Multicultural picture books that are nice, but not compelling

This week, I have been examining some Native American picture books, like Wild Berries by Julie Flett. Nice and all, beautiful actually with a rich, authentic, bilingual component…but maybe not compelling. A good “calm” book. Does the average toddler or preschooler go for this stuff? Or do we the adults, the librarians, the teachers appreciate it more? (Children’s books should be for children, right?)

Are we all missing the point? Is there something inherent in these authentic books that seems to make us feel like they might not fit in mainstream culture? Is this an extension of how American culture has made Native Americans “invisible”? What can be done?

Heck if I know!

It makes me sad to think, but I suspect that these books might not be appealing to the “average” child. Improving multicultural awareness is probably best done through exposure, but will these very wonderful artistic, calm books even get a proverbial foot in the door?

Blackhawks logoThe school district for which I work is one of 32 districts in Wisconsin that still have a Native American mascot (the Blackhawks). While we do not use a costumed figure during sporting events nor war cries and tomahawk chops, Blackhawk’s image is widely used on logos. Ironically, the image we use isn’t even him or historically accurate. We were recently challenged and will likely not be making a change in the near future (we have a very important referendum coming in April that we are worried about). There is a fierce attachment to him in the community and a tie to city history, but it’s tough because it’s just not right. The community feels they honor Chief Blackhawk this way, but obviously the Natives do not. There is work to be done if we are to change some hearts.

How to get people to understand? Through culturally authentic picture books? I doubt it. Basic exposure? Some principals I know were telling a story the other day of a Native author and leader that came a few years back to do workshops with kids and share his [modern] life experience. At the end of it all, when the kids were asked, “How does Mr. So-and-So (I’m sorry, I’m blanking on his name) get to work?” “Where does he live?” The answers were “on a horse” and “in a tee-pee” even though the kids were SHOWN evidence to the contrary and got to know him as a REAL PERSON.

Again, this makes me so sad. Apparently, it is so hard for mainstream American culture to see Native Americans as contemporary and relevant. Natives are not invisible, nor extinct, but are often treated as if they are.

Can our books make a difference in our print and literary culture? A nice, but not compelling book probably won’t open a lot of eyes (nor change hearts)… unless there are a lot of them! Write on, Native authors, write on!

(Also, a shout out to the fine people of the Wisconsin Media Lab and Project. THIS is what we need!)

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