Nonfiction trends in children’s literature are oddities. For all that children make up such a large swath of the American population, relatively few people specialize solely in creating works of nonfiction for them in a variety of different, potentially pleasing, ways. That said, when you look at enough of it over the course of a given season, a pattern starts to emerge. And as of right now as I write this review in 2013 the hottest new trend in nonfiction works for the young is the incorporation of infographics into books that would otherwise be considered just a sneeze shy of textbooks in terms of interest. Suddenly topics that previously bored to tears are now awash in colors and funky forms. True, it’s all still stats and facts, albeit made slightly more visually stimulating, but there’s something to be said for that. What I didn’t see coming was the application of this form to the topic of Native Americans. Probably one of the most popular topics a children’s librarian faces on a regular basis, very little concrete, inoffensive, and contemporary information exists for children. S.N. Peleja seeks to change all that and the end result is a book that has its flaws but after much consideration may ultimately be the best thing out on the market today.
“Native American people are as different as the land they come from.” So begins Kevin Loring, winner of the 2009 Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama and a member of the Nlaka’Pamux First Nation in British Columbia. As he explains, the topic of this book is gigantic, so the author has touched on many basic aspects of Native American lives in order to inspire further reading. Using every graph, chart, word cloud, and statistic available, author/illustrator S.N. Paleja delves into Origins, Tribes and Society, Plants and Animals, Culture, Making Contact, and Modern Day topics chapter by chapter. We look at the wide variety of housing depending on climates and needs, place names we use today, the top languages as of 2012 (Navajo is king), sports, population shifts and much much more. In closing Paleja includes a Selected Bibliography of up-to-date sources, a section of Further Reading for young eyes, and an Index.
So here’s the downside of infographics in books for kids: Kids don’t care about infographics. Adults care about infographics. Show an adult (or even a teen ala The Fault in Our Stars) a Venn Diagram and watch as their pulse quickens. Now show that same image to a kiddo and to them it’s a circle overlaid over another circle and . . . . yeah. That’s what that is. Pleasure reading for the youngsters, this is not. That said, this isn’t really meant to be a pleasure reading book anyway. It’s a book of facts, presented in a visually stimulating format, ideal for homework assignments. The Index at the end will allow kids to latch onto specific tribes, terms, concepts, and historical moments as well. Few will be the reader that goes through the book start to finish.
Any time a children’s librarian sees that a new book about Native Americans / American Indians is on the market the wariness factor starts to rise. Talk about difficult subject matter. On the one hand, librarians are inundated with requests from children, teachers, and parents for more books on specific Native tribes and histories because that’s what the schools are demanding. It’s an important piece of history. On the other hand, we have to be incredibly wary and cautious going forward of any new material on those subjects. Misinformation is rampant, as is the general feeling from these books that this is a race of people that died out long ago. So to counter all of this with, of all bizarre notions, a factual all-encompassing title utilizing infographics . . . well, it’s at the very least worth a look.
To reassure gatekeepers like myself the book is prefaced by Kevin Loring, a member of the Nlaka’Pamux First Nation. In this introduction Loring specifies that this is just a snapshot of various aspects of Native American life. Then he discusses the term “Native American” in the first place and explains that there were many sources where this information was culled (indeed the Bibliography at the back is extensive for a book for 9-12 year-olds). In what might be considered a stretch by some, Loring then links the infographic style to the pictograph tradition of some tribes. Certainly I’ve seen that style of illustration used in books by Paul Goble and S.D. Nelson but here it just feels convenient, more than anything else.
As it stands, the biggest problem with the book is the very basis behind it. Infographics work best when you deal with generalities rather than specifics. And while Loring has confronted this problem head on, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not still an issue. You might argue, and argue well, that any book about any person using infographics is going to reduce those people into numbers. Native Americans, unfortunately, have had that very act done to them for centuries. Then there are the visuals. In the Plants and Animals chapter the rote Native Americans pictured there are meant to symbolize tribes like the Hopi, Navajo, and Cherokee, and so the image of the woman is just in a standard dress, not distinguished in any way. It’s a tricky line to walk. The text is, for the most part, factual though there are moments that give one serious pause. It was a Kirkus review that pointed out that the hugely problematic sentence, “Generosity is an important aspect of Native American spirituality” is shockingly broad. Likewise, there might be some question as to the wisdom of using symbols like a bound hand to represent kidnapping when explaining various European crimes. It’s good that this is acknowledged, but could be considered callous too. That said, there’s something particularly satisfying about seeing Christopher Columbus held accountable for these crimes. Many biographies of the man conveniently forget that part.
Where the book shines brightest is when it gives an accounting of matters that are difficult to envision. Consider the old line that certain tribes would use “every part of the bison” in their everyday lives. How exactly does that work? Well, on the page “What can you make with a bison” the idea that you’re dealing with a “walking department store” suddenly makes perfect sense. Before you is an image of a bison with labels indicating body parts and what they could be reconstituted into. There’s the standard hide to blankets and bones to knives but then there’s also some of the lesser known qualities like hooves to glue, blood to paint, and sinew to sewing thread. In other parts of the book there’s also a satisfying account of when specific tribes came in contact with specific settlements from overseas. Everything from 1000 CE: Norse to the 1529 Spanish are distinctly specified and pointed out.
Another point in the book’s favor is the fact that contemporary statistics play a large part. As I mentioned before, glance through an average children’s library of Native American information and literature and you’re going to come away fairly convinced that there aren’t any tribes or people left. Name me three middle grade children’s works of fiction about contemporary American Indians. Can’t be done. So to see a kid’s book continually mentioning everything from the 18% increase in business ownership by Native Americans between 2002-2007 (as opposed to 9% for white Americans) or the growth in population between 2000-2010 (27% in the U.S. and 45% in Canada) is unprecedented. As the book is Canadian originally, it takes care to show not just where they live in the States but in places like Ontario or the four Western provinces as well.
I don’t think it’s possible to make an infographic book of Native American statistics that is without its problems. The very nature of the idea itself is rife with difficulties, after all. Still, I look at other books that have covered the territory that Paleja has covered here, and I can’t help but find them lacking. Either their scope is too small (just looking at The United States / a section of the country / a moment in history, etc.) or they bore the reader to tears. Paleja in turn gives us a book that generalizes even as it specifies. It’s obviously not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve seen in a very long time and for that reason alone I think it’s notable. Worth looking at. Worth considering.
On shelves now.
Source: Review copy borrowed from co-worker.
Like This? Then Try:
- Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles C. Mann
- The Children of Native America Today by Yvonne Wakim Dennis
- Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky: Poetry and Prose by the Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School, edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin
Other Blog Reviews:
- Preview six pages of the book here.