April 19, 2010

Indians in Top 100 Children's Novels

Elizabeth Bird of the School Library Journal recently conducted a poll of the top 100 children's novels. Here are the results.

The top three are:

1) Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
2) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
3) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

I've read fewer than 20 books on this list, but the ones I've read probably belong there. These books include:

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  • Holes by Louis Sachar
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
  • The Borrowers by Mary Norton

    and the Harry Potter books. The only one I'd say doesn't belong there is the grossly overrated Alice in Wonderland.

    Of course, I'd put them in a different order. My top 5 probably would look like this:

    1) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
    2) Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
    3) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
    4) Holes by Louis Sachar
    5) Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

    The Native aspect

    Educator Debbie Reese reports that only one of the authors has any Native heritage. Wilson Rawls, who wrote Where the Red Fern Grows, said his mother was part Cherokee. He didn't claim to be Cherokee himself.

    Reese probably would like to see several Native authors on the list. That may be unrealistic. Since Natives make up only 1% of the US population, getting one of the 100 slots would be fair. Rawls and maybe one other Native author would fill the Native "quota."

    But as Reese goes on to note:Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Richard Van Camp---none of the more successful Native writers are on the list. But overall, it does not lack for portrayals of American Indians.

    I say that in jest, of course, because most of those portrayals are in some way, stereotypical or biased. If you are a librarian, and you use this list to build your collection, you will not be providing your readers with a single worthy image of American Indians. A few of them are innocuous---like the Indian blanket in Charlotte's Web---but most are problematic. From "Honest Injun" to sitting "Indian style" to hunting Indians, there's a lot to say.
    According to Reese, 23 of the books mention Indians at least once. Perhaps eight of them have substantial Indian references, including the three by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    Reese lists many of these references. I'd say more of them are benign than Reese did. An Indian quiver, the plant known as Indian paintbrush, children playing cowboys and Indians...I'd call these innocuous, not problematic.

    To be clear, I don't think kids should play cowboys and Indians, but it's a fact that they did and still do play it. I wouldn't put it in a book today, but in a book written 50 or 100 years ago, I don't consider it a problem. It's an accurate description of what children played then, not a conscious attempt to demonize Indians.

    It appears three of the books--Island of the Blue Dolphins, Walk Two Moons, and The Indian in the Cupboard--are about Indians. All of these are problematic. So are Little House on the Prairie and its sequels. And others on the list have clearly problematic references.

    Basically, there are no good books by or about Indians on the list. And few if any good books by or about other minorities, either. Whether the participants intended it or not, this is a white person's list of the best children's novels.

    For more on the subject, see Portrayals of American Indians in SLJ's 2010 "Top 100 Children's Novels"--compiled by Elizabeth Bird--PART ONE and The Best Indian Books.


    Apache Man said...

    The Wizard's TRUE CAUSE

    It is interesting you should choose L. Frank Baum as your number one book considering his political leanings and writings during his time.

    Although the Wizard of Oz is a great fantasy and I grew up watching the movie, Baum’s populist beliefs about “eliminating” the Indian race as an answer to the “Indian problem” haunts me to consider any credible insights to his writings at all.

    My question to you is this, am I the only one that feels this way and should we judge Baum by his core beliefs about genocide by giving him sole credit and representation for his writing of a children’s book regardless of his feelings about Native Americans and is this another piece of American culture that shapes the youths ideas about natives whether they agree or disagree with Baum’s beliefs?

    I take into consideration that two of his decedents did apologize to the Sioux for the two racist editorials Baum published, but keep in mind; this was the popular feeling from whites after Custer’s defeat.

    “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.”

    L. Frank Baum,
    Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer
    December 20th, 1980 (5 days after the death of Sitting Bull)

    Apache Man said...


    The year Baum published his writings is obviously a mistype!

    It was 1890.

    dmarks said...

    Apache: Rob has extensive material in his site that is sharply critical of Baum's views toward Indians. A link to it is probably forthcoming.

    "I take into consideration that two of his decedents did apologize to the Sioux for the two racist editorials Baum published"

    Oh? I'd like to read about this. I know one or two of Baum's descendants.

    Unknown said...

    is this another piece of American culture that shapes the youths ideas about natives

    I admit, it's been a bit of time since I've read it, but last time I checked, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz didn't have much to do with Indians at all.

    Rob said...

    I linked to my Baum page in the blog posting. Here it is again:

    The Indian-Oz Connection

    Baum apologists say the editorials are isolated examples, he was under public pressure, he didn't mean them, etc. On my Baum page, I discuss other examples of his attitudes toward Indians and other minorities.

    As for the Baum apology, here's some info about it:


    L. Frank Baum's great-granddaughter Gita Dorothy Morena (also author of The Wisdom of Oz: Reflections of a Jungian Sandplay Psychotherapist) and great-great-grandson Mac Hudson have expressed plans to apologize for their ancestor's genocidal remarks of 1890-91, according to Tim Gebhart's Progressive on the Prairie blog, National Public Radio, and the Syracuse Post-Standard.


    In 2006, two descendants of Baum apologized to the Sioux nation for any hurt their ancestor had caused.

    Rob said...

    Since there are no Indians in the Oz books, I don't think readers have to know about Baum's editorials. He didn't let his anti-Indian feelings, which may have been fleeting, hurt his work.

    Similarly, Mark Twain, Will Shakespeare, and the people who wrote the Bible had racist and sexist views, but nobody is avoiding their work. In most cases, I think we can separate the writers from their writing.

    On the other hand, it doesn't hurt to understand the writer and the milieu he was writing in. In Baum's time, America was transitioning from an agricultural to an industrial economy and dealing with an influx of European immigrants. No doubt these things did influence the Oz books.

    Here's how I summarized some of the books' "hidden" messages:


    The land of Oz has four kingdoms that are racially identical and pure, where people seldom mingle with "foreigners" from other kingdoms. It's idealized in the sense that white Anglo-Saxon Ozians and a few magical animals and individuals get along well. There are no significant minorities in the Oz books, so the "ideal" is how white subcultures (read British, German, Scandinavian, Italian, et al.) can live in peace.

    Oz reflects the taint of Old World authoritarianism. At the beginning of the series, the land was ruled by five monarchs: the four witches and the dictatorial Wizard. At the end, Ozma and the Tin Woodman have replaced the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West, but no one has stood for a democratic election. Oz reflects the conservative American belief that the power elite, not the people, know best.