This 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 Literature. The 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.