My children’s literature classes forced me to see that books about other cultures aren’t necessarily authentic or accurate. Stereotypes can creep in, and since I come from the “dominant” culture in the United States (white, middle-class), I just didn’t notice their presence. The result? Disillusionment and guilt on my part.
Take, for example, Gerald McDermott’s very popular Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale. I read this book to my students – as it was read to me during my early years – and they ate it up. I loved the illustrations and just assumed that, because there was nothing overtly racist therein (or so it seemed to me), the book was an authentic presentation of Pueblo cultural practices.
However, I learned later that the contents of Arrow to the Sun are problematic. Debbie Reese – scholar, founder of the “American Indians in Children’s Literature” blog, and member of the Pueblo (Nambe) nation – has written a great review of the book, in which she points out cultural inaccuracies in the text that those of us who are less familiar with Pueblo culture might miss. She has explained the situation better than I can, so you can read her thoughts here.
The main point is that, by introducing texts like Arrow to the Sun without first examining them critically, we can unintentionally pass on false information and inaccurate understandings of cultural groups and practices to our kids. Perpetuating ignorance, even if our intentions are good, won’t help children become critical thinkers or global citizens.
So does this mean that we should start scheduling book burnings? No! As Dr. Reese mentioned in her blog post, parents and teachers can use books like Arrow to the Sun to help their kids develop critical literacy skills and learn more about cultural awareness and sensitivity. With adult support, children can explore the complicated situation of an author, like McDermott, who means well in attempting to portray another culture but misses the mark. (I’ll dig deeper into this issue in future posts.)
Preparing for and engaging in discussions like these can be a lot of work for adults, but it’s worth it! Parents and teachers can and should make the time to investigate books; consult various resources about multicultural literature (like these Great Children's Lit Links); and get kids to question, doubt, evaluate, and develop plans to address injustices. You’ll be glad you did.
McDermott, G. (1977). Arrow to the sun: A Pueblo Indian tale. London, UK: Puffin.
Reese, D. (2006, October 25). Gerald McDermott's Arrow to the Sun. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/AICLMcDermott