Thursday, March 22, 2007


I tried not to blog about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. I did. I figured enough folks were trashing it, and my reasons for hating it were about the same as many other peoples', and I didn't have much to add, so why waste everyone's bandwidth?

Then the darned thing won the Irish Children's Book of the Year award, and Fuse #8 wrote about it, and I followed her link to Bookshelves of Doom's post on the matter, and...well...I guess I just don't have that much will power, because suddenly there I was, commenting away, refuting points and hitting the caps lock key and generally frothing at the mouth.

The point has been made several times that calling something a "fable" isn't enough to excuse inaccuracies and mawkish writing, but the truth is that as I was reading Pajamas all that didn't bother me so much. It was only after I finished it that something started to nag at me. The book reminded me of something; what was it? Then it hit me: it reminded me of many of the books reviewed in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children.

I've been wanting to write about this astonishing resource for a while, but haven't known where to start. At its heart, it's a collection of reviews of hundreds of books with Native American content. There are chapters covering books about Raven, books about Thanksgiving, books about the Indian Residential Schools... on and on and on. And, no big surprise, most of these books--including many written by really big names in children's literature, writers whose work I know and love--are dreadful from a Native American perspective.

It's a little overwhelming to read, especially for someone used to thinking of most of these books as basically unobjectionable. I have to admit that more than once I felt a defensive, argumentative reflex while reading the reviews."Aw, c'mon," I wanted to say, "maybe the author got a couple of details wrong, but basically it's all about our common humanity, right? How bad can it be to take a few liberties with the facts, if you get the feeling right?"

Then I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and I heard a little click in my head. Oh...right. People aren't metaphors. Historical events aren't playthings for writers who want to make a point. Details matter, especially to the relatives and descendants of those to whom those details happened. Native Americans aren't handy symbols for the Vanished West, or Our Lost Connection to Nature; they're people with an actual specfic history. And the Holocaust isn't a symbol for universal evil; it was a horrific historical event. And in either case, it doesn't really help to stick on a preface (or afterward) discussing the deep feeling you have about whatever the book is distorting.

It's hard to tell the difference if you don't know the facts. Lots of people know the facts about the Holocaust, so The Boy in Striped Pajamas is getting rightly slammed from many quarters (though you'd never know it to read the majority of reviews). Fewer people know that, say, there were no Indian schools in Michigan as depicted in Gloria Whelan's Indian School, or that The popular version of The Rough-Face Girl, used in Cinderella units in many schools (including mine) smooths out and romanticizes the original Mi'Maq (not "Algonquin") tale (which, if I read the review correctly, was itself a conscious retelling of the Cinderella story and not an independently occurring folktale) to the point of changing its meaning.

I deliberately cited in the above paragraph two books I personally like and that were generally well-reviewed. I'm not trying to slam them, or the reviewers who lauded them. But what I know about Native American culture would fit in the tiniest of cheesy tourist dreamcatchers. I know I wouldn't have enough background to assess the accuracy or offensiveness of any such book if I reviewed it; how many reviewers would?

Anyway, that's the story of how I came to hate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and simultaneously to cast a slightly squinty eye at a big chunk of the contents of my library. (You should see A Broken Flute's review of Walk Two Moons. And though I can't unlove the book, I do see the reviewer's point.)

For more along these lines, check out A Broken Flute contributor Debbie Reese's blog American Indians in Children's Literature.


Leila said...

See? Don't you feel a bit better? It's good to let these rants out occasionally.

I'll have to pick up A Broken Flute when I get a chance. It sounds like one that's well worth checking out.

Susan said...

Awesome, Book Book. Excellent post.

Kathy said...

I loved your comparisons about why you did not like the book. I can't think of a specific book, but I know when I watch a movie set in Boston or New England it REALLY bothers me when actors use a fake Massachusetts accent (which I spent years in college getting rid of!) and i think it bother me because I can call my parents and hear the REAL thing and I know what it is suppsoe to sound like - kind of like an author taking liberty on historical facts.

I have not read the book and don't plan to.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Thanks for this post! Joseph Bruchac was the most recent speaker for the PAS North Shore Council, a local affiliate of the Massachusetts Reading Association and the IRA. He also visited with the students in the children's literature course I teach at BU. He recommended THE BROKEN FLUTE and the website He said that Ann Rinaldi's MY HEART IS ON THE GROUND was a bad book. He also spoke of THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD series.

Here's a link to my Joseph Bruchac post at Blue Rose Girls:

Joe's older son Jim visited our area the following week--and I had the pleasure of spending time with him as well.

Leila said...

Kathy, I have exactly the same reaction when I hear actors do a fake Maine accent.

The premiere episode of Passions was especially bad, if I remember correctly.

I can't believe I just admitted to watching that.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Ah, thank you for the resources in this post. We are very much in need of them here, for various unbloggable reasons that go far beyond our current go-through of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.

(I once had the privilege of hosting a book signing for Joseph Bruchac, and can't speak highly enough of him. Thank you for reminding me, Elaine!)

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

When I was a little girl devouring books, the racial stereotypes of Caddie Woodlawn and the Little House books were more like uncomfortable pebbles in my shoes-- I remember thinking, "How odd," but reading along because I loved the stories so much. Now, I still love the books for the stories, but those "pebbles" are more like jutting rocks. And really, they should be. Somewhere, something clicked that there wasn't a "Native American nation" where everyone worshipped the Great Spirit.

Barbara Bietz said...

This is a thought provoking post that illustrates the need for accurate research in historical fiction. For those of us who labor over the correctness of details, this is validation!

Thanks for visitng my blog, too! Please let me know if your library orders a copy of LIKE A MACCABEE and I'll send you a signed book plate and some bookmarks for your young readers!

Kristopher said...

Back when I read unsolicited submissions to a literary agent, I swear, every tenth manuscript was about the Holocaust. Every one of them was horrible.

Finally, it dawned on me that good writers don’t need the Holocaust to tug at the reader’s heartstrings, only bad ones do. After that, I started rejecting them pretty much automatically.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Phantom Scribbler,

I most definitely agree with you about Joseph Bruchac! He is a warm, extremely knowledgeable, and impressive individual. His son Jim is a talented storyteller like his father--and does wonderful presentations of Native American tales with children.

Debbie Reese said...

Good morning,

Google alert told me you'd mentioned my blog, so I came here to read your post.

The work of people at Oyate is outstanding. A BROKEN FLUTE is just one of their pubs. It was preceded by THROUGH INDIAN EYES, edited by Slapin and Seale.

By the way, Beverly Slapin sends me reviews to put on my blog. WALK TWO MOONS is one.

DawnOfTheRead said...

I'm so glad to see this post. I HATED The Boy in Striped Pajamas, too! So loathsome. I wanted to like it at first, but by the end there was no point. So awful.

Jen Robinson said...

What a great post. I haven't read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but I appreciated this quote of yours nonetheless:

"Historical events aren't playthings for writers who want to make a point. Details matter, especially to the relatives and descendants of those to whom those details happened."

So true, and so well said!

Colleen said...

You and I were all over this one over at Leila's and I'm very glad to see you continue with it here.

I still don't understand why anyone would think they could use the Holocaust for an allegory for something else - that is just bizarre to me. But you are right about details - if you are going to write historical fictoin (for whatever reason) then you need to be historically accurate; that is what the genre is all about (or should be anyway).

This is a great post - keep them up!

Chasing Ray