Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Heart of It: Creating Children's Books That Matter

The Heart of It: Creating Children's Books That Matter

I am excited to be participating in this course by the fabulous award-winning artist and author, Maya Gonzalez and School of the Free Mindwhose motto is "Children's Books, Peace, and Radical Self-Love. How can you go wrong with that?

Every year, the class has a different focus; this year's focus is Native American children's literature. In that capacity, I'll also be contributing to the course by Skyping in as a special guest along with Debbie Reese, Carole Lindstrom, and Cynthia Leitich Smith. For more information on the amazing company I'll be in, go to the course listing, scroll down and click on Special Guests.  

*still pinching myself*

The course runs April 18 - May 29. 

It will be a wonderful experience. Please join us!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Awesome Day With a FanGirl Moment

Today was a big day.

Son (minus wisdom teeth) headed back to college (go Appalachian State!).

I found out my picture book manuscript, Lois Dreamed, based on my great aunt who was a ground breaker for women for her time and for our Sappony people, won 1st place in the Genre Short Story category at the North Carolina United Tribes Unity Conference Writing Competition. What a great feeling and thank you so much, writing competition judges and coordinators!

Aaaaaand, I got to hear fabulous author Matt de la Peña, most recently of Last Stop on Market Street fame (which now has a Caldecott and a Newbury)!

Despite clearly being an overachiever, Matt was funny and real. Just real. He spoke about being mixed race (Mexican and white) and how that has played into his writing and his life and relationships. He spoke about race and the complexity of family and the larger impact that has on youth and adults. I had a #fangirl moment and had my picture taken after he signed my book. And yes, that's an awfully big purse I have. I probably could have fit all the reception snacks into it. Not like I did or anything. *walks away nonchalantly

Awesome day.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Writing About Native Americans

Today's post is lengthy. I created it first not as a blog post, but as an addition to the online MG writing course I am currently taking through the Children's Book Academy. I noticed that a number of writers in the course with me had some form of American Indian content in their books or planned books. To address that, I wrote the following guest post, which I hope will be sent out with the other course materials. I'd love it if Mira Reisberg would use it as a part of all of her courses going forward. She has a wonderful opportunity to educate writers on diversity as part of their craft education. I would also love it if agents and editors would seriously consider these points when evaluating manuscripts.

(And in other Indian news this weekend, the Carolina Indian Circle Powwow).

Writing About Native Americans
by Kara Stewart

By way of introduction, I am Kara Stewart. I am an enrolled member of the Sappony tribe, one of the eight state-recognized American Indian tribes in North Carolina. Tribes can be federally recognized or state-recognized. There are 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, located in North Carolina, being one of them and included in the count of North Carolina’s eight tribes.

I have been a Reading Specialist and Literacy Coach in the public schools (elementary level) for 18 years. I am currently serving my 4th term on the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education. Although I am not currently serving on the Sappony Tribal Council, I have served 3 terms previously and plan to again. I am involved in our tribal activities and events, as well as Native efforts at the state level.

I’d like to give you some thoughts and suggestions for writing to and about American Indians. Tara Houska, Couchiching First Nation, attorney and Indian Country Today Media Network columnist, who has been in recent news, says that 87% of American Indian content in schools today is pre-1900s. She doesn’t just mean textbooks.

Here are some images you may have seen of American Indians. They have become so ingrained in American culture, that most non-Natives don't give them a second thought.


 Some more statistics:
     At 16.93%, the suicide rate for American Indians/Alaska Natives of all ages was much higher than the overall U.S. rate of 12.08. Suicide was the eighth leading cause of death for American Indians/Alaska Natives of all ages and the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10–24 (2013 CDC statistics for period 1999-2011).  **I have actually seen higher numbers in more recent years, particularly among youth.
     The reported rate of binge alcohol use over the past month was higher among AI/AN adults than the national average (30.6 percent vs. 24.5 percent) (Aspen Institute, Center for Native American Youth).
     Federal government studies have consistently shown that American Indian women experience much higher levels of sexual violence than other women in the U.S. Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that Native American and Alaskan Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the USA in general (5 vs. 2 per 1,000).  (Steven W Perry, American Indians and Crime- A BJS Statistical Profile 1992-2002, Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, December 2004.)   

Here are just a few of hundreds of images from books:

 And lest you think this is all in the past*:


*For more about cultural appropriation and Natives, please familiarize yourself with the fabulous Dr. Adrienne Keene’s blog, Native Appropriations

I am not saying by any means that books are to blame for the crazy high Native suicide rates, crazy high assault rates on Native women or addiction problems. Generational trauma, genocide, poverty, institutionalized racism - these all contribute. But a thread that holds all these together with literature is identity. Identity (along with institutionalized racism) is at the heart of these issues. Books contribute to identity. Books are these images in words. Let me say that again. Books are these images in words.

Children’s literature is one area where we, as writers, parents and educators, CAN make a difference to Indian children (and ALL children). Books are a HUGE part of school from whole class instruction and read alouds to guided reading book sets and media center choices. We can learn to write, purchase and read books that are accurate and authentic about Indian people instead of those that promote the stereotypes we just saw.

The images I just showed you are blatant stereotypes. I know you would recognize that you do a disservice to Indian children (and all children) by textualizing these blatant inaccuracies. But if you are a non-Native writer, would you recognize inaccuracies if you think you have done your due diligence, have researched your Native subject for years and spoken to some members of the tribe you write about? Or even know them in real life?

Consider Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose. It has been highly acclaimed. But what happens when we actually look at it from a Native perspective? Debbie Reese, of American Indians in Children’s Literature, has reviewed it.

If you are non-Native, I’d like to give you some resources and suggestions for writing about American Indians. First, it is not enough to research the tribe and the history you intend to write about. Certainly, you need to ground your writing in a particular tribe and a particular time period - and when you consider Tara Houska’s statistic on how little contemporary Native cultures are portrayed, I’m assuming you will decide you should probably write about a tribe set in the contemporary world since there is already an overabundance of historical (and inaccurate historical) writing about Indians and you would be contributing to the identity issues in living, breathing Indian children by writing yet another historical book about Indians (an exception might be something along the lines of if you are a Native writer and know details about an event in your tribe’s history that need to be told and your tribe wants them told).

So researching is certainly part of it. But it is not enough. If you are not Native, you may not be familiar with the thriving world of Indian Country today. Make yourself familiar with it. If you are not a member of the tribe you intend to write about, you need to find a way to immerse yourself in their culture. This could be tricky if you don’t know them. But it needs to be done. You need to tell them who you are, why and what you intend to write about them. Do not expect them to welcome you with open arms. You need to learn all you can from them. And you need to respect what they say. Even if you have one Native character in your book, that character needs to be presented accurately.

I have written two picture books, one of which won the 2014 Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award, both about various aspects of my tribe. Even as an enrolled tribal member, I never would have dreamed of writing them or seeking publication if I had not gotten approval by the tribal council, and equally as important, approval of the people or representations of the people in the stories. As a writer, I owe it to the people I represent to show them my final (not first draft) intention with my story and ask them if this body of work represents them in the way they want to be shown. Not one person. Not two people. Not just an Indian friend, who may or may not be clued in to the larger issues in Native America today. Ask the people themselves, “Are you comfortable being represented this way?”

And if they have suggestions or objections - I listen. I change my story. I owe this to the people I will be making money off by the sale of my work, little as the money may be. I do not deny or claim that my research showed me otherwise. I change my work. You do know that much of ‘history’ that you research is not accurate, right? You do know who writes history, right? The victors. So the Native voice of what we know happened in history has not, in most cases, been recorded. When you Google or go to the library or any of the standard research tools we use today, you must be aware that these are the Eurocentric versions of history.

One way to combat that is to go to the tribe’s official website. But even here, be careful. Indian politics is very tricky to navigate. There are official websites of official tribes, and then there are ‘wannabee’ tribes (not state or federally recognized) that pop up and have websites and misleading information.

Let me give you a list of resources to start with:

Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature is amazing. If you want to see what kinds of things are offensive from a Native perspective in children’s writing, you can read any of her reviews. She also has fabulous articles listed down the right sidebar. I wrote an article for her years ago that is still linked there, Children’s Books About Thanksgiving. A very valuable resource to writers, agents and editors is her article, Dear Writers and Editors: Some Cautions About Selecting Beta Readers. That article is PACKED with resources for how to double check your manuscript for accuracy. Debbie, a renowned expert in the field, is also available to give feedback and critique on your manuscript. Her fee will be well worth it, I assure you. She is honest, knowledgeable and thoughtful in what she says. She tells it like it is.

As part of the North Carolina State Advisory Council on Indian Education, and Chair of the Culturally Responsive Instruction Committee, we have come up with these Culturally Responsive Instructional Resources, which are helpful to writers as well as educators. If you look down the orange left side-bar, you will see Text Resources. You may want to read the books on the Recommended list as well as the Non-Recommended list to get a feel for why they are on the list they are on. Another helpful resource under Text Resources is the Criteria From How To Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias (adapted from Although intended for analysis of published text for bias, it would be an excellent tool for writers to learn to use to analyze their own writing for bias.

A third resource I recommend, Indian 101 for Writers, is something I wrote a few years ago explicitly for writers in collaboration with my author pal, Alison DeLuca. We wrote this because there seemed to be no other resource like this to address writers who are thinking of writing about Native Americans. It is a 5-part traveling blog series (between my blog at the time and her blog), in interview format. There are many, many links and resources in it. If you take the time to read through them, it should give you a better idea of what is involved in presenting Native people accurately. The first post opens with many links to articles about white privilege and institutionalized racism. The following posts deal more specifically with Native content.

Another great resource is author Cynthia Leitich Smith's (Muscogee) blog post, Writing, Tonto and The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is Always the First to Die. She has listed out specifics for authors who wish to write cross-culturally about Native people.

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly for non-Native writers, ask yourself, “Why do I want to write about Native people?”  What is it about us that you think is important enough to step outside of your culture to write about - especially knowing the loaded history and contemporary issues with our people? Is there a story you could tell about your own culture that would be equally compelling? Are you perhaps looking for a hook for your audience? Do you just feel an affinity for Indian people or have always found us fascinating? If so, is there a way to better serve, such as volunteering or working with Native authors? 

I know why I write about my people. I have Navajo and Dine friends, Lumbee, Cherokee and Choctaw friends and more. And we hang. And I love them. But would I feel comfortable writing about their culture? No. I would not. I would be very out of my element. And their culture is not mine for the taking. Food for thought.