Thursday, March 31, 2016


Last year, I referenced S. D. Nelson's Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People in an article I did for School Library Journal. I hadn't read it then, and haven't studied it yet, but have had some questions about it (hence, it is now in my "Debbie--have you seen" category). I do have a copy and want to say a few words about it. (Update: It was published in 2015 by Abrams.)

I'm critical of books wherein the writer has invented dialogue for a real person. As a scholar in children's literature who works very hard to help others see biased, stereotypical, inaccurate, romantic and derogatory depictions of Native peoples in children's books, invented dialogue looms large for me.

In short: I need to know if there is evidence or documentation that the person actually said those words. This concern holds, whether the writer is Native or not.

In Nelson's Sitting Bull, the entire text is invented dialogue--and invented thoughts.

It is constructed as a first person biography. It is presented to us as if Sitting Bull is telling us his life story, after he's been killed. Along the way, we have some dialogue, but mostly we have what Nelson imagines Sitting Bull to have thought.

On February 1, 2016 in The Stories in Between, Julie Danielson wrote:
Increasingly, today’s readers also want to see dialogue attribution in the back matter of biographies. That’s because invented dialogue is still a touchy subject. You have those who think that it has no place and that any sort of made-up dialogue puts the biography squarely in the category of historical fiction. Then you have those who think such dialogue is acceptable, helps bring the story to life, and can still be considered nonfiction. In 2014, Betsy Bird wrote here about her changing feelings on the subject (“In general I stand by my anti-faux dialogue stance but recently I’ve been cajoled into softening, if not abandoning, my position”), which made me nod my head a lot.
Here’s where I (and many others) draw the line: if a biographer invents dialogue or shifts around facts in any sort of way, they need to come clean about this in the back matter. A great example of this is Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower, the story of con artist Robert Miller, published last year and named a Kirkus Best Book of 2015. There’s a line in the starred review of the book that states: “The truth behind Miller’s exploits is often difficult to discern, and Pizzoli notes the research challenges in an afterword.” 
"Come clean" is, perhaps, a loaded way to characterize what Danielson is calling for, but I think it is an important call. I want to know what Nelson made up.

Clearly, this is not a hard and fast rule. If it was, Sitting Bull would not have been selected as an Honor Book by the American Indian Library Association.  And--this isn't the first time the field of children's literature has looked critically at invented dialogue. Myra Zarnowski's chapter, Intermingling fact and Fiction, published in 2001 in The Best in Children's Nonfiction, has a good overview.

If I do an in-depth look at Sitting Bull, I'll be back. For now, though, I am not comfortable recommending it, and I may revisit what I said about his Buffalo Bird Girl when I wrote about it, back in 2013. It, too, is a biography.

I anticipate questions from readers who wonder if S.D. Nelson ought to get a pass on invented dialogue because he is Lakota. My question is: did he work with any of Sitting Bull's descendants as he wrote the story? Did any of them read the manuscript? If they did, and they found it acceptable, I'd love to see that in the book. On the cover, in fact! If I do hear anything like that, I'll be back to update this post.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Debbie--have you seen Erin Petti's THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE?

Debbie--have you seen...
Adding Erin Petti's The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee to my "have you seen" series. Here's the synopsis:

Eleven-year-old budding scientist Thelma Bee has adventure in her blood. But she gets more than she bargained for when a ghost kidnaps her father. Now her only clues are a strange jewelry box and the word “Return,” whispered to her by the ghost. It’s up to Thelma to get her dad back, and it might be more dangerous than she thought—there’s someone wielding dark magic, and they’re coming after her next.

No mention in the synopsis of a Native character, but Thelma's best friend, Alexander, is "part Native American."

I've got an ARC. If/when I read it, I'll be back!

DRAGONFLY KITES, written by Tomson Highway; illustrated by Julie Flett

Terrific news! Tomson Highway's Dragonfly Kites is available again--this time with art by Julie Flett!

Fifteen years ago, I learned about three delightful picture books by Tomson Highway. Illustrated by Brian Deines, each one had a great story that was presented in English and in Cree. Fox on the IceCaribou Song, and Dragonfly Kites were published by a major publisher (HarperCollins) in Canada but went out of print. In 2008, I was able to get copies of them.

In 2013, Fifth House reissued Caribou Song with a new illustrator, John Rombough. It went on to win the picture book award from the American Indian Library Association. Highway is Cree; Rombough is Dene.

While the art Deines did in the early 2000s was realistic and had appeal for that realism, I gotta say that I really like Rombough's work. It is visually arresting and provides the opportunity to teach children about different kinds of art. I highly recommend Caribou Song.

I am thrilled that Fifth House is giving us DragonFly Kites this year. The illustrator is one of my favorite artists: Julie Flett. Here's the synopsis for Dragonfly Kites:

Joe and Cody, two young Cree brothers, along with their parents and their little dog Ootsie, are spending the summer by one of the hundreds of lakes in northern Manitoba. Summer means a chance to explore the world and make friends with an array of creatures.
But what Joe and Cody like doing best of all is flying dragonfly kites. They catch dragonflies and gently tie a length of thread around the middle of each dragonfly before letting it go. Off soar the dragonflies into the summer sky and off race the brothers and Ootsie too, chasing after their dragonfly kites through trees and meadows and down to the beach before watching them disappear into the night sky.

As kids do, Joe and Cody befriend animals. One summer their pet was a baby Arctic tern they named Freddy. Another summer, they were fond of a baby loon that they named Sally. And on another summer, they were watching two baby eagles (not paginated):
They named one Migisoo, which means "eagle" in Cree. The other they named Wagisoo, which doesn't mean anything but rhymes with Migisoo.
Migisoo! Cracks me up! Here's that page, and look! That dog? That's Ootsie:

Dragonfly Kites will be at the top of my lists this year! And of course, I wonder... will Fifth House be giving us the third book (Fox On Ice), too? I hope so!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

DARK ENERGY by Robison Wells

In January, a reader wrote to ask me about Dark Energy by Robison Wells. I got an ARC (advanced reader copy) from Edelweiss and read it last week. I have a lot of questions. The book itself will be released on March 29, 2016. Let's start with the synopsis:
We are not alone. They are here. And there’s no going back. Perfect for fans of The Fifth Wave and the I Am Number Four series, Dark Energy is a thrilling stand-alone science fiction adventure from Robison Wells, critically acclaimed author ofVariant and Blackout.
Five days ago, a massive UFO crashed in the Midwest. Since then, nothing—or no one—has come out.
If it were up to Alice, she’d be watching the fallout on the news. But her dad is director of special projects at NASA, so she’s been forced to enroll in a boarding school not far from the crash site. Alice is right in the middle of the action, but even she isn’t sure what to expect when the aliens finally emerge. Only one thing is clear: everything has changed.
The synopsis doesn't tell us that Alice is "half Navajo." Her dad is white; her deceased mom was Navajo.

Back in January, I noted that I was interested in the author's note. I'll begin with it. There, Wells writes that he used to live on the Navajo reservation. Because he wanted to be respectful "of the tribes and ancestors of tribes mentioned in the book" he sent the manuscript out to several readers. He names seven individuals (Orlando Tsosie, Sammy Jim, Thomas Begay, Angelina Begay, Nadine Padilla, Susie Sandoval, and Thomasita Yazzie). Some of their surnames are clearly Navajo. Wells listened to what they had to say:
The small amount we see of ceremony and meeting with the Elders is a very whittled down version of a real Navajo ceremony. Originally we saw all of it, but the Navajos I spoke to--with only one exception--said it was too sacred to depict. I cut it back and and back until they were satisfied.
I am glad to read that Wells cut it more than once until his readers were satisfied. But--I have many questions, because equally important to the story Wells tells are Pueblo peoples. He doesn't say he sent the manuscript to Pueblo Indian readers. I'm not sure what I'd have said...

Let's back up.

From the synopsis, we know an alien ship has crashed in Iowa and that Alice's dad has to go there. The boarding school Alice is sent to is the Minnetonka School for the Gifted and Talented. Soon after Alice and her dad get to the site, the aliens start to emerge. The US government welcomes them and through a translator, figures out they call themselves the Guides. All but two are housed in a tent city next to the giant ship.

The school's gifted and talented student body is important to the story. Alice and her friends befriend the two Guides (these two are a brother and sister). Brynne, one of the Minnetonka students, tests the DNA of the girl alien (they call her Coya) and finds out that she's not an alien at all. She is human. Another student who is into languages records some of Coya's words, analyzes them, and figures out that Coya and her brother are speaking a Pueblo language:
"Keresan is a language spoken by half a dozen tribes in New Mexico. They're Pueblo tribes. Acoma, Laguna--those are the ones I've been to. There are others to the east."
Brynne says:
"...the DNA databases I've searched say they're not any one of those tribes, but they have markers for being an older tribe that those are descendants from."   
Alice says:
"the language is like a puebloan nation, but not. And the DNA is like a puebloan nation, but not. Are we talking about the Anasazi here?"
The conversation continues, with Brynne and Rachel giving the rest of the group some information about the Anasazi, including that the preferred name is Ancestral Puebloans.

So--Coya and her sibling and the Guides who were on that ship are not aliens. They're Ancestral Puebloans who were abducted by some bad aliens (they're called Masters), who we'll learn later, look like lizards. These bad aliens enslaved the Ancestral Puebloans and used them as incubators for parasites the Masters grow till they become like the Masters, too. How all that becomes known is laid out in the story in a gruesome discovery when Alice and her friends go onto the ship and find bloody rooms where, Alice's dad tells her, they think thousands committed mass suicide after puncturing their abdomens.

Are you unsettled by any of that? I am, and while that part of Dark Energy has nothing to do with ceremony, it does a few things that I would have asked Wells to revisit.

This alien abduction idea is one that appears here and there. As I did some research, I read that tourists tell tour guides at Chaco Canyon that abduction story. It is part of an X-Files episode, too. All of this feeds into New Age activity that is harmful to the sites, which have significance to us today. Will Dark Energy inadvertently encourage that abduction idea? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, consider sacred or significant aspects of your own spiritual or cultural or religious life and how they are (or could be) exploited by others who don't understand those ways.

I wonder if Wells took the feelings of Pueblo people into consideration? Why did he not ask Pueblo readers to read his manuscript? I think I can offer an answer. The entire story is dependent on abducted Ancestral Puebloans. If I said "no, don't go there," I can't imagine how this story could be told. Can you?

Another thread that I am uncomfortable with is the ways in which Alice and her friends go about teaching "our culture" to Coya. There are places in the story where Alice says something that tells us she's well aware of politics, history, and oppression of Native peoples, but there are other places where that orientation disappears, like when teaching Coya "our" culture. Alice is clearly a US teen, into things most other US teens are into, but for me, she slips in and out of a Navajo orientation in ways that I find jarring. At one point she talks sarcastically about small pox, and then at this "our culture" part, there's this:
It was amazing the things that she didn't have any concept of: awards, winning, competition, prizes.
And there is another part where another student (he's from India and has applied for US citizenship) and Alice are talking about what the government will do with the Guides. He says:
"I wonder what they'll do about the Guides' citizenship. They landed in America--does that make them American? It's not like we can load them on a bus and send them back to where they came from. Besides, from what you said, putting them on a bus would just be shipping them back to Mesa Verde, right?"
"I don't see us creating a new little nation for them, I said. "We've seen how well that's worked out in the past, with Native American reservations."
"I don't know what they'll be," I said. "These Guides are going to need a lot of education, and they don't have any money. Are we just going to give them free houses?"
See? Her voice, her orientation, her political knowledge.. it seems uneven, or, inconsistent.

As the story draws to a close, Alice and her friends are running, along with Coya and her brother, to the Navajo reservation where a ceremony will be done by a Hopi man who talks of monsters who came from the sky, and, a bundle with the skull of one of those monsters. It isn't clear to me who does a sandpainting of the ship... is it a Navajo man or the Hopi one? I can't tell, but, we learn that the Hopi learned how to kill the monsters, using a poison they make from juniper berries, dried insects, and dried flowers. Arrows are dipped into that poison. Alice and her friends go to Chaco Canyon, the Masters/Monsters arrive there.

Alice talks with one (through a translator mechanism that Coya and her brother have been using). It is angry. It asks her if she knows what her friends have cost his people. She says they're her people. It replies:
"What do you mean 'your people'? These slaves were taken from this weak little planet more than eight hundred of your Earth years ago. We took only what we needed--we bred the rest. Your population is exploding. You seem to have more than enough to spare a few."
Some dramatic fighting ensues, but those poison tipped arrows do the trick. The four Masters/Monsters are killed.

These parts about enslavement are meant to make a point about enslavement of Africans and they're the part about history that the Kirkus reviewer referenced, but I don't know... It doesn't sit well with me.

What Wells does in Dark Energy is too over-the-top and, as noted earlier, the abduction/alien theme plays into New Age abuses of our ancestral sites. I've read and re-read what I've written here, trying to bring it into a useful and coherent sharing of my thoughts, but I feel confounded by what I read in Dark Energy. Obviously, I've decided to stop trying and just hit the upload button.

Published in 2016 by HarperCollins (a major publisher), I conclude with this: I do not recommend Dark Energy by Robison Wells. I invite your thoughts.

Update, March 28, 2016

I'm back to address something that I didn't include above. Alice learns that Coya is human because of a DNA test that was done without Coya's knowledge or consent. In real life, that should not happen. Readers might say it is ok because at the time the sample was taken, they didn't know she was human, but in that case, I think Wells could circle back to it later and say it was not right. A key point I want to make: the taking of DNA from marginalized peoples or vulnerable populations is a serious concern. You may be interested in the misuse of DNA samples taken from the Havaupai Tribe in the 1980s.

Readers may also be interested in knowing that a DNA test that has markers of Native heritage does not mean the individual with that DNA is one who can say they are Native American. Being a citizen of a tribe is far more than that. To gain insight about that, you can read this interview with Kim Tallbear (she's a scientist): 'There is no DNA test to prove you're Native American'. You can also get Tallbear's book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science

Debbie--have you seen JOURNEY INTO MOHAWK COUNTRY by Harmen Meyndertsz von den Bogaert and George O'Connor

Debbie, have you seen...
A reader writes to ask me if I've read Journey Into Hawk Country. I haven't. Here's the synopsis from WorldCat:
An illustrated children's version of the journal of a young Dutch trader, Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, who journeyed into the land of the Iroquois Indians, a Mowhawk tribe that controlled the trade routes in the area, in 1634, seeking to bolster the Dutch trade in what is now New York State.

It came out in 2006 and there's quite a lot written about it. Here's one well-sourced essay, written by Melissa L. Melon: Our Minds in the Gutters: Sexuality and Reader Responsibility in George O'Connor's Graphic Novel, Journey into Mohawk Country.

If I get the book, I'll be back.

Debbie--have you seen THE NIGHT TOURIST by Katherine Marsh

This "have you seen" post is, more or less, a note to myself to put Katherine Marsh's The Night Tourist on my list of books to read. Of late, I'm finding/learning about several books that are set in New York City and have Native content--in the form of ghosts or Indians-of-the-past.

The Night Tourist came to my attention as I read an article in the March 27 edition of The Washington Post. Written by Katherine Marsh (author of The Night Tourist), the photograph at the top of her article is what caught my eye. Here's a screen cap:

That soldier, with machine gun, standing in front of a book display is, of course, chilling. As my eyes moved to the books on the shelves, I realized the soldier is standing in front of a wall of Tintin books. The one on the top shelf, 3rd from the left, is Tintin in America. It is one of the much loved Tintin books have stereotypical, racist, derogatory content.

As I started looking into Tintin articles to link to in this post, I found an article in Salon: Tintin's racist history: Symbol of Brussels solidarity is uncomfortably divisive. In it is a link to an article in Vox: How Tintin became the symbol of solidarity in the Brussels attacks. The Vox article is mostly a series of tweets of Tintin crying.

I don't know if Marsh chose the photo that was used with her article. She doesn't mention the Tintin books. My guess is that someone in the editorial department at the Post has read the Vox article and thought it a good choice, given that Marsh writes children's books. The image did something else for me: it caught my eye and led me to look at Marsh's first book, which (as noted above) has Native content of the no-longer-around kind, but it also captures the importance of children's books.

Far too many people look down on children and the books created for them, but they're important. They shape the ways we view the world. How they do that is something that needs more attention. When I read Marsh's book, what will I find? Does that book add to the misinformation that Native peoples no longer exist? If/when I read her book, I'll be back. If you've read it, let me know what you noticed when you read it.