Here is Part 2 in a 2 part series. I wrote it all at once but I have gotten some great feedback, so I’m adding a bit to this second part.
Again, I feel like I need to make things as clear as possible. I write and think and teach children’s literature, and a big part of that wok is looking for, evaluating, and talking about literature by and about underrepresented people in America. I am a member of several of these underrepresented groups, but I am not now, nor have I ever been, Native American.
I have been trained to read children’s literature for general misrepresentations, as well as obvious and subtle stereotypes. My background and my training provide me with the skills and interest to recognize when stereotypes are being employed. What I try to do with this blog is provide information not on specific books per se, rather on what books do well or where they miss the mark
Now that we have that as clear as I can make it, here goes the second part of my 2 part series on Native Americans in graphic novels.
I received this book, along with the second book in the series (The Unkindness of Ravens) and read through both books with high expectations. Finding what are termed “all reader” graphic novels is a challenge and I think of KidsCan as a very good publisher with some very smart and funny books. After all, these are the people who brought us Scaredy Squirrel (a series I love).
The Bigfoot Boy series is about a city kid, Rufus, who goes and visits his grandma for a weekend. She lives on the edge of a forest where Rufus has a big adventure. He finds a “totem”, a small carved figure with the word Sasquatch etched into the back, that turns him into Bigfoot Boy. He gains the ability to speak to and be understood by the animals of the forest and lots of other cool things. He quickly becomes an enemy of the local wolf pack and gains a smart alack squirrel as a side-kick.
All of that seems fair game, if a tad far fetched. Unfortunately, while reading the book a number of issues came up, specifically around the supporting characters in the book. Rufus’s grandma’s neighbors (do you need a diagram for that?) are a couple of cute Native American girls, Aurora and Penny. Rufus is immediately attracted to the older sister, Aurora, as illustrated by the floating hearts emanating from him as he watches her hang laundry.
Penny is less friendly, but that might be because she is so busy being one with nature. Her sister refers to Penny as a “skunk” because she a) has a shock of white hair interspersed with her jet black, straight hair and b) is someone who is hard to get to know but is friendlier than they appear. As a matter of fact, Penny’s “animal spirit guide” is a skunk! Aurora explains all this to a fascinated Rufus.
The issue I have with Bigfoot Boy is not that Native Americans can’t be part of other people’s stories. As a matter of fact I love stories where people’s ethnicity are shown to be a part of them and thier lives but that is not the center piece of the story.
The issue I have with Bigfoot Boy is the use of Native Americans as supporting characters and the subtle and confirming stereotypes the book possesses. I’ll illustrate a few of them.
- The first issue I saw with the novel was the fact that Aurora and Penny’s tribal affiliation is non-existent. When Native Americans are treated as if there is no difference among them it is another way of negating their culture. HERE IS THE BIT I ADDED — For me this is an obvious mistake that shows an egregious lack of understanding. I consider it in the same way I do when people throw the word “hispanic” around, or assume all Latinos are Mexicans (this happens a lot in California), or think that all Latinos are basically the same. Mexicans are not the same as Colombians, or Puerto Ricans – just look at our tamales to see the differences!
- Next, Aurora is first seen as an object of Rufus’s desire. I understand that young boys are sexual beings and have sexual feelings (I also understand that young girls do, too). My issue is that Aurora’s first appearance in the book is in the roll of some kind of Indian Domestic Goddess. HERE IS THE BIT I ADDED – Again, this view of women and girls simply being a place holder or a vessel for male desire! Aside from her dark skin and black hair Aurora has almost no features. She is a flat character that acts as a) road sign for Rufus and Penny, and b) a sexual object. Might as well post a centerfold on a sign post.
- Penny, adhering to a long tradition of vaguely American Indian characters in literature, is first seen being “one with nature”. This is a problem that comes up repeatedly with the way American Indians are represented in literature and in children’s literature in particular. HERE IS THE BIT I ADDED – Native Americans can be one with nature but it is the prevalence of this single attribute that bothers me. It is as if there is a genetic marker that makes Native Americans commune with nature and it goes without question. Instead, why didn’t the author provide a bit more information about Penny? Why does she spend so much time in the forest? Also, why does she go around calling it her forest if she’s all about the Native American ideal?
- Most bothersome to me is that although Penny is constantly being “one with nature” it is Rufus, the White kid from the city, who discovers the mystic totem and becomes the forests protector. Some might accuse me of reading too much into this but all I can say is REALLY??? The great White male is going to be the savior? Again? Why can’t Penny, guided by her stinky, off-putting animal spirit guide find the totem that turns her into Bigfoot Girl, and back again?
Some of the issues I have with the book might be what is termed benign stereotypes, like “all Asians are good in math”, “Jews are good with money”, or “gays are so fashionable”. The problem with these kinds of stereotypes is that they do not allow for individuals to be anything more than the one dimensional caricature created by the dominant culture. So, yes, taken one at a time, these issues might not be so bad, but the preponderance takes this graphic novel out of the “fun filled” category and places it squarely into the “should be avoided” zone.