I’ve been busy lately, but there have been some pretty major events in the news that were difficult to miss. A couple of them relate directly to middle grade/young adult literature.
President Obama became the first US president on 90 years to visit Cuba. US-Cuba Relations have been intense since 1898 but in 1961, they ceased completely. Things began to thaw around 2012 to the point that just this week, President Obama and several American business leaders are visiting the island nation.
As a young person, I loved learning history and still do. Yet, there is something about fictionalized history that really speaks to me. Perhaps it does so by giving me someone, a character who lived through the event with whom I can relate. Or, perhaps it’s simply that fiction can better play upon my emotions and intellect thus creating a strong response. Knowing how I feel about historical fiction that is well written and well researched leads me to recommend children and young adult fiction about Cuba, particularly works by Cuban American authors.
I have to recommend Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music; Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir; Summer Birds: The Wild Book; Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal; The Surrender Tree/El Arbol de La Rendicion: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom/Poemas de La Luche de Cuba Pr Su Libertad and Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish all by Margarita Engle. Engle is a Cuban American writer who detailed the Cuban Missile Crisis from her own childhood perspective in Enchanted Air. She recently spoke of her hopes for improved US/Cuban relations on NPR.
Not too long ago, Latin@s in Kidlit hosted Cuba Week where they highlighted the work of eight Cuban American children’s writers. They wrote about immigration experiences, cubanism, identity and biculturalism. Read more from Guinevere Thomas, Meg Medina, Laura Lacámara, Christina Diaz González, Alma Flor Ada, Enrique Flores Galbis, Nancy Osa and Margarita Engle. The post also curates a list of children’s and young adult books by these and many more Cuban American authors.
But then, sometimes even though the books parallel real life the author didn’t do the research and didn’t get it right and the mainstream media gets it no better. What can we do with this?
There’s a story in the news these days about a foster family trying to keep the child they’ve been fostering for several years. The family is white and the child is Choctaw. Do what I just did. Do a search for “foster children Native American” and you’ll see articles about the incident to which I’m referring float straight to the top. Whether you have any background on this story or not, simply read the headlines and note the bias. She’s ‘part Native’. She was ‘seized from the family’ ‘for being 1/64 Native’ .
I thought foster care was a temporary situation until arrangements could be made to place the child with their family. Sorry, I have a bias, too.
Have you ever seen a story about a child being removed from a foster home making national headlines? Pay attention to the bias.
I think the best place to start building a background is here with NPR. I like this three part series because it immediately mentions the removal of Native American children from their home and shipping them off to boarding schools to make them lose every ounce of their culture, their tribal identity and their heritage. That’s what I thought of when I heard about this young Choctaw girl that this white family wanted to keep in their home. If I’m making this sound racial, that’s because I believe it is. Perhaps I should state ‘That’s what I thought about when I heard about Lexi, a 6 year old Choctaw girl that the Page family wanted to keep in their home.”
And then, NPR gets to the heart of this case: The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.
How does this relate to YA? In a very odd way, indeed it does. Emily Henry’s recent YA novel, The Love That Split the World is described as follows on Amazon.
Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start…until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.
That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.
Natalie is actually Native American and adopted by a white family (Did you read about the Indian Child Welfare Act above?) and she’s taken from them. I really appreciate how Debbie Reese walked point by point through this book on Twitter.
So, what do we do with this? I think YA literature can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. Using the sources I’ve cited above, an ELA or Social Studies teacher can construct a lesson around the 1978 law and build case studies from both the real life event and the book using Debbie’s Storify or the news articles to look at bias, power structures, the use of privilege, identity and Native American history. You’ll probably end up with several students who want to read the book. In any other situation, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing this one but buy creating this lesson that is rich in both critical literacy and metaliteracy, I’d say add this one to the collection and let students use the tools you just taught them. Teach your students how to be smart, engaged and informed citizens.
Connecting fiction to real life is one of the best ways to teach students how to read the world.