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For Your Consideration, Part 2, by Alexis, 18

Now that I am working in a library as Page and talking to librarians and following Native and kidlit Twitter, I am also looking at "mock" award blogs for ALA 2019.

A little while back, SLJ's HEAVY MEDAL: A Mock Newbery Blog had what I thought was a very ugly review of Jewell Parker Rhodes' GHOST BOYS. I did meet Ms. Rhodes when she visited our library and schools. She was nice. I have read books by her, like SUGAR, which I liked. I have not read the one being discussed. I haven't looked for other criticisms of the book. Even the blog title made me grit my teeth. "Powerful, Gripping, Important, Timely--but is it distinguished?"

To me, "distinguished' is a word like 'articulate." It's coded White people talk for something IPOC don't have and have to work harder to achieve. Something we're not expected to innately have or be. So I pricked up my ears. Reading the comments was even worse. 

I don't want to discuss it all here. (Though I'm going to say non-Black people should not comment on lynchings depicted in books by Black authors. Step way back!) I am going to focus on one aspect and how it relates to Native traditional stories. The word is "didactic." It came up a lot. Though I had a general idea of what it meant, I decided to check an online dictionary for a complete meaning. This is what I found on MW.

1.  a.   : designed or intended to teach
    
     b.   : intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment

2.  : making moral observations

Here are synonyms I found: moralistic, preachy, sermonic.

I might have just moved on and tried to shake it off. IF I didn't read a certain comment by the author Rosanne Parry. Now, I have read AICL front to back and I follow Deebie Reese (@debreese) on Twitter. So I know Ms. Debbie and Ms. Parry have had prolonged discussions (if that's what they're called!) concerning Perry's 2013 MG book about the Makah Nation, WRITTEN IN STONE. It's definitely worth reading carefully over this long thread.


In the comments to the blog about Ms. Rhodes' book, Ms. Parry at first defends "didactic elements" in kidlit.
Does anyone know when didactic elements were first singled out as negative qualities in children's books? I have always found the aversion to the didactic odd. Most books for readers of any age are didactic. It's very hard to write and not have a world view on the page.
"World view' and 'didactic' being equal seemed strange from my perspective. And then Parry dropped this bomb.
I think it’s also important to remember that many oral and written traditions come from a place of strong didacticism. One of the most authentic-sounding books I’ve read in recent memory is IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CRAZY HORSE by Joseph Marshal III. It was authentic because it was didactic. Grandpa Nyles sounded exactly like all the grandparents at the reservation school where I used to teach–the overt instructional tone, the gentleness, the humor, the willingness to ask their grandkids to do hard things. All of it. The entire premise of the book is didactic.
If we always characterize overt instruction as bad in a literary sense then we exclude many written traditions, American Indian, Pacific Islander and many others.

Got to be honest. First, I just stared. And reread it to make sure I got it right. Then I lost my shit. There is SO MUCH wrong here. I actually think I don't have the tools to unpack it all. But I am going to try to address a few points.

1. I do not understand the statement that oral and written traditions "come from a strong place of didacticism." I just reviewed Tim Tingle's WHEN TURTLE GREW FEATHERS: A Folktale from the Choctaw Nation. It's the *opposite* of preachy. Are settlers so indoctrinated in their own cultures that they do not see that?



2. I have not yet read Joseph Marshall III's IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CRAZY HORSE. Michael, 17, and Charlie, 16, really like it. Why is it "one of the most authentic sounding books?" What does an "authentic" Lakota boy sound like? How does this supposed authenticity relate to didacticism?  If you read Debbie Reese's review at AICL, she lists all the ways the book is a contemporary, enjoyable story of a young man's growth--the modern setting, Jimmy's fair appearance, his mom working as a Head Start teacher, and his grandfather teaching him their history on a road trip.

3. That grandfather is a *major* issue to Parry. Debbie Reese notes:
When his grandfather is in storytelling mode, giving him information about Crazy Horse, the text is in italics.
 His grandpa tells him that the Lakota people call it the Battle of the Hundred in the Hands, and that others call it the Fetterman Battle or the Fetterman Massacre. They read the inscription on the monument. See the last line? It reads "There were no survivors." That is not true, his grandpa tells him. Hundreds of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne survived that battle. It is a valuable lesson, for all of us, about perspective, words, who puts them on monuments, why those particular ones are chosen, etc.
Does that sound like "the entire premise is didactic?" This just reads as a loving elder to me, who takes an interest and does not hide the truth. My Seminole Grandpa Joe was like that. I credit him for many of my good qualities. He was too honest, warm and witty to be didactic. He respected me, even as a young one. He taught me what the score is in "America"--he didn't give me a moral education. There is a reason that wouldn't have appealed to him. I'll get to it.

But this, by Parry:
Grandpa Nyles sounded exactly like all the grandparents at the reservation school where I used to teach–the overt instructional tone, the gentleness, the humor, the willingness to ask their grandkids to do hard things
EXACTLY like ALL grandparents?  Makah, Lakota, Choctaw, Seminole? "The reservation school where I used to teach." I don't like this being used as a position of knowing or belonging in a community. Also, let's be honest, how much do outsider teachers really know about family traditions? The good ones probably recognize their limitations.

4. I want to talk about "the overt instructional tone" and "the willingness to ask their grandkids to do hard things." I find this harsh, cold and untrue.

Far from 'didacticism' being an essential way of Indigenous life, I think it is exactly the opposite. "Overt instructional tone" and "hard things" were what was forced on the elders by the dominant White culture. It reminds me of these images, from Margaret Pokiak-Fenton's FATTY LEGS and Jenny Kay Dupuis' I AM NOT A NUMBER.




This is just my guess. I am young and don't know many things and may be off-base. But are some White people attracted to 'Native spirituality' because they grew up in moralistic White Christian environments? (There are many Native Christians; I know that.) Are they not able to shake off their superior, preachy tones when they enter our spaces, and understand a different way of thinking and seeing? This has led to unspeakable atrocities, even against children. (Read the Dupuis and Pokiak-Fenton books.) And exploitation rather than respectful stewardship of the land.

It is obvious from Parry's prolonged arguments with Reese that she cannot admit making *even one mistake* in a book she published five years ago. I regret things I wrote a month ago! Does Parry challenge and dismiss White experts in their field in the same way?

Are White authors not didactic? I think they love moral lessons, even if they are diseased, like LHOP. Are Native authors "excluded" because of "overt instruction?" I think that Indigenous authors don't win awards because their work is not identifiable to White judges. This is anti-Native prejudice. Maybe it's also because we don't tie everything up into neat, preachy endings. Because we aren't moralizing and drawing easy conclusions. 

I hope this is changing! A book like Traci Sorell's WE ARE GRATEFUL is getting starred reviews and awards. It is a cyclical story, not a flat, moral-at-the-end-of-the-story book.




Kate DiCamillo's books are filled with what my mom calls "homilies." Look at how popular she is! I'm not picking on her. I read her books too. When I come across lines like this in her new MG--"What matters when all is said and done is not who puts us down, but who picks us up"--I question if it's true or just sounds nice. That's my legacy from Grandpa Joe!

Well, I have wandered all over the place in this blog. But, as an enrolled Seminole teen, I am going to have to ask non-Indigenous authors like Rosanne Parry to STOP making these false statements about our Nations and oral and written traditions in public forums. On a personal level, STOP stereotyping ALL our grandparents and DON'T treat our scholars, teachers and mentors, like Debbie Resse, with such arrogance and disrespect. 

I was born in 2000. I have non-Indigenous friends I cherish. They don't come at me with their outdated ideas about who I am or hot takes on books by Native authors. People who do that are not friends. They're 21st Century colonizers. 

I know Rosanne Parry has (cleverly, she thinks) turned Debbie Reese's emphasis on sovereign Nations around on her: "One of the things that Debbie has consistently advocated for is the recognition that American Indians are not a monolith and that each tribe must speak for themselves on matters of their own culture." (AICL, 10/25/18). So why is she making these authoritative public statements about a Sicangu Lakota author and book?





Comments

  1. What would you say to those who say that those synonyms of "didactic" are only for sense 2 (your numbering) of the word, and that synonyms for senses 1a & 1b are: "instructive, instructional, educational, educative, informative, informational, doctrinal, preceptive, teaching, pedagogic, academic, scholastic, tuitional"?
    Because only after reading this blog post did I know what Beverly Slapin's use of "didactic" in some of her reviews meant. Had she used "sermonic", "preachy", or "lecturing", I would have immediately understood. (But that word, "moralistic"...I can easily see myself thinking it means "ending with a stated moral", as Aesop's Fables do.)
    And one other thing: Since Reese says of the In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse passage that "...It is a valuable lesson, for all of us, about perspective, words, who puts them on monuments, why those particular ones are chosen, etc.", what would you say to those who object that that passage does impart a moral (if not "a moral lesson"), namely that "monuments are often put together with only White people in mind"?
    Because, believe me, I just do not know what would be good for me to say (although I know about, and could mention, the "And That's Terrible" trope of Bad Writing, and that a written-moral-at-the-end in a Native story would be very much like that trope--it would be redundant and a violation of "show, don't tell").

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