This week, a small piece of my childhood died.
My students love Reading Rainbow. I started using the old episodes when Idaho hooked every teacher up with a subscription to Discovery Education. Over 150 old episodes are available for streaming, and most of them are captioned for my deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I interpret them anyway, but the captions really help my students catch vocabulary words and sentence structure. When we read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, we watched the accompanying Reading Rainbow, which was fascinating: we got to watch some great domino-crash cause-and-effect footage. It tickles my nostalgia bone, too. I was thrilled to find the episode with the clip about making paper from recycled denim. With that many episodes, we find a lot of uses for integrating the videos into our units.
I am starting a unit on the Native American tribes of Idaho. I sought some videos and books to introduce the unit so we had some common literature experiences. Reading Rainbow offered an episode featuring Knots on a Counting Rope. I hadn’t read that book in years and only had vague (but positive) memories of the story. So I previewed the video and cracked open the book.
Intersectional Feminism ruined a piece of my childhood this week.
This book was a classic, a staple of every elementary classroom. It features Indians! And a blind kid! And he overcomes his blindness and becomes one with nature! How great is that!
I wish I could say I read this story to my kids and they loved it and the end. Or I guess I’m glad I can say I didn’t and they didn’t and NOT the end.
This book is an example of intersectional (or what I call “ampersandwiched”) literature: it portrays the intersection between two areas of marginalization. But this book is done poorly, as many attempts by authors who are not Native and who do not have disabilities are. It falls into a number of common traps.
- The “Magical Native American” or “Mystic Shaman” trope is present in speaking to the wind and the horses speaking to the newborn, among others. Most of this book could fall under that stereotype. This cliché depends upon the idea that all Native Americans commune with nature and are imbued with special powers or insight because of that connection. The mystic shaman is considered by many to be a positive stereotype, but it is a stereotype nonetheless. Stereotypes limit the depths of characters and limit our understanding to a flat representation.
- The “Magical Differently Abled Person” trope is present in the character of the grandson. In overcoming his fear of racing his horse while blind (by becoming one with nature, by the way), we are meant to feel inspired by him. I wrote a paper on this for my Feminist Theory class last semester: going about life with a disability does not automatically make someone “inspirational.” Far too many books that feature a character with a disability fall into this trap of objectifying that character and using the disability as a plot device. At the end, someone learns a lesson (often it’s us, the reader, or another able-bodied person in the story) and we all go away better people. I will be digging into this phenomenon more as I work though children’s and young adult literature over the upcoming months.
I am not saying anyone is a bad person for liking this book. I am sharing my journey in reassessing what I consider “classic” children’s books. I remember this book fondly; years ago my sister brought it home from school when my aunt was visiting, and I remember them snuggling in the recliner while my aunt read it to her. It hurts to reread something so well-loved and see how it could have contributed to my own stereotypes, and how I might still cling to pieces of those stereotypes as an adult.
For more on people with disabilities as “inspiration,” take ten minutes to watch this TED talk by Stella Young.