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 Amazon.com 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.