Arts & Entertainment

Q&A with blogger on Native representations in children's books





Aura Bogado interviews blogger Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) about the depiction of Native people in books:
Can you tell me how you became interested in Native representation in children’s books?
For several years I taught kindergarten and first grade and, of course, I used story a lot. I became interested in studying what’s called family literacy so in 1994 I went to grad school at the University of Illinois. [When] I got there [I] realized how much power the Chief Illniwek mascot had over what people seemed to believe they knew about American Indians. That took me by surprise; I grew up in northern New Mexico and lived in Oklahoma for awhile [so] there was never a question about who we were. Native people heavily populated the circles I traveled in so everybody knew what was the real thing and what was fake. At University of Illinois, which was very white, I wanted to understand why this mascot had so much power. I noticed that children’s books had the very same image of a character in a headdress that is so popular in mainstream America. Clifford the Big Red Dog, for example, dressed as an Indian for Halloween wearing a big headdress. He embodied the stereotypes of the stoic and stern Indian. I saw similar images in [a] Berenstain Bears book [among] others. So I was sticking with my interest in children’s literature, but looking at it in a more politicized way by focusing on what kinds of messages the books were passing along to children, to help me understand why people would be so attracted and attached to a mascot.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) tracks diversity in children’s books, and the New York Times recently highlighted that work. Can you talk about the quantity of Natives in children’s books—but also about the quality of those books?
What I found in my analysis of that CCBC study is that all except one of the books that were published by mainstream publishers, sell the best, and get promoted the most are by white writers. And all of those have problematic stereotypes in them. Some are really bad—like Susan Cooper’s “Ghost Hawk”— and some are not so bad, but with pretty bad context. So the major publishers really mess it up. It’s the small publishers such as Lee and Low and Cinco Puntos Press, that publish books by authors of color and American Indians, and those books are better. They don’t stereotype and they are just better books. But those books don’t get circulated in the same numbers because small presses don’t have the economic power to distribute like the big publishers do.

Get the Story:
Aura Bogado: How Children’s Books Fuel Mascot Stereotypes (Colorlines 4/7)