role models for our youth.  We cannot, therefore, recommend Mr. Alexie's books, and we have decided to rescind our 2008 Best YA Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In rescinding this award, we hope to send an unequivocal message that Alexie's actions are unacceptable."


Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek) appointed to be U.S. Poet Laureate. She is the first Native poet appointed to that honor, and was appointed again in 2020 and in 2021. 


Debbie Reese (Nambé Owingeh) is selected to deliver the 2019 Arbuthnot Honor Lecture by the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. 


HarperCollins launches Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint. It is led by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek) and Rosemary Brosnan (white). Its logo is designed by Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson (Inupiaq).


Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story written by Kevin Maillard (Seminole) is the first book by a Native writer to win the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal. 


Marcie Rendon, citizen of the White Earth Nation, is the first Native writer to win the McKnight Distinguished Artist award. 


When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry edited by Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek), is the first Norton anthology edited by a Native writer, and that contains only Native poets. 


We Are Water Protectors illustrated by Michaela Goade (Tlingit) is the first book by a not-white woman to win the Caldecott Medal. Authored by Carole Lindstrom (Turtle Mountain) We Are Water Protectors is published by Roaring Book Press. Goade's acceptance speech is published in Horn Book on June 28, 2021 and is viewable at the ALA YouTube channel: 2021 Newbery-Caldecott-Legacy Virtual Banquet


Apple (Skin to the Core) by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga) is the first Native author to win a Michael L. Printz Honor. The Printz awards exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature. It was established in 2000. 


Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-To-Be Best Friend written by Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) and illustrated by Tara Audibert is the first chapter book series for early readers. 


Sharice's Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman, written by Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) and Nancy K. Mays (non-Native) and illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley (Ojibwe) is the first picture book about one of the first Native women elected to the U.S. Congress.


The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature is the first publication of an anthology of all-Navajo literature.  


Healer of the Water Monster, written by Brian Young (Navajo) and illustrated by Shonto Begay (Navajo) is the first book for middle grade readers, written and illustrated by two people of the Navajo Nation. It is published by HarperCollins.


Sisters of the Neversea, written by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee) and illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Muscogee), and published under the Heartdrum imprint of Harper Collins, is the first book written and illustrated by two people of the Muscogee Nation.


Josie Dances, written by Denise Lajimodiere (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe) and illustrated by Angela Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe) is the first book written and illustrated by two people of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe Nation. 


The first young adult hardcover to debut at the #1 spot on the New York Times best-selling books list is Angeline Boulley's (Ojibwe) Firekeeper's Daughter

Saturday, July 10, 2021


Healer of the Water Monster
Written by Brian Young (Navajo)
Illustrated by Shonto Begay (Navajo)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Heartdrum (HarperCollins)
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended


I am delighted to recommend Brian Young's Healer of the Water Monster. Below, I will share some of the reasons why I think you should have this book on your school library shelf, and in your classroom library, and in your home library. If there's a Little Free Library in your neighborhood, get one for it, too! And if you're on a road trip, get a copy of the audio version. It is terrific! To start, let's look at the book description:

When Nathan goes to visit his grandma, Nali, at her mobile summer home on the Navajo reservation, he knows he’s in for a pretty uneventful summer, with no electricity or cell service. Still, he loves spending time with Nali and with his uncle Jet, though it’s clear when Jet arrives that he brings his problems with him.

One night, while lost in the nearby desert, Nathan finds someone extraordinary: a Holy Being from the Navajo Creation Story—a Water Monster—in need of help.

Now Nathan must summon all his courage to save his new friend. With the help of other Navajo Holy Beings, Nathan is determined to save the Water Monster, and to support Uncle Jet in healing from his own pain.

Now, here are some of the reasons I highly recommend Healer of the Water Monster:


Brian Young is Diné (Navajo). Whether you're an adult or child--but especially if you are a teacher--I suggest you begin with the Author's Note that starts on page 352. People who have attended my workshops or lectures know that I am deeply committed to Native writers. When teachers use their books in the classroom, they can say something like "We're going to start reading Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young. Brian is Diné." That last sentence in my scenario is what I want you to look closely at! Specifically, think about the word "is" in "Brian is Diné." A three-word sentence, with a powerful two-letter word. Those two letters push against the thousands of times students have heard past tense references to Native people. It tells students that we are still here. 

A teacher could then pull up the website for the Navajo Nation and say "Here is the website for the Navajo Nation." Of course, that's another use of present tense verbs but it also tells students that we use technology--that our nations have websites! I smiled as I read the early passages of Healer of the Water Monster when Nathan is trying to use his cell phone at his grandmother's home. 

When we do workshops with teachers, we ask teachers to become familiar with present-day life of the tribal nation in a given book. With his Author's Note, you learn that the Navajo people and their homelands have been exploited by the uranium industry, and that the mine in Healer of the Water Monster is an actual mine. The area of that mine remains radioactive, today. Brian's note also talks about coal mining and its devastation to Navajo homelands. 

Another dimension of Native life that Brian addresses is exploitation and misuse of Native stories. Some stories, he writes, are told during specific times. There are some beings within his own nation's spirituality that "cannot be replicated in drawings, writings, or films. Merely saying the names of certain Holy Beings outside of their ceremonial circumstance could diminish their healing abilities." He has more to say about that. It is a tremendous opportunity for teachers to think about respect of spiritualities different from their own. He knows of what he writes! That is what a tribally-specific voice can do that another one cannot. 

Indigenous Language

In spite of efforts to destroy who we are, our Native languages have persisted. There are revitalization efforts, everywhere, with elders leading the way in teaching our languages to our tribal members. When you read this book, you'll see Nathan's grandmother is teaching him their language. In real life and in this book, language revitalization is so exciting! In Healer of the Water Monster, this is what you'll see at the top of chapter one:

I love seeing Young using his language in that way! His book has thirty-three chapters. Each one opens with the Diné word on top and the English one beneath it. As you read through the book you'll see many Navajo words. Notice: none of them are in italics! Recently, the use of italics for non-English words is decreasing. That's a plus for all of us (to understand why this is an important shift in publishing, make time to watch Daniel Jose Older's video, Why We Don't Use Italics).

In the author's note for Healer of the Water Monster there's an excellent note about Young's thought process regarding a glossary of the words he uses in the book. It prompts readers everywhere to think about seemingly innocuous things, like glossaries. 

Young's use of Diné for chapter headings is terrific! I can see Diné language teachers--especially ones who have Navajo children in their classrooms--using this book to demonstrate that their language matters, and then of course, assigning the book to their students because the story itself is so good! 

The story

Calling Young's story "soooo good", Dr. Jennifer Denetdale (she's Navajo, too, and a professor at the University of New Mexico) went on to say:
It dawns on me that a marker of Indigenous fiction is how a writer centers the Indigenous/Diné world where the non-Indian worlds are peripheral and only appear at the edges, though the characters must grapple with what colonialism brings. 
She also said:
This book celebrates a Diné sensibility of a world radiant with living beings that most of us are not aware.
I often say that reviews by someone who is of the same tribal nation a book is about are the ones that matter, most of all. They know their tribal nation and its culture and history in ways that others won't know it. Dr. Denetdale's comment was on June 6, 2021 on her Facebook page (I am sharing it with her permission).  

I'll be thinking about what she said the next time I read Healer of the Water Monster. In what ways is the non-Indian world peripheral to the story Young has created? I definitely felt the radiance of a world that has living beings that some are not aware of... and I liked that radiance, very much! 

There are small passages that sparkle, too. I noticed, for example, the exchange between Nathan and a water monster who asked Nathan to tell her about her river (p. 308):
"River?" Nathan was confused. There were so many rivers. 
"You might know it by the name the pale people forced upon it. The San Juan River," the water monster said. "But its original name, my name, is Yitoo Bi'aanii."
Across the country, Native peoples have their own names for rivers and mountains and, well, the land. In that relatively small way, Brian Young reminds us that we are the original peoples of these lands. To some readers, this may pass unnoticed, but to others, they'll feel an immense pride as they read passages like that one.

Closing Thoughts

I'm pleased that Healer of the Water Monster received starred reviews from mainstream review journals! Those stars mean librarians will purchase the books for their libraries. When you book talk it, consider drawing attention to the cover art. I am currently researching and writing a "Milestones" post that notes the first this-or-that in books by Native writers. I think this is the first book for middle grade readers that is written by a Navajo writer and illustrated by a Navajo artist. That artist is Shonto Begay. If you don't already do so, follow him on Facebook. There, he shares art from time to time. I am especially blown away by his Etch a Sketch art. 

Like I said earlier, I highly recommend Brian Young's book. Ask for it at your local library and bookstore. Visibility is of utmost importance, and books like this one deserve warm spotlights, everywhere. 

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Indians, Eskimos, and guns in DANNY AND THE DINOSAUR

The original edition of Danny and the Dinosaur, written and illustrated by Syd Hoff came out in 1958 as an "I Can Read" book. It was published by Harper & Brothers:

Some years later, it was reprinted with brighter colors:

In the story, Danny visits a museum. When he goes into the museum, he sees "Indians" and "Eskimos." Hoff's book was edited by Ursula Nordstrom. When he submitted the manuscript to her, she thought his line about Danny wanting to "see how the world looked a long, long time ago" was unchildlike. She suggested he be specific and use "He saw Indians." (For more on this, see Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom edited by Leonard Marcus). He took her advice. People have objected to those stereotypes for years. We've written about them here on AICL. 

In 2017, the publisher celebrated the 50th anniversary of the book. On their website they had this worksheet. I put the arrow on it, shared my image on Twitter, and asked the publisher (HarperChildrens) to think critically about what Item E. invited non-Native kids to think about, with regard to Native peoples:

By the end of the work day, HarperChildrens responded, saying "We appreciate your valuable feedback and sincerely apologize that this activity was offensive. It has been removed from the site." (Screen shot below):

I asked if the image would also be removed from the book, but they did not reply. 

A few months ago, a Native parent told me that she and her daughter were reading Danny and the Dinosaur. She said that the page with stereotypical images of "Indians" and "Eskimos" had been edited. The stereotypes were gone.

Then, last month at the 2021 Children's Literature Association Annual Conference (online), I saw the edited image. Dr. Ramona Caponegro's presentation was about the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection archives at the University of Southern Mississippi. I've been there and have seen the Syd Hoff collection. Her presentation included information about Danny and the Dinosaur. I learned that the edited copy is part of a 5-book collection of stories about Danny, published in 2017. That was the 50th anniversary of the book. Edits were done to two pages that face each other in the book. 

First is the original (image is from a YouTube read-aloud of the book):

And here's the edited 2017 version from the 5-book collection (image sent to me by Dr. Caponegro):

The stereotypical Indian and Eskimo and the sentences "He saw Indians." and "He saw Eskimos." are gone. In the edited version we see a new bear. On the facing page, the guns and the sentence "He saw guns." are gone. These changes were not made to the hard cover that you can buy, today. 

Why were the changes made to one edition and not the other? 

A primary factor in edits is cost to the publishing house. When edits can be confined to a single page, they are more likely to be done because when edits cause a shift such that words move to a subsequent page, that may mean changes to every subsequent page--and that means more cost to the publishing house. I'm going to speculate that there's a different printer for the 5-book paperback collection than there is for the single hardcover, and that hopefully we'll see a change to the hardcover, too, but will we? Five years have passed since the edits were done. Why have the edits not been made to the hardcover?

And I wonder what prompted the edits in the first place? I'm speculating again that the publisher may have been hearing from parents who had concerns about the guns on page 7. So, perhaps a decision was made to remove them and, at the same time, remove the stereotypical Indian/Eskimo. No statements were made explaining any of this. 

Dr. Caponegro's research into the changes is on-going. Like Caponegro, I have many questions! When either of us has more to report, I'll be back!