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.
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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