Monday, May 08, 2017

Not recommended: JUNIE B. JONES, TURKEYS WE HAVE LOVED AND EATEN by Barbara Park and Denise Brunkus

Series books are popular. Kids come to know and love the characters. They eagerly read one book after another and wait for new books to appear. Publishers happily comply. Often, though, you'll come across one that has stereotypical or factually inaccurate content about Native peoples.

Turkey We Have Loved and Eaten in the Junie B. Jones series is one. Written by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, and published in 2012 by Random House, it is a good example of a book with problematic content.

As such, the red x overlaid on the title is meant to signal that I do not recommend it.

Here's the description:
Meet the World’s Funniest First Grader—Junie B. Jones! Room One is getting ready for their very own Thanksgiving feast! There’s even a contest to see which room can write the best thankful list. The winners will get a pumpkin pie! Only it turns out being thankful is harder than it looks. Because Junie B. is not actually thankful for Tattletale May. Or scratchy pilgrim costumes. And pumpkin pie makes her vomit, anyway. Will Room One win the disgusting pie? Can May and Junie B. find common ground? Or will this Thanksgiving feast turn into a Turkey Day disaster?

No mention, there, of Native people. But once you start reading...

The books open with an image of a "Dear first grade journal" letter written by Junie B. Jones. Writing errors are crossed out. That's a clever device and I'm sure teachers especially enjoy those letters. With spelling and grammar errors corrected, here's what the letter says:
Dear first-grade journal,
Today is the month of Thanksgiving.
At Thanksgiving we draw a lot of turkeys.
Also we draw Pilgrims and Native Americans.
They are eating at a table usually.
If Barbara Park or her editor had been thinking critically, "Native American" would be crossed out, too, and Wampanoag would be written, instead. That's the first error in Turkeys We Have Eaten. 

There's more to the letter. Junie says she doesn't understand the Pilgrims. Their "costumes" (her word) look to Junie like they would make the Pilgrims hot and sweaty. There's the second error. Those weren't costumes. The clothing they wore was... clothing. Junie goes on to write that they're going to have a Thanksgiving feast. Their families will join them at school for this feast.

Junie and another girl in the class, May, don't quite get along. This may be a thread in all the books. In this book, they both brought the same item for show and tell. They start to argue about it. Somehow, the Pilgrim costume is brought up, and then, Junie tells May that if she was an Indian.... and that right there (her use of Indian) is the third error. How does that line up with the letter that used "Native American"?

When chapter 9 opens, Junie wrotes about how all the kids have to dress up like Pilgrims or Native Americans. She writes that she told her mother that she didn't want to be a Pilgrim but that her mom had asked her grandmother to make the costume and... it is a Pilgrim dress. She has to wear it to school anyway.

At school, May comes into the classroom, and she's "dressed like a Native American Indian girl" (Kindle Location 705-706). Remember what I said earlier about being specific? Just what does it look like when someone dresses like a Native American Indian girl? If you're a regular reader of AICL, you know that I've written a lot about how many tribal nations there are, how diverse we are in terms of material culture, social organization, and on and on and on. Obviously, what Park and Brunkus are delivering to readers is stereotypical information. We could call this their fourth error.

May taunts Junie, saying (Kindle Location 709-711):
“Look how great this costume is! Look at the fringe on the bottom of my dress! Look at the beads around the collar! Look at my cute moccasins! Look at the long braid in my hair!”
Junie turns away from her, but May continues (Kindle Locations 712-714):
“Guess what my name is, Junie Jones? My name is Chief May—Chief of Everybody. And I will be bossing around the Native Americans at the feast today. Plus I will be bossing around the Pilgrims, too." 
And then... (Kindle Locations 717-720):
“What is your name, little Pilgrim girl?” she asked. “Do you have a name?” I made squinty eyes at her. “My name is Get Out of My Face, Chief Nutball,” I said back.
Those early errors are bad, but this whole scene, with the stereotypical clothing and the mockery of Native names takes this book to a whole different level.

Now, Turkeys We Have Loved isn't just miseducating kids, it is also mocking Native kids. This is the sort of thing that makes me furious. I think of Native kids in my family, being asked to read things like this. Becoming, via things like this, the target of jokes like this from their peers... Do you see why this is not acceptable?

Clearly, Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten, published in 2012 by Random House, is not recommended. For anyone.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read posts like this, and then I think about how in Kindergarten we were divvied up into "Pilgrims and Indians," with the Pilgrim half having to cut out hats and collars, while the rest of us made "fringe coats" from paper sacks we had to decorate with a page of supposedly native symbols. I have no idea where the page came from, but looking at a photo, I would take the mix of tipi's and mound-style houses would suggest it was a potpourri of vaguely "native" words and concepts.

A year later, I was given the role of Pocahontas in a school production. (felt dress; Thunderbird necklace and headband - no its name wasn't Frank. I don't recall having to wear feathers, though.)

A year after that, we did a module where everyone had to give someone else "an Indian name." (I can remember assigning the boy who was my partner "Big Bear," while he called me something like "She Who Bosses.")

(Here I pause to tell you that I code white on sight. I have Native American ancestry on both sides (Niitsitapi,Cherokee,Comanche, & Chiricahua, all traceable) but I'm not enrolled on any tribal registry. The last members of my family to actually identify were in my great grandparents' generation and Chiricahua. So I was literally the little red-haired girl told to run around barefoot and whoop.)

I could provide you a similar classroom scenario for every year until maybe high school (late 90's). It was so normalized that to suggest it shouldn't be done would be met with - at best - scoffing or - at worse, and most likely - the idea that we were being difficult or trying to get our of doing our assignments. It was "no big deal" because it was what "everyone expected."

And in high school, after we'd finished with the Thanksgiving arts-and-crafts, the only native heritage related topic was being told to calculate the percentage of my ancestry that "counted" as Native American - cumulatively, as it wasn't broken down by tribal affiliation for enrollment / scholarship / grant purposes. (13% - I still remember that, too.) In fact, of all the schools I applied to, the singular one requiring either a scan of an enrollment card or the numbers from it was Yale.

The idea of living, breathing Native Americans has been almost fictionalized to most kids in school. Native peoples are "used to be" people or, even worse, grouped in with fictional races from fantasy novels.





doramitchell said...

Debbie, I just want to say thanks so much for your website and reviews! It's so helpful to gain a deeper understanding of these problems. As the commenter above points out, these ideas are so deeply ingrained in our society in the U.S. that it's easy for them to become invisible. I hope that reading your reviews will help me avoid making any mistakes like this in my own stories for children. You've really helped me to understand how harmful and pervasive these errors are.

pussreboots said...

Junie B Jones, Shipwrecked is just as bad as it covers Columbus Day. My review.

Tech Teach said...

It seems odd that one would review a book 5 years after its publication date, especially considering that the author is also deceased. The Junie B. Jones series is funny because it is written from viewpoint of a 5 / 6 year old who clearly does not have an adult understanding of the world. Perhaps reading more than one book from the series of 28 works would make that more clear.

Unknown said...

What does the author being dead have to do with a review?

And I think the p.o.v. of the book is pretty clear. The question is, does the book push back against that?

--Veronica

Tech Teach said...

I would say that it has to do with there being no opportunity to explain and/or defend one's work. Why review this book now, 5 years post publication, in May? It makes no sense to me. Are there no current books to be reviewed? How is this book, which could certainly be a relevant subject in October/November, the subject of a May 2017 blog post?

Debbie Reese said...

Tech Teach,

You are not a regular reader of this blog. I read and review new and old books, too. Some are best sellers today, some are best sellers from decades ago. A key aspect of the work I do as a Native woman and scholar, is examine images of Native people, regardless of when they were published. This is research that I do, and that I write about.

I don't confine subject matter to a particular time of the year, either.

I hope that you'll take time to look over AICL's archive.

Debbie

Anonymous said...

Tech Teach, that's the thing about publishing a book. Even when the author is still alive, they're not going to be able to stand over the shoulder of every reader, saying "no, this is what I meant, this is how you should interpret it." And even after the author has passed, there will still be kids picking up the book - as well as teachers, librarians, and parents putting it into their hands, and selecting it for their library or curriculum at any time of year. The concern here is children who read the book and how they might feel.

Ann Bennett said...

Teach Tech,

We all need to think a bit deeper. The intent is to make all of us aware of how the descriptions affect Native Americans and not to discredit the author or the entire series.

You may say, well we don't have prejudice toward Native Americans. You might not. But others do, and our careless use of stereotypes work against Native Americans in the workforce and society. It also allows a rationalization of prejudice.

The people most affected are children. I can be pretty tough on adults to just adjust. But children are another matter. We can't allow children to grow up with images that disparage them.

There was an incident in Montana where a man poured beer from a balcony and made nasty comments to Native American children. What bothers me the most are the teachers and the children left the event. Why wasn't an usher called, and the man arrested for public drunkenness and abusive behavior directed at children. The teachers made the best call to protect the children. But it was not good that the children saw the powerlessness of the situation. Their rights were trespassed.

I don't always agree with Debbie Reese. But I am white and have not walked in her shoes. I do think she is doing the literary outcry that should happen to educate all of us. There are items I would have written had I not started following this blog.