November is Native American Heritage month, which offers a timely reason to take a look at the status of representation of American Indians in children’s literature, one of the least represented groups in publishing, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s ongoing survey on the representation of people of color in children’s books. Could the results of the CCBC’s survey, coupled with the We Need Diverse Books movement, inspire a change in the number of books published by and about Native Americans? PW spoke with editors at publishing houses large and small who are working to bring Native voices to print, as well as Debbie Reese, editor of the influential American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, to paint a fuller picture.
The CCBC survey cited 5,000 books published between 2002 and February 2015; of those, only 38 published books were about American Indians in 2015, and only 20 titles were written or illustrated by American Indians. Population statistics from the National Congress of American Indians show that 2.9 million people in the U.S. identify as American Indian/Alaska Native, comprising almost 1% of the population, with 32% of that population being children. The population numbers are small, which means traditionally published books are poised to make a big impact not only to represent children accurately, but educate non-Natives about the population as well.
The NCAI’s statistics reveal that “Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide among all ethnic groups in the U.S., and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Native youth aged 15-24,” underscoring the importance of positive literary representations to provide kids with hope.
Representations in Current Books
Debbie Reese is well known in the children’s literature community for being a vocal proponent of accuracy in representation of American Indians, both through her active engagement in discussions of books and through her influential blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Reese holds master’s degrees in education and library science, as well as a research doctorate in education from the University of Illinois. She has previously worked in libraries and as a teacher. Reese told PW that while she hasn’t recently seen much growth in the number of children’s and young adult titles representing American Indians, she has seen growth in the “numbers of Native writers who are doing graphic novels.” And she’s seeing a diverse range of stories among those graphic novels, including the superhero story Super Indian by Arigon Starr (Wacky Productions Unlimited, Sept. 2015), and an anthology, Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, edited by Hope Nicholson (AH Comics Inc., 2015). When asked if she thought the CCBC’s survey was helping to increase the number of books released by or about American Indians, Reese countered that the We Need Diverse Books movement may be having an effect, too. “There’s certainly greater awareness, but change in what gets published takes a long time,” she said.
In looking at the numbers of books produced by or about American Indians, it appears that much of the work is falling to smaller publishers. Reese agreed, attributing it to the “lack of knowledge among editors in the big houses, coupled with the pressures to publish books that will sell.” Furthermore, popular titles derived from traditional stories of American Indians are often shelved in different sections from similar titles from other religions. “Rather than shelve them with world religions,” Reese said, “they’re put in the folktale section, which marginalizes us as a people whose religions are no more superstitious than Christianity. Other things that sell? Bogus stories about Thanksgiving, that, like A Fine Dessert, sugarcoat history.”
What compounds the problem for Reese, is the familiarity most people have with stereotypical representations of American Indians. “The pile of wrong representations is so high that people have come to think of those representations as accurate, or the norm,” she said. “It is so embedded as ‘knowledge’ that when people see the reality of who we are, it doesn’t seem right to them, and so they move on and reach for the problems instead.” Reese sees this pattern borne out of a lack of education. “Our sovereign nation status is not taught in schools.... The community of people in major publishing houses is mostly white and ignorant. The outcome then, is flawed. Everyone in that particular community has to find a way to step out of that community, and step into mine.”
In order to step into her community, Reese suggests that those in the publishing industry attend Native conferences and gatherings; read Native news, blogs, and journals; and read “in-depth about a specific Native Nation,” which “would help develop an eye for spotting problematic things.” Reese also suggests that review journals own up when books that they reviewed highly and “come to see later as problematic, could say so, publicly. They can’t withdraw stars, and book committees can’t withdraw awards, either, but both are powerful entities. Saying ‘we screwed up’ would help, too, to improve the overall quality.”
Reese specifically pointed out Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein as an editor who “gets it.” Klein told PW that the two were acquainted early in her editorial career, when she was active on a children’s literature listserv, which Reese also contributed to. Klein acknowledged a lack of books by American Indian authors being published, but said it’s “hard to go outside [editors’] normal channels when we have so much coming in,” and so she asked Reese specifically to encourage American Indian authors to submit books to her. That was how she signed Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here (2013), about a teen boy who lives on a reservation but goes to a public school off the reservation and makes friends with a white classmate. Gansworth is a Native artist and writer, tribally enrolled in the Onondaga Nation; If I Ever Get Out of Here was his YA debut.
Klein still isn’t seeing a lot of submissions by American Indian authors, but felt that her work with Gansworth was important, in that both author and editor learned a great deal from each other. “We could talk about these things honestly and not get offended, and were able to build a strong relationship,” she said. To increase the number of good books by or about Native Americans, Klein suggests that editors interested in acquiring diverse books should be “loud-mouthed” about wanting to see those kinds of manuscripts. “I think making that communications pipeline open, to find more resources either in connectors like Debbie, or reading literary journals,” Klein said, “could all help.
In November 2014, Klein and Gansworth participated in a panel hosted by the New York Public Library, which also featured Stacy Whitman, publisher of the Tu Books imprint at Lee and Low, and Native author Joseph Bruchac. On the panel, Whitman said that she and Klein, both “white Midwesterners from rural areas, had a learning curve as we approached editing Native American authors. Understanding [Bruchac’s] storytelling style was a huge part of learning how to edit him. [I try to understand] what he’s going for, and [learn] to give feedback in a way that improves [the book] without infringing [on his vision]. Really, that’s the job of any editor, with any book!”
Lee and Low’s mission has always been to publish diverse books, and Whitman recognizes the importance of publishing Native authors. This season, Whitman released Bruchac’s novel Trail of the Dead, the latest in a dystopian series with a Native protagonist (Bruchac is of Abenaki and Czech ancestry). Echoing Klein, she said it takes a great deal of work to find the right manuscripts: “I’m always on the lookout for new voices,” she said. “I’ve done that individually – reaching out to authors who have already been published and asking them to recommend Native authors – and via our New Visions Award writing contest.” The more voices, the better, Whitman believes: “I don’t want any one book or any one author I publish to be considered the ‘single story’ for a group of people, especially a diverse group that includes 566 federally recognized tribes.”
Lee and Low has another Bruchac title in the works, Arrow of Lightning, due in 2017, the third book in his Killer of Enemies series, as well as a 2016 novel from Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Shame the Stars, a Romeo and Juliet retelling that also addresses Mexican-American land rights in 1915 Texas, including Mestizos, who have combined indigenous and European ancestry. Looking ahead, Whitman wants to see more realistic contemporary stories, that offer “recognition that Native people live and work in a variety of contexts nowadays, including cities,” as well as science fiction and other genres – “especially in science fiction, stories [currently] end up with artificially all-white worlds without the recognition of the continued existence of Native Americans and people of color.” Whitman said she is also interested in “lesser-known history” as well. “Many people don’t know that Mohawk steelworkers built most of New York City, for example.”
Representation at Houses Large and Small
This fall, Abrams is publishing three titles by American Indian authors: Hiawatha and the Peacemaker (Aug.) by Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon, Sitting Bull (Nov.) by S.D. Nelson, and In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse (Nov.) by Joseph Marshall III. Tamar Brazis, editorial director of Abrams and Amulet, edited Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, a picture book written by Robertson (lead guitarist of The Band, and of Mohawk and Cayuga descent) after he realized that Longfellow’s popular version of Hiawatha was far different than the traditional Iroquois story Robertson heard growing up. The book took four years to complete, Brazis said, adding that it was “a passion project for everyone. [Robertson] worked incredibly hard. He researched the book as well, meeting with various tribal elders and chiefs. We’re very proud of it.”
Having three books on one list by American Indian authors was happenstance; each of the projects had been in the works for a while, and just all happened to come together now, Brazis said.
Howard Reeves, editor at large for Abrams, has been helping bring native voices to print since he came to Abrams 17 years ago to start up the company’s children’s program. An early book was S.D. Nelson’s Gift Horse (1999). “We actually discovered S.D. Nelson through the slush pile,” he told PW. Nelson, an illustrator and member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, has since done three books with Abrams, including a picture book biography this season of Sitting Bull. “We were all taken by his artwork,” Reeves said, noting that Nelson’s images were created with “leftover ledger books, used by American Indian children at boarding schools in the 19th century. Reeves hopes to continue to find and publish work by American Indian authors and illustrators, through traditional submissions, though he doesn’t see many cross his desk.
Sherman Alexie, one of the most prominent American Indian authors writing today, won the 2007 National Book Award for his first YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a coming-of-age story set in part on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where Alexie grew up. For the first time, Alexie is trying his hand at a picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr., illustrated by Yuyi Morales and due out from Little, Brown next May. Alexie’s editor, Alvina Ling, told PW that the author shelved a picture book idea about a working mother in favor of the story that became Thunder Boy Jr. “I immediately fell in love with the concept of a boy trying to come up with a new name for himself.” The book, she said, “was a personal story inspired by Sherman’s own family and experiences.” Morales, who is Mexican, incorporates indigenous patterns and imagery into her art, which Ling said Alexie “loved.”
Ling hasn’t seen many submissions for books by or about American Indians, nor does she have anything currently under contract, though Little, Brown has a YA novel scheduled to publish next year, Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham, which features an American Indian character. “The book is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has one of the larger American Indian populations in the country,” Ling said. Ling does think that the CCBC survey has had an impact on drawing increased attention to American Indian representation especially in recent years, when amplified by organizations like the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Committee (which Ling helped found in 2012) and We Need Diverse Books. “More agents, editors, and publishers are looking for books featuring underrepresented characters, including American Indians,” she said.
Wisdom Tales, based in Bloomington, Ind., is a small press that publishes books from traditions across the world, including recent books on Persian, Jain, and American Indian history and traditional stories. The company’s owner, Michael Oren Fitzgerald (Wisdom Tales is co-owned by Fitzgerald’s son, Joseph), donates all royalties from his books to American Indian organizations, including the American Indian College Fund, Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, and the Language Conservancy. Fitzgerald has underwritten Crow Language textbooks, and the press regularly spearheads efforts to support instruction in American Indian languages.
Wisdom Tales has two American Indian-themed books on its list this fall, which were acquired through traditional submissions. Whispers of the Wolf (Oct.) was written and illustrated by Pauline Ts’o, with a preface by Vivian Arviso Deloria, an American Indian artist tribally enrolled in the Navajo Nation, Tohatchi chapter. The book is a Pueblo story set in the Southwest before the arrival of the Spanish. The press has also released Hunter’s Promise (Sept.), an Abenaki tale about a hunter who gains a winter wife who helps his hunt, and must pay her homage after the season, written by Bruchac.
“We need more American Indian authors and illustrators,” said Mary-Kathryne Steele, president of Wisdom Tales. “We’re publishing a few titles, around 11 to 12 now, but we need to encourage more American Indians to write and illustrate, and help support them in this. There are so many wonderful authors now, but there’s room to grow.” Steele feels a world without these representations is a sad one for all kids, because, “American Indian children, whatever tribe they’re in, whatever nation, they need to see themselves. [And] I believe all American children need to see different types of people.”
Wisdom Tales’s commitment to publishing not just more but more accurate books about American Indians means reaching out to American Indian experts to weigh in on texts, and oftentimes will have American Indians, if not writing the books, consulting the texts and writing forewords. Whispers of the Wolf features a foreword from Rosemary Apple Blossom Lonewolf, who is also an American Indian artist, tribally enrolled in the Santa Clara Pueblo, Tewa tribe.
More books are on the way next spring from American Indian authors, too. HarperCollins’s ongoing Birchbark House series by author Louise Erdrich (who is of Ojibwe extraction and runs the Native-themed Birchbark Books in Minneapolis) gains a new volume next August. The historical series tells the story of an Ojibwe family making a home in a new land, and melds the Ojibwe language, transliterated by Erdrich herself, into the text.
Orca Book Publishers, based on the west coast of Canada, also makes a strong effort to represent First Nations authors and illustrators, with its Native Trailblazers nonfiction series as well as board books and YA titles from First Nation authors and illustrators, including the forthcoming My Heart Fills with Happiness (Mar. 2016) by Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Julie Flett.
Ground has broken in the comics world, too; in the next few months, Native American comic hero Red Wolf will get his own series at Marvel, and Native artist Jeffrey Veregge will be on the creative team.
While some editors cited the “pipeline” problem, limited manuscripts from Native authors or non-Native authors that are well-done and well-researched may not be the only impediment to increasing the number of books representing indigenous people. A systemic ignorance of topics of concern to some American Indians – including tribal sovereignty, accurate and inclusive history, and a sensitivity to sacred religious beliefs and practices – perpetuates false representations of Native people, and keeps stereotypes in place, building walls between Native and non-Native populations. Overwhelmingly, those who spoke with PW suggested actively attempting to dismantle these walls, by connecting via resources and social media. However, many of the editors, and Reese as well, pointed to a lack of basic information leading to this ignorance, which indicates a problem: that U.S. citizens are not actively or accurately educated about Native American history and culture, despite the fact that entire, diverse nations of American Indians are geographically located throughout this shared continent. Dispelling ignorance in schools might be the first place to start.
As student Kiki Shawnee said at the U.S. Department of Education’s School Environment Listening Sessions: “At school there is not much covered on Native Americans. Our teachers only talk about Natives sometimes, usually in November around Thanksgiving. That’s not really the right time because Native people are here all the time.... I would like our teachers to change the way they teach so Indians are not just about [the] past, but in the present, and we learn more than one story.”