August 21, 2017

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Riordan Praised for Removing “Spirit Animal” Reference from Novel

Children’s author Rick Riordan is getting kudos for his response to a request to remove a passage from his novel The Sword of Summer (Disney-Hyperion, 2015) that some readers felt improperly appropriated Native American culture.

In the passage, one of Riordan’s characters is described as someone who “used to joke that her spirit animal was Tinkerbell from Peter Pan.”

The term spirit animal is considered sacred to many Native Americans.

Weezie Wood, a blogger who self identifies as a huge fan of Riordan’s work, reached out to the author on Twitter to ask about his use of the term.

The tweet read, “Hi, Rick! Can you explain this passage? Native readers know spirit animals are sacred… Why include this?”

Wood, who is Mvskoke, was reading the book with a young boy who became upset over Riordan’s use of the phrase.

“My godson immediately didn’t want to read the book anymore,” Wood says. “It was just kind of a shock to see that line in a Riordan book when he’s always seemed to take such care in making sure his books don’t contain cultural appropriation. He did such a good a job with Piper [a Native American character] in the “Heroes of Olympus” series, so the line was just so out of place in this book.”

Wood tagged Debbie Reese, publisher of American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, in the tweet. After that, Reese also reached out to the author via Twitter and asked if he would cut the spirit animal line from the next printing of The Sword of Summer.

Riordan responded that he would.

Reese had interacted with Riordan on Twitter in the past when she found another passage in one of his books troubling.

“He was open to conversation in ways that so many other writers are not,” she says. “That was very, very encouraging to me then and now, because he’s a powerful figure in children’s literature, and he can effect change in ways that others are resistant to doing.”

After Riordan announced he would remove the spirit animal reference, some Twitter users thanked him, but others said the change was unnecessary. Some pointed out that other cultures also use the term spirit animal. But Wood says that argument ignores the history of Native Americans in this country.

“The concept of spirit animals in popular culture came directly from anthropologists’ descriptions of Native American religions,” Wood says. “It doesn’t matter if the Celts or Nordics had spirit helpers,because when people think of spirit animals, they automatically think of Native Americans because it was our religious traditions that have been discussed, colonized, and bastardized to give pop culture the ‘spirit animals’ that non-Native people use today.”

Some who were upset about Riordan’s decision attacked Wood online.

“That was an absolute nightmare, honestly,” Wood says. “A few people even went as far as to tell me to kill myself and I was like… ‘I seriously asked a grown man a polite question and you’re that angry over it?’”

Things got so bad that one of Wood’s friends stepped in and asked Riordan to ask those who were upset to back off, and he did.

Riordan’s tweet slowed down the online harassment considerably. Overall, Wood still thinks reaching out to Riordan was worth it.

“It definitely proved to me that he is an author I should continue to support because even though he made a mistake, he owned up to it and took actions to correct it,” Wood says.

Riordan was unavailable for comment, according to a Disney-Hyperion spokesperson, because he is promoting his new book, The Dark Prophecy, and is on deadline for his next “Magnus Chase” title, to be published in October.

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Marva Hinton About Marva Hinton

Marva Hinton is a contributing writer for Education Week and the host of the ReadMore podcast, a show that features interviews with authors including Nicola Yoon and Daniel José Older.

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Comments

  1. Kristin Linnesholm says:

    Quote from the article:

    “It doesn’t matter if the Celts or Nordics had spirit helpers,because when people think of spirit animals, they automatically think of Native Americans because it was our religious traditions that have been discussed, colonized, and bastardized to give pop culture the ‘spirit animals’ that non-Native people use today.”

    ..well, people of Celtic and Nordic (and all the other cultures that have animal spirits as part of their legacy) can disagree on that one. Such an American-centered, narrow-minded statement to make.

    No, I don’t “automatically think of Native Americans” when I read the words “spirit animal”. I think of my own cultural heritage, and know so much more about it.

  2. I’m not surprised that he would be so amenable to removing it – his work obviously involves a lot of research and weaving cultures together in really interesting fictional ways, a combination of irreverent humor and being very thoughtful.

  3. Maybe you would, Kristin, but if an American character in an American novel is making reference to a spirit animal, most readers are not going to assume it’s a Celtic or Nordic reference unless it is specifically called out. Americans may very well very well be self centered and narrow minded, but In this case, with a throwaway characterization, it seems warranted. Kudos for RR for being so responsive.

  4. I think that that was just simple censorship: “I don’t like/that offended me that so take that out in the next edition” and people are so used to that these days that, to avoid conflict accept to mutilate the novel… I think that ppl who don’t like a novel shouldn’t read it instead of censor. Freedom of speech shouldn’t be overpowered by superstition

  5. Every time you allude to something, you bring it to light. This was not a vulgar or insulting reference; it was just an allusion. I see the censorship of wiping away such a friendly reference as a wiping away of that which it refers to. Sadly, we have become too tender to any touch–from an embrace to a pat on the back.

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