Friday, May 11, 2007

Native Americans and Indians in Children's Literature

First all, I've got a review of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O'Dell's 1961 Newbery Medal winner up here over at The Newbery Project. It's historic fiction for older kids, based on the story of an Indian woman who lived alone on one of the Channel Islands (off the coast of California) from 1835-1853. I'm still not a big fan of the book, thirty years after I read it for the first time.

A couple of my fellow Newbery Project bloggers posted their reviews of Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink (1963 winner), and Debbie Reese commented there and linked to her posts about the book at her blog, American Indians in Children's Literature, in two posts: Reflections on Caddie Woodlawn: Teaching about Stereotypes using Literature (which is especially poignant because it involves Reese's third grade daughter's response to the book), and The 'Scalp Belt" in Caddie Woodlawn.

Reese's blog (which includes book reviews from several other authors) is a wonderful resource for reading about children's books on different Native American peoples, First Nation groups, or American Indians, along with Oyate (which I linked to when writing about Nature books for Kids).

It's interesting how often Native peoples are invoked when writing about nature for kids. I know there are several academic papers out there linking American stereotypes about "Indians" as a whole with our ideas about nature. The idea of "people living in harmony with nature" is a powerful one that certainly transcends the notion that different Native peoples in different places and times had many different types of relationships with the environment (both natural, and that resulting from thousands of years of human modification) around them.

Anyway, I would venture to say that Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins was mainly a convenient person to hang O'Dell's descriptions of Channel Island ecology upon.

Interestingly, this site (which ranks Newbery winners according to how well a bunch of librarians and teachers in Indiana liked them) says this about Island of the Blue Dolphins (56th out of 85):

An OK story, we had some questions about authenticity and character voice.

Although I violently disagreed with some of the comments from the Allen County Public Library librarians and teachers group (see my comments here), I did wonder about authenticity in Island of the Blue Dolphins, too. O'Dell seems to get the Native technology and the environmental surroundings of the island of San Nicholas right, but when it came to Karana's feelings - let alone her spiritual and cultural values - I really think there's a big hole in the book.

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