Readers' Favorite

May 11, 2016

Book Diversity, Goodreads, and Native Representation #ArmchairBEA

My name is Alison DeLuca, and I've been a columnist and book blogger with Girl Who Reads for over a year. This is my first ABEA post. I love all kinds of books, with sci-fi, historical fiction, and slipstream topping the list. The Book Thief and The Goldfinch are two of my favorite recent novels, and All the Light We Cannot See blew me away. Currently I'm reading The Danish Girl and The Nightingale. 

Today I chose the Diversity in Books topic. I'm fascinated by this important issue.

Moonshot - available on Amazon
Diversity in books is a vital topic, and yet one important aspect continues to be ignored by much of the publishing industry. The amount of Native representation in literature, especially young adult and children's books, is criminally small.

Not only that, most books published about American Indians are actually written by non-Natives. If these authors did their homework (more on this later) the books will fairly represent this diverse, fascinating population. If not, however, those writers, agents and publishers will misrepresent tribal culture.

We need to look at the problem to understand just how bad things are when it comes to Native representation in literature. This includes looking at the dismally small number of books about Native people. It also includes looking at how pervasive this misrepresentation is.

Publishers need to realize how many Native writers and artists there are. Those authors should be on bookshelves. Children who think Peter Pan's Tigerlily is an authentic characterization need an alternate and accurate view. We must change this misperception, and this shift in thinking needs to happen now.

As well, we need to show non-Native writers what they can do to prepare when they write a Native character. Our blogpost will reveal how stark the problem is and offer solutions.
Wild Berries - available on Amazon

It’s not all bad news. There are wonderful books out there with vivid and realistic portrayals of Native life and Indian characterization. I’m going to give you a list of novels and books you can read so you can leave Tigerlily in Never-Never Land and discover something far more magical: reality.

In Publisher’s Weekly, Rachel Deahl addressed the issue in her article, “Why is Publishing So White?” Minorities continue to be underrepresented within the very industry producing books for an increasingly diverse nation. Natives hold less than 1% in both publishing and editing fields, despite diversity programs in place at such companies like Hatchette, Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. Most of these programs, however, concentrate on internships.

Let’s turn to the actual number of books about Natives and Indian cultures. Each year the CCBC, Cooperative Children’s Book Center, counts the number of trade children’s books with diverse cultures. For example, in 2015 the CCBC reported that out of 3200 books received from US publishers, 243 were about African-Americans. 107 were about Asian / Pacific Americans. As for American Indians or First Nations – the grand total was an insignificant 28.

And of that number, only nine were written by Native authors.
If I Ever Get Out of Here on Amazon

The majority of books published about American Indian/First Nations people in 2015 were written by non-Natives. After we researched the reviews of books by non-Native authors at American Indians in Children’s Literature, we found that there are very few such writers that do a good job of representation, thus promulgating stereotypes and misinformation. 

This cycle of misrepresentation continues. We've seen what the public, agents and editors think is acceptable representation of Native people. This inaccurate representation colors how they - and we as readers - view and ultimately accept or reject accurate Native characters in books.

As an example, we can look at the AICL website’s review of Target, by non-Native Patrick Jones. The book’s intention may be to represent diverse character’s in a realistic way and reveal non-Native appropriation of First Nations. However, the writer has put in some howlers that would, according to AICL, make a Native kid roll her eyes. 

For example, Dakota and Leni-Lenape cultures are mixed in several sections of the book, specifically when the main character, a Dakota kid, relates to a prayer that is Leni-Lenape in origin. Also, the writer has put in a historical figure called “Chief Yellow Lark” who, according to AICL, does not actually exist.

Kudos to you non-Native writers who want to write Indian characters, but do start research for your novel with the realization of what a complex task you’ve just chosen. American Indian/First Nations tribes are a vibrant rainbow of different cultures, each with their own language, customs, histories, folklore, poetry, religion… 

If you do want to write about Indians, you must take on a great deal of targeted research. Reading a Wiki article or even checking out the library shelf on your subject won’t cut it. 

You can begin with reading a five-part interview series with Sappony author and photographer, Kara Stewart, available hereThis series details the beginnings of the proper research a responsible and respectful writer must take to begin her journey. You can also start with Kara's summary of that series here.
Jingle Dancer on Amazon

At bare minimum, you must read as many wonderful, accurate books about American Indians as you can (such as those pictured here), anchor your work to a specific tribe and a specific time period. 

Hopefully this is post-1900, since 87% of American Indian content in schools is pre-1900. This means there is a paucity of representation of current, contemporary Native people. 

You must also have multiple modes of accurate research. To that end, firsthand research is a must. Consider hiring a consultant such as Debbie Reese, available on the AICL website here

Remember, as a writer, your job is to correct centuries of false representation, outright prejudice and subsequent appropriation. For four resources, see Writing About Native Americans.  Modern authors must correct the current situation of absent or incorrect representation in books.

When AICL looked at the Goodreads’ “Top 100 Children’s Books” list, the result was horrifying. Of those 100 books, only two portrayed Indian characters:
  • Peter Pan – Tigerlily is a stereotypical “Indian Maiden.”
  • The Little House series – Wilder portrayed Indians as savages throughout her books. Laura’s Ma is openly prejudiced against them. Three times in the series a character declares, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
This is only the beginning: in the original version of Little House in the Big Woods, Wilder wrote this about the vast wilderness: “There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people.”
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse on Amazon

With those four words, “There were no people,” Wilder handily disposed of native culture. To quote Michael Dorris: 
“Say what? Excuse me, but weren't we forgetting the Chippewa branch of my daughters' immediate ancestry, not to mention the thousands of resident Menominees, Potawatomis, Sauks, Foxes, Winnebagos, and Ottawas who inhabited mid-nineteenth-century Wisconsin, as they had for many hundreds of years? Exactly upon whose indigenous land was Grandma and Grandpa's cozy house constructed? Had they paid for the bountiful property, teeming with wild game and fish? This fun-filled world of extended Ingallses was curiously empty, a pristine wilderness in which only white folks toiled and cavorted, ate and harvested, celebrated and were kind to each other.” - Michael Dorris in his essay “Trusting the Words” from Paper Trail.
The truly sad thing is that good books about Natives exist. AICL posts yearly lists of novels, picture books, teen lit, middle grade books – even comic books and graphic novels. Here is the list for 2015, with links to the list for 2014. If you go to this website, there are links to the top ten books for children as well as those recommended for middle grade and teens.
Saltypie on Amazon

A book like Tim Tingle’s Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light displays the limitless possibilities for true Native representation that, sadly, is nonexistent in the Goodreads “Top 100 Books for Children.”

We've added the covers and buy links to other wonderful books throughout this article. They're a great place to start.

Again, I challenge Goodreads to revise their children’s lit list and add some of the AICL-recommended titles. Perhaps they would respond that they already have lists of diverse titles or American Indian/First Nations-approved books. 

However, there should be no such division

The “Top 100 Books for Children” needs to be reassessed so future readers don't view Native culture through Ma Ingall’s prejudiced and twisted lens. Indian children need to be included in realistic settings, with pristine research and complete understanding.

How important is representation? In her blog on YALSA: The Hub, Destiny Burnett writes,

"I read for the enjoyment of experiencing a character’s story. What makes me enjoy a story? Identifying with the character. This is why representation is important; every person who wants to read a book with a character they can identify with should have access to ones where their culture and identity is present."
To this important point I would add - representation is also important for those who aren't Native. We all need to understand those beautiful, complex cultures, and great literature is a wonderful start to that journey.

(Thanks to Kara Stewart for her input and guidance. I couldn't have written this post without her. Kara is a Native craftsperson member of the Indian Arts & Crafts Association and  a full time Reading Specialist in the public schools. You can find her writing here, photography here and photography products here.)

Alison DeLuca, features writer. Alison is the author of several steampunk and urban fantasy books.  She was born in Arizona and has also lived in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain. Currently she wrestles words and laundry in New Jersey. Connect with Alison on FacebookTwitterGoogle+Pinterest, and her blog.

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  1. This is my first year at the ABEA too.

    Nice to meet you.

    Silver's Reviews

  2. I love this post! Thank you for writing it. I am non-native that wrote the bestselling novel Calico. The book is written from the Shawnee's perspective. It took me years of research to write the story from their perspective. I spent time talking to their chiefs and elders. I researched their culture using cultural anthropological resources. I read and read and read. I talked and talked and talk to Shawnee experts. The book has become a success because of it's authentic portrayal of Shawnee life in the 18th century. Most native readers love my book. You're right. It was a challenge to write because I'm not from that culture. It was a challenge I throughly enjoyed.

    1. Kudos to you for doing your homework, Allison! It's lovely to meet you.

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  4. Thank you so much for this! I'm going to check out those recommendations right now.

    1. Hi, Brooke! I hope you enjoy the books - they're wonderful.

  5. What an informative, well-written article, Alison. Research is important to all fiction authors so they can avoid stereotyping, especially under this circumstance. Native characters should be accurately portrayed.

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  7. I agree about the writer's obligation to correct mis-representation. I recently challenged an author for talking about "American Indians" rather than Native Americans. Sadly, he didn't see my point.

  8. Good stuff. Authenticity is important in any writing, especially about the past.

  9. Great article! You make so many excellent points about diversity in literature and lack of a solid understanding of the culture and backgrounds of many ethnic groups. Writing without understanding only further perpetuates many of the myths and misconceptions about people.

  10. Thank you for writing this. I'm from a multi-cultural background & have submitted manuscripts to platforms which say they are looking for diversity in writing and characters. So far, they have all rejected me. Interesting...methinks they say one thing yet do another. Cheers!

  11. Nice blog! I wasn't even aware there was a genre named slipstream. Learn something new all the time :)