Welcome to the Rez
In 2007, one of my favorite books won the National Book Award in young adult fiction. In accepting the award, its author said, “The first book I loved was Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day. I vividly remember the first time I pulled that book off the shelf in my reservation library…I was always intrigued by that little boy. That black boy, a brown boy, a beige boy. It was the first time I ever looked at a book where someone resembled me.”
Sherman Alexie goes on to say, “A couple decades after that, when I was 20 years old, my first creative writing teacher handed me an anthology of Native American poetry called Songs from This Earth on Turtle’s Back. I had never read a word written by another Indian.” (http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2007_ypl_alexie.html#.VHNvKfnF_Zc)
Can I repeat that? Alexie loved books for almost 20 years before he read anything written by someone like him. Can any of you say the same? It was such a powerful experience that a single line of poetry from this single book inspired him to be a writer.
Since 2008, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, winner of this National Book Award (and many other national honors), has been banned in school districts across the country, mostly for one scene in the book that mentions teenage masturbation. Nevermind that it’s one of the few YA novels with a contemporary American Indian narrator, that it shows us an unromanticized and largely ignored picture of life on the rez, or that Alexie elevates teenaged Indian fears and triumphs to Everyman status which is not something that readily happens with any minority much less one that has been the target of so much genocide here in our own back yard.
Alexie and I both have strong feelings about how Indians are depicted in the media, and about who is creating those depictions.
I also have two young children, full of energy and questions. My oldest is now reading longer books, and I see her mind stretching with every book she opens. When she avoids going to bed until she gets to the end of a chapter, I let bedtime slip. She’s a reader, and if her excited retelling of her latest story is any indication, these books matter to her.
They matter to me too, because our family is mixed. I’m mixed, my husband is mixed, and my children are growing up in a city where our crew doesn’t trigger a second glance. We’re black, white, red and we live in a beautiful bubble of acceptance. I know this won’t always be the case, though. When it comes to preparing my kids for the ugliness of the world, talking about their books (or any other media) is at the top of my bag of tricks.
It’s my job to make sure they see sensitive boys and ass-kicking girls in their library books. It’s my duty to make sure they see people from all groups being friends, having intelligent conversations, and standing up for each other. It’s important that they acknowledge the authors of these books. And it’s an honor to be the one who corrects the historical myths that pervade children’s books like I do every Thanksgiving.
In my house, we have age-appropriate but real-talk conversations about assassinations, marriage laws, and poverty. My oldest doesn’t understand why someone would want to kill Dr. King, or why some people hate President Obama. She’s positively floored that the U.S. has never had a woman president, and that men typically make more money than women for doing the same job. As a parent, being able to give her a book full of smart girls matters. Giving my son picture books with a cast straight out of a United Nations council meeting matters. Knowing how to even recognize a lack of diversity in a comic book matters.
Three years into the ongoing ban of his book, Alexie wrote a jaw-dropping reaction piece for the Wall Street Journal, titled “Why the Best Kids’ Books Are Written in Blood” in which he breaks down why diversity in literature is so important: “When some cultural critics fret about the ‘ever-more-appalling’ YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists. No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.” (http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood)
Believe this: a scene or two about teenage sexuality will never keep a book like Part-Time Indian out of my kids’ hands. I’m trying to raise some thoughtful and helpful humans over here. I hope everyone else is, too. But they can’t thrive in (or improve) a world that they’re not allowed to see.
Please consider assisting our efforts to diversify everyone’s bookshelf by donating to We Need Diverse Books fundraising campaign by clicking —> HERE – it’s vital, folks.
Jess Dukes is a writer, editor, and content strategist in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.