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.
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.
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.