Note: This is not one of my One Square Inch Focus pieces. This is a piece I have been thinking through for a long time and finally wrestled onto paper.
I recently read all four of the Birchbark House books published to date. They are already on my "buy these for Ramona" list, even though she is still a long ways away from being old enough to listen to them, let alone read them to herself.
The Birchbark House books are author Louise Erdrich's contribution to the body of juvenile literature featuring Native American characters and written by Native American authors. The series is a fictionalized retelling of her family history and how her family migrated from the Great Lakes region of Minnesota into the plains of the Dakotas in the 1800s.
Louise Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. The Chippewa, also known as the Ojibwe and the Ainishaanabe, are among the largest groups of Native Americans and First Nation peoples on this continent. Ramona and Alise belong to the Little Shell tribe in Montana, also a Chippewa tribe.
My good friend Anne and I often discuss the dearth of children's books, starting with picture books, and juvenile fiction featuring indigenous children, children of color, children of ethnicity, and children of any race other than white. In march, The New York Times ran two editorials, "The Apartheid of Children's Literature" by author/artist Christopher Myers and "Where Are the People of Color?" by author Walter Dean Myers (who is Christopher's father). Both articles address the segregation of children's literature: of 3200 children's books published in 2013, only 93 were about black children. I suspect, although I do not know, that children's books featuring Native American children were even fewer in number. [For a link to both articles, this excellent post on the need for diversity in children's lit has a link to the Walter Dean Myers' editorial, and from his editorial you can link to the one by Christopher Myers.]
So what does it matter? Can't Ramona read through the vast panoply of all children's books, from picture to prose, and find direction and guidance? Can't she identify with Ramona Quimby? Can't Anne's son Sam, who is biracial, do the same in his reading?
Yes, but that's not enough.
Walter Dean Myers had no problem identifying why it matters that our children's literature is so white. "Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?"
I want Ramona to see herself and her family represented in those books, not as savages (sorry, Laura Ingalls Wilder, among others) but realistically and with elements and values from her tribal culture. I want her books to reflect her past, present, and future and not merely my past, present, and future.
It matters that Ramona has good literature with strong Native American characters and Sam with African-American ones so that they know they count too. It matters for the same reason that Little Women mattered so much when it was published in 1868 and 1869. Louisa May Alcott became the world's first true best-seller, wealthy novelist because she knew girls wanted to read books about girls, a salient point that the publishing world in America and England had overlooked. The rest is publishing history.
My son Ben and daughter-in-law Alise will make sure Ramona grows up with a library full of good books of all kinds, as full of those by Louise Erdrich and Cynthis Leitich Smith as those by L. Frank Baum and Madeleine L'Engle. Anne and her husband will do the same with Sam and his soon-to-arrive sibling. All of these children will be immersed in children's literature of rich voices and histories and faces of all kinds.
Because it matters. You bet it matters.