August 04, 2008

Calling a spade a spade

Nambe educator Debbie Reese did a study about Contesting Ideology in Children's Book Reviewing. In it she presents a good debate on the ethics of reviewing Native books.

First, an editor says reviewers shouldn't point out stereotypes:I wanted to write to you to explain why I felt we could not use your review of Schneider's Birthday Bear. I totally understand your objection to the "playing Indian" theme of the story, and, yes, I'm aware that scholars and critics are concerned with this issue. It is important that this criticism be made--but not in the Horn Book Guide. We cannot give a negative review to a book because we object to its content, because of what it is "about." To do so would be a violation of the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights and its various Freedom to Read statements. Here is Point Two of the LBR: "Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."Next, librarians--the group this editor is supposedly protecting--respond:A librarian noted that part of what distinguishes a well-written book from one that is mediocre is its ability to invoke feelings, joy or sadness, in the reader. He noted that when a book has this effect on a reader, it is praised. However, when someone criticizes the same book because it causes negative feelings in a reader who is a person of color, that criticism is dismissed as politically correct. The librarian asked, "Isn't this a double standard?"

Several librarians say that it is not possible to separate extra-literary from literary criticism. One librarian views an author's use of stereotypes as lazy writing, in which an author relies on what "everyone knows" instead of authentic characterization. She expects a reviewer to note the presence of ethnic stereotypes, and that doing so is not "political correctness" but is "within the proper realm of the reviewer."

In response to a participant who suggested reviewers use phrases common to literary criticism (such as "lazy writing" or "poor characterization" or "using stock characters") as an alternative to the word stereotype, many replied that any of those terms would have the same negative effect on their purchasing decision. A reviewer's judgment is just that--a judgment. These terms, including stereotype, are seen as literary, not sociopolitical.

One librarian's comment concisely reflected the comments of many: "Why not call a spade a spade?" Another said the review journals' history of not attending to ethnic stereotypes in children's books has resulted in a proliferation of books that contain stereotypes and their attendant factual errors. Specifically, she referred to books that show Navajo hogans facing all directions and situated among saguaros. (Navajo hogans are oriented according to specific religious guidelines, and saguaros are not found in the area in which Navajo people live.)
Comment:  Not surprisingly, stereotype opponents score another win over stereotype apologists. That's because there's no excuse for tolerating stereotypes when you don't have to.

For more on the subject, see The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence.

Below:  Plant life found on only a few Indian reservations, not all of them.

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