Friday, 22 April 2011

Show and Tell: The Picturebook Makers

The artwork for Bertie form Not Me! is currently on display at the Ruskin Gallery in Cambridge as part of an exhibition celebrating the first ten years of the MA in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. Some of the work is by past students like myself, some is by tutors and visiting lecturers from the course and some is by established picturebook artists such as Axel Scheffler, Alexis Deacon and Oliver Jeffers.
The private view was last night- I took some phone pics of some willing models pretending to be interested! They are illustrators Lisa Wilkens and Marion Lindsay (my studio buddies) and Jim Butler who teaches on the BA Illustration course at Cambridge School of Art.


  1. Yay for you! Looks like such a cute book!

  2. SO cool :) I'm sad I missed you at the show yesterday. Would have been nice to say hello :) xx

  3. Thanks Birgitta - it would have been lovely to meet you. Perhaps we should have all worn badges with our names on! :)

  4. Oh! I didn't know that you were there!!! :( Badges with names would have been a good idea...
    I loved to see your original artwork!

  5. Good morning,

    What's up with the kid in the headdress? Playing Indian? Does that happen a lot there in the UK? I'm guessing it does, and that is why you chose to put the headdress on the kid. Wondering how much artists there learn about stereotyping...

  6. Hi Debbie,

    Yes, kids do dress up as Native Americans in the UK. Is it stereotyping to depict a child wearing a headdress? I did think about this before I drew it, but decided that it was showing something that may instigate a discussion about different cultures rather than reinforcing a specific stereotype about that culture. I have read your blog comments regarding this matter and see that you disagree - and I sincerely apologise. I would be open to reading any articles/blog posts you can recommend to me that you think would leave me better educated about this.

  7. Hi Nicola,

    I'm glad you came to my site and are open to discussion.

    When do kids in the UK dress that way? From your book, it seems they do it in a normalized way, kind of like a kid might put on a fire fighters helmet and play all day wearing it.

    I don't think it happens that way in the US. Mostly, kids here do it for things like plays, or as Halloween costumes, or at scouting and summer camp activities.

    If kids in UK do it just-because, what you've done in your book is reflect the reality of kid play. You've provided a mirror to a white kid of what his day-of-play looks like on the days when he/she puts on a headdress like that.

    When a kid does that, what else does he or she do? Are there play-Indian actions that go with it? What are they? Do those actions accurately reflect a specific American Indian people or tribal nation?

    Your book accurately reflects UK-kid-playing Indian, but a Native parent who picks up the book for possible purchase has a different experience. Culturally and religiously significant attire is used for someone else's playtime.

    I've posed questions and do hope you're willing to keep talking.


  8. I hasten to add that it is not appropriate activity in the US no matter where it happens.

    National American Indian associations and organizations have asked that such practices stop.

    Some of the organizations that used to do it have stopped. One example is the YMCA. It used to have an "Indian Princess" program but has moved away from it at the national offices. Too many local YMCA's keep doing it, however, but Native people in those areas continue to ask that it cease.

  9. Thanks for your explanation - now that you have put it to me in this way I will not be depicting this in any of my future work. I did intend to show a child at play as you have described in your initial response - and inside the book there are other children participating in other activities.
    I have to say that I was deeply upset by your comments on but you have obviously been deeply offended by my work and I apologise.

  10. Amazon removed my review.

    I think the book would be terrific without the headdress.

    Books entertain and teach in explicit ways but also in unintended ways. I am not offended. I am deeply concerned about the well being of Indigenous children. They drop out of school and commit suicide at very high rates. Studies point to the role images have on their self esteem and how they, year by year, become more and more disengaged from curriculum that does not reflect who they are.

    Some time back Neil Gaiman made a gaff that he later apogized for. It is on my site. An apology was not what was needed. He has a huge following. If he had used that moment to educate people then perhaps your editors might have paused over that headdress. I appreciate the impetus for apologies but other responses have more impact. In this case I believe our public conversation does a lot of good work.

  11. I can assure you that I had nothing to do with the removal of the post from - despite the fact that you had called my work, and therefore me, racist. I felt it was best to leave it as I do believe in freedom of speech. As you can see, the comments you left on Amazon UK and World Cat are still there. I was, however, disappointed that you wrote that before giving me a chance to respond to your comment here.

    I can understand that you are concerned for the well being of Indigenous children. I do not have a huge following like Neil Gaiman, but I fully intend to write to my publishers in the UK and US to explain to them what has happened and to make sure they, as well as myself, are better educated in the future. If you would like to have input on this correspondence that would be great. Perhaps it could be expanded upon and sent to other publishers?

  12. just want to lend my support to Debbie Reese. thank you for doing this work, for continuing to try and educate and taking them time to discuss this with people so that we can work towards eradicating this sort of ignorance, whether it be maliciously intended or an innocent lack of education, as in this case.

  13. Thank you, Nicola, for the invitation to participate in the conversation with your publishers. Might you be interested in co-authoring an article that we submit to a journal or magazine like Horn Book? Or SLJ?

    I did not, and do not, think that you asked Amazon to remove the review. Your willingness to continue our conversations here is evidence of an integrity and commitment to free speech.

    Earlier today a graduate student from Italy wrote to me, pointing to an advertisement there that shows children dressed like Indians, dancing around a totem pole. I met her last year when she was here in the US doing graduate study. In her email she said that playing Indian activities are pervasive in Europe.

    I know of the hobbyist activities in Germany, but didn't know it was widespread. Learning that it is that popular helps me understand a bit more about the image in the book.

    I'm thinking (and I could be wrong) that your publisher might have known the image was stereotypical but decided to go with it anyway because it would lead people whose children play Indian to buy the book.

    I don't think you're racist. Your work isn't either. You accurately portrayed an activity that is regarded as racist. At one time in US history, black face was common. That changed over time, and if anyone does it now, the condemnations are swift. That shift has to happen with the act of playing Indian. When I used the word racist in my review, I was being very careful to use it in the same paragraph as my reference to black face.

    I did not, and do not, believe you are racist.

    I look forward to the conversation with your publishers and hope you are interested in the article.

    Also---if you revise the book, removing the headdress, I'd gladly promote it on my site.

  14. The core issue is not racism or cultural ignorance or even bad manners. The issue here is iconography. The North American Plains Indian war bonnet or headdress long ago for better or for worse achieved iconic status as a symbol not only of Native Americans, but of America in general. To argue otherwise ignores this potent fact. To most people across the globe the Plains Indian headdress has a completely different meaning and context than Debbie claims it does. Is it not helpful to attempt to regulate something that has become universally iconic in the name of stamping out unhealthy stereotyping. The comparison of blackface to children "playing Indian" is not an equitable analogy. In fact, the manner in which the discussion here is engaged and concluded by Debbie unfortunately speaks much more to cultural arrogance than it does to open and honest cultural awareness and exchange.

    The following points are offered for consideration:
    - Which cultural items from any culture should be exclusive to that culture alone?
    - What are the distinguishing qualifiers for one to make a list of such items which are forbidden to other cultures and why?
    - Who certifies as the ultimate authority in that determination?
    - How is that authority to be honored on a global scale across all ethnicities?
    - Is such a goal realistic or even to the best advantage of the original goal of specific ethnic advocacy?
    - Are there more expedient and far-reaching means by which to achieve the worthy goal of cultural awareness?

    Debbie's approach to what she perceives as an unforgivable cultural assault is not helpful to her purpose, which I assume is heightened awareness of Native American culture. From an ethnographic aspect, Ms. Reese, as a Pueblo woman, has no claim on a Plains Indian war bonnet. Yet she presumes to represent a culture that wore one.

    From an anthropological perspective, Ms. Killen, as an assumed Anglo-Saxon woman in Great Britain, does have a right to depict a non-Native child playing dress-up. Why? Because that's all it IS. Because it is a real-time activity common to children all over the world for generations. The behavior has no more meaning than any other childhood dress-up activity. Non-Mexican children wearing a sombrero or embroidered peasant blouse are not disparaging Mexicans any more than non-Polyenisian children wearing fake grass skirts to a swim party luau or non-Japanese children wearing a kimono robe are perpetrating an egregious ethnic faux pas. And, I might add, any more offensive than a Navajo child wearing a cowboy hat.

    What's the argument? It's a no-win for Ms. Reese to protest that children should not be "playing Indian". They DO. How do you realistically fight what has become iconic? You CAN'T. Her entire premise appears to be a vigorous assertion that all Native American mothers and their children are perplexed and disturbed by the universal context of Indian culture as exotic and fanciful. This is a gross generalization. Additionally, it does not recognize that ANY culture, when exposed and distributed beyond the confines of its own, loses the ritual and identity it once wielded. In essence, the cat was out of the bag over 500 years ago.

    Ms. Reese could easily channel her influence toward vastly more positive avenues of viable cultural victory! She could appeal to decision-makers at a variety of entities to establish educational scholarships for Native students or promote Native author and illustrator symposiums. She could garner support to advance Native academia or encourage Native political representation on local and national levels. Native advocacy could be powerfully promoted with thoughtful essays or collaborations with visual arts, musical compositions, touring discussion panels, even Youtube mini-documentary posts would do more to nurture an open cultural exchange and respect than her current methodology of attack and posture.

  15. @Calizona:

    @Debbie: Thank you for all you do for the Native community. You can represent this Choctaw girl any day.

  16. Calizona---I am faculty members at Illinois who established the Native American House and the American Indian Studies Program. I publish a website where I review and analyze depictions of American Indians in children's and YA books and media. My site is assigned reading by professors in English, Education, and Library Science. I've published book chapters and articles in leading journals such as Horn Book and School Library Journal. You may view the entirety of my work as "attack and posture."

    You take an interesting stance on the issue. One that is understandable, given your field and work (anthropology and art) but you're also choosing to ignore people within both, anthropology and art, who push back against the sorts of things you defend. I'm assuming you're unaware of the objections throughout the US to parties where students dress in sombreros?

    You're in Arizona (USA), the state that outlawed Ethnic Studies programs. Based on what you said in your post, you think that law is a good idea?

  17. We have made great strides in the US with regard to portrayals of people who are labeled as "other" or "minority" or "underrepresented." There's a lot more to do, but it is work that is on-going.

    It is something the entire world is looking at, too. The United Nations passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Here's the link to the Declaration:

  18. I have been following this thread with great interest and am very much enjoying the conversations here.

    As a graduate student at Illinois, I took a children’s literature course with Debbie Reese that strongly influenced the way I think about representations of Native Americans in popular culture. Now as a professor of Library Science, I invite Debbie every year to guest lecture in my classes and assign her blog as required reading, and my students are always tremendously influenced by her conversations with them. It is not just Native American mothers that might not pick up a book where a non-Native child “plays Indian” (however unintentional by the author and/or illustrator); as an educator, I might not purchase, assign or promote such a text. In fact, I’d use it as a teachable moment – I’ve already posted a link to this conversation on my course website for *Social Justice and Children’s/YA Literature.*

    I think the fact that Debbie is Nambe Pueblo and an educator with a background in American Indian Studies lends great credibility to her cause. I would hope that me being Korean American and having an academic background (both a BA and MA) in Asian American Studies would lead others to trust my judgment when I comment on similar issues. This is pan-ethnic alliance and strategic essentialism and should not be dismissed as “[presuming] to represent.” Therefore I take offense to the implication that dressing up in a kimono is harmless “play” when that same child might think that likewise dressing up in a grotesquely bucktoothed, squinty-eyed karate costume on Halloween might also be “play.” It’s a slippery slope, and one where I would exercise caution over liberty. Taking liberties in the name of freedom of expression seems culturally arrogant.

    The suggestion that a Native child wearing a cowboy hat has the same effect of a white child wearing a Native headdress is egregious – this dismisses the centuries of genocide and discrimination suffered by Native Americans at the hands of mostly white people, and elides the power and privilege that white people hold in this country and others. While white people doing blackface is not exactly the same, I don’t think the connection is without merit. It stems from not understanding and respecting different cultures, and reducing them to entertainment and even mockery. And at the end of the day, as Debbie notes, if Native students are not doing as well as they could in school, partly because of the ways in which they are misrepresented and their culture is so liberally used as “play,” well then, does that not give one pause? I would hope that we would extend to those groups the same respect for human dignity that we want and expect for ourselves.

    And finally, suggesting that Debbie has other places where she could channel her energy is absurd; Debbie is one of the most productive, hard working, and responsive people I know. Her work is incredibly important and has been cited by countless students and professors, organizations, libraries, museums, and who knows exactly how many blogs. She is well respected in the field of children’s literature, and her work has tremendous implications for the publishing industry, libraries, schools, and of course the universities and programs that prepare students to work in those institutions. Her ongoing engagement with Ms. Killen is one example of this tireless work.

    I also very much respect Ms. Killen for being willing to engage with Debbie and others on this topic. If only others would likewise listen.

  19. Dear Debbie & Sara,
    Your commentary does not respond to the points offered. Your academic background and diligent Native advocacy do not address the larger world view I referred to. Your personal credentials were never in question, unless you’re suggesting that you are qualified to identify and regulate all cultural standards for all peoples everywhere. 

    Similarly, your reference to both "Mexican sombrero parties" and where I live as two liabilities to my cultural sensitivity is confusing. I live in the 5th largest city in the United States, in the state which has the 2nd largest Indigenous Nation in the country. It is not plausible for you to assume regional society here is not equally happy serving cakes and pinatas at parties while offended Hispanics line up to protest. (They don’t). Your argument is not consistent. The sombrero holds no spiritual/ritualized meaning to the campesino, as Natives indicate the plains Indian war bonnet does to them. It has, however, also become ICONIC within the current American Culture. No activism is at play to reclaim it as a ceremonial artifact, nor is it necessary to negotiate the black-market to get one or a dozen. Multitudes of beautiful, fantastic Hispanic cultural items are readily available at the corner grocery or dollar store throughout the Phoenix metro area. Local Hispanics do not feel diminished by the deeply integrated cultural exchange we thrive on in this Southwest borderland.

    Likewise, it is not realistic to assume anything culturally identifiable is a heinous act of mockery or oppression when associated with someone of a different culture.

    Your arguments are duplicitous. You evoke your right (curiously, only after first establishing your position as academics) to freedom of expression. I have the same right. The United States was founded on ideals that give a platform for open debate like this to thoughtfully take place. People are literally dying elsewhere for the fleeting hope they might obtain the same opportunity.

  20. What's the point? Art is subjective. Art is intended to provoke. You do not have the right to censor art. Anyone can criticize it, of course. Art is open to interpretation. It was not helpful to your cause to react emotionally to Killen’s artwork in two public forums without attempting to contact her privately first. You do not have the right to demand anything of the artist re: her artistic interpretation.

    A true commitment to open dialogue conveys no hint of public censorship, intimidation or accusations of racial ignorance. The waters of understanding were sadly muddied when you falsely assigned guilt to Ms. Killen for children who tragically commit suicide on American Indian reservations. No matter how deeply devoted we are to a worthy cause, it does not give us freedom to speak like that. This language certainly can discourage people from fostering a desire to explore another culture. It is doubtful Ms. Killen and her artistic following will be inspired to your perspective. Wouldn’t you rather they were?

    Arguments here about cultural appropriateness ignore completely a centuries old world-wide fascination with the iconic American Indian that began ages before the Hollywood Western. How’s your Japanese? They love anything to do with American Indians. Their cultural interest unfortunately does not meet your standards. With about 127 million people in Japan, engaging an idealogical battle in an Eastern culture will be a challenge.

    Furthermore, your argument as presented must be supported by a transference of the G-word: guilt. The natural conclusion to such an argument is that you perceive yourself and your people as perpetually victimized. If we see ourselves and our relationships with others under the hinderance of victimhood, our escape from it is deeply frustrated. You might have far more success in championing Native perspectives if you “unclenched your fist” (borrowing from a famous appeal). This is hardly the language of an insensitive adversary, yet you have chosen to interpret it as such.

  21. Finally, the ultimate elephant in the room is still overlooked. When something/someone achieves iconic status (identity/meaning all its own that carries across national borders/demographics), what is to be done? Things or people are not iconic because I say so. Things become iconic because societies engage them as such. We may not like it or have anything to do with the creation of it, but it exits nevertheless. And, because icons do exist, their power greatly complicates viable solutions to how multiple societies perceive culture.

    It is distraction to put words in my mouth or suggest my comment represents White colonial oppression. It is distraction to imply I dismissed Debbie’s knowledge, devotion or work ethic when I didn’t. My points remain. What is the most efficient strategy towards progressive, cultural exchange if that is what you seek? Sweeping accusations of ignorance, implied racism and presumed guilt for historical injustice tend to close hearts rather than open them.

    How much negative energy is devoted to scouting out cultural infractions according to you, instead of offering “The Beauty Way” of inclusion to those who might easily become your new-found friends? Would not your influence be amplified if you could be less myopic about culture and art in particular? My Tongan and Cook Islander friends were genuinely thrilled to show me how to wear traditional hand-woven skirts they gave me at a funeral. They were not threatened by this intimate exchange at a very ritualized occasion. As a result, these who honor their Native traditions tenaciously so far from home are surrounded by many loyal non-Native friends who feel included and loved by them. This elevated level of cultural understanding should be our motivation for relationships with people everywhere.

    Any time discussion involves the varied perceptions and histories of amalgamated societies (and the United States is the most successful amalgamation in history) - it is problematic to suddenly cry "foul" and claim purity of ownership over that which is no longer wholly an exclusive entity. Are you utilizing your incredible networking connections/talents to your best advantage? That, thankfully, IS a simple question that only you can answer.


  22. Your definition, Cindi, of "best advantage" and mine are different. Our perspectives are vastly different, as shown by this conversation.

    I think you're wrong on a great many points, including what Hispanics do or do not protest.

    Native people have---for a long time---objected to the various uses of the headdress. Whether the objections are centered on images in children's books or in the form of mascots, the objections are put forth.

    You insist that a headdress is ICONIC and no longer belongs to Native peoples, and therefore our objections to appropriation of it are futile. I think you're wrong about that. There is growing support of the rights of indigenous people. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is evidence of that support.