Tuesday, October 21, 2014

K.V. Flynn's ON THE MOVE

There's a lot to like about K.V. Flynn's On The Move. As far as I know, Flynn is not Native. His main character, Callum, isn't Native either, but a Native kid named Obbie figures prominently in this middle grade story set in California. He's not the sidekick who will be the first to die. He's the real deal. That is, a Native kid who is grounded in his identity as a Native kid. It is a natural part of who he is--which is, one of several boys who hang out together. They are skateboarders.  

In the first three chapters, we learn that Obbie is Native and that he spends his summers on the reservation with his dad. This is done quite naturally. We learn it through the boy's conversations.

In chapter four, we get a closer look at his Native identity. By that, I mean that we see how he thinks about sovereignty. The group of boys are on their way to skate. They're talking about school, in particular, Obbie's essay for English. Mateo says (Note: I'm reading an ebook; no page numbers):
"You cannot use The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for Kroos's final, Obbie." Mateo was sure that Ob was about to make a critical error and not make it out of eighth grade English alive. "Your book has to be set entirely outside the U.S."
Obbie replies that his book is set on the reservation (he says "rez", which is fine). The boys try to tell him that the reservation is by Spokane, in the state of Washington, and therefore, the book can't be eligible for the essay. Obbie says:
"But it's on the reservation," Obbie explained with his last bit of patience. "That's a sovereign nation."
The boys tell him it doesn't matter, because it is still in the U.S. Obbie replies:
"You guys laugh all you want. But I'm telling Miss Kroos an Indian rez is not America, and that's the book I read." 
Though Obbie was out of patience, it is a friendly exchange (these guys like each other a lot) that is told as a flashback in Callum's memory. Let me back up.

The book itself opens with Callum, Levi, and Apollo at a skateboard camp, shortly after the school year has ended. They've said their good-bye's to Obbie and Mateo. Out of the blue, the United States is attacked. Major cities are bombed. The boys at camp worry about their parents, and, they worry about Obbie and Mateo, too. Did Obbie make it to the reservation? Most of the story is about the kids and their efforts to be reunited with friends and family.

I gotta say that all the skate talk flew right over my head. There's a lot of it and I'm sure it'll be a hook for kids who spend hours on skateboards, trying this or that ramp or trick. The obvious hook for me is Obbie, but I like intriguing stories where teens deal with catastrophic events (like Matt de la Pena's The Living), and stories where science and technology are woven into the plot.

I like Obbie and I like how Flynn has developed and presented him. He doesn't talk much about the reservation during the school year. It is boring there, he says. I've heard plenty of kids at home (on our reservation) say that, too. Obbie pretty much has to go up there to see the Native side of his family (his mom isn't Native) because they don't go down to California much. From Flynn's website, I learned that this is the first of three books about these boys. I'm wondering if we'll learn more about Obbie's parents. How did his Native dad and his white mom meet? What caused them to split up?

But...  Back to the story in On The Move...

The boys desperately want to communicate with parents and friends using their cell phones and computers (when they can find one) but the bombs have destroyed a lot of the infrastructure that makes that communication reliable. Connections are fleeting and old school (they learn what dial-up is and how to use it) but good enough for them to learn that Obbie is with his cousin, Suri. They are fine. The four boys make a plan to meet up and head north together. Most everyone that survived the bombings, they learn, is headed north.

Callum, Levi, and Apollo head north on their skateboards. When they meet up with Suri (she has a truck) and Obbie, they pile into the truck and keep going north. Before long they come to checkpoint of sorts, set up by some bandits. They ask Suri what she's doing with this bunch of kids, and she says that she and Obbie are Yakama and headed to the Yakama Reservation to join their family, and that they found the kids and are keeping them safe. One of the bandits, it turns out, is Native, too. He's told to "get rid of them." Callum thinks that means its all over, but he lets them go instead, keeping their money.

They jump back into the truck, turn around, and find another route, again, heading north.

They get lot of help at places where people are seeking refuge. At one place, a guy is showing Suri a safe route on a map. She says:
"D'you mean here, by the Pyramid Lake Reservation?"
It is a small thing, but a meaningful one. It is one of many moments where a reference to Native people or culture is just dropped in, seamlessly. The map above/right shows the location of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada and the Yakama Reservation in Washington.

At one point as they drive, Mateo asks Obbie if his family has "teepees and stuff" on the reservation. Obbie says
"Nah, that was a hundred years ago. They have houses and cars. A school. Normal stuff." 
Callum asks why Obbie's family moved there. Obbie replies:
"They're from there! We were always there. Our tribe is native around that area, they say. Oregon, Washington, those parts. What, d'ya think Lewis and Clark actually discovered some place empty?"
There's more in that conversation, with Obbie telling the boys about his family. Callum laughs about how one-sided history is taught, and Mateo wonders if there had been Indians in area they're passing through. Obbie says:
"Yeah, until the gold rush. Then all those miners came. Brought measles and smallpox galore. I think, like, ninety percent of Native people around here died."
Obbie goes on:
"The rest were captured by the Californios. Used as slaves and stuff. Especially the little kids. The new miners thought the Native Americans were competition, and they were so frantic for all this gold, that the settlers brought a lot of violence, too. Raided the villages. Sold the women. Seriously bad news."
Obbie knows a lot of history and doesn't hesitate to share it. This is more than the one or two lines that Lynn drops in, seamlessly, but it works, too. There's more, too, when they get to a town with a community college. Suri and Obbie head over to it, thinking that the Native American students there, in the First Nations Student Union, would have information about their reservation.

When On the Move draws to a close, the kids are reunited with their families. I should note that there's a bit of a mystery throughout having to do with one friend who dies early in the story. I'll leave that alone, so as not to divulge everything that happens in this story.

In short, I liked Flynn's On the Move. I think there's plenty in it for Native and non-Native kids to grab on to, and I look forward to more from Flynn.


Maira Kalman's Thomas Jefferson, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything got starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. 

Horn Book noted its candor and substance, and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books praised Kalman's candid discussion of Jefferson's contradictory views about slavery.

Me? The title alone brought me up short. As far as I've read, no one else has noted the title.

Apparently, the author, her editor and publisher, and obviously the reviewers, did not think how a Native person--especially one whose ancestor's were removed from their homelands--would read the phrase, "The Pursuit of Everything."

Like the presidents before him, Jefferson wanted land.

Like presidents before him, Jefferson chose to act as though Native people were primitive hunters. He wanted them to be farmers, not hunters! In fact, Native peoples of their respective nations all along the coast had been farming for hundreds of years, and Jefferson knew that. He wanted them to stop hunting, though, because if they did, they wouldn't need all that land. But it was their land. Treaties said so!

So, what to do?! Jefferson wanted that land!

In American Indians, American Presidents (published in 2009 by HarperCollins), Robert Venables quotes from a letter Jefferson wrote to William Henry Harrison:
To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want... we shall push our trading uses [familiar trading customs], and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.
See that? Jefferson's idea was to give them credit at trading posts, knowing that when they couldn't pay off that debt, their land would be used to pay it off. Today, don't we call that predatory lending?  

You may wonder... are Native people in Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything? Kalman included Hemings and slavery... did her candor extend in any way to what Jefferson said or did with regard to Native people?

We're told he had an Indian artifact in his home.

And, there's a page about "brave men" named Lewis and Clark:

Nary a mention on that page of tribes as Nations with whom the US government had treaties with... Just the names of some of them, and the words "artifacts" and "danger" and "tribespeople" and of course, the name of one person in particular, Sacagawea.

Thomas Jefferson.
The pursuit of everything. 
The pursuit of land. 

Fact: Moving Native peoples off their homelands made it possible for white people to pursue everything on that land. Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything keeps that particular fact off the page.

Isn't that a problem? For all of us? Native and not?

If young readers can handle Jefferson's affair with Hemings, don't you think they'd be able to handle a candid page of information about Native Nations, treaties, and, about US policies on land acquisition?

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, published in 2014 by Penguin Books, is not recommended.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Author Studies, Kathleen Hale, Native authors

Last week, the Guardian published an article by Kathleen Hale that detailed how she had stalked a blogger who wrote a negative review of her book. Understandably, the article prompted a great deal of conversation on social media, with many bloggers expressing fear about being stalked.

Amongst the responses to Hale were ones that said that reviews are about books, not their authors, and that an author should not take reviews personally. A book, some say, stands alone. The author does not matter.

I appreciate that response but am hitting the pause button. Here's why.

Teachers assign author studies. There are guides on how to do them. Publishers like Scholastic offer guides, too. In them, students are asked to do research on the author's life, and that author's body of work. They are asked to make connections between the author's life and work. They are also asked to make personal connections between their own life experiences and those of the author and/or characters in the author's books.

Given the amount of conversation that took place over Kathleen Hale's article, I'm pretty sure a student doing an author study of her will come across the article. I hope they come away from it thinking that Hale went too far in stalking the blogger. Perhaps, in the days to come, we'll learn more about why the Guardian published that piece, and, because I think Hale was wrong to stalk the blogger (she paid for a background check on the blogger, and later rented a car and went to the blogger's home), I hope that the Guardian editors add a note to the top of that article, linking to responses from the blogging community.

On AICL, I've said that authors matter because I know that teachers ask students to do author studies.

My preference is that teachers assign books by Native writers because when the book is assigned, the teacher can say, for example, "Cynthia Leitich Smith is a tribal member of the Muscogee Creek Nation." The teacher can show students Cynthia's website and the website for the Muscogee Nation, too.

In doing that, the teacher will be using present-tense verbs ('is' and 'are'), and pushing against the idea that American Indians no longer exist, and, against the monolithic and stereotypical image of American Indians as people in feathered headdresses who lived in tipis and hunted buffaloes.

In short, an author's identity matters, and it is why I advocate for Native authors.

Back to Kathleen Hale. Here's some of the responses to her article. Please read them, and, learn about stalking, too. Start with information provided at the Stalking Resource Center.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Sometimes I read a children's book and start digging in a bit to do a review, and I find that my heart is soaring, and that I'm sitting here with a grin on my face. That is how I feel, writing this blog post, about Carole Lindstrom's Girls Dance, Boys Fiddle. 

Her story is about a girl named Metisse who doesn't want to dance. She wants to fiddle! Here's the cover of the book:

Her mom and dad, her brother, kids at school... they all tell her she can't fiddle. Girls, they say, have to dance. Her mom is teaching her how, and, gives her the shawl Memere (her grandma) wore when she first did the Butterfly Dance. Her mom wore it, too. Now, it is Metisse's turn to wear it.

But, Metisse struggles. She can't move her feet right. She's much happier when she's playing the fiddle with Pepere (her grandfather). Look at the cover. That's Pepere teaching her how to fiddle. She's learning how to play the Red River Jig. Obviously, he thinks it is just fine that she plays the fiddle.

As you might guess, it will turn out ok in the end.

Metis culture is part of every page.  I imagine some of you are wondering why Metis people would be doing a jig, or, playing fiddles! The final page of Girls Dance Boys Fiddle has an explanation:
Metis fiddle music is a blend of Scottish, French and Aboriginal influences that began in the early fur trade days in Canada.
The website for the Metis Nation has additional information about who they are:
The advent of the fur trade in west central North America during the 18th century was accompanied by a growing number of mixed offspring of Indian women and European fur traders. As this population established distinct communities separate from those of Indians and Europeans and married among themselves, a new Aboriginal people emerged - the Métis people - with their own unique culture, traditions, language (Michif), way of life, collective consciousness and nationhood.

I like Girls Dance, Boys Fiddle because it is set in the present day, and because as I read it, I was swept into the story and curious to know more about the Red River Jig. So--I searched for videos and found a great many on YouTube. Here's a video of Metis kids, jigging. You gotta watch it to the end. At the end, the three-year-old appropriately acknowledges the fiddlers (and his dancing is cool, too):

Did you happen to see the woman with the fiddle? Go ahead--watch the video again. She's toward the end.

When, in the story, Metisse starts to fiddle at the gathering, her grandparents jump up and start dancing.

That page stole my heart! It made me think of the many times I saw my grandparents or parents jump up to dance together. I found lots of videos of Metis people jigging, but click over and watch Elder's Jigging Contest 2011 New Yr's. It looks like such fun!

Thanks, Carole, for this delightful story.

American Indians in Children's Literature highly recommends Girls Dance, Boys Fiddle, written by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Kimberly McKay, published in 2013 by Pemmican Publications, Inc.

THE GUARDIAN errs in its list of 50 best culturally diverse children's books

Yesterday (October 13, 2014), The Guardian ran an article titled Diverse voices: the 50 best culturally diverse children's books.

I don't know all the books on the list, but I do know two that shouldn't be on any list of culturally diverse books.

Culturally diverse books must not have stereotypes!

Amazing Grace is in the Early Years section of the article. Its selling point is its theme: "we can be anything we want to be." Many find that theme disingenuous. While we want to encourage children to persevere, we also must be mindful of realities. We live in racist societies. Studies show that African American or Latino names, for example, can be the basis on which someone's application for a job or mortgage is denied--unconsciously--but denied, nonetheless. A second problem with Amazing Grace is this image from the book:

That illustration, unfortunately, perfectly reflects several stereotypical ideas about Native peoples.

  • She's sitting "Indian style." 
  • She's holding her arms crossed and away from her chest as shown in countless statues (that's the pose, by the way, that students at the University of Illinois assumed when the now-retired mascot came onto the playing field at halftime to do his "dance")
  • She's barefoot. You know that Native people wore shoes, right?
  • She's wearing what we might generously call a Plains headdress--the item that shouts INDIAN to the world.
  • She's not smiling, because, as everyone knows, Indians don't smile. 
  • Hiawatha. There was an actual person named that, but the one she's portraying is a character created by a non-Native person. 

The second stereotypical book on the list is Tanya Landman's Apache. In its description, the article says:
Following the vicious murder of her brother, orphan Siki vows to become an Apache warrior to take revenge upon her brother, Tazhi's, killers. 
Page after page, Landman feeds the perception of mindless, bloodthirsty Indians. She sets us up to think this relentless killing is justified by Tazhi's murder, but goodness! It goes on and on and on. For details on problems with it, see the three posts AICL did on it:

I don't know who put the list together for The Guardian.  The problems with these two books are blatant. Or, they should be! That they're not is an indicator of how much we have yet to do with regard to Native imagery. I'll tweet my post to them and others who are tweeting/retweeting it. Please share it with others in your networks.

Monday, October 13, 2014


As I write this post, Stephen Krensky's Christopher Columbus is ranked at #1 in e-book biographies for children. The paperback edition is ranked at #3 in historical biographies for children.

I'll start by saying that I don't recommend Krensky's book.

It was first published in 1991 in Random House's "Step Into Reading" series. At first read, you might think the book is ok, but I want to walk through the book, pausing at certain parts. On one page, we read:
There are people on the island.
Columbus calls them Indians
because he thinks he has reached
the Indies.
He names the island San Salvador.
He says it now belongs to Spain.
On the next page, Krensky writes:
But the island really belongs
to the people who live there.
See? Krensky essentially says "wait up Christopher, you're wrong about that!" Sounds good, doesn't it?

Don't be taken in! It might seem like Krensky is giving us something different from the "Columbus discovered America" myth, but... let's keep reading.

Columbus notices that some of the Indians are wearing what appears to be gold, so he pushes on, to look for gold. He visits other islands and:
He meets more Indians.
Most are helpful and friendly.
Most? Who isn't helpful or friendly to Columbus? And why were they not helpful or friendly? Krensky doesn't say.

Skip ahead a few pages to where Columbus is gonna return to Spain:
The ships are already loaded
with many new kinds of food--
corn, potatoes, peanuts,
papayas, avocados.
Columbus has also forced
six Indians to come with him.
People in Spain have never
seen Indians.
Krensky tells us that Columbus is taking Indians to Spain so people can see them? Why didn't Krensky rebut those last two lines, like he did earlier when he said that the island really belonged to the people who lived there?

Skipping ahead again, Columbus is back in Spain where he "is a hero." The last page is:
For the rest of his life,
Columbus never knows
how truly great
his discovery is.
He has really found a new world--
a world that no one in Europe knew about.
It is called America!
"Discovery"? "[F]ound a new world"??? I can hear defenders say "but Krensky says it was new to people in Europe! Leave poor Krensky (and Columbus) alone, you mean woman! You leftist liberal!"

Does Krensky want kids to feel sorry for Columbus because he didn't (according to Krensky) know how great his "discovery" was?! On one page, in one place, Krensky pushed back on the Columbus myth, but everywhere else? He just told the same-old-story!

Krensky's book, as noted earlier, is in the "Step Into Reading" series. Books like it are ones designed to help kids become independent readers. Christopher Columbus is a "Step 3" book. That means it is for kids in grades 1-3. Becoming an independent reader is a powerful moment in a person's life. Books that help with that process can take on a lot of emotional weight. They did for me, and likely for you, too. Go to the library. Get one that you read. See what sorts of strings it tugs as you turn its pages. The frightening thing is that a reader can also develop emotional attachment to the content of books like this.

Even more frightening is the information I shared at the very top of this post. This is a best selling book. It was first published in 1991 (no doubt to coincide with the 500 year "anniversary" of Columbus "discovery" of the "New World") and it still going strong.

Do you know of a book for independent readers, or a picture book, that honestly presents information about Christopher Columbus? Betsy Bird at SLJ says she's just learned of one that might do a better job of telling readers about Columbus. Due out in January of 2015, we'll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, those of you with older or capable readers can get Thomas King's brilliant Coyote Columbus Story. I recommended it in 2006.

If your child comes home today with coloring sheets of Columbus and you want to push back on what he/she was taught, the Zinn Education Project has an excellent page of resources.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

AS AN OAK TREE GROWS, written and illustrated by G. Brian Karas

In early October, over on Twitter, Jillian asked me if I'd seen As An Oak Tree Grows, by G. Brian Karas. She noted the wigwam in it, and that a "big stopping point" for her and her students was the page where the text says that the little boy "grew up and moved away."

As An Oak Tree Grows was published in September of this year (2014) by Nancy Paulsen Books (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers).

Below are photos (apologies for them being kind of blurry) of the first three double-paged spreads of As An Oak Tree Grows. 

First, we see "a young boy" planting an acorn on a late summer day. See him in the middle of the double-paged spread? At the bottom left corner of the next page (see second photo), we'll see a year (1775) and we'll read "later that year" the tree sprouts. So, the time when the boy plants the acorn is meant to be summer, 1775. Notice there's nobody there except for the boy and someone on the water, in a canoe. They're obviously meant to be Native. Karas includes a wigwam, so he must know a little about the people he is showing us on this page. But! Karas doesn't say anything about the boy's tribal nation. That omission matters to a Native reader, and it ought to matter to every reader. Without that information, readers are kept ignorant of who Native peoples were/are in terms of our distinct identities as nations. And, the omission obscures the fact that European and Native leaders engaged in diplomatic negotiations (treaties!) about the land and its use.

One question you could ask about the boy (as Jillian did), is where are the rest of his people? This "empty land" image is a big part of the justification for colonization. Unused land! There for the taking! Wrong. 

On the second page we see the boy taking his dad to see the little tree (question for botanists: I think the time sequence for the acorn sprouting is off a bit). See what has changed on the shoreline? Karas shows us that someone (Europeans) have established themselves and, as the two ships in the water show, more are coming. The page suggests a rather idyllic life with two cultures co-existing, but it was far from that! Tribal nations along the northeastern coast had, by 1775, been fighting to protect their homelands for over 100 years. 

The third double-paged spread (below) is the one that tells us "The boy grew up and moved away. Farmers now lived here." That page was the "stopping point" for Jillian and her class. She and her students know, I think, that it was more than simply a boy growing up and moving away. An uncritical reader likely wouldn't notice the problems in those two sentences, but there are, in fact, many things to note. The boy and his nation were likely forced off the land that they had been farming. Yes--they were probably farmers, too, but the pervasive image of "primitive Indians" usually pushes that fact off to the side.  

With the Indians conveniently out of sight and therefore, out of mind, Karas can show us what happens to the tree and the lands around it as time passes. That is the purpose of the book, and I'm certain lot of people are going to love this book, but...

When will we see an end to stories where Indians just go away? We didn't go away.

Update, Sunday October 12, 5:59 PM:

I tweeted a link to this review to Nancy Paulsen, of Nancy Paulsen Books (publisher of As An Oak Tree Grows. Here's a screencapture of our conversation:

For those of us who have trouble reading the screencaptures, here's the text of that series of tweets:

Debbie Reese
@nancyrosep Good morning, Ms. Paulsen. FYI: my review of AS AN OAK TREE GROWS: [link to my review]

Nancy Paulsen
Karas showing changing landscape; not passing judgement abt ills of citification @debreese AS AN OAK TREE GROWS [link to my review]

Debbie Reese
Was there any discussion re boy leaving land for white farms/prosperity? @nancyrosep

Nancy Paulsen
This bk abt revealing changing landscape; maybe for another bk @debreese: ...any discussion re boy leaving land for white farms/prosperity?

Nancy Paulsen
& hopefully teachers will discuss terrible cost of "progress" @debreese ...my review of AS AN OAK TREE GROWS: [link to my review]. 

Thankfully, Jillian (the teacher who brought this book to my attention) has a critical eye. Several people on Goodreads do, too. That is encouraging! I wonder if Paulsen or Karas are reading those reviews? Might they do something different (if they reprint it later), in light of this reception to that part of the book? 

Or--maybe they're focusing on reviews at review journals, which either didn't see or didn't think it important to note the problems with the opening pages... 

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Some weeks ago, a reader wrote to ask me about Anung's Journey: An Ancient Ojibway Legend As Told by Steve Fobister, by Carl Nordgren.

The first thing that caught my eye was the "as told by" part of the title. There are a lot of books published by non-Native writers... books in which the non-Native authors tells a story that was told to them by a Native person. There's some excellent critical discussion of that kind of book.

Second thing is the word "legend" in the title. People of any given faith don't call their traditional or creation stories legends. Native peoples don't do that either. Using 'legend' for a Native story is, for me, a red flag.

I got a copy of the book from Net Galley. I looked at the table of contents for a page of background information and found the author's note. But, it isn't a typical author's note. Instead, it is a letter to Steve Fobister. I wondered if Nordgren had sent the actual letter to Fobister, or if the letter in the book is the means by which Fobister will know that he figures prominently in Anung's Journey. The letter has several more red flags. Here's the opening:
Dear Steve,
When you told me the story of Anung I was immediately captured by the magic of it. When you asked me to popularize it, I was honored by your request. Where I have added to it, your magic has guided me.
I see that sort of thing a lot, too. Native people asking a white person to tell our stories. No--let me rephrase that. White people telling readers that a Native person asked them to tell this or that story. Invariably, that white author has spent some time with a Native community and finds us, well, as Nordgren says, "magical."

In his letter, Nordgren tells Steve about when they first met (at summer camp when they were 15 years old), and all that Steve taught him about fishing and Ojibway culture. He goes on to talk about how, when the two went fishing for the first time in 40 years, Steve told Nordgren the story of Anung:
You asked me to do my best to turn this legend into a full story that would delight and inform people of all ages and all cultures, and I promised you I would. I promised to work to get it published. And I promised that if Anung was published and widely read that, along with accomplishing your goals and fulfilling my promise, I would invest a share of the financial success back into the health of Grassy Narrows.
That is another red flag... the promise that the author will give some of his/her profits from the book to the tribe (in this case, one of the First Nations in Canada, Grassy Narrows.)

Are you wondering about the story?

Well here it is in a nutshell. An orphan boy named Anung goes on his vision quest and learns that he is supposed to find the greatest chief of all the First Nations. He sets out to do it, going east, east, east. He gets to the ocean where he meets a great chief that he thinks must be THE greatest chief, but that chief tells him that he's had a vision, too. In his vision, four young men would come to him and from them, one would be chosen to go across the ocean to find that greatest chief. Of course, Anung is chosen.

And he crosses the ocean, and keeps going, and finally he finds the greatest chief of all the nations. You know who it is, right? Baby Jesus in his manger.

Ancient Ojibway legend? I don't think so. 

I'm trying to get in touch with Steve Fobister. The title page for the book is different from the title on the cover. Inside, the words "based on" are added: Anung's Journey: Based on an ancient Ojibway legend as told by Steve Fobister. I'm really curious what part of this "ancient Ojibway legend" is Mr. Fobister's, and what part is Nordgren's creation.

With all those red flags, I cannot recommend Anung's Journey. 


Anung's Journey: An Ancient Ojibway Legend as told by Steve Fobister
by Carl Nordgren
Published by Light Messages Publishing
Release date: October 27, 2014

UPDATE, Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fobister was in the news over the summer. He was on a hunger strike to call attention to mercury poisoning in his community. See Steve Fobister Ends Hunger Strike.

UPDATE, Monday, September 29, 2014

A reader asked for more details about the letter. Here is a screen capture of it:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Neal Shusterman and Michelle Knowlden's UNSTRUNG

In 2009, Neal Shusterman launched the first of his "Unwind Dystology" series. The first book is Unwind. Here's the synopsis provided at Amazon:
In America after the Second Civil War, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life armies came to an agreement: The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, a parent may choose to retroactively get rid of a child through a process called "unwinding." Unwinding ensures that the child's life doesn’t “technically” end by transplanting all the organs in the child's body to various recipients. Now a common and accepted practice in society, troublesome or unwanted teens are able to easily be unwound.
With breathtaking suspense, this book follows three teens who all become runaway Unwinds: Connor, a rebel whose parents have ordered his unwinding; Risa, a ward of the state who is to be unwound due to cost-cutting; and Lev, his parents' tenth child whose unwinding has been planned since birth as a religious tithing. As their paths intersect and lives hang in the balance, Shusterman examines serious moral issues in a way that will keep readers turning the pages to see if Connor, Risa, and Lev avoid meeting their untimely ends.

Unstrung: An Unwind Story came out in 2012. It is a short story. Here's what Amazon says about it:

How did Lev Calder move from an unwillingly escaped Tithe to a clapper? In this revealing short story, Neal Shusterman opens a window on Lev’s adventures between the time he left CyFi and showed up at the Graveyard.
Pulling elements from Neal Shusterman’s critically acclaimed Unwind and giving hints about what is to come in the riveting sequel, UnWholly, this short story is not to be missed.

As Unstrung opens, Lev is waking up after escaping from bad guys who were gonna do that unwinding thing to him. He's an AWOL. The place he ran to? A "rez" -- or, reservation. There, he figured he'd be safe. Indians of the future, it turns out, are exempt from unwinding. The family helping Lev recover is going to petition the Tribal Council to let him stay. As he opens his eyes, he seems a woman with a square jaw, black hair, and bronze skin. He blurts out
Lev is immediately embarrassed for using that word. See--in this future world Shusterman created, Indians aren't called Indians anymore. The woman responds (Note: I'm reading an ebook and can't give you page numbers):
"Old words die hard," she tells him with infinite understanding. "We were called Indians long after it was obvious we weren't from India. And 'Native American' was always a bit too condescending for my taste." 
"ChanceFolk," Lev says, hoping that his SlotMonger slur will quickly be forgotten.
"Yes," the woman says. "People of Chance. Of course the casinos are long gone, but I suppose the name still has enough resonance to stick." 

Dear! Well, that's not what I said when I read that part. If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that sometimes, I curse at things I read.

Moving on...

The People of Chance family has a boy. He's three years older than Lev. His name is Wil. That's short for Chowilawu. We don't know what language that is, or what tribe these people belong to. Later on, we do get some clues about their location, though! They're in what we know today as Colorado, and they live in an incredibly opulent city with cliff dwellings on the canyon sides.

Do you know who lived at Mesa Verde? Chaco Canyon? Bandelier? Pueblo people! So, I take it that the People of Chance are somehow based on Pueblo Indians. Yikes!

Let's meet Wil.

Wil has a gift. When he plays his guitar, who or whatever hears his music, is transfixed. Just Wil's presence can calm people. But that guitar playing... well, it is such a gift that he/it is used to help the dying tribal members transition more easily into death itself. Wil doesn't like that gift, because his grandfather is dying. The people expect him to go play for his grandpa but he doesn't want to. When the story opens, Wil plays his guitar for Lev. He does that by sitting cross-legged on a mountain lion skin. Yep. Cross-legged. Cuz why?! (Answer: Indians sit cross-legged. You learned that at camp, right? Or maybe kindergarten? Or maybe your teacher knew better than to introduce that stereotype to you.)

Lev recovers a bit, and he and Wil go out into the city. Lev has a question:
"Is it true that reservations are safe for AWOLs?" he asks. "Is it true that People of Chance don't unwind?"
Wil nods. "We never signed the Unwind Accord. So not only don't we unwind, we also can't use unwound parts."
Lev mulls that over, baffled at how a society could work without harvesting organs. "So...where do you get parts?"
"Nature provides," Wil says. "Sometimes."
Nature provides! How does that work, you might wonder? Meet Wil's uncle, Pivane. Wil introduces Lev to him. He's wearing deerskins, but he's also got a Swiss watch on. And, Lev thinks, his rifle is probably custom-made. Pivane has been out hunting for a mountain lion. They need the heart of a male mountain lion. Pivane thinks they'll find one at Cash Out Gulch. (Reading "Cash Out Gulch" was another WTF moment for me.)

Here's where we get a picture of this place where the People of Chance live:
...red cliff homes, the whitewashed adobes, and the sidewalks of rich mahogany planks. Although the place appears at first to be primitive, Lev knows upper crust when he sees it, from the luxury cars parked on the side streets to the gold plaques embedded in the adobe walls. Men and women wear business suits that are clearly Chance-Folk in style, yet finer than the best designer fashions."
Lev asks Wil what the people do (for a living) and Wil says:
"When my grandfather was a kid, the rez made a bundle--not just from gaming, but from some lawsuits over land usage, a water treatment plant, a wind farm that went haywire, and casinos we didn't want but got stuck with when another tribe rolled on us." He shrugs uncomfortably. "Luck of the draw. We've got it better than some tribes."
Lev looks down the street, where the curbs gleam with gold. "Way better, by the look of it."
"Yah," says Wil, looking both embarrassed and proud at the same time. "Some tribes did wise investing with their casino cash; others squandered it. Then, when the virtual casinos got ritzier than the real ones and it all came crashing down, tribes like ours did very well. We're a Hi-Rez. You're lucky you didn't jump the wall of a Low-Rez. They're much more likely to sell AWOLs to parts pirates."
Lev has heard about the rich tribes and the poor ones. Wil continues:
"Anyway," says Wil, "my tribe knows the law and how to use it. In fact my dad's a lawyer, and has done pretty well for our family. My mom runs the pediatrics lodge in the medical warren and is well respected. We get rich tribal kids from all over North America coming here for healing."
I was doing a lot of eye rolling and cursing as I read all of that! I certainly want writers to move away from narrow depictions of the professions Native people are in, but the rest of what Shusterman did is so bad that I can't give the lawyer-dad or doctor-mom characters a good read! Let's back up, though to that info about how the People of Chance tribe (I wonder what the Lo-Rez tribe names are?!) got their money: casinos, and good lawyers. I'm wondering about Shusterman's source material for all that lawyering. Where is he from? Is he living nearby a tribal nation that has been successfully winning legal cases over water rights? Or wind farms? Is he from Massachusetts? In 2011, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head filed a lawsuit over a wind farm project off Cape Cod. The For Mojave Indian tribe sued a California agency over a water treatment plant that was desecrating sacred land. I'm guessing that Shusterman did some research and found these news stories. And as the wealth of the People of Chance indicates, they won big time! Doesn't matter, I suppose, that those two particular tribal nations are at opposite ends of the country. With a made-up nation, you can do whatever you want!

Well, let's move on. The People of Chance have animal spirit guides. If/when they're sick, that particular animal can be killed and its body part(s) used to heal the human. Do you recall that Pivane is looking for the heart of a mountain lion? A mountain lion is the spirit guide of Wil's grandfather. His heart is bad. He needs a new one. Pavine finds one, but Wil's grandfather wants to give it to a young woman who needs it more than he does. Wil argues with him about that decision. But guess what! Lev gets asked for advice. Outsiders have perspectives, you see, that can help people make important decisions. Lev's advice is to respect the wishes of Wil's grandpa. Such wisdom from the white outsider! Of course, the heart goes to the woman, and Wil's grandpa dies.

Wil is gonna die, too. No... that's not right. He's going to be killed. No... that's not right either...

Wil has taken Lev and a bunch of kids out on a vision quest to find their spirit guides. Some of those parts pirates have gotten over the rez wall, too. Turns out, there's a black market for People of Chance body parts because they have special skills. To save the children, Wil takes out that guitar and demonstrates his gift. He bargains with the parts pirates. They take him and let the children go. I gotta say... this is so unsettling. Does Shusterman know Native bodies were butchered and parts taken from them as trophies? Has he not read about Sand Creek?! How 'bout his editor? Does he/she know? Do they know and not care? Or maybe they don't imagine Native people as readers of Unstrung?

Well. Towards the end of the story, the tribal council denies the petition to adopt Lev. He leaves. And what about Wil? We find him again, on a surgical table. A woman with a slight British accent tells him:
"We have been searching for the right Person of Chance for a very long time. You will be part of a spectacular experiment. One that will change the future." 
Pretty sick, isn't it? In the end, Wil's family and girlfriend find out that he's been unwound...
Not through smoke signals.
Not through the intricate legal investigations of the Council.
Not through the tribal nations' security task force, put in place after the parts pirates took him.
In the end, the rez finds out Wil is no more when his guitar is delivered with no note and no return address. 
Another WTF. Smoke signals?! Mr. Shusterman: this is a very messed up story. I regret having read it.

Update, September 28, 7:48 PM

Mr. Shusterman submitted the following comment. As has been the case with previous authors who respond to a review I've done on AICL, I'm adding the response to the body of the blog post to allow readers to more easily read the response. Mr. Shusterman said:

I wanted to personally apologize for anything in UnStrung that you found offensive. Both Michelle Knowlden and I wanted you to know that in writing the story we took great cares to be respectful, and sensitive. We also were wary of “political correctness,” which is just as offensive as stereotypes.

The story takes place in a dystopian future – and we were attempting to extrapolate where one tribe might find themselves within that exaggerated dystopian world. It could not be immune to the dark turn society has taken. Our take was that this particular tribe had become affluent, and increasingly isolationist – to protect itself ideologically from the rest of America, which had become a pretty unpleasant place. We tried to take tradition, and marry it to futurism. We actively worked to shatter stereotypes, breaking them open to show something real, and honest.

Huge amount of thought went into every choice, so to be called out for insensitivity warrants the opening of a dialogue. I have a reputation for being culturally fair, and on-target in my books – so if I’ve missed the mark here, it’s important to me to know how, and how to improve it.

I do want to point out that some things you found were stretches. A kid sitting cross-legged on the floor was just a kid sitting cross-legged on the floor. That’s how my daughter plays guiter, so that’s where that came from. It was not a racial stereotype.

It’s important to note that socially and culturally, American Indians are the heroes of the story. They are the only cultural group that collectively fights against the heinous practice of Unwinding, and maintains a high moral and ethical bar, that the rest of society has lost. The entire book series, in fact, hinges on their action in the face of a world mired in inaction.

UnStrung will be rewritten for inclusion in a collection of novellas in the Unwind world. We would love to discuss with you what changes will make it not only more palatable, but a positive experience for Indian readers. I can be reached at storymanweb@gmail.com. Thank you.

Debbie's response:

Mr. Shusterman,

Thank you for responding to my concerns. I am traveling this week and next and can't give your comment the attention it deserves. A quick note for now: I read a lot of children's and young adult books with Native characters. You'd be surprised, perhaps, to know how many of them sit cross-legged. Other characters in the book don't. They just sit. How they sit isn't generally noted. More, later, when I've had time to think about your comments. 
Update, Tuesday, Sept 30 2014

My review reflects my incredulous reaction as I read your book. You said it is important to know how you missed the mark, and how you can improve the story. I hope you'll find time to go back and re-read my review. I think I've clearly laid out examples in which you've missed the mark.

It is the overall premise, however, that is deeply flawed. You said that (quoting from your comment),
"American Indians are the heroes of the story... They maintain a high moral and ethical bar... The entire book series, in fact, hinges on their action..."
See that? You think you've done a good thing, making American Indians the heroes. You meant well... You are just like all those people/places/organizations that use American Indian something-or-other as an ideal to strive for. Big case in the news right now is the Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington DC pro football team. Are you following that at all? From my perspective, you sound an awful lot like Dan Snyder and you sound like a thousand people who've told me and other Native people "but you don't understand. I'm trying to honor you."

In her excellent piece for writers, Cynthia Leitich Smith posed a few questions that authors can use when reflecting on the Native characters they create. I'm modifying them a bit:

Is Wil a magical character? My answer: Yes, he has a musical gift. It is so magical that it will be taken from him to serve the greater good. Who is taking it? A British/American surgeon.

Does Wil die first? My answer: Yes. Lev lives on. Wil does not.

Are Wil's people the model minority? My answer: Yes. This is a bit more nuanced, but they've had great success economically and professionally.

Does his heritage inform his character?  My answer: Yes, and a bit complicated because his heritage is your creation and rests on stereotypical ways of thinking about Native peoples. It is, in other words, an outsider's take on Native culture, so it is hard for me to say that his heritage is, in fact, Native. It isn't. In her post, Smith also asks if non-Native readers will notice problems like this. Her answer is, "maybe." Mine? From what I've seen online, nobody noticed. Smith asks if Native readers will notice. My answer: Not necessarily, but most of them will. I think a good many Native readers will do a WTF. In fact, Native people with whom I've shared the review are also expressing incredulity.

What will your readers think of Wil and his people? My answer: Most of your readers will (and do) love Wil and his people. In her post, Smith goes on to say that sometimes, writers "get so wrapped up in our own intent, however benevolent, that we forget to consider impact." Clearly, you meant well. You had good intentions. But the impact of those good intentions? You're using your conception of Native people to save the world. In so doing, you affirm stereotypical ideas that are already deeply embedded in the world.

What did you read prior to creating this tribe and people? Your turn. What did you read? And, I invite your answers to the question above, too. I know you're doing a Q&A at Goodreads this week and may not have time to come back to AICL for the dialog you asked me for, but I do hope you come back as soon as you can. Your fellow writers, and my fellow reviewers, can gain a great deal by reading our dialog.

Update, Saturday, October 4, 2014

Neal Shusterman's reply, submitted at 11:05 PM October 3 2013:

Debbie – thank you for your detailed response. I appreciate the time you took to really analyze the story. Cynthia Leitich Smith’s questions are right on target.

Perhaps I overstated it when I said that the Indians are the heroes of the book series. The Indian characters are as flawed as everyone else, and struggle with their own moral dilemmas and ethical demons. I do not feel that any of my characters are stereotypes, regardless of their cultural background. As a group, the fictional tribe in the book makes both poor decisions, and good decisions. Ultimately they are one of many factors that changes the world for the better by the end of the book series. 

I do need to emphasize the fictional nature of the tribe. It is not intended to reflect current Indian culture. It is an exaggeration seen through a very specific future lens, just like every other culture portrayed in the book. Everything is painted in unsettling shades of gray -- the reader is supposed to have mixed feelings about everything and everyone. We should see the best and the worst of ourselves in the characters, and cultures.

You mentioned that other people had the same reaction you did when they read your review. I imagine so. A review is like the prosecution’s case in a trial. It’s all very cut and dry if you don’t hear the defense. The defense is the actual work, and I stand behind my work. That said, there are some things I would, and will change, however, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.