August 23, 2017

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“There Is a Tribe of Kids” Generates Controversy Among Librarians

 

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Turning words into play is Lane Smith’s bread and butter. After all, this is the illustrator of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Viking, 1992) and the writer and illustrator of It’s a Book (Roaring Brook Press, 2010).

His latest work, There is a Tribe of Kids, follows a boy as he travels the world alone, enjoying the company of various groups of animals, until he finally finds where he belongs, with a tribe of kids.

But the buzz surrounding it may not be what he—and his publisher Roaring Brook—had hoped to create. Smith’s picture book has generated controversy around connecting the word “tribe” with images of children in lush natural surroundings with feathers in their hair.

“Fuse #8 Production” blogger Elizabeth Bird summed up the debate; Roger Sutton, editor in chief of School Library Journal’s sister publication, The Horn Book, reacted as well.

Some have lauded the story, with librarians, including Shannon Sandefur, happily purchasing the book for their patrons, and reviewers (including SLJ) encouraging readers to enjoy the delicately colored pages. Others are voicing objections to pairing the word “tribe” with images that they say evoke stereotypes. (Requests for comment from Roaring Brook press and from author Lane Smith were not granted.)

“My main concerns about the book are specific to the coupling of ‘tribe’ with the illustrations of the children who are wearing feathers in their hair in ways that suggest they are playing Indian,” says Debbie Reese, publisher of the American Indians in Children’s Literature website, by email. “That style of play is stereotypical and collapses the diversity of Native lives—past and present—into a monolithic and primitive framework.”

Smith’s is the latest title to generate conversations about the use of language and illustrations in its pages. Author Emily Jenkins formally apologized for what she called her “racially insensitive” picture book A Fine Dessert (Random) in 2015. In January, Scholastic pulled A Birthday Cake for George Washington just two weeks after its publication for the way the story presented the lives of slaves.

Reese posted her objections to Smith’s book on her site on July 14, not recommending the title to readers. She followed a critical post of Smith’s title by Sam Bloom at “Reading While White,” who himself picked up author Minh Lê’s review of There Is a Tribe of Kids in The New York Times, where the “juxtaposition of the word ‘tribe’ with the woodland utopia conjured uncomfortable associations” for Lê.

Sandefur, the public services manager with the Daviess County Public Library in Owensboro, KY, who believes the book does an excellent job of presenting new vocabulary words and concepts, purchased Smith’s title for her library.

“To me, [the book] is about a child’s imagination and play,” she says. “Each page represents where he is on the adventure, whether with goats or with penguins.”

However, Sandefur watched the arguments grow on the Association for Library Service to Children Listserv, which she subscribes to. She says she tends to hold her own comments, not wishing to offend people, especially if her views are different than others.

She doesn’t appreciate the attacks she has witnessed on the listserv over the years among librarians who voice certain points of view. Some, she says, have been directed at her. Following the back and forth around Smith’s book, she has decided to drop her ALA membership.

“I became a librarian because I wanted to make a difference and give people the tools to help them make decisions,” she says. “But I feel like overall the profession is going away from that and becoming one-sided on issues. And I don’t believe that’s my place as a librarian.”

Yet Reese hopes that librarians would respond should a child come to them with questions about the depictions of kids playing Indian in the book—perhaps even suggesting another title.

“I’d recommend that the teacher or librarian commend the child for seeing that problem,” she says. “In short, I’d use the child’s questions to guide them to books that accurately reflect Native peoples.”

 

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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Comments

  1. AMMadalin says:

    Amazing.

    I’ve worked in Youth Services for over 30 years, have an adult son & daughter & 2 grandchildren. I grew up in the 1950’s-’60’s (watched lots of “Westerns” with “Cowboy & Indians” themes. )

    But when I first read the title of the book, I did NOT even consider it was referring to a “tribe of Indians/indians”. I envisioned a rather nature-centered group of somewhat unkempt but creative children who happened to adorn themselves with feathers…among other things.

    Why must we adults always read such negative connotations into children’s materials (or their innocent, creative play? ) I’d say (like SO MANY other things) the controversy is in the minds of the adults who WANT to see it there, who WANT to “start something”. Are your/our egos THAT BIG? How sad!

    • Agreed. I am not an American, so feathers mean nothing to me. There are tribal people all over the world, all looking quite different.

    • AMMadalin, I, too, grew up in the 1950s, watching Westerns with Cowboys & Indians themes. As a white person who is a long time educator and lifelong learner, I see my responsibility as working to ensure that children have better lives.

      It’s obvious to me and to many educators–Native and not–that both the title of this book and some of its interior illustrations clearly represent non-Native children “playing Indian.” You (and others) don’t see this connection and don’t want to see it. Rather, you’re convinced that the connection doesn’t exist and that “the controversy is in the minds of the adults who WANT to see it there, who WANT to ‘start something.'” I’ll put your nasty, accusative comment aside for a moment.

      I wish that Native children were not assaulted by this stuff over and over again. And I suggest that you read a chapter in a book entitled A BROKEN FLUTE: THE NATIVE EXPERIENCE IN BOOKS FOR CHILDREN (AltaMira, 2005). The chapter is called “Living Stories” (pp. 10-17), and it consists of short narratives from Native parents, educators, and children, about their lives. Debbie Reese is one of them, and her daughter, Liz (then a fifth-grader), is another. The youngest narrator is Elizabeth, who was five years old when she told this story to her mother, who wrote it down. Imagine, a child of five, already assaulted by racist images of her own people. Reading all of this may not change your mind, but it might give you something to think about. And maybe a little compassion.

  2. I truly can’t imagine anyone thinking this incredible book was being disrespectful to Native Americans. The poor children’s authors and illustrators today! Every word or picture they use or don’t use can cause controversy. We all should be thankful to have someone like Lane Smith share his considerable talent and gifts with us. A Tribe of Kids is one of the best picture books I have ever seen. I hope all the libraries, bookstores etc. continue ordering and promoting this title. It would be a disservice to children everyone to withhold it from them.

  3. I followed the discussion of this book closely, and think there are issues of both substance and process to discuss. On the substance, after careful consideration, a lot of listening, and a close reading of the text and the artwork, I conclude that Smith has written a wonderful book that points out with beautiful art that words can have multiple meanings. If a person chooses to focus on just one of those meanings, it says more about the person and his or her politics than it does about Smith’s work. In short, this book is no “A Birthday Cake….” On the process, Sandefur is unfortunately right. Too many of this discussions, especially in the Twitter world and on blog comments, devolve to accusations of ageism, racism, and one privilege or another as the presumed reason that people do not see the work and the world one way or another. There are often many bystanders to such accusations, who do not seek to correct it. It’s a shame. Children will have better lives when adults are better models of how to interact with each other.

    • Children will have better lives when the most privileged among us stop working so hard at maintaining the systems that privilege ourselves at the expense of others. This entire discussion has sprung out of a privileged group of readers literally denying the validity of interpretations of this book made by others who, in some cases, have less privilege than us. As librarians, I was pretty sure that we already agreed that different books mean different things to different people. right? So, why do so many people deny the issues seen by others in this book? Is it because the critiques it has received make us feel complicit in a system we would prefer not to acknowledge our part in? My guess is yes. And we liked it better when the kids were just running around in a forest…

  4. I have to believe that other people see the world through different eyes than mine. Of course many of you didn’t even consider the possibility that the images could be construed of as stereotypical. You have never lived with the effects of those stereotypes and never will. Non-marginalized people (like me) need to learn to see the world through the eyes of our colleagues, friends and community members who are marginalized. It is not being politically correct, it is being respectful and open to learning. I can tell you from my own experience that the process is both interesting and enlightening and I have come to believe it is the only way that people like me can learn to be actual allies. My white contemporaries and I all claim to love diversity so much but when it comes time to reconsidering some of our own “truths” we seem to stagger under the weight of our privilege. No one is saying you can’t like the book – it doesn’t harm you so go ahead and like the book. No one is saying you shouldn’t buy it for your libraries either. It you want it there, buy it. No one is saying you should remove it from your library shelves either, that would be ridiculous. This whole conversation (branded unnecessarily as a controversy – there is nothing controversial about discussing the merits and pitfalls of picture book) is about learning to listen, and learning to look at the world through different eyes. We talk about mirrors and windows all the time in our conversations about children’s books: let’s talk about getting new glasses while we’re at it.

  5. Just a couple of thoughts (as one of the several strong voices in the heated debate a few weeks ago):

    I don’t believe that any feathers are actually being depicted as head-dresses on these kids — leaves evoking feather-like usage in traditional head-dresses are.

    I have to voice my disagreement with the notion that we readers should be grateful that authors/illustrators are giving us books to read and thus we should not be critical about their content or meanings. I think it is precisely because we respect the intelligence and artistry of these creative souls that we look closely and examine these books with time and energy.

    And I also do not believe that our heated debate a few weeks ago is some people trying to stuff the PC agenda down someone else’s throat and that someone else rejecting such agenda!

  6. Patricia Enciso says:

    Dear SLJ editors: When writing about the problem posed by a book and its critiques, please note the foundations of the arguments and engage with the substance of the discussion on its own terms rather than depict a serious debate as ‘buzz’ about ‘something’ too heady for most readers, played out among overly sensitive adults with opposing views. It’s a good story structure, but it’s not true.
    And…
    Perhaps the essay could have begun with this consideration about the book itself:
    Tribe is in the title. And play (with leaves and leaf-in-back-of head-like 1950s Indian images) is in the images. These are not separated within the covers of a picture book . So this pairing has to be addressed, whether or not you buy the book or share it. Anyone who reads this book with children (or adults) should talk about that pairing.
    And…
    Debbie Reese’s excellent scholarship in support of more informed and ‘less retro’ (to put it mildly) representations of American Indians in children’s literature, is highly valued among scholars of children’s literature because she helps us ask these questions about how images work in relation to longstanding discourses across decades of misrepresentations and appropriations. To suggest that Dr. Reese is ‘overreading’ is also to suggest that a history of inequity is somehow behind us; and we should all stop overreacting. We need, instead, to be inspired to continue this lively and important line of inquiry.

  7. Susan Parsons says:

    It’s hard to believe that Lane Smith failed to anticipate the fallout his decision would cause of using the collective noun tribe to describe white children playing “Indians” the way I did as a child growing up in segregated America. How could he make this choice and not expect native people to feel humiliated by the images? This demonstrates insensitivity on his part to people who have been marginalized. Given the U.S.’s violent grab of native people’s lands, the breaching of treaties, the ensuing warfare, followed by the forcible re-location of survivors to reservations, (ethnic segregation), and white settlers’ retention of native names for rivers, mountains, animals (e.g., raccoon), etc., and whites’ choice of native names for our states, towns, RVs, and sports teams, isn’t it obvious that using “tribe” and depicting children in this way is hurtful to them and anachronistic? We aren’t living in segregated America anymore. Obviously, I align with Tess Prendergast. I find her comments to be articulate, compassionate, and true.

  8. Jill Quagliata says:

    I just read this story with my son for the first time today, not knowing the controversy surrounding it. My first impression was how clever he was to use the word “tribe” to mean a group of baby goats or “kids.” And then he went on to use similar type words for other animal groups and then things in nature. He came full circle, ending the story the way he began…using the word tribe and kid, only this time using those words to mean people, not goats.
    Refer to: http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/animals/Animalbabies.shtml.

    The last page to me was showing children in a playful state that I wish for all of our children. To be able to connect with nature and be free from the type of play and learning that parents today have come to impose upon them. To not be afraid to walk out their door and play in the mud and get a little dirty.

    Taking the whole book into account and using other clues besides just the pictures, I came to a much different conclusion about what the book was about. And that is the beauty of art and literature; to come to a conclusion based on differing experiences that can then spark conversation which can lead you to a new way of thinking.