Sharpening Perspectives Through Native Voices

We once thought the universe revolved around us all-important humans on the Planet Earth. We eventually looked through a new perspective and found we are not the center, but actually part of a universe even more awesome than we previously  imagined.

The world was also flat. But we did not fall off when we traveled to the perceived “edge”. Hence, the world became accepted as being round.

As you can see from the past, we need to look at several angles and expose ourselves to several viewpoints before we can get a true picture of something. If we don’t, our knowledge of that particular something is flat and/or lacking in truth.

For example, I can look up a location on Google Maps of let’s say, Huron Indian Cemetery (Now called the Wyandot National Burial Ground) in Kansas City, Kansas and get this:

HPC_Map

It tells me the basics, but the map is pretty basic and simple. Not much information.

Let’s switch over to the satellite map image for another viewpoint.

HPC_SatImage

Hey! That’s a lot better. There are trees and roads and cars and maybe even fire trucks and… Okay, okay, back on task.

Finally, let’s go down to our man on the street with Street View.

HPC_Entrance

Wow! I feel like I’m right there standing at the entrance to Huron Indian Cemetery in downtown KCK.

Conclusion? Looking at things from several different viewpoints provides more information. More information provides a better understanding.

Besides being a professional scientist, I am also a proud lifetime member of the guild of sports fanatics and a history nut (especially the obscure snippets of history which often fail to make school books or PBS miniseries). In science, we must look at all angles of a problem to get the big picture to prove or disprove our hypothesis. Sports are a little more cut and dry in regard to discovering the truths. There are winners and there are losers. The details often fall into supporting evidence of why one competitor won and why one competitor lost.

In history, though, the cut and dry truths do not exist. The variables are too numerous, too varied, and often too buried to be added to the “truth”. History depends on multiple viewpoints to be taken into account. We often fall short in teaching history because we either fail to include multiple perspectives of an event or the information to expand the knowledge base in not available.

As a white kid growing up in a lower, middle-class area of KCK, our education was solid, but our history was often one-sided. We took our lessons from textbooks written from a narrow, white, European view of the past. And, being a Croatian, Irish, English, French (and probably a few others mixed into the genetic soup that’s me.) kid in the 1970’s attending a relatively poor Catholic school with older, slightly-used-by-perhaps-your-grandmother textbooks, we really got a shot of history told through the narrow lens. So, I set out in life fairly well-educated but with an extremely narrow view of the world-at-large.

A few years back, I became interested in the role of Native Americans in the American Civil War, especially in the Border War on the western front. I stumbled across the American Indians in Children’s Literature  (AICL) blog run by Debbie Reese and began to follow it. I thought I knew a bit about Native Americans, seeing as I was a native Kansan. I grew up surrounded by places with names like Delaware, Shawnee, Kickapoo and in a city founded by the displaced Wyandot Tribe. I thought I was in the know but, in reality, I knew nothing about Native Americans.

I’ll admit I don’t always agree with AICL 100% of the time, but I know I learn something from the information provided on AICL 100% of the time I visit the site. The AICL has introduced me to a world of native authors whose work presents a new viewpoint (at least to me) of historical events I thought I knew.

Take the Trail of Tears. I only really knew— mostly from paintings and snippets of information in textbooks—that native people were displaced from their homelands to reservations in Oklahoma. Tim Tingle changed that with his excellent book, HOW I BECAME A GHOST and its sequel WHEN A GHOST TALKS, LISTEN. In these two books, I learned about President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, Choctaw culture and history, the cruel hardships suffered by those forced to walk the trail, and the contribution of Choctaws, like General Pushmataha, to our young nation. And I learned all this while being thoroughly entertained by the story.

Ghost1 Ghost2

In his book IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CRAZY HORSE, Joseph Marshall III provides a riveting account of the historical events leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn which balances the single viewpoint narrative I had picked up over the years. In the book, the reader follows a contemporary Lakota grandfather as he travels with his mixed race Lakota grandson to trace the life of Crazy Horse from his youth through to the battles and all the way to his surrender at Fort Robinson. IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CRAZY HORSE excels at both giving an insight to the Lakota way of life, both old and new, and the history as seen through the eyes of the Sioux tribes.

In-the-footsteps

Anyone remember reading about Hiawatha in school? All I remember is the epic poem that turned into an epic nap for me. But have you heard the real story of Hiawatha? The story passed down through the oral tradition of the Iroquois Nation? This authentic version of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker is truly an epic and riveting tale. There are two versions in print that I highly recommend.

hiawatha-1

The first is a picture book by Robbie Robertson (Yes, THAT Robbie Robertson of The Band fame!) called HIAWATHA AND THE PEACEMAKER. The book tells the version of the Hiawatha story Mr. Robertson heard from his Mohawk and Cayuga relatives in the reservation longhouses when he was a kid.

EagleSong

The second version is from Joseph Bruchac’s contemporary middle-grade book, EAGLE SONG. The main character, Danny Bigtree, misses his life on the Mohawk reservation and is having a hard time adjusting to life in New York City. His father tells him the story of Aionwahta (Hiawatha) and the legendary Peacemaker to help him adjust to the difficulties and learn to cultivate peace in his new situation.

Readers and writers! Look at things and study them from several different points of view. Respect the cultures and the traditions you may encounter. Respect other cultures in your work and do the necessary research. Don’t cut corners because you may be cutting off the most beautiful part.

Branch out and you may find your life enriched.

We are all spinning together on this round planet in an elliptical orbit around the solar system so we might as well make the best of each other’s company.

Which “outside-of-your-comfy-box” books have enriched your life and expanded your knowledge base? Please share in the comments below.

“Yakoke!” (“Thank you” in Choctaw, learned via Tim Tingle in HOW I BECAME A GHOST.)

The Winner of THE SECRET DESTINY OF PIXIE PIPER

Thanks all for sharing the post on Literary Descendants. The winner of Annabelle Fisher’s THE SECRET DESTINY OF PIXIE PIPER is Heather S.

Do You Think the World is Ready?

I don’t shock easily, but two recent incidents had me reeling.

The first happened during a creative writing workshop I ran for kids in Grades 4-6. At the start of the workshop, several kids mentioned which of my books they’d read. Then one girl raised her hand and shyly announced that she wanted to read my books, but her mom wouldn’t allow her. “She says they have bad words,” the girl reported.

I tried to seem blase. “Has your mom read any of my books?” I asked her.

“No,” the girl admitted.  “But she’s seen the covers.”

I assured her that I was always careful not to use “bad words”–and that it wasn’t fair to judge a book by its cover. But how a parent viewed any of my covers and decided the text contained inappropriate language  was a mystery to me. And the sad thing was, this girl was an enthusiastic writer who clearly craved access to all sorts of books.

The other incident occurred at the start of an elementary school’s Read Aloud Day. Because my books fall into the  upper elementary/ middle school category, I was assigned a fourth grade class, as was the local middle school principal.  As the two of us chatted before the program, he asked what books I had on the horizon.

I told him about my upcoming middle grade novels:  TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin, S&S/Sept. 20, 2016), which is about a mom-less girl’s experience of puberty, and STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S, March 2017), which is about a girl who has a crush on the girl playing Juliet in the middle school production of Shakespeare’s play.

The principal’s face turned pink. He laughed nervously. “Oh,” he said. “Do you think the world is ready?”

I explained that all my books were wholesome, completely appropriate for tweens. I hoped he’d express enthusiasm, maybe even extend an invitation to the middle school, or say he’d mention the books to the school librarian.  But he didn’t do either. Instead, he changed the subject.

I’ve been thinking about  both of these incidents  a lot lately, in light of Kate Messner’s recent dis-invitation from a school uncomfortable with her newest MG, THE SEVENTH WISH. That book, which I deeply admire, is about a girl whose older sister has a heroin addiction– a topic the school decided was inappropriate for its students .

What scares me is not so much outright book-banning, because that happens in the bright light of day, and often leads to heightened interest in the banned book, anyway.  What I find even more troubling is “quiet censorship,” the sort of thing that happens when an adult decides the world, or a school, or a classroom, or a particular kid “isn’t ready” to read about certain topics. And so he doesn’t extend the invitation, or order the book–not because the book isn’t good, or isn’t written at the right level, but because the subject makes him nervous. It’s a type of book-banning–but because it happens under the radar, it’s difficult to detect.

When Kate Messner was disinvited from a school, she had an overt act, the revoked invitation, to react to, and she did so eloquently and effectively, both on her blog and behind a podium at ALA 2016. But many authors who tackle challenging subjects just won’t get the initial invitation, or their book simply won’t get ordered by the library.  So how do they even know they’ve been “quietly censored”? And how can they–or their readers–protest? After all, schools and libraries are free to make their own choices, as they should be.  If they choose not to order a certain book, who’s to say the choice was motivated by the book’s challenging or controversial subject, and not by the author’s writing style?

I keep coming back to the realization that kids are older than we think they are, older than we were when we were their age.  Girls are menstruating at younger ages, getting eating disorders at younger ages (this is the subject of my upcoming eighth novel STUFF I KNOW ABOUT YOU (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 2017).  The internet has exposed all of our kids to a cruel, violent, judgmental world. If we don’t allow kids to read MG novels that reflect the world they live in, one of two things will happen. Either kids will turn off reading realistic fiction altogether (and with the internet constantly beckoning, that’s a real concern)– or they will crash the gate, choosing, and perhaps sneaking, YAs that are too explicit and dark for their years.  As any parent of a teen knows, once a kid starts reading YA fiction, he/she seldom wants to discuss the edgier content with an adult. Isn’t it better to allow access to books specifically geared toward a MG sensibility–the way  THE SEVENTH WISH is?  And shouldn’t we as adults want to stay in the conversation–even when (or especially when) the conversation makes us nervous?

We can’t be in favor of diversity in kidlit without welcoming books that include all sorts of previously ignored characters: kids of color, LGBT kids, kids in nontraditional families, kids coping with a family member’s addiction, kids coping with mental illness (like Dunkin in Donna Gephart’s  beautiful LILY AND DUNKIN).  There’s nothing inherently “wrong” or “inappropriate” about these characters–they’re just kids on the basketball team, kids on the school bus, kids in the play. And they deserve to be represented, read about, identified with, empathized with.

The world is ready.

Barbara Dee’s next book, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published on September 20, 2016.