What They Read and How They Read It- Part 1

As a researcher I am often asked to describe my research interests in a short form,  sometimes referred to as our research  “elevator speech”, a snippet that communicates just enough to pique peoples interest and want to a) talk to us, b) hire us, or c) give us money to do more interesting research. Never get stuck in an elevator with teacher education folks!

My research is in two areas: What is read in schools, and how people read. If I were to make a Venn diagram of these areas it might have looks like this.1111

Except, that doesn’t represent the relationships as they actually exist. A friend of mine is working on her dissertation – She is making explicit connections about how children’s literature is used and thought about across different domains (library science, English literature, and education). Her work is important because she is illustrating that the more explicit we are about the multiple ways we think about literature, the better we are as educators.

So, if I were honest, the diagram would look more like this,

complexTherefore it is probably impossible – at least for me  – to separate out things like authenticity in representation, artistry, narrative, history, and literary merit.

I am writing about two books today; In Part 1 I’ll tell you about a lovely and brilliant and haunting graphic novel, in Part 2 I’ll tell you about a graphic novel series that isn’t just not great, but might be damaging. Why am I writing about them together? Because both graphic novels have American Indian characters, and represent vastly different portrayals of American Indian lore.

CoverJust to be clear. I am not, as far as I know, any sort of Native American, nor am I a scholar of Native American literature. On the other hand, I think and write and teach about multicultural literature in education and believe it is important to highlight the good literature, as well as recognize the not so good stuff that is still all too prevalent.

The Night Wanderer: A Graphic Novel (2013) by Drew Taylor, Michael Wyatt (Illustrator), and Alison Kooistra (Adapted by) published by Annick Press, Limited.

The basics of this graphic adaptation are these  – Pierre is a vampire who left Canada some 300 years ago for adventure but ended up becoming a side-show Indian for rich Europeans. He eventually contracted the measles and was “saved” from death by being turned into a vampire. The novel opens with his return to his birthplace where he rents a basement room from a broken family.  The divorce is still fresh in everyone’s mind – Mom took off with a White guy and left dad with a headstrong teenage daughter, Tiffany. She and her dad live with his mom on the reservation. The story is a perfect balance between teen angst (no one understands why Tiffany is dating the dumb-jock White kid who is cheating on her) and the creepy, self-hatred of a 300 year old vampire who scares the crap out of everyone by just hanging around and being really tall .

NW_P5But, as in all graphic novels, the story told in the words is not complete. The illustrations are clean and highly representational. The artist gets the most out of a very basic black and white pallet that includes shades of grey that allow for shadow and light to play at making the night alive and visible to me as a reader. The artist uses splashes of red around Pierre, but not so much that it become silly or predictable.NW_P43

The Native American culture, religion, and narrative traditions are bound together in this book with visual representations of stories, people and places. There are modern Native Americans wearing jeans, drinking tea, being kind and being jerks. There are also the stories from Pierre’s childhood in which he and his family are in buckskins. It is the modern and old representation that is an important aspect in this book. Far too often Native Americans exist only as museum pieces and not as part of the present.

This isn’t the perfect book. Tiffany’s father is flat and seems included to provide a source of tension for Tiffany to bounce off. Her grandmother on the other hand changes dramatically as the story progresses, from a oldster who peppers her conversation with random Indian words, to someone who truly understands the pain and hunger that Pierre is just barely controlling.


The tension in Tiffany’s life, the fact that she has her first White boyfriend at the very same time her mother of off with some anonymous White husband play out for the reader, but Tiffany seems unaware of the irony. Pierre plays a pivotal roll in her life, just as Tiffany does in his. He tells her stories from his own childhood of rebellion and mistakes in order help her understand the consequences of rash actions now on her future.

This book provides both creepy entertainment, beauty, and an authentic representation of a non-White culture that is alive and well in 2013.


TRICKSTER: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection

Trickster Cover

Maybe I should not have been surprised but I was. I made assumptions based on nothing more than a topic, and I was wrong. I recently had the pleasure of reading, marveling, studying, and reread Matt Dembicki’s Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection three times before I discovered he’s a White guy. I had assumed he must be Native American because, well,  because it is a great collection of Native American stories that doesn’t pander or insult or generally make me cringe!

While thinking about blogging about this book I was confronted by a few problems. You see, it is a collection of Trickster tales, Native American folktales where the story might not start at the beginning, may not progress in a chronological order, and sometimes the end was simply where the story stopped but there was no conclusion. Some stories meander, some have morals, some seem scary, but most are thoughtful and make me laugh out loud.

The individual stories are short, disruptive in the brevity of language and the wide array of artistic styles. The stories follow each other, bouncing from an almost creation story about Coyote disrupting the arrangement of  stars in the sky, to a tale of a mean crow kicking sea anemones,to a Choctaw tale about how rabbit got a tiny tail. And many other stories, all providing another tale, another style, another look at the world.

Trickster P5

Coyote and the Pebbles
by Dayton Edmonds, art by Micah Farritor (p. 5-18)

Raven the Trickster Story  by John Active, art by Jason Copland (p. 19-32)

Raven the Trickster Story
by John Active, art by Jason Copland (p. 19-32)

Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale  words: Tim Tingle, pictures: Pat Lewis (p. 79-88)

Rabbit’s Choctaw Tail Tale
words: Tim Tingle, pictures: Pat Lewis (p. 79-88)

The collection is substantial in heft with thick, smooth glossy pages. The array of stories and illustrations make the books a dense experience. Each time I sat and wrote or started thinking about writing the book took on the characteristics of a black hole; all my ideas hovered on the edge and lingered there as time passed, and I continued not to write.

Where to start . . . That was my issue. How do I talk about a book that contains more than what is seen between the covers? Alex, my 8 year old son, and I read many of the stories together. I could write about the stories he loved, or the conversations about the illustrations we had, but then I’d have to talk about his unique life. But that is not my place, his is not my story.

I could address my own connections to the book, but then I’d have to go into race, ethnicity, gender, age, learning, reading, and identity. All the stuff that just doesn’t seem pertinent to the book, but seems so important to my own read of the collection (damn you Louise Rosenblatt).

I read the book again but this time I read it all, from the table of contents to the end pages . Yes, I was going to write about a book without reading EVERY SINGLE WORD of the front and back matter.  I admit this in much shame.

Turns out, Matt Dembicki who put this beautiful, infuriating book together is a White guy. I assumed he was Native American … ’cause it’s a book about Native stories that was done well. I was shocked and amazed (and ashamed) by my own assumption. Then, I read the Contributors pages and I noticed some things that helped. All the story tellers were Native American – they all identify tribal affiliations. Another note, there are 6 women and 18 men. On the other hand, is almost impossible to assign race/ethnicity to the illustrators as none of them identify themselves, and only 2 of the illustrators are women.

What impressed me most was the egalitarian way in which credit was given and the way Dembicki writes about the understandable challenges of getting storytellers to participate in the project, “I wanted the stories to be authentic, meaning they would have to be written by Native American storytellers (p. 225)”. He knew what he knew and he knew what he didn’t know. That always impresses me. Finally, he got a bunch of storytellers and a bunch of illustrators and the storytellers — the experts in Native American storytelling — selected the artists to work with. Dembicki continues “The point wasn’t to westernize the stories for general consumption, but rather to provide an opportunity to experience authentic Native American stories, even if it sometimes meant clashing with western vernacular” (p. 225). There is was. This is why the book works … it isn’t about making the stories Western, it is about telling Native stories to a wide audience.

Ishjinki and Buzzard  by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)

Ishjinki and Buzzard
by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)


Ishjinki and Buzzard by Jimm Goodtracks, Illustrated by Dimi Macheras (p. 173-184)

I love that. Because, that is exactly what the collection, as a whole, does. It upsets the status quo of children’s literature, of folk tales, of the Western ideal of story and Native Americans. There is love and death and lies and sometimes the good guy does not win. Sometimes there is not winning or losing, there is simply a story. Sometimes there is gross stuff about gross animals and old men being gross (my son especially appreciated those). Some of the artwork is breathtaking and should be in a museum, some is silly and belongs on a bubble gum wrapper.

Who should read this collection? I can’t think of anyone who should not read it. It is great for novice readers and experts alike because of the wide array. But, take it in small pieces instead of the entire work all at once. Give the illustrations room to elaborate, to challenge, to push, and to compliment the written stories. And then go back for me.