Sunday, October 04, 2015


October 4, 2015

Dear Bonnie Bader, Grosset & Dunlap, and Penguin Young Readers Group,

Your book, Who Was Christopher Columbus, published in 2013, has major errors in it (p. 4, Kindle edition):

The error is in that last line that reads "Christopher Columbus had discovered a new world." Maybe you think that the sentence before it makes it ok because it tells readers that no one in Europe knew about this land. It doesn't make it ok. Later, you tell readers he discovered an island he named Dominica. And that he also "discovered the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico" (p. 72-73 in Kindle version). Simply put, you can't discover something that someone else already had. With this book, you're misleading children. You're mis-educating them.

Your Who Was Christopher Columbus is loaded with other problems, too. My suggestion? Withdraw it from publication.

My suggestion to all the people who already bought Bader's Who Was Christopher Columbus? Do not use it with young children. Instead, write to Penguin and ask for your money back, or, use it with older children and adults in a text analysis activity. Read what Bader wrote, and compare it to other sources. A great set of resources for this activity is at the Zinn Education Project website. Another excellent resource is Rethinking Columbus.

You, Ms. Bader, and your editors at Grosset & Dunlap (it is an imprint of Penguin), can do better. I hope you do. Recall the book. Refund the money parents, teachers, and librarians spent on it, too.

And do better.

Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature

Friday, October 02, 2015

THE HIRED GIRL by Laura Amy Schlitz

This is one of those posts people are gonna object to because it is one of the "one liners" -- which means that the book has nothing to do with Native people, but there is a line in it that I am pointing out.

It is "one line" to some, but to Native people or anyone who pays attention to ways that Native people are depicted in children's and young adult literature, those "one lines" add up to a very long list in which we are misrepresented.

Here's the synopsis for Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl, a 2015 book published by Candlewick (for grades 7 and up):

Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future. Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz relates Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.

Set in Pennsylvania in 1911, The Hired Girl has six starred reviews. It is currently listed at Amazon as the #1 bestseller in historical fiction for teens and young adults. Impressive. Hopefully, Schlitz and her editor will revisit the part of the book where a woman tells Joan "You, I think, are not Jewish." Joan responds:
"No, ma'am," I said. I was as taken aback as if she'd asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me--I mean, it doesn't now, but it did then--as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they're civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.
Let's look closely at what Joan said.

The word 'are' in "I know there are Indians out West..." is in italics. I like that, because I often speak/write of the importance of tense. Most people use past tense when speaking or writing about Native peoples, but we're still here.

But then, Joan thinks "they're civilized now." Does that mean Joan buys into the idea of the primitive Indian who became "civilized" by contact with White people? Do the "ordinary clothes" they wear mean they're civilized?

I'm pretty sure people are going to say that--in asking those two questions--I'm not leaving room for people to do well, or try well, in their writing about Native people.

The fact is, this book is already succeeding and so are ones I've written about before. This post* isn't going to hurt it, but if it does give people (who read AICL) the opportunity to think about words they use in their own writing, that is a plus for all of us.

Native peoples in the U.S. were living in well-ordered societies when Europeans came here. We weren't primitive. Indeed, European heads of state recognized the Native Nations as nations of people. That's why there are treaties. Heads of state, then and now, meet with other heads of state in diplomatic negotiations. Saying "well, Joan didn't know that" is a cop out. She could have known it. Plenty of people did! She's a fictional character. She can know whatever Schlitz wants her to know.

*Replaced "My lone voice" with "This post" in hopes that I'll find other writing that points to this particular passage.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Big News about Hoffman's AMAZING GRACE

Eds. note (10/2/2015): See update at bottom. It appears the change is only to the U.S. edition. 

In a comment to his post about weeding books, Roger Sutton said that Horn Book just received the 25th anniversary edition of Amazing Grace and that the page on which Grace is shown playing Indian is gone (she's pretending to be Longfellow's Hiawatha). Here's his comment:

This is the illustration he's talking about. It was in the original version of the book, published by Dial in 1991. The author is Mary Hoffman; the illustrator is Caroline Binch:

For those who don't know the book, the main character is a girl named Grace who wants to be Peter Pan in the play her class is going to do. Other kids tell her she can't be Peter because she's a girl and he's a boy, and, that she's Black and he's White. Stung--as any kid would be--she imagines herself in all kinds of roles, including Hiawatha. That she's "by the shining Big-Sea-Water" tells us she is imagining herself as the Hiawatha of Longfellow's imagination (there was, in fact, a real person named Hiawatha).

But see how Grace "plays" Hiawatha? In a stereotypical way. She sits cross legged, torso bare, arms crossed and raised up (I don't know why so many statues show Indians with arms crossed and lifted off the chest that way), barefoot, with a painted face and stoic look.

Amazing Grace came out in 1991. In 1992, a person from whom I've learned a great deal, wrote about it. That person: Ginny Moore Kruse. In her article "No Single Season: Multicultural Literature for All Children, published in Wilson Library Bulletin 66 30-3, she wrote:
Are the book's multiple themes so welcome that the act of "playing Indian" escaped comment by most U.S. reviewers...that critics relaxed their standards for evaluation? No, such images recur so frequently that when they do, nobody notices. Well, almost nobody but the children who in real life are Indian. 
Claiming that only American Indian children are apt to notice "playing Indian," "sitting Indian style," or picture book animals "dressed up" like American Indians does not excuse the basic mistake. Self-esteem is decreased for the affected peoples, an accurate portrayals are skewed for everyone else.

This change is big news in children's literature. I'm grateful to Roger for sharing it. But let's return to his words. Roger suggested that the absence of Grace/Hiawatha in the new edition is the result of "public shaming."

Its absence can be seen as the result of public shaming---but it also be seen as a a step forward in what we give to children.

Might we say it is gone because its author, illustrator, and publisher decided that the self-esteem of Native children matters? And, maybe, they decided that having it in there was a disservice to non-Native readers, too, skewing what they know about Native peoples? Maybe they just decided it was dated, and in an effort to market the book to today's readers, that page would hurt sales.

Today, I wish I was near Ginny's hometown. I'd call her and see if she wanted to join me for a cup of tea. I'm sure it'd be a delightful conversation.

Updated on October 2, 2015 at 9:23 AM

Librarian Allie Jane Bruce wrote to tell me about a review of Amazing Grace at the UK website, Mirrors, Windows, and Doors. Based on what I read in the review, there are two versions of the 25th anniversary edition of Amazing Grace. The one Roger Sutton has is the US edition. The one in the UK remains unchanged. Here's an excerpt of the UK review:
The double-page that shows Grace as Hiawatha and then as ‘Mowgli in the back garden jungle’ does, however, need to be held up as a reminder that breadth of experience through reading is important for young children: whilst Grace’s story highlights a can-do attitude and the notion that you can be whatever you want to be because of what you do not what you are, the stereotypes that have been passed down through some of these classic stories can only be broken by ensuring that children read contemporary stories set within the cultures they represent.  There is still too much of a dislocation in the UK between dressing up in a feathered headdress with a painted face and awareness of how that sits within contemporary Native American culture.

I guess that the people involved in the 25th anniversary edition think it is ok to let kids in the UK have that page. Obviously, I disagree.

This, however, is familiar. In 2010, a British production of Peter Pan was slated for Canada. Changes were made to it in an effort to be sensitive to First Nations people. Given the debased depictions of Native peoples in kids books imported from the UK to the US, I think it is wrong to leave that page in Amazing Grace. Worse than wrong, actually. It is a disservice to the children whose stereotypical ideas of Native people are affirmed by that page, and a disservice to those who learn that image for the first time, when they read Amazing Grace. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Writers: Do not do a Peter Nabokov! Please respect tribal nations and our protocols.

In several places, I've written about the 1800s, when white ethnographers began going to reservations--uninvited--with the intent of documenting our stories. Those ethnographers were outsiders. Did they understand what they were writing about? Were their informants reliable? There are a lot of questions about those archived stories, and yet, present day storytellers use them to "retell" Native stories that get presented to children in classrooms as authentic. Some of those stories are ones tribes want to protect from outsiders.

To protect their stories, Native Nations developed protocols that researchers--and that means writers, too--are expected to use.

Dr. Peter Nabokov, a professor and author of several works of nonfiction about Native peoples, chose to violate those protocols with the publication of his newest book. In an interview published by the National Geographic on September 23rd, 2015, he was asked about the project:
You’re a white man yourself. How did the Acoma tribe regard this project?
They didn’t know about it. [Laughs] There was some concern about the republication of the Acoma’s Origin Myth. When it was published in 1942 by the Bureau of American Ethnology, it sat under-appreciated for a number of years. Later on, it appeared in excerpted form in anthologies. With the coming of the Internet, various people put it out in the public domain, including the pictures, the kachina masks, the maps and depictions of sacred altars.
I thought this publication of the Origin Myth deserved a second, more dignified shot. So I didn’t allow any pictures of the sacred altars or kachina masks to be republished, just the text. I feel this story deserves inclusion alongside the Bible, the Koran, and all the other great texts of world literature. 

See that? He knows there are concerns but he laughed that Acoma didn't know he was publishing the book. He tells us he wanted to be "more dignified." What he chose not to include in his book suggests that he is more dignified in his treatment. That he wants the story to be alongside other texts of world literature suggests that he is aware and sensitive to the place of Native story in a global context.

Sounds good, but is it? The short answer is no.

Here's an excerpt from a statement Acoma's Governor, Fred S. Vallo Sr., published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on September 23, 2015 (the same day as the interview at National Geographic). I am using bold text to draw your attention to protocol and Nabokov's disregard of those protocols:

Nabokov agreed to submit the manuscript to the pueblo for review and to appear before the Acoma Tribal Council to discuss possible publication of the book. Virtually every other modern scholar and professional working with the Pueblo of Acoma has sought this permission when seeking to disclose sensitive cultural information. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Acoma has approved of disclosure in the past. Some examples of published work with permission of the Pueblo of Acoma include publications by Dr. Ward Allan Minge, Dr. Alfred Dittert, Dr. Florence Hawley Ellis, Dr. Kurt Anschuetz and others.
While a manuscript of The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo was submitted to Acoma Pueblo at the pueblo’s insistence upon discovering Nabokov’s planned publication, and was being reviewed by traditional leaders, Nabokov did not follow through on any of his other promises prior to publication. Nabokov holds himself out as a scholar and “friend” of Indian tribes. His actions suggest otherwise, as he does not exhibit basic respect for tribal beliefs and practices.
I think it is fair to say that Nabokov is exploiting Native people for personal gain. There's no integrity in what he did, none at all. And his treatment of Acoma's wishes gives me pause. What, I wonder, about the rest of his books?

Are you planning to use a Native story in a work of fiction or non-fiction? Find out if it is ok to use it. Do not assume--as the author of a recent children's book did--that those protocols only apply to academic researchers. They apply to anyone. Don't assume a visit to a tribe's museum and a chat with a docent counts as authorization. It doesn't. Don't assume your friendships with people of that tribe are sufficient. They aren't. Do it right. Respect the wishes of the tribal nation from whom the story originates. Not doing so could mean you'll be written up in the news, exposed as someone with no basic respect for tribal peoples and on AICL, too.

Update, 7:30 AM, September 25, 2015
Read Governor Vallo's full statement in The New Mexican
Read the Public Statement issued by the Pueblo of Acoma

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Using the "Peanutize Me" Avatar to Send a Message

Have you seen the Peanutize Me avatars people are creating? It is a clever promotion for the Peanuts movie due out in November.

This morning, author Rene Saldana posted this one on his Facebook page*:

"I am the invisible brown."

Seeing his, I went back to the one I started making last night. Here's mine:

"Quit smiling, Snoopy. We have work to do. 
Crappy books about us keep getting published."

If you create one with a political message about children's or young adult literature, let me know and I'll add it.


Here's one from librarian Sujei Lugo, added at 11:48 on September 22, 2015:

Here's one from 8mph Ansible (on Twitter), added at 1:16 on September 22, 2015:

"Not only do we lack diversity in male chars
but male chars wearing kilts & skirt-like apparel."

Delighted to add artist Don Tate (Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015) who used his artistic skills to great effect!

"#We Need More Diverse Peanuts"

This one is from Gwen Tarbox, children's literature professor (added on September 23, 2015):

"I'm smiling because my children's literature students 
came to the realization that we ALL need diverse books."

*In later conversations with Rene, he told me that he was surprised when he downloaded his avatar and saw that he was invisible. In the part where you select skin tone, he had selected a light brown. We both wonder if invisible was an option, and why his avatar turned out invisible. I thought it was deliberate on his part. It echoed the invisible nature of books by Latino writers, and, reminded me of an essay he wrote at Latinos in Kidlit, Forgive Me My Bluntness: I'm a Writer of Color and I'm Right Here In Front of You: I'm the One Sitting Alone at the Table.


Cinnamon and the Bat People by Cookie Thomas came out in 2014. Published in London, England by TMC London, here's the synopsis from the publisher's website:
A mysterious old woman invites a stranded family to sit on her porch while they wait for their car to be pulled out of a gulley. She weaves them a fascinating tale of a young indigenous couple, Rose and Charlie, from rural Texas during the depression, who run away to Illinois with their new born baby Cinnamon. Rose and Charlie are shocked to learn that the farmer they worked for bequeathed them all his money and a Model-T Ford after he and the whole town are destroyed by a ferocious tornado. They decide to return to Texas, only to be immersed in the battle between the Bat People and the Crow People…and the evil of a conniving witch, who has bad intentions for Cinnamon.

Cinnamon is a "Native American" but important information is missing. What tribal nation does she belong to? We aren't told. Instead, the Native content is stereotypical in both, romantic and derogatory ways.

Some things about it are curious. This passage, for example, is right after the mysterious old woman tells the family that she'll tell them a story about "a little Indian girl" (p. 10):
"Did you say a little Indian girl?" Dan said with a raised eyebrow, looking relieved the crows were gone. "Do you mean Native American Indian?"
"Don't interrupt!" I said, scrunching my face. "Back then, we just called them Indians, and no one paid no mind." 
Who is "no one" in the old woman's mind? In the promotional materials for the book, it is clear that the author has a reverence for stories about Native peoples that she was told as a child, but much of what I read in the book--like that passage--is unsettling or just plain odd.

In short, I do not recommend Cinnamon and the Bat People. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A student's question about bias

A few weeks ago, I was at Georgia State's College of Education to talk with professors and students about Native peoples, how we're taught in the curriculum, choosing children's books, etc. A few days ago, a student wrote to me with a question about biased content and how a teacher could address it.

She had a specific example in which she imagined a fourth grade class being taught about specific Native Nations. She imagined a student asking the teacher why Native Americans were moved to reservations. She wondered how the teacher might respond in an unbiased manner.

Let's look, first, at the word "bias." It means prejudice in favor or against a thing, person, or group, compared with another, in a way that is unfair or partial to one of the groups.

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that I was reading Deborah Wiles's Revolution. There's a passage in it that is a good example of bias. On page 263, Sunny (the protagonist) is at a movie theater and is approaching Mr. Martini, the man who takes tickets:
Mr. Martini is standing under the buffalo carving, which is my favorite of all the carvings on the lobby wall that depict the history of Greenwood, although Daddy says there would not have been buffalo east of the Mississippi River, which is where the Delta is. There would have been Indians, though--the Choctaw and Chickasaw including Choctaw Chief Greenwood Leflore, who was here first and signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek way before the Civil War. That's when most of the Indians moved to Oklahoma. Miss Coffee, my fourth-grade teacher, would be proud of me for remembering.
I want to focus on two passages from that paragraph.

First is the idea that Indians were "here first." It may seem innocent enough, but scholars in Native Studies see language that says Native peoples were here "first" as a way to undermine our sovereignty. If we were simply here first, followed by __ and then by __, one can say that everyone--Native peoples, too--are immigrants to this continent.

Second is "the Indians moved to Oklahoma." Written as such, it sounds like they--on their own--decided to move. Of course, they had not chosen to move. They were forcibly removed. Although Miss Coffee told Sunny about the Dancing Rabbit Treaty, I wonder if her bias in favor of White landowners and against Choctaws is evident by Sunny's takeaway: that Indians "moved" to Oklahoma. If Wiles had, in the backstory for this part of the book, a character who is Choctaw, that character could have corrected Miss Coffee. That paragraph I quoted above could then end with Sunny saying "but Joey, who is Choctaw, told Miss Coffee that his people didn't move. They were REmoved."

A plus in that paragraph is this: Sunny says "most" of the Indians moved. In that "most" she is correct. The descendants of Choctaws who refused to be removed were federally recognized as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in 1945.  And, Sunny's dad is wrong about buffaloes. They were, in fact, east of the Mississippi. Were they in the Delta? I don't know.

Let's return to the question posed by the Georgia State student. Let's say that the curriculum the teacher is using has the words "moved" in it and let's assume the teacher knows that the Choctaw's were forcibly removed. She could teach her students about bias right then and there, using moved/removed as an example of bias and she could provide students with information from the Choctaw Nation's website. It has a detailed account of removal. A teacher using Wiles's book could pause the reading on page 263 to correct what Sunny learned from Miss Coffee.

The point is that teachers can address bias in materials. This is, of course, teaching children to read critically--and reading critically is a vital skill.

Thanks, student at Georgia State, for your follow up questions! I hope this is helpful.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Julie Flett Depicts Debbie Reese in TEACHING TOLERANCE

Some weeks ago, Dave Constantin at Teaching Tolerance got in touch with me for an article that came out yesterday: Rewriting History--For the Better. They wanted art for the article and got in touch with Julie Flett, who read it and wrote to me with an idea.

She wanted to show someone reading to children, and thought she'd like to show ME reading to children. I was speechless. And of course, I was thrilled! I love her work.

Julie asked me for photos of me reading to kids. The only photo I have is one of me reading to our daughter when she was a baby. Here's that photo (if you're wondering about the book, we're looking at illustrations in a children's literature textbook).

I sent her more recent photos, too. As we exchanged email about the art she was working on, she asked about a book that I'd like to be reading in the art, and I chose Simon Ortiz's The People Shall Continue. Permissions to use that worked out beautifully. Here's a screenshot of a portion of the article, and Julie's illustration of me:

I'm humbled, and delighted, and excited... a flood of emotions are racing through me! Thank you, Julie! This is a gift that I'll treasure always.

I've written about Julie's work several times and am pleased as can be to be in her portfolio.

Read the article in Teaching Tolerance, and order Julie's books for your home, classroom or library collection:
We All Count: A Book of Cree Numbers
Wild Berries
Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak Iii Swer/Owls See Clearly at Night
Little You (written by Richard Van Camp)