Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BLUE BIRDS by Caroline Starr Rose

In Caroline Rose Starr's Blue Birds, the two main characters are Alis, an English girl, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. Set in July 1587, Blue Birds is a Lost Colony story.

Alis and her family come ashore at Roanoke. Among them is Governor White and his daughter. She is pregnant with Virginia (Virginia Dare is widely recognized as the first English person born in what came to be known as the United States).They are in the fourth English group that Kimi's people interact with. Before them, we read, there were three other groups. The first one took two Native men back to England: Mateo (a Croatoan) and Wanchese (a Roanoke).

With Alis's group is Manteo. Having spent the last few months living in London, he dresses like English people but still has long hair. Alis thinks of him as "that savage."

Kimi watches Alis's group. She thinks of them as "strange ones." Some of her people think they are "spirits back from the dead" and others say that they have "invisible weapons that strike with sickness after they've gone." Kimi's father told her they were "people like us, only with different ways." But, her father is dead.

Dead? Yes. Soon, we learn that Kimi's father, Wingina, was beheaded by the second group of colonists, and that Wanchese (he's her uncle) killed the people in the third group.

Did you catch that? The English beheaded her father. Yet, she's going to befriend Alis.

Possible? Yes. Plausible? I don't think so.

Why does she do this? Because she's lonely.

See, her sister died of disease brought by those English.

Did you catch that?! Her sister's death is due to the English. But... she's going to befriend this English girl?

Possible? Yes. Plausible? I don't think so!

And... Alis. When they land, she finds the bones of a man. She worries they may be the bones of her uncle, Samuel. Soon after that, one of the Englishmen (Mr. Howe) is killed, adding to her fear of the Roanoke people. She imagines them, waiting. Watching. Yet, she, too, is lonely enough to move past her fears. Is that possible? Yes. It is plausible? I don't think so!

Human emotions aside, let's look at the some of the ways the Roanoke people think and live.

It is a challenge to imagine how the people of a culture not your own, of a time not your own would think of you. In this case, we have a not-Native writer imagining how Native people think about English people. A good many non-Native writers lapse into a space where we (Native people) are shown as primitive and in awe of Europeans who came to Native lands. We see this in Kimi (Kindle Locations 367-370):
The English have great power,
mightier than we have seen
in the agile deer,
the arrows of our enemies,
the angry hurricane.
Able to blot out the sun.
There's other things that bother me about Blue Birds. One of the stereotypical ways of depicting Native people is how quietly they move, not making a sound. Kimi does that. Another stereotype is the way that Kimi thinks of Alis's wooden bird. Kimi thinks it is Alis's power:
I imagine her cowering in her village
without her power.
I want to see
her weakness.
She comes from brutal people,
yet is as loving
with her mother as we are.
Can both things we true?
That passage in Blue Birds gets at the heart of what I think Caroline Rose Starr is trying to do. Have two girls come to see past differences in who each one and her people are, to the humanity in both. She's not the first to do this. Children's literature has a lot of historical fiction like this... Sign of the Beaver is one; so is Helen Frost's Salt. 

When the two girls come face to face, Kimi thinks of her dad and sister's death. In her language, she tells Alis "You have brought us sorrow." Kimi sees that Alis is frightened by her words and thinks that balance has been restored.

The balance has been restored?! I think that's too tidy.

There are other things that don't sit well with me... the parts of the story where Kimi has a ceremony, marking her passage from child to woman is one. The parts where the Roanoke's are dancing around the fire at night, preparing for attack? That just reminds me of Little House on the Prairie! Indeed, Alis's mom reminds me of Ma!

As the friendship between the two girls continues, they worry for each other's safety. Kimi gives Alis her montoac (power, pearls given to her in that womanhood ceremony). In the end, Alis goes Native. That is, she chooses to live with Kimi. And when the English return, she looks upon them, crouching behind some reeds as she watches them.

That ending--with Alis living with Indians--parallels a theory about what happened to that Lost Colony. In the author's note, Starr tells readers about the Lost Colony. I'm glad to see that note but the story she told? Overall, for me it does not work, and it makes me wonder about the motivation to create friendship stories like this? They seem so more idealized than anything that might really happen between children of peoples at war. And, given that these stories are told--not by Native people--seems telling, too. Borne, perhaps, of guilt? Or what? I don't know, really.

Starr's Blue Bird, published in 2015 by G. P. Putnam's Sons (an imprint of Penguin Group) is not recommended.




Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cynthia Hand's THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE

A reader of AICL has written to tell me she's reading Cynthia Hand's The Last Time We Say Goodbye. 

In particular, the reader pointed me to the part of the book where a character named Seth is telling Sadie and Lex (the protagonist) a ghost story about when he saw a shadow on a wall, and that when he turned around to see who was making the shadow, he saw (p. 133):
"...an Indian. He was wearing the buckskins and moccasins and the feather in his hair and the whole Native American ensemble, which was weird enough, but what was weirder was that I could sort of see through him, to that sign on the wall that counted how many days since the last accident."
Seth stepped away, and says that the Indian
"...nodded, all solemn, and then he lifted his hand up like this." Seth raises his palm. "And then he said, "How.'"
"'How'?" I repeat. "'How' what?"
"Like, 'How, white man. I come in peace.' And after that we were totally friends, me and Tonto, and every night after work we'd knock back a beer." 
Obviously, we're supposed to think that is amusing, but I don't think it is funny. Sadie starts to pummel him and then (p. 134):
"But seriously, though," he says, "That Circuit City was built on an old Indian burial ground. Look it up on the internet if you don't believe me. And sometimes, for real, we'd hear footsteps or things would be moved in different places when we left the room. Seriously."
My turn to utter that word: Seriously?! Pulling out the stereotypical Indian burial ground trope?! So... what IS this story about? Here's the synopsis:
From New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Hand comes a gorgeous and heart-wrenching story of love, loss, and letting go.
Since her brother, Tyler, committed suicide, Lex has been trying to keep her grief locked away, and to forget about what happened that night. But as she starts putting her life, her family, and her friendships back together, Lex is haunted by a secret she hasn't told anyone—a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.
In the tradition of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, Gayle Forman's If I Stay, and Lauren Oliver's Before I FallThe Last Time We Say Goodbye is a thoughtful and deeply affecting novel that will change the way you look at life and death.

It may be a deeply affecting story about life and death but it is deeply troubling to see this stereotypical burial ground in it. I know--people will defend it because suicide is something so many people deal with, and this book will help them deal with it...

The Last Time We Say Goodbye, however, joins a very long list of books that help one population at the expense of Native people. I have not read this book but my guess is that Hand could cut these parts completely and the book would be fine.

Published by HarperTeen in February 2015, it will be on my year-end Not Recommended list.




Thursday, April 09, 2015

"It's None of Your Business"! -- Avi

Two days ago I arrived in Minneapolis for several reasons. I'll write about the panel I was on at St. Catherine University in another blog post. This one is about Avi.

Avi was on campus and gave a talk about his writing. He started by reading the opening pages of a work-in-progress:

Photo credit: Billy Hinshaw


He then invited those in attendance to ask him anything. No holds barred. Professor Sarah Park Dahlen asked him about his thoughts on the We Need Diverse Books campaign. He started by saying he supports the campaign, and that he thinks any writer can write about anything they want to, but followed by talking about the writer's responsibility to do the research necessary to do justice to the people they're writing about... and how it is very hard to do that research. Doing it well is time consuming. I chimed in about resources people use -- how they're faulty, and he said that writer's have to find people they can trust.

At one point he talked about what Native people are willing to share and that there are things people might want to know about his family, and that he'd say "It's none of your business!"

I liked that comment. That's what a lot of Native people say, but far too many not-Native writers persist in "gotta tell their stories" ways of thinking. If we don't want to share it, it is because, to quote Avi, we think it is "None of your business."

I gotta run (I'm due at AWP) but may come back to this post later. There was much more said in the room that I'd like to share.


Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Boxcar Children: Mystery of the Lost Village

In The Boxcar Children: The Mystery of the Lost Village, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny visit "a Navajo Indian reservation." Violet exclaims "A Navajo reservation!" (p. 2).

That is the first red flag as I start reading this story. There is only one Navajo Nation, and only one Navajo reservation. A Navajo child who pays attention to how Navajo people are portrayed will notice that error right away.

The Boxcar Children and their grandfather fly over the Mississippi River and the Grand Canyon. They land in New Mexico. When they land, they take a taxi to a group of houses on the reservation.

Several red flags there!

They fly over the Mississippi River. Fine. But the Grand Canyon? Nope! Not unless the pilot was lost.

Here's another thing. They land at the airport, which is probably Albuquerque International Airport, which is miles and miles and miles away from the Navajo Reservation... and they go there by taxi?! I know their grandfather is wealthy, so maybe cost is not a big deal, but goodness!

Check out this image. It shows the Navajo Reservation (it spans four states):



Point A is Albuquerque. Point B is Gallup. Distance? 140 miles.

At that group of houses the taxi pulls up to, the Lightfeather children, Amy and Joe, greet them. They get into the taxi, too, and direct the driver to their home. Once at the Lightfeather home, Amy shows Violet and Jessie where they'll sleep (Amy's room). They talk at length about the colorful Navajo blankets on the beds. They've got animal designs on them: an eagle, a deer, a turtle, a hawk, and a turtle. Amy tells the girls that each one, by design, always has a tiny mistake in the design because Navajo women believe that if it is perfect, it would offend the gods.

More red flags!

Navajo blankets being used as blankets on a bed? I'll have to do some checking on that... They're very expensive and are usually more like wall hangings than something you'd wrap yourself up in. And the way the kids talk about the animals on them... well, I can't imagine them. If you do an image search on Navajo blankets, you'll see what I mean. Birds--yes, but all those animals? Not so much. Possible, but not plausible.

Later that evening, the kids meet Kinowok, "the oldest man on the reservation" (p. 14). He's a storyteller. He tells them about a tribal village nearby, just off the reservation, that "the earth had swallowed" up when the people abandoned it during a drought.

To me, that sounds like the things said about Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon... all those sites that are the ancestral homes of Pueblo peoples.

Henry says "A lost village" and talks about archaeology. He wants to find that site and start digging. Mrs. Lightfeather studied archaeology in college and spent two summers working on digs, so she offers to give them some tips. She tells the kids that students have tried to find this particular village but so far, nobody has found it. Once they start digging, they find an arrowhead and a "bright orange" piece of pottery. Later, Mrs. Lightfeather tells them a real estate developer wants to build there, and that they only have two weeks to dig. If they can find the village, it will stop the real estate developer. Sites like that are protected by the law, she says.

The next time the kids dig, Violet finds an entire pot. The cover of the book is meant to show that part of the story, except the pot on the cover has a piece missing. The one Violet finds is in perfect condition. They take it home that evening. Mrs. Lightfeather congratulates her on the find.

More red flags!

If Mrs. Lightfeather is Navajo and has studied archaeology, she'd probably have a different response. Such finds are rare and must be handled with great care.

It is possible but not plausible, to find a perfect pot, and possible but not plausible for Mrs. Lightfeather's reaction, too. She sounds more white than Navajo!

One day, Amy takes the girls to the stable where her horse is. While they're there, a "tall blonde" man enters the stables and startles the girls. He tells them he's a genealogist and that the council has given him permission to look through their records.

Amy assumes this means he is Navajo and asks him about it. He says that yes, he is part Navajo but mostly white. He spots the necklace Amy is wearing and asks her if the stone is an opal. She tells him it is turquoise. After he leaves, she tells the girls that, if he is really Navajo, he would know the stone is turquoise, because of its significance to the Navajo people. There's a legend about it, she says. Violet wants to know what the story is, and Amy starts out with "I guess you'd call it a fairy tale."

With that line, I am going to stop reading. There's too much wrong. The Mystery of the Lost Village -- though a work of fiction, is so deeply flawed that I do not recommend it. According to WorldCat, it is in over 1200 libraries. It is available in Braille and as an e-book. Is it in yours? I hope not.


Saturday, April 04, 2015

Following up: Ruth Bornstein's INDIAN BUNNY

Back in 2006, I posted Beverly Slapin's comparison of Ruth Bornstein's Indian Bunny and her Brave Bunny. I'm expanding on it a bit today by adding photographs I took of the cover and one inside page. Here's the cover:



Note how that bunny is playing the drum with his hands? That is not an accurate depiction of how Native peoples in the U.S. play the drum. It is accurate, however, if the bunny is Hawaiian. He isn't. He's just a bunny playing Indian. Later in the book he's inside a tipi. Here's the page where he decides what he's going to do:



Want to know what all he'll do? Go read Slapin's review.

TINKER AND TANKER OUT WEST by Richard Scarry

I'll be visiting the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota next week. The visit will be all-too-brief, I see, as I go through the extensive list of materials they hold!

For example, I was browsing the finding aid for the Richard Scarry materials. Many of his picture books include characters wearing feathered headdresses and fringed buckskin. Those images have been removed/replaced from later editions of the books. I'd love to find letters between people who made the decision(s) to do that! So, I perused the Finding Aid hoping I'd see a file with letters. I didn't, but I did see something else.

One title in the Finding Aid caught my eye: Tinker and Tanker Out West. I didn't recognize the title. Do you?



I did some poking around on the Internet and found a blog post I may return to later. Some of its content is rather intriguing. For now, let's stick with Scarry's book. The author of the post, Kris Saknussemm, owns a copy of the book and loaded this page to his post:



From what that page indicates, Tinker and Tanker arrive at an Indian village where they meet Indians (buffaloes). They're a papoose and a squaw. Are they out west at that point in the story? Why are they dressing up that way?

Those two words originate with Native peoples of the northeast (squaw has been so badly used that it is now widely seen as a slur). I can't recall Scarry using them in other books, but seeing them here dovetails with his stereotypical images of Native people. I'm thinking I'll put that image on my Foul Among the Good page. It is one of the few times that I've seen a character dress up as a female.

Now--off to see if I can find a copy of the book. It was published in 1961 by Doubleday. According to WorldCat, it is in 139 libraries. Yikes!


Friday, April 03, 2015

Why you should teach two books by Native writers from different Native Nations at the same time

Earlier today on Facebook, I shared a post I wrote last year about not letting a single book (Alexie's Diary) be the only book about American Indians that you read or recommend. In that post, I talked about young adults books. In an ensuing conversation, Joe Sutliff Sanders, an Associate Professor at Kansas State University, told me that when he taught Alexie's book and Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here at the same time,

...the conversation had to turn to explicating the differences between the books, and we had to stop saying "Indian" and start saying "Spokane" and "Onondaga." In fact, we had to start talking about poverty with a lot more nuance, too. 

Here on AICL, I talk about the importance of naming a specific nation (and of course, accurately portraying that nation), but the classroom experience Dr. Sanders shared is so powerful that I asked him if I could share it. Obviously, he said yes. Thanks, Joe!

Let's bring that idea to the picture book category. We could identify similar pairings that would push students to stop saying Indian.

In the picture book category, you could assign/read Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer along with Carol Lindstrom's Girls Dance Boys Fiddle. Instead of saying "Indian" you and students will be saying Creek and Metis. Both feature girls and are set in the present day.



Or, you could use picture books set in the past, by assigning Tim Tingle's Saltypie and Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve's The Christmas Coat. Instead of saying "Indian" you'd say Choctaw and Lakota.



There are lots of possibilities! I gotta head out for now. I may come back with more pairings. I like this idea a lot.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

An Indian headdress in WINNIE AND WALDORF by Kati Hites

I am always glad when people write to me about problems they see in children's books. In recent weeks I've heard from a few people about Winnie and Waldorf.  A picture book written and illustrated by Kati Hites, it was released on March 5th of this year.

School Library Journal's review says that "Families with dogs will see the humor in this mixed-media and digitally illustrated book; cat lovers will be shaking their heads in wonder."

Let's add... "People who find kids donning Indian headdresses will also be shaking their heads as they wonder when this sort of thing will end."

There's no reason for this:




Winnie wears that "formal attire" to her sister's violin concert. The feathers obscure the view, so this happens:



If that was a real headdress, nobody would do that to it. They carry a great deal of significance. They aren't playthings to handle in that way.

That headdress, as Winnie says, is her "most formal attire." In the story, she isn't playing Indian. It wouldn't make it ok if she was, I hasten to say, but there is a backstory for it, right? Hites had a backstory for having that item amongst the items Winnie uses to dress up. What is that backstory?!

Of course, Hites has an editor over at HarperCollins. I wonder who that person is? Did they talk about that headdress? I hope someone reads this post and shares it with Hites and her editor.


Update, April 2, 2015

The author, Kati Hites, submitted a comment to this review. As regular readers of AICL know, when an author submits a comment, I generally paste it into the blog post for the convenience of readers. I will respond later.


Dear Debbie Reese, 
I happened upon your article today; I would like to extend a personal apology for offending your culture- it was never my intention. I am especially saddened to realize the insensitivity (that I had missed while creating the book) as I am very protective of preserving folk customs within my own culture: I still go to traditional dance class every week, Hungarian folk singing, and volunteer in Hungarian Scouts. Growing up as a Hungarian American, my family put a lot of value in dressing up traditionally; 'széki szoknya' literally was my most formal attire. 
I was the happy owner of a whole wardrobe of traditional garment from a spectrum of cultures- from German to Japanese to, yes, Native American. Perhaps I had no business collecting these things, but I loved it anyway. I even dressed up my American friends in my Transylvanian skirts, and párta (which is the Hungarian headdress worn during weddings and ceremonies). Because very few Americans even know where Hungary is, I felt that it would have been exclusive and confusing to have her wearing a piece of clothing that most wouldn't recognize. I had indeed received a suggestion that she could be dressing up into fancy girly clothes in that scene... but that isn't true to who I am. I never liked wearing pink. I wasn't a sparkles, feather boas kind of gal. 
That being said, clearly I wouldn't like to further insult by denying my use of ironic humor throughout the entire book. That scene was an unfortunate attempt to further illustrate Winnie's unique perspective on things rather than an attempt to trivialize the significance of the headdress. Just as we could chuckle about her thinking that naughty Waldorf is the best friend a person can have, we could wonder at her unique opinions on other matters. 
I hope that in the future you give me the opportunity to show the genuine respect I feel for people who care and preserve and live tradition. A tree that has no roots cannot grow. I invite you to contact me about ideas on how to support the preservation of Native American traditions.
Sincerely,  
Kati Hites, debut author/illustrator

My response, on April 3, 2015:

Dear Kati,
Thank you for replying to my review. We're in the midst of intense interest in diversity. I wish you had used the Hungarian headdress.  Using it and including an author's note about it would have taught readers so much, expanding what they know about a people and culture they (as you note) might not know about. Maybe you can do that in a revision of the book? 
The default language used right now is "white" or "Caucasian" but within those labels, there is a lot of ethnic diversity, too. David Roediger's Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White is an excellent study of, as his title says "how America's immigrants became White."
For you--or anyone--who wants to support Native peoples, you can talk with others about stereotypes in children's books, and you can read, recommend, and gift books by Native writers to children, young adults, parents, teachers, and donate them to school and classroom libraries. You can do what I suggested David Arnold do: talk with your editor about this review, so that this sort of problem isn't repeated in other books the editor is working on. 
You've got a blog. It'd be wonderful to see a post there, noting my review and sharing there, what you've shared here. Another place to share is Kurtis Scaletta's series on How to Fail.  
Again, thank you for commenting on my review of your book. 
Debbie