Friday, September 23, 2016

WHEN WE WERE ALONE by David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett

When We Were Alone is one of those books that brought forth a lot of emotion as I read it. There were sighs of sadness for what Native people experienced at boarding schools, and sighs of--I don't know, love, maybe--for our perseverance through it all.


Written by David Alexander Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett, When We Were Alone will be released in January of 2017 from Highwater Press. I read the ARC and can't wait to hold the final copy of this story, of a young children asking her grandmother a series of questions, in my hands.

The story is meant for young children, though of course, readers of any age can--and should--read it.

It opens with the little girl saying:
Today I helped my kókom in her flower garden. She always wears colourful clothes. It's like she dresses in rainbows. When she bent down to prune some of the flowers, I couldn't even see her because she blended in with them. She was like a chameleon. 
"Nókom, why do you wear so many colours?" I asked. 
That child, wondering about something and then asking that "why" question is the format for the story. To this first question, her grandmother says that she had to go to school, far away, and that all the children had to wear the same colors. They couldn't wear the colourful clothes they did before they went to that school. Here's Julie Flett's illustration of the children, at school. I can't look at this illustration without my heart twisting:



Twisting at the expressions on their faces and wondering what they felt, and then I feel a different kind of emotion as I read the next page and look at the next illustration, because the grandma tells the child what they did to be colourful again. They rolled in the leaves, when they were alone:


There's a page about why she wears her hair so long, now, and why she speaks Cree, now. And, a page about being with family. Each one evokes the same thing. Tenderness. And a quiet joy at the power of the human spirit, to survive and persevere in the face of horrific treatment--in this case--by the Canadian government.

Stories of life at residential or boarding school are ones that Native people in the US and Canada tell each other. In Canada, because of the Truth and Reconciliation project, there's an effort to get these stories into print. I'm glad of that. We haven't seen anything like the Truth and Reconciliation project in the U.S., but teachers and libraries need not wait for something similar to start putting these books into schools, and into lesson plans.

When We Were Alone is rare. It is exquisite and stunning, for the power conveyed by the words Robertson wrote, and for the illustrations that Flett created. I highly recommend it.

_____
Back to provide links to the author and illustrator's websites. Both are Native.
David Alexander Robertson
Julie Flett

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Not recommended: THE COURAGE TEST by James Preller

People have been asking me about James Preller's The Courage Test. I got a copy of it, and it was in line for a "Debbie--have you seen" post. On September 20, 2016, a conversation on Facebook prompted me to move it up in the line.  

Here's the synopsis:
Will has no choice. His father drags him along on a wilderness adventure in the footsteps of legendary explorers Lewis and Clark--whether he likes it or not. All the while, Will senses that something about this trip isn't quite right. 
Along the journey, Will meets fascinating strangers and experiences new thrills, including mountain cliffs, whitewater rapids, and a heart-hammering bear encounter.
It is a journey into the soul of America's past, and the meaning of family in the future. In the end, Will must face his own, life-changing test of courage.
A father-and-son journey along the Lewis and Clark Trail--from Fort Mandan to the shining sea--offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.
Will's dad, Bruce, is a history professor. He's into Lewis and Clark so much, that he named his son William Meriwether Miller (William for William Clark, and Meriwether for Meriwether Lewis). 

Bruce's reverence for the expedition is evident as I read The Courage Test. As they travel, Bruce tells Will about the expedition, how Lewis and Clark were seeing a "new world" (p. 22) and "things that had never before been seen by white men" (p. 27). He gives Will a copy of O'Dell and Hall's Thunder Rolling in the Mountains to read. If it is anything like what I read in Island of the Blue Dolphins, it is a poor choice if Bruce's intent is for Will to learn about the Nez Perce people. 

Time and again as I read The Courage Test, I thought "oh come on..." But, there it is. In some places, Will says or thinks something that puts a bit of a check on his dad's reverence, but for the most part, he's in awe, too, and uses the same kind of words his dad uses. Scattered throughout, for example, are pages from a journal Will uses. In the first one, "My Summer Assignment" he writes that (p. 17):
When Thomas Jefferson was president, a lot of North America was unexplored. No white American had ever seen huge parts of it.
I grew tired of all that pretty quickly. I stuck with it, though, right to the end, to Preller's notes in the final pages. There, Preller wrote (p. 209):
I owe the greatest debt to Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose, The Journals of Lewis Clark edited by Bernard DeVoto, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., Lewis and Clark Among the Indians by James P. Ronda, and Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail by Julie Fanselow.
Of that list, the one edited by Alvin Josephy, Jr. stands out. The first Native writer in Josephy's book is Vine Deloria, Jr. Deloria's work is of fundamental importance to Native peoples, and to Native studies. Have you read, for example, his Custer Died For Your Sins? The first sentence in his chapter, “Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars” is this (p. 5):
Exaggeration of the importance of the expedition of Lewis and Clark is a typical American response to mythology.
If Preller read Deloria carefully, how is it that he has such celebratory language all through The Courage Test? And, there's this, on page 6-7 (bold is mine) in Deloria's chapter:
We have traditionally been taught to believe that the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first penetration of white men into the western lands. This belief is totally unfounded. The location of the Mandan villages, scattered from the present North Dakota-South Dakota line along the Missouri River to some distance above present-day Bismarck, were already common knowledge. French and British traders had already established a thriving commerce with these villages and the sedentary Indians were accustomed to dealing with foreigners.
Did Preller choose to ignore that? Or... did Will (writing in his journal) think that the French and British didn't count as "White Americans"? It just doesn't seem to me that Preller actually brought any of the writings in Josephy's book to bear on what he wrote in The Courage Test. Listing Josephy's book, then, feels... not right. 

Jumping back into the story of Bruce and Will on their journey, we meet a guy with broad shoulders, high cheekbones, tanned/rugged/deeply lined skin, black hair in two long thick braids, wearing a beaded necklace. Of course, he's Native. His name is Ollie. He's Bruce's friend, from grad school. Ollie is Nez Perce. When he tells Will about his ancestors, I think it would work better if he used "us" words rather than "them" words:
"My people, the Nez Perce, crossed this river not far from here in 1877. They hoped the Crow would join them in their fight against the U.S. Army, but the Crow turned their backs."
I'm not keen on his characterization of the Nez Perce being like deer grazing on the grass, while the white people were like the grizzly. It has a doomed quality to it that--while plausible--doesn't work for me. Later when Bruce and Ollie share a drink of whiskey, they tell Will that soldiers got flogged for getting drunk. Bruce goes on, saying (p. 69):
Remember, Will, this was a military operation. They were headed into hostile territory.
Bruce says that, with his Nez Perce friend, sitting right there, beside him. Don't his words, then, seem.... odd? Let me frame it this way, for clarity. Let's say I'm camping on my homelands. One of my dear friends and her kid are there, too. We're sharing a drink and talking about colonization. That dear friend would not say to her kid "Remember, ___, this was a military operation. They were headed into hostile territory." She might do it out of the blue in a cafe in a city somewhere, but if we were having a drink around a campfire ON MY HOMELAND and talking about something like the Lewis and Clark expedition... that friend wouldn't do that! And if she did, I'd say something. So---why didn't Ollie say something?! 

And then later, Will watches Ollie fix his hair (p. 74):
He fusses with his front forelock, stylishly sweeping it up and to the back.
"Going for a different look today?" I joked.
Ollie frowns. "It is the style of my people. Goes back generations. Don't you like it?"
"I definitely do," I say.
You know what "style" he's trying to do? Do a search on Chief Joseph, and you'll see. Now it is plausible that a Nez Perce man who is an investment banker in Brooklyn might go home and do his hair that way, but I'm kind of doubtful. (Also, though "forelock" is also used to refer to hair people have, it comes across more strongly for me as specific to horses, so that is a bit odd, too. Not that he's equating Ollie with animals, but that it is just an unusual word.)

I said above that I stuck with this book. That hair style part was tough. So is the part where Ollie tells Will that the bear he thinks he saw the night before was not a real bear (Will didn't see any tracks)... it was probably a spirit animal. They, Ollie tells Will, occur when someone is on a vision quest. It comes, he says, to "bestow the animal's power" and is a "great gift" that he must accept (p. 81). Later in the story, Will has an encounter with a bear. He froze, unable to do what he planned to do if he came across a bear (he's prepped for it), and thinks he's a failure. So.... I guess the power of the "spirit animal" didn't work... in that moment. Will's major task in this book is to be ready for dealing with his mother's cancer. Maybe that's what he'll need the power of that "spirit animal" for, but, really. This is all a mess. So is how the dreamcatcher is shown, later. So is the "illegal" they meet and help out. 

I've got more notes, but I think what I've shared here is enough. Published in 2016 by Feiwel and Friends--an imprint of MacMillan--I do not recommend James Preller's The Courage Test. 






Saturday, September 17, 2016

Not recommended: GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier

On Monday, September 19th, Raina Telgemeier will launch her new book, Ghosts, in Minneapolis. She's a much acclaimed writer with several best selling books. 

Anytime I see a book that has something to do with ghosts, I wonder if the author is going to be contributing to the too-high-pile of problematic books with characters who are haunted or inspired by the ghost of a Native character. One example (there are many) is Susan Cooper's Ghost Hawk. 

I think Telgemeier's Ghosts is one of those problematic books, but I don't think that Telgemeier is aware that she's doing that same thing. The story she tells, and the reviews of her story, demonstrate (yet again) an ignorance of history. I imagine some people defending the book by saying its audience isn't old enough for the complexity of that history, but that holds true only for a selected (possibly white) audience. Native children, and children of color, know far more history than one might expect, because history informs and shapes our daily lives, today. History, of course, informs the daily lives of White children, too, but in a way that means they're ignorant--and are taught ignorance--until they're deemed "ready" for that dark history. 

So, let's get started. Here's the synopsis for Telgemeier's Ghosts:
Catrina and her family are moving to the coast of Northern California because her little sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn't happy about leaving her friends for Bahía de la Luna, but Maya has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. As the girls explore their new home, a neighbor lets them in on a secret: There are ghosts in Bahía de la Luna. Maya is determined to meet one, but Cat wants nothing to do with them. As the time of year when ghosts reunite with their loved ones approaches, Cat must figure out how to put aside her fears for her sister's sake - and her own.

The ghosts in Bahía de la Luna (that is a fictional town) are primarily the ones they see at a mission. This starts on page 73, when Carlos (the neighbor boy who tells them about ghosts) takes them to the mission, "where the ghosts' world and ours mostly closely overlap." The three get separated on the way up there. Cat arrives, alone. The mission itself is run down. 




Nobody is there, which is interesting in itself because those missions are a key piece of California's tourism industry. There may be some that are like the one in Ghosts, but I kind of doubt it. After wandering around a bit, Cat sees a ghost. She follows it and finds Maya and Carlos in the courtyard:




Carlos opens a bottle of orange soda, hands it to Maya, and then one of the ghosts goes right up to her, smiling:




At first she's taken aback, but in the next panels, we see the ghost hug her, so she decides it is a friendly ghost. She says hi, but Carlos tells her that most of the people buried there were from Mexico, so, they like it when people speak Spanish to them. So, Maya calls out "Hola!"

That visit to the mission is the point where--for me--the story really starts to unravel.

The missions were there (obviously) for a specific reason: to turn Native peoples into Catholics and to claim that land for Spain. Some see missions and missionary work as a good, but if you pause for a minute and think about what they and that work is designed to do, and if you do a bit of reading, you'll learn that it was far from the benevolent character with which it is regarded by most of society.

At the missions, life for Native people was brutal. There was rape. Enslavement. Whippings. Confinements. And of course, death. Analyses of the bones at the mission burial sites that compare them with bones found elsewhere show that the bones of those who died at the missions were stunted and smaller than the others.

Some of Telgemeier's ghosts might have spoken Spanish, but it is far more likely that their first language was an Indigenous one. Did they joyfully want to be spoken to in Spanish, the language of their oppressors? Given the history, I think it is unlikely that these ghosts would be smiling as Telgemeier shows:



And I wonder, too, about those cemeteries. There are a lot of accounts that report that Native peoples were buried in mass, unmarked graves, elsewhere.

One might defend Telgemeier by saying that her ghosts are of the Spanish priests and maybe soldiers, and, maybe Native peoples who had been successfully Christianized, but the overwhelming evidence of the history is what I think should hold sway when we look at the missions, and when we give children stories about them.

I strongly urge people to read Deborah Mirandah's Bad Indians. Look, especially, at her chapter, The End of the World: Missionization. There, she presents an accurate version of what children across California are asked to do: a mission study. But Deborah's doesn't soft pedal or whitewash what happened. She describes items, like a cudgel (p. 15):
Wooden club used to strike quickly; alcaldes, soldiers, and sometimes padres carried these with them for spontaneous corrections throughout their day. The alcaldes used these during services in church to remind the Indians to be quiet, to pay attention, and to stay awake. A longer cudgel or cane was useful during Mass because the alcalde could reach far into a crowd without having to move very much.
Look, too, at A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California's Indians by the Spanish Missions by Elias Castillo. He writes about treatment of Native people who tried to escape the missions. When caught, the friars at Mission San Francisco burned crosses into the faces of men, women, and children.

If you can't get Bad Indians or A Cross of Thorns right away, then read The Lesser-Told Story of the California Missions, which includes quotes from their books.

Above, I wrote that this brutal history is usually kept away from children--but I also noted that the children it is kept from is not Native children, or children of color. Indeed, Castillo's book includes a foreword, written by Valentin Lopez, Chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians. He writes:
Until now, the true and full history of the California missions has never been told. When visitors tour the missions, they are usually presented with stories and images of peaceful, loving priests and soldiers who treated the Indians as adored children. 
These stories belie the truth of the missions, where Native Americans suffered under harsh and brutal conditions. As a young boy, I listened to stories from my elders about the cruelty of the missions. There were tales of how native women were captured— with their thumbs tied together with leather straps to form human chains— and marched forcibly from their tribal lands to the missions. If the Indians did not cooperate, the soldiers, at times, killed them. In one incident, more than two hundred women and children of the Orestimba tribe (living near what is now the town of Newman) were being taken to Mission San Juan Bautista. When, after passing the summit at the Orestimba Narrows, these women refused to go any farther, the Spanish commander ordered the women and children killed with sabers and their remains scattered. 
The oral traditions of our tribal band, the Amah Mutsun, taught us stories of how certain Spaniards would appear when the Indians were first brought into the missions so they could get their pick of the young girls and boys for their perverted appetites, always with the tacit approval of the priests.
I know most people don't want to read about such things, but for certain, we cannot go forward presenting the missions as Telgemeier does. Can you imagine what Mr. Lopez's response to Ghosts? Can you imagine how teachers will use this book in the classrooms? On a superficial level, it looks to be the perfect "diverse" book. It isn't. Head over to Reading While White's post about Ghosts and see the conversation and links there. In particular see what Yuji Morales and Patricia Encisco submitted in their comments about the book.

Published in 2016 by Scholastic, I do not recommend Raina Telgemeier's Ghosts. 

__________
Eds. Note: AICL will add links to additional reviews about concerns with the book.

Ghosts: Swing and a Hard Miss by Laura Jimenez

Friday, September 16, 2016

SHADOW OF THE SHARK by Mary Pope Osborne

Mary Pope Osborne's Shadow of the Shark was published in 2015 as part of the best-selling Magic Tree House series. Osborne's Thanksgiving on Thursday did not fare well, here, at American Indians in Children's literature. Her Shadow of the Shark is just as bad. I tweeted as I read it, on September 15, 2016, made the tweets into a Storify (inserting comments between the tweets), and used the copy/paste function to paste the Storify here.




  1. View image on Twitter

    Geez. In Osborne's SHADOW OF THE SHARK, Mayan king decides white time traveler boy will be the next king.


  2. That's why the Mayans were looking at Jack (white boy), with fear and wonder when he and his sister walked into the midst of their dance.


  3. Oh dang... and not surprised... Mayan girl using "many moons" phrase. Her name? Heart-of-the-Wind.

  4. Her name... doesn't it call to mind Disney's Pocahontas?! 

  5. She moves "silently and smoothly" through the swamp. Jack is noisy but wants to be like her.

  6. These goofy hyphenated Indian-sounding names (oh dang, I used a hyphen, too) are dreadful. So many writers come up with names like these for characters. But heck. A little research, please! Osborne could have looked for someone who speaks one of the Mayan languages, and found out what their word is for jaguar, and used that, right? Or a translation of it, from that language into English? Maybe Osborne thinks there's no Mayan people around? Surely, though.... doesn't she listen to, or read, national news? Like this story?

  7. Then, they see He-Who-Kills-With-One-Leap (a jaguar). Jack thinks they should run but Heart-of-the-Wind stares at jaguar...


  8. ... to "send peaceful thoughts" and then he lets them pass. SHADOW OF THE SHARK came out last year, by the way. It is a Magic Tree House bk.

  9. Did you catch that... Heart-of-the-Wind/Pocahontas... talking to animals? 

  10. Who edited this book? It is so White. Jack's sister, Annie, looks at Heart-of-the-Wind and says she's like an Eagle Scout.


  11. In an underground place, Heart points to columns of white rock and says they're stone sculptures made by "the Rain God."


  12. But Jack remembers his geology studies. Those things are stalactites. He likes Heart's explanation. How nice of him.

  13. I wonder if Osborne has a Magic Tree House story where Jack and Annie travel to... the Vatican. I wonder if that book would be dismissive of what they see there?

  14. Heart leads them back to the beach where they started their time travel. As they say bye, Heart says she'll tell her King-dad they left.


  15. With Jack and Annie leaving, Jack won't be the next king who will lead the Mayan people.


  16. Annie asks Heart why she (Heart) can't be the next leader of the Mayan people. Heart laughs at the idea but Jack and Annie tell her...


  17. ... that she's brave. And she can talk to the jaguar.... Heart likes the idea but knows her King-dad won't go for it. But... maybe... if...


  18. JACK tells him that Heart should be leader... he'll listen.


  19. But Jack can't go back to the place where Heart's dad is, so... they record a video on Jack's phone. Heart will play this magic for her dad!


  20. I know... you're dying to know what Jack says...


  21. “Greetings, Great Sun of Palenque. I have a message for you. My sister and I have come from Frog Creek, a land far away, to tell you this:"


  22. "women can lead just as well as men. Many women are leaders in our world. They are presidents, queens, senators..."


  23. It goes on... They play it back for Heart, who is amazed. Her gift in return is some magic that helps them return to the present day.


  24. Back at their present day hotel, Jack and Annie look up Heart-of-the-Wind and find that a Mayan woman with that name became ruler...


  25. & was first female Mayan ruler in Mayan history "due to extremely unusual circumstances, the details of which have not survived."


  26. Yay (not) for White Saviors! And White Writers!

  27. Osborne's other books with Native people include THANKSGIVING ON THURSDAY.
  28. There's a review of BUFFALO BEFORE BREAKFAST in A BROKEN FLUTE: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN. No surprise... it is a #Fail, too! 
  29. Guess what the wise old Lakota grandma in Buffalo Before Breakfast names Jack? 
  30. Rides-Like-Wind (I guess Osborne is partial to names with wind in them). 
  31. I know some of you think I'm mean, being snarky and all towards Osborne's writing. Some of you may even think what I've said should be ignored. Because... tone. Some of you think that criticism has to be delivered in the proper way. 
  32. Sometimes, snark is the only way to get through a book. I hope Osborne reads this Storify. I hope her editor does. Reading Shadow of the Shark is one of those many times when I read a book and think HOW DID THIS GET PUBLISHED??? 
  33. Whether you like my tone or not, I hope you'll click on away, with the info I've shared in mind. Don't screw up if you're writing about Native peoples. Someone will probably write to me about your screw up. And then you'll see your book on my site in the "Debbie--have you seen" series...