For months now, I’ve been thinking about the dynamic in the children’s lit world centered around whether you can be a fan of an author/illustrator’s work and still be able to look critically at their books. (We saw this at work last fall when beloved illustrator Sophie Blackall caught heat for her illustrations in Emily Jenkins’s A Fine Dessert.) I started (and scrapped) several attempts at a blog post on the subject, until one day in June when I found that Zetta Elliott had brilliantly and succinctly said everything I had ever wanted to say about this phenomenon:
I love my friends. At times, I gush about my friends because they’re brilliant and creative and inspiring. But I am not a “fan” of my friends, and when a librarian comes up to me to express her appreciation for my books, I don’t think of her as a “fangirl.” To me, fans are not in their right mind—they’re fanatics! Their enthusiasm and excitement overwhelm their ability to think critically, and THAT can be a real problem when your job is to objectively evaluate and acquire books.
YES! Especially that last sentence. It’s so very true that those of us in this relatively small (and tight-knit) children’s book world have to strike a balance between celebrating the creators of the books we love while also (a) thinking about what the books are saying about the world, and how that affects young readers, and (b) holding the creators of the book accountable when things go wrong.
Which brings us to Lane Smith’s latest picture book, There Is a Tribe of Kids (Roaring Brook, 2016). I’m guessing you don’t need an introduction to Smith’s work; suffice it to say his books (especially his collaborations with Jon Scieszka) are perennial favorites that I still return to frequently. (By the way, as much as I love Scieszka he hasn’t always been the most culturally sensitive writer; see Debbie Reese’s take on the unfortunate Me Oh Maya, an entry in the Time Warp Trio series.) The “enthusiasm and excitement” that Zetta mentioned above are definitely there for me when it comes to Lane Smith’s books.
But when this title (along with the book cover) flashed across the screen at a Macmillan publishing preview event this past January, I immediately grew leery. It was really the combination of the title, with its use of the word “Tribe” in an obviously playful way, and the shots of the (human) kids from the title on the last two spreads. Minh Lê touches on this unfortunate juxtaposition in his review in the New York Times Book Review: “Some readers may detect something ill-advised, if not sadly familiar, in its echoes of the longstanding trope in children’s literature that uses Native imagery or “playing Indian” to signify wildness, especially since the word ‘tribe’ is so central to this often captivating book.”
I understand that “tribe” can be used in reference to a group of goat kids. Smith sets this up in the first few spreads when the human “kid” protagonist is left behind by a group of young goats, the other “kids” from the title. It’s a clever bit of wordplay, but “tribe” is a loaded term, and to me the repartee falls flat. (I’ll talk more about this later; for now I highly recommend you stop and read this Teaching Tolerance piece, The Trouble with Tribe, before you continue. It’s worth it.) Smith shows the child protagonist using play to connect with his new “tribe,” happy to be included. As Lê writes, “Within the confines of the book, this is a heartwarming finale.”
BUT. Take a look at the detail on the left; it comes from the book’s penultimate spread, a visually stunning wonderland that is equal parts Swiss Family Robinson and the Lost Boys from Peter Pan. And yes, it does make for a sweet ending within the confines of this book. But a child of Native/First Nations will not experience this story and these illustrations (kids with feathers or distinctly feather-shaped leaves sticking out from their heads, living a simple, primitive life) “within the confines of the book.” Children of Native/First Nations live in a world that oppresses and colonizes them and has done so for hundreds of years. And here we have a book that implies that it is okay to play “Indian,” to costume one’s self in Native dress, and the bottom line is that this is NOT okay.
I believe that Smith’s intention here was to create a kind of childhood utopia, with the giant treehouse and the lack of adult intervention and the closeness to nature and all of that; a paean to being a kid. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that! But looking back at the aforementioned piece from Teaching Tolerance, which reads in part, “To be in a tribal state is to live in an uncomplicated, traditional condition,” it gets a bit thorny. By creating the primitive scene as a sort of unspoiled, unevolved mini-society, Smith is reinforcing the age-old stereotype which led to (again quoting from Teaching Tolerance) “the concept of tribe [as] a cornerstone for European colonial rule in Africa.” And again I’ll harken back to one of Lê’s comments: using “tribe” in the title was certainly “ill-advised.”
But here’s the thing: Lê’s mixed review of the book is the exception to the rule, as There Is a Tribe of Kids has garnered 4 starred reviews to date and sits at 2nd place in the Goodreads Mock Caldecott voting. As most reviewers are White, this brings up some questions. Are we all too enamored with Lane Smith to see the problems here? To return to Zetta Elliott’s earlier point, are we able to “think critically” about and “objectively evaluate” books when they are created by someone we greatly admire? If it wasn’t Lane Smith’s name on the front cover, could we more easily see the problems inherent in There Is a Tribe of Kids? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that this is a book that I personally won’t be sharing with (human) kids.