By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Oct 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: A Quaker family living in Ohio in the early 1800’s makes peace with a Shawnee Indian tribe during a very troubled time.
This is actually a book that is on our easy reader shelf. On seeing it I immediately pulled it, worried that it contained stereotypes and racist content. Judging by the cover and style it looks like a book from the 1960s. It’s not. It was written in 1987. I will say upfront this book is not perfect, but I am leaving it on our shelf. Here’s why.
I was reminded of Joseph Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door so I turned to that book’s author’s note for good historical context and research into the actual events these books are based on. Bruchac did extensive research into both white and native perspectives on dealings between native tribes and the Friends (Quakers). There was an actual event similar to the one featured here and most similar to Bruchac’s story. The biggest differences being that The White Feather takes place in Ohio and Arrow takes place in New York and in Arrow the Native Americans come to a meeting of Quakers, not an individual homestead. The use of the broken arrow is also more accurate than the use of a feather.
I found some evidence that the book was written by a Quaker couple who were probably familiar with the story Bruchac researched. It has, over the years, become changed and exaggerated (as you might expect). Problems with The White Feather include the lack of acknowledgement that the Quakers were still taking land from the native tribes. And being kind didn’t exonerate them from this injustice. This is not a true story so the way it’s fleshed out is not as accurate as it could be. The historical context provided in the back is short and not overly informative. The natives all look the same, but I kind of think the white people do too. I think it’s the style? It’s pretty simplistic and not great art.
The story is, however, tribe specific (Shawnee) and accurate to the tribes living in the area of the story. Their clothing is close to what was worn (although maybe not totally true to the times they would have worn it (feathers I’m looking at you). Bruchac’s is also tribe-specific, but because of the setting it is a different tribe.
One of the first scenes in the book has the little boy making a war cry and scaring his mother and sister and their neighbors. He is very quickly reprimanded and corrected by his mother who angrily shames him “Abe, never, never do such a thing again! You know the Indians have always been our friends!” She later tells him they are worried because the Shawnee are angry over settlers taking what is not theirs and cheating them. She is nervous they will be targeted, and this is why she was frightened, but she is also makes the point that what the white settlers are doing is not okay and the Shawnee are justified in their anger.
In the next chapter Abe accompanies his father on a trip to visit the Shawnee tribe. There the father speaks with them “in their own language”. We are also told this is not his first trip to visit them. He has a relationship with the tribe. When the men of the tribe return the visit a few days or weeks later, they are not violent (although they do make a mess eating the biscuits and molasses the mother provides) nor are they unreasonable. They are a bit abrupt, but I think that has more to do with the fact that Abe, the boy telling the story, doesn’t speak their language the way their father does. The father provides some context for the children as the events unfold.
This would make a decent book to have a discussion around. It’s a little grey-er in the open collection. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, but I also spent the summer weeding our Native American resources and know that is a strong collection. Kids picking up this book will also be having conversations in their classrooms and will be exposed to all kinds of good resources and #ownvoices. The cover is unfortunate in that it makes the Shawnee look war-like and the white settlers look peaceable. If you read the story though, it’s considerably more nuanced. Like I said, it isn’t perfect and Bruchac’s book is much better and longer, but Bruchac also takes some liberties with the story. I think in the context of our collection it works. I do like that it provides an entree into Bruchac’s book and I would eventually point children interested in this book to that one. I would not recommend going out of your way to purchase this (but do go out of your way to purchase The Arrow Over the Door), but if it’s on your shelf take a look at the collection as a whole.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Oct 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I’m back this October with numbers and ideas about our easy reader collection. I have a couple goals here. The first is obvious, I want to be aware of what kind of diversity is visible in our collection with the intent of making it a stronger, more diverse collection. The second, I would like to restructure the collection so it’s more of a learning-to-read collection. These books don’t check out very much and I would like to help boost their circulation by leveling them and marketing them as books to help kids learn to read.
Now, I despise book levels, but I think with this collection they might really help kids find just-right books. I think having a really basic level system with them will also make them more friendly to browse. Currently they’re crammed into some small book racks. It isn’t terrible, but it’s really hard to browse because they’re in there so tightly and they aren’t easy to see. Plus they’re about to explode out of their little corner. We also have some popular titles (In a Dark, Dark Room for example) in two places in the library- the easy reader shelf and the holiday collection- so I’m not worried about kids shying away from some fun classics because of a book level sticker on it.
Beyond this post with the statistics of the collection and thoughts on what we need to do to make the collection better, I’ll be reviewing books in the collection and new books that I want to buy for the collection. I will also be sharing information about what we are doing to level the collection. (Although that may take longer as we have a long list of projects going in the library.)
There are approximately 260 books in the collection. A good number of them are checked out so I did a report that pulled up a list of books with the sublocation “Blue Easy Reader” in order to create the tallies. This may have missed a handful of titles that were not on the shelf and are not marked properly in the catalog (that kind of happens a lot, but I’m working on it). The collection seems fairly old with a handful of new books added over the past few years and it ranges in reading ability/reading level. There are a lot of different reading series, such as I Can Read and Ready to Read. Nearly all the books are fiction with our easy reader nonfiction sorted out into the regular nonfiction collection. If/when I start leveling the books I will pull the majority of easy reader nonfiction off those shelves and bring it back to this collection.
In creating these numbers I lumped series together. So Henry and Mudge has quite a few books in the series, but I only counted it once. Same with things like Poppleton and Amelia Bedelia.
Thoughts & Concerns
Well, we could certainly be doing better. There are actually more animal stories than there are stories about white kids. And those two categories make up the bulk of main characters. It doesn’t look much different than overall statistics of children’s literature or the other collections I have examined. I do worry that it’s going to be nearly impossible to find easy readers featuring Indian Americans and Native Americans and even Latino/as. If they’re already such a small part of what is being published they’re probably going to be even harder to find in easy reader format. But I will be looking and if you know of any, please, please, please let me know.
The one big surprise here was how many female authors there were in the collection. I do have to wonder if that has to do with the fact that women often get relegated to little kids and little kid stuff. I didn’t bother to look at the race/ethnicity of the authors. It’s nearly all white with a few exceptions.