Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Debbie--have you seen THE ENCHANTED PEOPLE by Jennifer Pool

I'm trying to catch up! I admit--it will never happen but I can try! One of the things I enjoy are the emails from people who ask me if I've seen this or that book. 

I could do a string of "Debbie--have you seen" posts... but I'll do this one, for now.

A reader wrote to ask if I've seen The Enchanted People by Jennifer Pool. The author's name is unfamiliar to me. Published in 2021 by Guernica, it is proving to be a bit of a puzzle. When I looked up the title, I easily found it on Amazon. There, the description said this:
The Enchanted People is a humanitarian fairytale about a young girl named Wawatay who lives away from her village as an outcast because she is different. All the people in her village have an enchanted power except for her, and so, she is not accepted by them. While living in solitude, Wawatay finds an injured baby sparrow and begins to care for her despite ridicule and discouragement from her people. When Baby Bird grows up and asks Wawatay to teach her to fly, Wawatay embarks on a journey across the Earth to seek help from her animal friends and learn the secret to flying. Along the way, Wawatay discovers a secret about herself ― she has an enchanted power after all. She must decide if she will use it to help save her animal friends and plead with her people to change their habits ― which are destroying Mother Earth ― or if she will continue to stay away in fear. Readers may also discover a secret from this book: just like the first Enchanted People to walk the earth, each of us is born with unique gifts. Are you using your powers for good?

The main character's name is "Wawatay" which sounds like it might be a Native name. I scrolled down on the page and saw a "From the Back Cover" paragraph that says this:
Wind Among Grasses is an indigenous folktale about a Cherokee girl named Wind, who lives as an outcast because she is different; all the people in her village have a great power except for her. While living in solitude, Wind finds an injured baby sparrow and begins to care for it despite ridicule and discouragement from her people. When Baby Bird grows up and asks Wind to teach her to fly, Wind embarks on a journey around the world to consult with animal friends about the secret to flying. Along the way, Wind discovers a secret about herself: she has a special power after all. She must decide if she can use it to help her people who are endangering her animal friends and destroying mother earth. Readers may also discover their own secret in this book: everyone has a unique power that can be used to help the earth. Are you using your powers for good?
Interesting, isn't it?
  • The Enchanted People is "a humanitarian folktale."
  • Wind Among Grasses is "an indigenous folktale about a Cherokee girl"
  • In The Enchanted People, the character's name is Wawatay. 
  • In Wind Among Grasses, her name is Wind.
The rest is pretty much the same. 

I also found the book in Google Books but the book cover is for Wind Among Grasses instead of The Enchanted People. 

So--we've got an odd set of information to puzzle through! I poked around online and think that Wawatay might be an Anishinaabe word that means Northern Lights. So... is it an Anishinaabe word? Is this an Anishinaabe story? Or is it a Cherokee one?! Did the publisher goof in releasing info about Wind Among Grasses on the back cover? Did the author write the two descriptions above, for two different books? Or is The Enchanted People a revised version of Wind Among Grasses?

My local library doesn't have The Enchanted People. As far as I can tell, the author isn't Native, so I'm not going to purchase a copy of the book. The references to enchanted, and powers, and gifts... it all makes me wary. The story feels a bit fanciful in the ways that white writers are when they write stories like this. But I'll keep an eye out for it. Have you read it? What did you think? 


Thursday, May 12, 2022

Not Recommended: BAREFOOT BOY by Gloria D. Miklowitz and Jim Collins

Barefoot Boy by Gloria D. Miklowitz, illustrated by Jim Collins, came out in Follett's "Beginning to Read" series in 1964. A reader sent it to me some time back. Here's the book description:

Paul Steven did not like to wear shoes. He lost a pair of white shoes and a pair of brown shoes. He also lost his sneakers. The barefoot boy found that pebbles hurt, bees sting, thorns bite, and glass cuts. On his 7th birthday, he received a cowboy suit, a cowboy hat, a toy gun.....and a pair of high, shiny COWBOY BOOTS. The boy loved his boots and a cowboy never takes off his boots!

On page 12, we read that Paul Steven stopped wearing shoes because "Paul Steven became an Indian." He tells his mother that he "never heard of an Indian wearing shoes."

With each page turn we see one stereotype after another:

His father tells him that "In winter even wild Indians wear moccasins. Where are your moccasins, Paul Steven?"  

Paul Steven has some, so he wears them for a while but then, as the description above notes, he gets a cowboy suit and cowboy boots for his birthday. Now, he's a cowboy who wears his boots, all the time. 

Quite the story, isn't it? 

I did this short post on it because readers with this kind of stereotyping are not published like they used to be--but the kinds of images in them still circulate in how people think about Native peoples. People have a lot of nostalgia for these kinds of books. This book came out when I was in elementary school. It may have been on the shelves in my school but I don't remember it. Do you? 

Saturday, May 07, 2022

"Our Children Are Native Every Day" - In Spring 2022 issue of Learning for Justice Magazine

Earlier this year, I was asked a series of questions about book bannings, for an issue of Learning for Justice. The interview is out now, in the Spring 2022 issue. It includes this image of me. I had no idea they were doing that, but I do like Zé Otavio's illustration very much! 

The entire issue is available to download.  

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Highly Recommended: DEB HAALAND: FIRST NATIVE AMERICAN CABINET SECRETARY, by Jill Doerfler and Matthew J. Martinez

Deb Haaland: First Native American Cabinet Secretary
Written by Jill Doerfler and Matthew J. Martinez
Published by Lerner
Published in 2022 (due out in August)
Reviewed by Debbie Reese


In children's literature, we talk about the importance of representation. Seeing someone who looks like you is powerfully affirming. In 2016, I experienced that affirmation. Deb Haaland was at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.  I shared my joy on Twitter:

And in 2018 when she and Sharice Davids won seats to be in the US Congress, I hoped that we'd see children's books about them. Davids did a biographical picture book last year, which I highly recommend. Now, we've got one about Haaland, and I am happy to say that I highly recommend it! 

The biography of Haaland is written by Dr. Jill Doerfler (White Earth Anishinaabe) and Dr. Matthew J. Martinez (Ohkay Owingeh). It opens on March 18, 2021 with Haaland entering the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC to be sworn in as the 45th US Secretary of the Interior. There's a photo of that moment. And there's description of what she was wearing (a ribbon skirt) and why. There's information about who made the skirt--Agnes Woodward, who is Plains Cree from the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. Doerfler and Martinez take care to tell us about the symbolism of that skirt. 

I've read those first pages several times, imagining Native children in the US and Canada reading them. Those pages carry a symbolism of their own: they are a strong, and deep, and loving embrace of Nativeness.  

On page 11 (I'm reading an ARC from NetGalley; page numbers may change), we're taken to Haaland's early years. That section opens with "Guwaadzi hauba" (greetings), and information about Keres (the language spoken at Laguna Pueblo, where Haaland is an enrolled citizen). 

On that page, we see an inset block of information titled "Sovereign Nations" that explains what they are: 

There are several throughout the book, each one supporting information shared in the narrative. On page 20 I see "Native American Voting Rights." I'm calling attention to these because teachers can use the book as a biography about Haaland, but another use of them is those inset blocks! They function as a text all on their own that is akin to an American Indian Studies 101 course at a university. Indeed, the biographers, Jill Doerfler and Matthew Martinez, have PhDs and both have taught at colleges and universities. I don't see any information about them in my digital ARC, but it ought to be included! Doerfler is a professor and department head of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, and Martinez is Deputy Director of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Overall, I am pleased with all that I see in this book! 

Teachers can use this book with students but they can also use this book themselves to create or revise lesson plans. If/when they come across the word "squaw" they will remember page 31 and the information there about that word, and Haaland's declaration of its derogatory use and that she established a task force to select new names for the hundreds of federal sites that use that word in their name. 

A personal note: I love seeing Nanbé Owingeh on page twelve! And I'm gratified to see An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People (Jean Mendoza and I adapted that book) listed as one of the resources. 

And one more personal note: ku'daa, Matthew and Jill, for writing this book. It is precisely what we all need--no matter who we are, or how old we are. As the first peoples of these lands, our voices and work matter tremendously. 

I highly recommend Deb Haaland: First Native American Cabinet Secretary. Published by Lerner and written by Jill Doerfler and Matthew J. Martinez -- Native scholars -- I urge you to buy copies for your classroom, your library, and the children in your life. 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Thoughts on David A. Robertson's THE GREAT BEAR being removed from libraries

Note from Debbie on April 27: The Durham District School Board in Ontario released a statement today that said they did an accelerated review and returned Robertson's book to library shelves. Unfortunately, they did not elaborate on why it was removed in the first place. 

Thoughts on David A. Robertson's THE GREAT being removed from libraries

Friday, April 22--On April 15, I began to see posts on social media about David A. Robertson's The Great Bear being removed from libraries. Published by Puffin (Penguin Random House Canada) in Sept 2021, it was on my to-be-read list.

Because of the growing conversations about it, I made time to read it this week. I saw the things I look for when I evaluate a book. The author is Native (Cree) and is writing about their own nation (Robertson's characters are Cree). There is Native (Cree) language in the book. Another item I look for is setting. I prefer books set in the present day because they provide educators with many opportunities for helping children know that we (Native peoples) did not disappear. I'll say more about the book in a review later. Based on my read of it, The Great Bear will carry a Highly Recommended tag. 

In my studies and analyses of children's and young adult books, I characterize books like The Great Bear as mirrors for Native kids (mirrors is one part of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's metaphor; I encourage you to read her article). Books described as mirrors are ones where the characters and their experiences are ones that reflect the reader. Historically, Native children have had very few mirrors. The vast majority of children's books in the past have been written by white writers. In recent years we have seen more Native books by Native writers get published but the numbers are still very low. You can see that by looking at this infographic. At the time the infographic was created in 2018, only 23 of the 3,134 books represented had enough content to be categorized as American Indian/First Nations: 

The data makes it clear: we desperately need books by Native writers! If you want to dive into data over a broad range of years, go to the Books by and/or about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (All Years) pages at the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Some brief notes about the book: the main characters in The Great Bear are Morgan, a thirteen-year-old Cree girl who has been in the foster care system since she was two, and Eli, a twelve-year-old Cree boy who recently entered the foster care system. Eli knows his language and culture. He teaches Morgan words and shares stories with her. She feels protective towards him. Their foster parents are not Native but they also aren't foster parents who abuse the children they take into their homes. Books with characters like Morgan and Eli are rare, but there are many Native children in foster care. In short, The Great Bear functions as a good mirror for children like Morgan and Eli, and for children who are Cree, and for children who are Native. 

The social media posts I saw were about the book being removed from libraries in the Durham District Schools in Ontario, Canada. The first article I read was in The Toronto Star on April 14. Major points follow: 
  • The Durham School Board had removed several books that have "content that could be harmful to Indigenous students and families." 
  • Robertson was stunned and confused to learn that the board had removed his book because its contents could be harmful to Indigenous students. 
  • An email to principals in the district instructed schools to remove the books, pending a review.
  • The email said that schools regularly review collections that are "no longer current, or which may contain content that perpetuates harmful narratives, racial slurs and discriminatory biases, assumptions, and stereotypes." Specific information about the contents deemed "harmful" were not provided.
  • Robertson's publisher had attempted to reach the district by emails sent on April 1 and April 6.
Since then I've read several additional articles from news media and I watched the school board meeting that took place on April 19th. 

My analysis of children's books is centered on the child/teen reader. I've been critical of Native writers, before. If a book by a Native writer has problems, I note and share those problems. I went into my reading of The Great Bear with the information from the Toronto Star uppermost in my mind. What out-of-date content would I find? What harmful narrative? Racial slur? Discriminatory bias? Assumptions? Stereotypes? 

When I finished reading it, the only question I had was the use of "Happy Hunting Ground." It is one of those phrases that gets used a lot to refer to a good place after death. It is one of those phrases that I have wanted to research to figure out its origin. Is "Happy Hunting Ground" an English translation for a concept articulated by people who speak Cree? I don't know. When I see a white writer use it, I note it as a problem. But I hesitate to do so in this case. 

Other than that, I think The Great Bear has a lot to offer to Native and non-Native readers!  

And so, I echo Robertson's confusion. I've read several of his books. Though the stories vary, I've not found anything in any of them that caused me to think they would harm a Native child. His books are popular. With them being pulled from libraries in Durham (Canada), what are teachers there and elsewhere thinking? Should they use the books? If they do, are they at risk of hurting Native children? In the U.S. librarians and teachers are choosing to avoid books that feature marginalized characters. This is being referred to as "soft censorship." (See Kelly Jensen's article about it at Book Riot: Soft and Quiet: Self-Censorship in an Era of Book Challenges.) Soft censorship is terrible. It deprives us of so many books by people from communities that have been marginalized. 

On social media, I've seen two comments about The Great Bear that stand out. On April 20, 2022, Nancy Rowe asked why it is so hard to believe that Indigenous students, staff, and families do not 
"enjoy reading about colonialism, residential school, culture, etc. They live it n don't need to be forced to listen, read n experience colonial-violence." 
I don't think anybody enjoys that kind of reading. Her remarks suggest that children were forced to listen to or read The Great Bear. Is that what happened in the Durham schools? Were children forced to listen to it, or forced to read it? What was in the book that hurt them? Did they and/or a parent ask a teacher to stop, and did that teacher dismiss their concerns? 

And, what is being asked for with regard to the contents of a story? In a way it sounds like someone wants books with happy Native content. 

So--let's look at a couple of things that might have been the issue.  

First, Eli wears a braid. He is being bullied about it by kids at school. He cuts it off. Louis, the main character in Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here asks one of his friends to cut his braid for similar reasons. I bring up his book because that is not an uncommon experience for Native boys who wear their hair long or in a braid. They get harassed and decide to cut their hair. In the last few years there have been reports of cases where a Native child's hair is cut without their consent. It is traumatizing, especially with the larger historical context in which the hair of Native children was cut at residential and boarding schools. Children who experienced their own hair being cut without consent, or know that a parent or grandparent went through that experience, might become uncomfortable with a classroom discussion of that part of The Great Bear. If that is the case, then I think the district needs to say so, immediately, so that teachers in other classrooms take care with their discussions of Native hair being cut. Second, Eli says that if he could stop being brown, he'd do that, too. Children with skin like Eli's go through that all the time. It, too, is a common and painful experience. So--these two points (the braid and skin color) are heavy. They may be too heavy for some readers, and there are likely other readers who feel that weight but who also feel seen--who feel a validation of something they went through. 

Elsewhere I saw someone say that The Great Bear and the other books had too much culture. Too much culture?! It strikes me as a throwback to "kill the Indian" policies in residential and boarding schools. Saying a book by a Native writer has "too much culture" is telling that writer they're too Indian. 

The Great Bear is not the only one that has been pulled from shelves in Durham. As far as I can see, titles of other books are not being made public. I imagine that Native writers in the US and Canada are wondering if their book was pulled. I imagine teachers and librarians and scholars who read, shared, and recommended The Great Bear are now second guessing their evaluation. 

Where I end up after several days of reading and thinking is nowhere. The questions I had a week ago are the same ones I have today. What, in the book, caused harm to Native readers? In order to address those concerns, we need to know a page number. We need a passage. We need an explanation for why that passage is a concern. With that information, writers can make edits. Without that information, there is absolutely nothing they can do. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Debbie Reese responds to Kent Nerburn

Dear Kent Nerburn, 

On April 13th, the MinnPost ran an interview that Jim Walsh did with me. In it, Walsh asked me what I find most bothersome about the idea of white writers writing Native stories. You submitted a comment in response to what I said and it seems you were hoping I'd see your comment. I tried to reply but had trouble registering for an account. Rather than fuss with the website, I decided to respond here.

Here's your comment to the interview:

As a non-Native author who writes about experience with Native reality and has done it in a unique way that has gained both respect and traction in Native America, I wonder what Debbie Reese thinks of my work and approach in Neither Wolf nor Dog, The Wolf at Twilight, and The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo? I think I’m an outlier who has found a way to write across cultures, and many Native readers and organizations agree. But I always want to hear other opinions. The books are well-known and used in many curricula, so I’m guessing she knows of them. This forum is an odd way to reach out, but it seems like an opportune way to do so. My apologies if this seems like a self-serving comment; it is not intended to be so. It is a way to expand the dialogue that needs to take place so that people’s voices are heard undistorted, but, at the same time, to explore ways that we can keep from balkanizing ourselves so totally that it becomes illegitimate to reach and speak across cultures.

You don't remember that you and I exchanged a few comments in June of 2021 on your Facebook page (here's a link to that page, for those of you who have FB accounts). 

At the time, you were looking for someone who could get your book about boarding school into Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland's hands. You wrote that you think "America, for the moment, seems to be willing to hear that story." You went on to say:
Native America wants the story of the boarding schools known; Deb Haaland wants the story known; I want the story known. Otherwise, I wouldn't have written the book. We need to seize the moment.
Your request generated a lot of comments from people who like the book. They agreed with you, that Haaland should read your book. I replied to your request for an intermediary with this:
A strong NO to getting his book into anybody's hands. People can learn about boarding schools from Native people. It is long past time that white folks -- however well-intentioned -- stopped speaking for/about us.
You replied to me, saying:
And well it should be. And I agree that Native people should tell their own stories. But I suspect that you have not read my books or delved into who I am, what my background is, what I do, and why I do it. With a more open mind and heart you might well see that there are some ways to be an ally that do not represent either cultural appropriation or cultural exploitation. I can only control my intentions; I cannot control the response of people to my work. I respect your concern, but I think perhaps you are seeing through a generic lens, which is exactly what non-Native people have done to Native peoples over the years. Do not make the same mistakes from the other side that have been made from the Euro-American side. We need to be larger than that.
Prior to that day in June, I had already been reading your work. I knew who you were. I had begun reading your books and had been taking notes on things that stood out to me. I'm going to share those notes at the bottom of this post.

For now, I want to address a couple of things you said to me. 

In June of 2021 on Facebook, you started out by saying that you agree: Native people should be telling our own stories. But most of your comment is not about that. Instead, you said I need to have a more open mind and heart. You say you don't think you are appropriating or exploiting Native culture. You say you respect my concern, but then you equate me--a Native woman advocating for Native writers--with the actions of white people. You say "we need to be larger than that" but what you mean is that I need to be "larger than that." In other words, you don't want me to criticize you and other white writers who create stories about Native people. 

In the April 13 MinnPost comment, you suggest that efforts to prioritize Native writing is a step towards "balkanizing" who gets published. You think a prioritization of Native voices will make it  "illegitimate" to reach and speak across cultures. 

To me that sounds like conversations I've had with many white people who don't like what we say when we speak up about what you are doing. Whether it is a mascot or a book or story, white folks just want us to go away and be quiet so you can go on doing what you're doing. Some do what you did: accuse us of balkanization. 

You respond as if we are oppressing you. You sound like you think white writers are being oppressed. Are you? Consider the facts. How many books by Native people get turned into movies, compared to books by white writers that get turned into movies? In recent years, your book was made into a movie. The one about the Osages and the FBI also got made into a movie. 

Returning to books: I study the data of what gets published. Maybe you don't know about that data. Here's an infographic of books in 2018. Clearly, white writers get far more books published than we do:

If the 25th anniversary edition of your book had been sent to the Cooperative Children's Book Center in 2018 (your anniversary edition came out in 2019), the staff at CCBC would have put it on the list of books by or about American Indians/First Nations. The infographic shows that 23 of the 3,134 books reflected in the data at that moment in 2018 were categorized as being by or about American Indians/First Nations. 

Now, look closely at the feet of the children on the left side of the graphic. See the shards of glass there? That represents books with problematic content. It is a visual signal that we must consider more than just how many books are published. When I reviewed the 23 books, about half of them were by white writers. In their books, I found stereotyping and romanticization and similar sorts of problems. 

In the end, about 12 books by Native writers were published. I won't say that books by Native writers are free of problems but in my thirty years of studying children's books, I can say that their books are far better than those by white writers.

I've read Neither Wolf Nor Dog and I find problems in it. I know--you have said many times that there are Native people who like your books. I believe you. I'm not one of them. In the MinnPost comment, you also said that you want to know what I think of your books. Below is a sample from my notes. At some point, I will write up my analysis of Neither Wolf Nor Dog. For now, I share these notes to demonstrate why I find your book problematic. 

The dedication

The dedication for Neither Wolf Nor Dog is: "For the silent ones." 
My comments: I assume "the silent ones" in your mind are Native peoples. That dedication was one of many things I noted as I read. I think the dedication echoes a stereotypical way of thinking about Native peoples (as silent, without voice), and that it simultaneously signals to readers that you are a good person doing all you can to help us silent ones. Some find it valorous and see you as a good ally to Native people. As a person who studies representations of Native peoples, I see you as another in a long line of white people who are intent on saving us by speaking for us, by telling our stories for us...  I know--there are Native people who do think of you as an ally. I don't.  

Chapter 1: An Old Man's Request

When the chapter opens, we read that you got a phone call from a Native woman whose grandfather wants to talk to you because he saw the Red Road books that you did. You tell us that you had worked with students on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation, collecting memories of their parents and grandparents. Those oral histories became the two Red Road books. You tell us you had a tightness in your chest, hearing the woman's words, because the books had "gained some notoriety."  Some Native people did not like what they read in the books because some of it opened "old wounds" or rekindled "family feuds." Most Native people, you assure us, liked the Red Road books--but those ones who did not--they call you to challenge you.  
My thoughts: Showing us that vulnerability invites readers to share that tightness along with you. The way you characterize Native concerns seems to belittle them, and ultimately, feels dismissive. The way you wrote those opening paragraphs works to get readers to ally with you but I want to know more about that project and what the books had in them. Did you let parents and grandparents see what was going to be in the book, before publication? Seems that if you had done that, you wouldn't have gotten blow back. You aren't listed as the author of those two books but you lift them up in these opening passages. It seems you're exploiting that project. It sets this whole phone call in motion. It is the set up for how this book came into being.

The woman who called did not give you her name. You told her you'd talk to her grandfather and you thought she'd put him on the phone but, it turns out, he doesn't like to talk on the phone. You tell us you know that some "very traditional elders" don't like to use the telephone, or, "have their picture taken." 
My thoughts: Your remarks about traditional elders tell readers that you have knowledge about very traditional elders that others may not. You offer that as a reason why the woman's grandfather won't talk on the phone. Something about this feels off to me but I don't have words for it yet.

You tell readers that you are getting more nervous because the man won't talk on the phone. The woman gives you "the name of a reservation." It is a long way from your home. 
My thoughts: Earlier, I noted that you tell us the woman wouldn't give you her name, and now, we are not given the name of the reservation. Because I've read the book, I know that this lack of names matters to the success of your book. 
We aren't ever going to know the man's name, because he specifically asks you not to share his information. He just wants YOU to tell his stories because he likes what you did with the Red Road books. 

That secrecy might feel respectful to readers but to me, it feels very exploitative of your readers. You've written the foreword and intro in a way to disarm criticisms of what you're doing in this book. The "old man" of the chapter title has a request and you're going to honor that request. He trusts you, and we're supposed to trust you, too. But, I don't! All of it feels too tidy. 

The upshot of this secrecy is that your name is the only one we know. You are the one who speaks. You are the one who profits from book and movie ticket sales. Maybe you give some of the profits to a Native organization. If you do, that is likely seen as you being a good guy to Native people. Saviorism. 

I've got more notes about your book, but I'll pause there to talk about your book being used in schools.

In your comment to the MinnPost you said that your books are "used in many curricula." I am not surprised, but I am disappointed. What is lost when people use your book instead of ones by Native writers? The opportunity to make Native people and their work visible. Here's what I mean. Let's imagine a classroom.

Teacher to class of juniors and seniors in high school: "Today we're going to start reading Louise Erdrich's The Round House. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. She is the owner of Birchbark Books, a bookstore in Minneapolis. Let's take a look at the website for her tribal nation." 

Using words like the ones I suggested above means that a teacher would be centering Native voices by using Erdrich's book. By taking students to the tribal website, two things would happen. First, the students would find even more tribal voices. And that simple act of visiting a tribal nation's website tells students that Native people use technology. Some of you will think "of course they do" but the fact is there's a lot of people in the US who don't know we exist, today, and some think that "authentic" Indian people live in the woods in (of course) tipis or wigwams. 

The teacher would use present-tense verbs as they talked about Erdrich, her bookstore, and the tribal website. The opportunities for visibility are many! But--the students don't have that opportunity because they're reading your book instead. That bothers me. I imagine you'll say it isn't your fault that they choose you over a Native writer. You're right. It isn't your fault, but I wonder if you've done anything anywhere to help them find Native writers? 

I see that Carter Meland has a comment to you at MinnPost (dated April 14, 2022) and that you replied to him.  You refer to the "own voices" movement as a necessary corrective but immediately follow up with a "But" that argues for your own space. I wish you would spend more of your words lifting Native writers than arguing for your own voice. 


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Carter Meland's Call to Read Ojibwe Writers

Today, I am sharing a Facebook post written by by Carter Meland. He's a professor in American Indian Literature at the University of Minnesota, and a White Earth Anishinaabe descendent. With his permission, I'm sharing what he had to say about the non-Native writer, William Kent Krueger, who writes books you'll find over in the adult section of your library. [Update: See Tiffany Midge's essay, American(Indian) Dirt for another Native writer's criticisms of non-Native authors.]

Carter wants people to read Ojibwe writers instead of Krueger. So do I. He showed us a photo of four books. It includes books I also highly recommend: Murder on the Red River by Marcie Rendon, and Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley.  

Why am I sharing Carter's post? Because people who read Krueger are often the same people who acquire and edit books at publishing houses, and people who review them for review journals, and people who buy them for libraries. 

If you are one of those people, your head is filled with problematic content about Native peoples that gets in the way of providing readers with accurate stories about Native people!

You know--and I know--that the field of children's literature is changing. That change includes letting go of the Tony Hillerman's and the William Kent Kruegers and so many other white writers who misrepresent Native peoples. Their appropriations and misrepresentations contribute to a cycle of harm. Let's disrupt that cycle. Read Native Writers. 

Here's Carter's post: 


From the American Indian Studies prof diaries, episode 271 (it's a long one in social media terms):

A relative posted about a book they really liked by a non-Native novelist who has made his career (and mucho zhooniya [$$$]) by writing about Anishinaabe people. A fellow by the name of Krueger. I have no argument over whether or not he is a good writer, but I think we need to have a discussion about cultural appropriation (I promised I wouldn't open the appropriation can of worms on my relative's timeline).

I read a couple of this novelist's early books and found them decent enough mysteries, but I could see absolutely no reason why the central character was Anishinaabe. His perspective (and the writer's perspective) are not rooted in Anishinaabe experience or teachings beyond factual research. I know in this genre of mystery that there needs to be educational material woven into the plot, but that just has the effect of making a life (even an imagined one) a museum placard. In reading a 2021 interview with the novelist, he mentions his protagonist is 3/4 Irish and 1/4 Ojibwe and the moment I see parsing blood quantum I see investment in settler colonialist systems of thought. We're not trying to replicate these ideas in front of a broad audience, we're trying to transform them, to let Anishinaabe values (as opposed to settler colonial ones) set the terms of conversation about identity and selfhood, not ideas that are designed to erase Native people from the landscape. Appropriation and the investment in settler colonial policy are two sides of the erasure coin.

This is a long setup to what I wanted to share, which is what you can do to push Native writers forward even if you feel the need to read works that may traffic in the sort of appropriation that Native communities too often experience. I think Sun Yung Shin and Tiffany Midge inspired this idea with ideas they've shared on fb over the years (miigwech!). This is what I wrote in response to my relative's post about the book for her and her friends to consider (slightly edited from the original):

As a specialist in American Indian Literature (and a White Earth Anishinaabe descendant) and knowing that many of you are liberal, good-hearted social justice people, I think we should at least think about issues of cultural appropriation in Krueger's books—he’s making bank on Anishinaabe experience. So what can you do to spread the wealth? I want to challenge all Krueger fans to also support Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) writers with their book purchases.

For those of you who want to read fiction that engages with the terror of boarding schools and the powerful healing potential in Anishinaabe worldviews, I suggest Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful books I've ever read (I'm a lit prof and I read a lot!). For those of you who like more family drama-oriented work, read Linda LeGarde Grover's In the Night of Memory--the ending will leave you simultaneously smiling and weeping. For those of you who like Krueger's mysteries, go buy either of Marcie Rendon's Cash Blackbear mysteries (and a third is coming out soon) or Angeline Boulley's Firekeeper's Daughter--both these novelists write page-a-minute thrillers. All of these works are by Anishinaabe writers that center Anishinaabe characters in stories that center Anishinaabe cultural, social, and/or spiritual values not to translate them in some quasi-anthropological/educational way to non-Native audiences, but to share the power of Anishinaabe story and storytelling with those who want to hear more. The challenge I pose is that every time you buy or checkout a Krueger book, you also buy or checkout a book by one of the authors I've mentioned (or others you track down). This is a good way to increase the representation of Native writers and discover some great new books. It's a good way to change the world that you experience and to support (not appropriate) the work of Native storiers.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Not Recommended: THE SKYDIVING BEAVERS by Susan Wood, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen

The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale 
Written by Susan Wood
Illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen
Published by Sleeping Bear Press
Published in 2017
Reviewed by Debbie Reese

A couple of readers have written to ask me about The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale. Written by Susan Wood and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, it--and reviews of it--are disappointing. 

Here's the description: 
Just after World War II, the people of McCall, Idaho, found themselves with a problem on their hands. McCall was a lovely resort community in Idaho's backcountry with mountain views, a sparkling lake, and plenty of forests. People rushed to build roads and homes there to enjoy the year-round outdoor activities. It was a beautiful place to live. And not just for humans. For centuries, beavers had made the region their home. But what's good for beavers is not necessarily good for humans, and vice versa. So in a unique conservation effort, in 1948 a team from the Idaho Fish and Game Department decided to relocate the McCall beaver colony. In a daring experiment, the team airdropped seventy-six live beavers to a new location. One beaver, playfully named Geronimo, endured countless practice drops, seeming to enjoy the skydives, and led the way as all the beavers parachuted into their new home. Readers and nature enthusiasts of all ages will enjoy this true story of ingenuity and determination.

AICL readers and those who are learning to read critically will spot the problems in the description right away. It can be difficult to see what is not there on the page, but it is important to ask--right away--what people is the author talking about? She says "the people of McCall, Idaho" who are trying to build homes on a lake. The author doesn't say white people but that's who they're talking about. These white people have a problem with beavers that had "for centuries" been making that area their home. True enough, beavers had been there for centuries, but who else was there, before? The author has erased Nez Perce peoples from what was their homeland.

You may have noted that the subtitle to the book is "A True Tale." Wood is, in short, telling you some facts about something that actually happened. She leaves out Nez Perce people, and in her telling of this story, she talks about the beavers in ways that I find deeply troubling. They had built their homes there, first, but then the white people "muscle in" to the area. The beavers didn't like that, and so, they gnaw on trees and "trash" the peoples views of the forest. Wood writes that it was "A real turf war. It seemed McCall just wasn't big enough for everybody." 

The beaver are in the way. 

They have to be removed. 

The Idaho Fish and Game department considers ways to do that: round them up, put them in cages. The ways they consider are precisely the ones used to remove Indigenous peoples from their homelands when white people wanted those lands. In the end they decide to move them by way of airdrop. That stopped me cold. I don't think it is clever, at all.

The person who came up with that plan is a man named Elmo Heter. He came up with a design and to make sure it would work, he tested it several times using a beaver they named Geronimo. Why that name?! Heter doesn't tell us why, in his article about the project. 

In the fourth paragraph of her author's note, Wood tells us that "Elmo's beaver relocation by parachute was an inventive idea in 1948, it likely wouldn't happen today" because now, scientists know that beavers are good for the environment. Programs to move beavers don't take place anymore, but, Wood says "it's still fun to think that the descendents of daredevil Geronimo and his fellow skydiving rodents are likely alive, well, and happily gnawing deep in the wilds of Idaho." 

Why, I wonder did this book get published? Because it is a "fun" story about something that happened to beavers? I think it was cruel. Heter, in the 1940s and now, Wood in the 2010s seem not to care about that. And in reading this story aloud to children, are people affirming that cruelty without realizing it? I think so. 

I do not recommend The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale. Some true stories ought not be provided to children as entertainment. 

Monday, March 07, 2022




The Frog Mother (Mothers of Xsan series)
Written by Hetxw'ms Gyetxw/Brett D. Huson (Gitxsan)
Illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Metis) and Hetxw'ms Gyetxw
Published by Highwater Press
Published in 2021
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Review Status: Highly Recommended

How I wish we could see a series like Mothers of Xsan for every part of the continent: local ecosystems from Indigenous perspectives! Hetxw'ms Gyetxw, Natasha Donovan, and Highwater Press have come up with a set of richly illustrated informational books about essential animal inhabitants of Xsan, the traditional homelands of the Gitxsan.  

Here's what the publisher says about the book I'm reviewing today, The Frog Mother:
To the Gitxsan of Northwestern British Columbia, Nox Ga’naaw is a storyteller, speaking truths of the universe. After Nox Ga’naaw, the frog mother, releases her eggs among the aquatic plants of a pond, the tiny tadpoles are left to fend for themselves. As they hatch, grow legs, and transform into their adult selves, they must avoid the mouths of hungry predators. Will the young frogs survive to spawn their own eggs, continuing a cycle 200 million years in the making?

Book four of the Mothers of Xsan series follows the life cycle of the columbia spotted frog. Learn about why this species is of special significance to the Gitxsan and how Nox Ga'naaw and her offspring are essential to the balance that is life.

This is a "short & sweet" review, listing four reasons AICL recommends this book.

Reason #1 to recommend The Frog Mother: The deep and detailed sense of place. 

The author writes about something he knows well: the creatures, environments, and seasons of the homeland of his Indigenous Nation. 

He grew up there, in what's currently called inland British Columbia, and learned much of what he knows about the animal inhabitants from elder relatives with both observational and cultural knowledge. (From email communication with the author, 2/2022.) Here's a quote from the book: "As the Gitxsan have borne witness since time immemorial, there is a delicate balance of food for all living in their realm. Nox Ga'naaw and her offspring are an integral piece of this balance that is life." "Since time immemorial." Those are potent words about presence and stewardship!

Reason #2: The illustrations 

Natasha Donovan's lively, engaging illustrations are essential to the full impact of the book. And take a close look at each page. Integrated into the depictions of Nox Ga'naaw's life stages, you're likely to see formline images of frogs and other figures. That's the work of the author, placed there to show that the events depicted have spiritual and cultural significance for the people, beyond what might be observed by Western science. 

Reason #3: Use of Gitxsan language and knowledge

Seeing words from the Gitxsan language with the English text supports young non-Indigenous readers' awareness that Indigenous languages exist, and have value and purpose. The author refers to animals by their Gitxsan names as well as English identifiers. He uses Gitxsan words for times of the year, which are also listed on a page in the back of the book, along with three paragraphs of information about the Gitxsan and an illustrated map of the region. 

Reason #4: The entire series.

The Mothers of Xsan series is based in Indigenous knowledge, but also incorporates what could be called the language of science; many pages include textbox definitions of words like "juvenile" and "overwinter." 

Each of these books has deepened my understanding of the ecosystem of the region. Beyond that, I'm reminded of how much impact humans have on what lives around us, and how responsible we are for making our own lives sustain the systems we inhabit. So many young people I know are looking for this kind of understanding, but mainstream society seems built on distancing people from their environments.

Other entries in the series are: The Sockeye Mother, The Grizzly Mother, The Eagle Mother, The Wolf Mother. And due out in 2022: The Raven Mother.

Reading this set of books makes me hope other Indigenous writers and illustrators will collaborate to tell about about the ecosystems of their homelands. The knowledge that could be offered is desperately needed. 

Saturday, February 19, 2022


Challenges to An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, for Young People

Last year, we learned about a letter by Matt Krause, Chair of the Texas House of Representatives Committee on General Investigating, to superintendents of schools in Texas. On October 25, 2021, Krause wrote that several Texas school districts had removed books from libraries and/or classrooms after receiving objections from students, parents, and taxpayers. His letter included a list of 850 books. He wanted to know how many copies of each book school libraries and classrooms have, the source of funds for their purchase, and any other books that
address or contain the following topics: human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually implicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously. 
Near the bottom of page two of his 18-page-list, we saw An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People:

As many have said, Native children have felt discomfort over books they've been asked to read. There are far more books with stereotypical, biased, and just plain erroneous Native content than there are ones that accurately reflect Native nations, cultures, and people. As many have pointed out, most of the books on the Krause list are ones with LGBTQ+ content. See, for example, the analysis done by Danika Ellis at Book Riot. 


On February 19, 2022, we learned that Paul and Rachel Elliott, parents of an elementary-school student at McKinney Independent School District in north Texas, had submitted a list of books that they believe should be removed from the school curriculum. An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People is on their list. Their challenge to it is on page 99-100 of the pdf of books they are challenging (note on May 1, 2022: the original link is gone. I replaced it with a link to the Internet Archive).

We talked about the challenges with Edith Campbell at her blog, Cotton Quilts, on January 30:

And, Debbie talked with author Margarita Engle in February. That conversation was published at PEN AMERICA on February 11: 

When someone issues an objection to a book, it is a challenged book. When the book is removed, it is a banned book. Has your library removed our book from your shelves? How does the catalog for the book look, post-removal? 

I read a letter by author Bill Konigsberg this morning and urge you to read and share it. Jean and I are working on a response (perhaps an open letter) to the challenge at McKinney Independent School District. 

We are considering Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's metaphor, Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors as a way to describe what we see happening. An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People functions as a mirror for Native kids because it provides them with Native points of view that reflect the integrity with which their ancestors fought to protect Native Nations, homelands, people, and ways of being. We do not glorify American history and we tell the truth, for example, about U.S. presidents. I expect that our book is being characterized as "anti-American." Our book functions as a window for non-Native kids because it provides them with knowledge they may not have had access to, before reading our book. The third component of Bishop's metaphor is a sliding glass door. Books are also sliding glass doors, she wrote, because "readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author." I suspect parents who are challenging our book do not want children to develop empathy for Native people and concerns. We'll have more to say, later. 

In the meantime, if you know of a challenge to our book, please let us know. 

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Art Coulson and Madelyn Goodnight's LOOK GRANDMA! NI, ELISI! featured in Reading Rainbow Live

This morning (Saturday, Feb 12, 2022) I saw that Art Coulson and Marilyn Goodnight's Look Grandma! Ni, Elisi! is included in Reading Rainbow Live's first event on March 6th. The theme is "Kid Inventors." Here's a screen cap from my phone: 

Congrats, Art and Marilyn! I've been sharing your book when I do professional development. I am utterly delighted to see this news! 

Teachers, parents, librarians: if you haven't seen Look Grandma! Ni, Elisi! yet, you are missing out on a terrific story. Here's the description from the publisher's website:

Bo wants to find the perfect container to show off his traditional marbles for the Cherokee National Holiday. It needs to be just the right size: big enough to fit all the marbles, but not too big to fit in his family's booth at the festival. And it needs to look good! With his grandmother's help, Bo tries many containers until he finds just the right one. A playful exploration of volume and capacity featuring Native characters and a glossary of Cherokee words.

This is one of my favorite books from 2021 and it is on AICL's Best Books of 2021 list. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Analyzing a Worksheet: "Where Would You Fit In?"

 "Where Would You Fit In?"
A Worksheet Analysis by Debbie Reese

From time to time, a colleague or friend shares a worksheet a child has been asked to do. In some instances I've done an analysis of it here on AICL but with this one today I am using "Analyzing a Worksheet" as part of the title of the analysis (and as a tag). My hope is that educators can use it to do their own analyses. 

Yesterday (Jan 24) I saw "Where Would You Fit In?" This is it, with my "Not Recommended" conclusion overlaid on it:

The source of the item is Teachers Pay Teachers, a website with deeply problematic materials that teachers can download. This particular one is from an account called "Teaching Is the Sweetest Thing." 

Let's start with the title. For everything a teacher does in the classroom, they have an audience in mind. Obviously, it is their students, but who are the students? In the U.S. the default image is of a white student. Who are your students? Are all of them white? How do you know? 

On this worksheet, the person who created it has a certain student in mind. The worksheet consists of 16 items. Some are innocuous, like #1: "You love cold weather. Bring on winter!" That "you" could be anyone. So could the "you" in items 2, 3, 4, and 5. Item #6 is "You would much rather go to a public school with lots of kids than have a private tutor come to your house just for you and a few other kids." The "you" there is someone who knows what private tutors are, which could mean a family that will find the resources to get a private tutor for their child but that's not who I think the author of the worksheet has in mind. I think the imagined "you" in item 6 is someone from a wealthy family.

Now, look at #8: "The idea of owning and being in charge of a massive house where many servants and slaves work for you does not sound fun." A "massive house" and "slaves" tells us a lot. The "you" in item 8 is not a Black child.  

If you drop down to the bottom of the worksheet you'll find some context. Those three boxes at the bottom tell the student where they would "fit in":
If you scored between 21 and 32, you are ready to move to the New England Colonies! You'll fit right in with those Northerners.
If you scored between 11 and 20, you are right in the middle of the New England and the Southern Colonies. You belong in the Middle Colonies!
And the third one:
If you scored between 0 and 10, the South is the place to be for you. You would make the ideal Southern colonist.
Now we understand that "you" is a European from the period during which Europeans were colonizing the east coast of what became known as the United States. "You" could not be a Native child.

A Black or Native or Black Native child who is handed this worksheet by their teacher is in a difficult position, aren't they? They're expected to go along with the rest of the class filling out a worksheet created by a person who failed to think of them. 

As I look at this worksheet, I think of an excellent new book: Social Studies for a Better World: An Anti-Oppressive Approach for Elementary Educators by Noreen Naseem Rodriguez and Katy Swalwell (W.W. Norton & Company, 2022). In particular, I think about the paragraphs about Westward Expansion and the Oregon Trail. Most people know -- and played -- that game without giving much thought to it. The "Where Would You Fit In?" worksheet feels a lot like a game. But like the Oregon Trail, it is a game that does tremendous harm--not just to the kids whose identities are assaulted, but others are hared, too. They are being taught to glorify colonization and slavery. Is that what we want?

I may be back to share more thoughts later. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts on this worksheet. Has it or others with similar issues been given to your child? Or to children of your friends, or colleagues? And of course, get a copy of Social Studies for a Better World!