This is a post in Reading While White’s end-of-year retrospective series.
2018 has been a historic year for Native women in U.S. politics. Last month, Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, became the first-ever Native women elected to U.S. Congress. At the same time, Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, was elected Lt. Governor of Minnesota.
In the #kidlit world, 2018 has been a stellar year for Native book releases, with several #OwnVoices books by Native creators being published and celebrated, including Traci Sorell winning the Orbis Pictus Honor Award last month for We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. In January, another group of AILA Youth Literature Awards was announced and Dr. Debbie Reese was selected to give the 2019 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture. In June, members of the ALSC Board of Directors addressed longstanding criticism and “inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and [ALSC’s] core values” when voting to change the name of the Wilder Medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Dr. Debbie Reese recently posted a Twitter thread highlighting some momentous events from the year.
|Screenshot of Facebook conversation regarding
"Native American headdress" flannelboards.
Despite these successes and more, anti-Native bigotry and actions persisted in 2018. Ignorance of Native nations was reflected in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to apologize for claiming Native identity. (That she pointed to a DNA test as “proof” of her Cherokee identity shows her lack of knowledge. Read this post by Jacqueline Keeler and Kelly Hayes and this piece by Rebecca Nagle to learn more about how both Warren and Trump have exploited and erased Cherokee people and the Cherokee Nation in this fight.) While the professional baseball team of Cleveland, Ohio committed to removing racist imagery from team jerseys this year, there are no plans to change the team name and the team will continue to profit from the racist image, which suggests that the move is more about what looks best from a PR perspective than about doing what’s right. Some educators have shared efforts to teach inclusively in 2018 (learn about how teacher Jessica Lifshitz is confronting Native stereotypes with her students here), but many continue to teach false history rooted in White supremacist, colonialist culture (as seen in the screenshot of a recent Facebook group conversation about flannelboards, the inappropriate use of the words “tribe” and “spirit animal,” and this Twitter conversation about fake tipis being used as classroom decorations). Native survivors of targeted harassment courageously raised their voices against their abusers in 2018, yet Native women continue to face violence and assault at staggering rates. Companies like Target and Crate and Barrel continue to profit off of appropriative Native merchandise that encourages children to “play Indian.” Native book creators continue to be represented minimally at conferences like #NCTE18. Native stories are mislabeled as “folk and fairy tales.” And racist children’s books are still getting published and promoted. One of these books, published this year in the U.S.A., is It’s Springtime, Mr. Squirrel!.
|Cover of It's Springtime, Mr. Squirrel!
Image from Amazon.com.
It’s Springtime, Mr Squirrel! is an international picture book (translated from German) by Sebastian Meschenmoser, author of the popular Mr. Squirrel and the Moon. This is one of those “where do you even begin” kind of books to review - there are A LOT of issues.
In the beginning of the book, spring has sprung and the setting is abuzz. Graceful gray pencil marks are lightened by splashes of color. Creatures scuttle about, and Mr. Squirrel’s friend Hedgehog shares that he’s not hungry because he has seen “...a lovely lady hedgehog.” At this point, pink and blue background fills are used for male and female characters, reinforcing a very stereoptypical gender binary. When “the lovely lady” Hedgehog is shown, it is from behind (this “lady” only exists as an object for the male character to gaze). Because Hedgehog is too shy to approach the lady character, Mr. Squirrel shares thoughts about how to win her heart: “The best way is to gain fame and glory by showing everyone how brave and strong you are.” The omniscient narrator then says, “In order to gain fame and glory, of course you had to win lots of dangerous fights.” Regardless of author intent, the not-so-subtle message is to get what I want out of this, I have to assert male dominance (toxic masculinity 101).
The text then reads: “...if you want to win lots of dangerous fights, you have to look dangerous yourself.” What exactly does it mean to “look dangerous” in this book? First Hedgehog is shown with a butterfly and flowers atop his head, and later with a mushroom-style skirt and a snail on his head (both sexist jabs against anything other than masculine, cisnormative gender presentations). It is only when Hedgehog wears leaves and carries a sharp stick in what appears to be a stereotypical, generic Native outfit that the characters feel ready to win “any dangerous fight.” (To learn about how “playing Indian” is connected to the colonialist history of the U.S.A. and the impacts of stereotypes on Native children’s self-esteem today, read this study, this post, and this book.)
|Illustration of Hedgehog with grass skirt and spear. Imagine from
In the pages that follow, the characters (both dressed up now) attack unsuspecting mice, birds, and bunnies. When the bear character, who is named as the most dangerous creature in the forest, isn’t scared of them (he doesn’t see them), Mr. Squirrel and Hedgehog feel victorious. They take flowers to the “lady hedgehog,” only to discover that she isn’t a hedgehog at all, but a hairbrush. As they sit with their disappointment, a duck approaches and says, “That can happen to anybody.” To some readers, this ending and its be careful who you are attracted to messaging might also call to mind stories of people who are transgender being violently outed, which often results in trauma and assault.
|Scanned illustration of characters chasing mice.
No doubt there will be readers who want to defend this book by pointing out the creator’s impeccable draftsmanship or use of irony. Meschenmoser is a talented visual artist in some ways, but the thing about books for children is that they are about how every image and piece of text work together to create each page, and how every image and page fits together with the next to tell a story. Each book goes out into the world, the actual world where Native sovereignty is not understood by those with power (and many without), and where Native kids are facing compounding intersecting oppressions. These books are read by real kids, many whose very identities are under constant threat.
If you work with young people, I invite you sit and think with me about the messages this particular book sends to readers, and how it connects to today...to this month...to 2018. How will Native readers and others with minoritized group identities respond to this book? How might readers with privilege and power react? What might they internalize? If you still want to defend this book, I invite you to consider the purpose supporting an artist’s style above all else serves. Who does it protect? What legacies does it continue?
If you choose to read a different book, I’d suggest any of the Hall of Fame recommendations on Indigo’s Bookshelf, the new blog (also started this year) by the group of Florida Seminole and Miccosukee teens who Tweet collaboratively using @OfGlades. If you don’t already follow them, you should. These young people have things to say—and as reflecting on 2018 shows for those us who are not Native, we have much to learn.