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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

There Is a Tribe of Kids: The Current Debate

TribeKidsThis year, in 2016, a conversation has sprung up around the picture book There Is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith.  The discussion has occurred primarily on blogs and listservs with the occasional mention on Twitter.  I would like to summarize the points here and explain what’s going on, since, unlike A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I suspect this debate may likely remain within the children’s literature sphere and not branch out into the larger media.  That means that of my readership, perhaps only a small percentage is aware of what’s going on.

Here then are the facts about what’s gone down with There Is a Tribe of Kids, as we know it today.

Published by Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan, the book was released this year on May 3rd.  Due to the fact that the author was Lane Smith, it got a serious publicity push.  Smith hadn’t written and illustrated a picture book in this illustration style since his Caldecott Honor winning Grandpa Green, so hopes were undoubtedly high on the part of the publisher.

The book garnered five starred reviews (if we count Shelf Awareness).  On May 5th a review appeared in The New York Times by picture book author and blogger Minh Lê in which he made the following statement:

“Acceptance finally comes with the discovery of a diverse group of other leaf-clad children, kindred spirits who form their own “tribe of kids.” Within the confines of the book, this is a heartwarming finale. Unfortunately, for me the juxtaposition of the word “tribe” with the woodland utopia conjured uncomfortable associations. For example, in the final scene, as the child describes his journey to his new friends, he wears feathers in his hair to re-enact his stint among an “unkindness of ravens.” It’s a whimsical visual in isolation, but 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.”

Months passed.  On July 8th Sam Bloom wrote about his similar concerns on the site Reading While White.  It led to about 128 comments and counting.  This was followed up with two different blog posts by Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s LiteratureThe first was posted on July 9th.  After it came out there was some discussion on the child_lit listserv.  This led to a response by author Rosanne Parry where she defended the book. Debbie’s second response came on July 14th in direct response to Parry’s.  Roxane Feldmann offered her own two cents at her fairrosa blog, which also offers a good encapsulation of the debate.

Meanwhile, on the listservs, discussions have raged at both child_lit and alsc-l though the conversation changed slightly on both sites.  For example, on child_lit folks who disagreed that the book was insensitive to Native Americans were finding themselves compared to Trump.  On alsc-l the topic turned to collection development in libraries and where this book fits in when librarians decide not to buy it for their systems.

And yet, for all the discussion, the wider world has been left largely unawares.  As of this post the book has only one critical review on Amazon, and that’s from a grandmother who thinks the title is too advanced for children to comprehend. On Goodreads it has 510 ratings and 125 Reviews, but few if any mention this debate.  It’s too early in the season for Calling Caldecott to discuss it seriously.  So in many ways the book discussion is contained entirely within a very small area online.

And that would be that.

My opinion then?  Hm.

Well, the fact of the matter is that I’m far more interested in the discussion surrounding the book than the book itself.  I’m particularly interested in how different opinions are being treated by both parties.

Because of the nature of the disagreement over the title, the book is currently garnering comparisons to A Fine Dessert and its subsequent criticisms.  And as with A Fine Dessert I included it in my Spring Caldecott prediction post and removed it for my Summer prediction post.  Why the removal this time?  Because at this point it’s clear that this book is going to be the Caldecott committee’s most interesting point of debate and with 2016 such a shockingly strong Caldecott year (it’s kind of frightening how strong it is) it’s entirely likely that the book isn’t going to go very far.  For my part, I didn’t notice the implication of the word “tribe” on an early read and would have missed it entirely if Minh hadn’t written his article.

I’ll say this much.  It takes guts to write about this topic.  No one likes to be the subject of flame wars and in-fighting.  In our current age of social media, blogging has changed significantly.  There was a time before the rise of Twitter when it took a little longer for blog posts to catch fire.  Now bloggers watch what they say with great trepidation.  The people I’ve mentioned above are brave, all of them, whether you agree with them or not.

I have read every opinion, comment, and question about this book that I could get my hands on.  I see the concerns at work here.  I don’t agree with some of the critics.  I agree with some of the others, or at least can see their point of view.  More than anything, I’m interested in hearing a wide range of opinions, both pro and con.  In the end, I suspect that the discussion may die down and then reignite as we get closer to the award season.  When that happens, I’ll watch the new debates with equal interest.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. I read this book to my first graders at the end of this last school year. I actually used it to tie into our habitats project based learning because the child travels the world and sees many different animals in their environments. We discussed the underlying meaning however and they were very adept at noticing the child wishing on the star shaped parents, the pebble trail on the beach and finding acceptance with a different kind of family than the traditional mom and dad. We likened it to possibly an adoption situation and that not all families are alike and that’s where we left it.
    I’m concerned that so much angst can be seen in this wonderful book and that we can’t just let children make their own innocent connections from what they see.
    I am a K-5 teacher librarian in Central New York.

  2. My K-5 school includes kids with Native American tribal affiliations and I have pretty much decided not to buy this book. In a world of extremely limited budgets, there are always going to be well-reviewed books I can’t afford to buy and this one will remind kids (even if it’s only subconsciously) of all the other stereotype images of Native Americans they’ve seen.

    It’s a tough call, though, when prolific authors and illustrators write books that include damaging stereotypes, because author/illustrator studies are such a common thing. I don’t really understand why this keeps happening; if nothing else, editors should be more sensitive to these concerns after so many years of discussion.

    (As for the word play, Ambush of Tigers still circulates very well in our library and so, OTOH, I’ve got “group names of animals” covered and OTOH, I’m sad to lose out on a nice compare-contrast pairing.)

  3. @Corry I would respectfully ask you to consider that children *will* “make their own innocent connections from what they see” and therein lies the problem. Children are not colorblind. This has been proven again and again in studies that show children notice differences in attitude, treatment and make choices accordingly. (Google the Clark Doll test and the the Paper Bag Test for more details).

    The argument that this book is not harmful is born from a position of privilege, and assumes that the audience is not the “Other.” Cultural appropriation is ill-advised and dangerous because it ignores that fact.

    • @Sharon It is true that my school does not have a high percentage of diverse students but we do have a percentage of students that are disadvantaged and an even higher percentage that have family situations that are out of the “norm”. I chose to emphasize the familial differences that can take place and the hope of acceptance within whatever family unit one is a part of, which many of my students can sympathize with and understand.
      As for the “innocent connections” that I mentioned, I’m suggesting that I think adult thoughts sometimes skew what we believe children see. As first graders, they had a wonderful time pointing out all of the different ways the children were playing in the big illustration at the end. I did not prompt that discussion as a librarian might – I simply asked them to describe what they saw.
      I know you still won’t agree with this but that’s the way things are sometimes. I’ll just leave it at that.

      • I would also like to know, has anyone asked Mr. Lane about this? I’ve seen many posts about this now, including the original New York Times article that began the discussion and I have yet to see what the author’s intentions were. Maybe I missed it somewhere…if it’s out there, could someone direct me to it?

      • Excuse me, Mr. Smith – my toddler is yelling to me from her crib:o)

  4. Kate Barsotti says:

    To your point, it does take bravery nowadays to put out your opinion, to ask questions (and possibly make mistakes in the process and feel foolish), and try to disagree while not getting bruised or, in some cases, shut out (I have seen this happen outside of kidlit). It may be the nature of the beast and we all have different roles to play. I learn a lot from diversity blogs and related articles overall, so I am grateful for those researchers and writers.

    That said–I am more interested in how these internal issues are influencing authors, illustrators, and publishers. Are people avoiding certain projects? Too intimidated to take them on? Some say that’s a good thing, others will worry we are becoming risk-averse and too timid, with the end result that nobody benefits in the long run.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      That’s definitely happening, absolutely, but it’s difficult to quantify. You can’t exactly poll folks about it. I mean, I suppose you could try. “Are you more likely, less likely, or just as likely to write about controversial topics now than you were two years ago?” But who precisely would you ask?

      The danger is that publishers will refuse to publish anything that could get anywhere close to a controversy. On the flip side, making folks more aware of issues can be a good thing.

      What I would like to see would be a five year study of BISAC codes pertaining to social issues and other hot topics for children. Look at the books published from 2014-2019. What has changed? Are there more books featuring diverse characters and written by diverse authors? Are there certain topics that are appearing less and less? I love me my cold hard facts.

  5. Time and again I see members of the dominant culture defining what is and is not appropriate, hurtful or offensive to minority cultures.

    Children’s literature affects children. If the literature promotes stereotypes, whether intentional or not, this will affect children. If the stereotyping is dismissed by adults as no big deal then the children will think it’s no big deal. This is when cultural biases and misconceptions begin. It is troubling that the well being of indigenous children is less important what makes other feel good.

    • As someone from a minority group, I would add that there are people *in* the minority group who tell the individuals of that group what they should be offended by. I would argue that, yes, while we face serious oppression from the dominant culture, there is a lack of awareness of the diversity *within* a minority group when a member of that group stands up and says, “hey, this is offensive to [insert group here].” I don’t need to be told how to feel about something. I have a brain and I have life experiences that dictate how I respond to misrepresentations and attacks (perceived or intentional) in literature, art, film, politics, etc.

      • Joe, thanks for reminding us of this. I think this is something that needs to always be remembered — and hopefully more voices from each “insider” group can be heard equally without one side being drowned out by the other side.

  6. I appreciate a post like this that pulls together the varying responses to a book by a favorite illustrator. I have skimmed the book at a bookstore and really enjoyed the overall narrative while the groupings were varied, interesting, and fresh. I may have had a bit of uneasiness at the end without knowing why, exactly. The tribe of kids reminded me of the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, a childhood favorite story.

    One thing I’d like to say, as someone who comes from a background of privilege, I learn more from these debates and controversies than I do from reading books which do not elicit these heated discussions. I think the conversations are extremely important and the books serve to illustrate the point. Will we ever reach a time when no picture book offends somebody? Would that be a good thing?

    Also, what happens to older books which embody that privilege–books like Peter Pan, Two Little Savages, Little Black Sambo. Do we burn them, ban them, hide them? Where do we go from here?

    • Beth Kakuma-Depew says:

      Can I suggest that older books that embody privilege or perpetuate stereotypes be kept in closed stacks, where adult researchers can access them?

      Here’s a thought example – I never see picture books that show people wearing rosary beads around their necks. As a Catholic, I know that’s not what they are for, and when I do see people wearing them as jewelry, I feel belittled and annoyed. Mainstream kids don’t see this and are not exposed to this, and thus don’t “play” at being Catholic. This kind of micro aggression doesn’t happen in White culture.

      So why do we keep finding little visual micro aggressions against Native Americans?

      • Elizabeth Bird says:

        It’s been proposed before, but are you talking about restricting these books in a public library where access is for everyone? Plus there’s the shaky question of what you’d consider privilege or stereotypes. Take out all the older books and children will have no access to The Secret Garden, The Cricket in Times Square, The Snowy Day (K.T. Horning’s article in the most recent Horn Book explains why), Thimble Summer (a.k.a. fat shaming, the book), and more more more. Who makes the call?

  7. Betsy, I finally got around to reading this post. Thank you for summing up the whole debate so succinctly. I have been contemplating more on this and have posted some updated thoughts (not quite about the book, but about online discourses and ally-ship in general) here: https://fairrosa.com/2016/07/27/my-dkdk-dont-know-dont-know-moments/

    We need to keep thinking and talking and learning from each other!

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