In picture books for children, talking bears outnumber Native Americans nine to one. According to data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a research library based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that gathers information on children’s and young adult literature, major U.S. and Canadian presses in 2016 published a total of 3,400 children’s books. Of those, only 35 were about Natives, or 1 percent.
In an analysis of picture books only, that number shrinks to .3 percent, or three out of 1,030. That’s fewer books depicting Native Americans than those featuring talking bears (27), talking dinosaurs (15), talking penguins (six) and talking robots (four).
“It’s not just animals, but also talking trucks and talking trains,” said K.T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which annually collects and publishes data about the subjects of children’s books and authors’ ethnicity. “Last year there was a book about a talking carton of milk, a book about the letter E. There are more books about talking or personified objects than there are about Native people.”
Even fewer children’s books are written by authors of color. Of the 35 books about Natives published in 2016, only eight were authored by Natives, or .002 percent of the total.
By contrast, more than 70 percent of children’s books published by major presses are written by white authors and depict white characters. That means most Native children are learning to read with books that do not portray Native characters—or even other people of color.
It’s an oversight that can cause children to shun books or even question their own identities, said Debbie Reese, founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, a blog that analyzes and critiques Indigenous Peoples in children’s books and young adult books.
“What you see in books matters,” said Reese, a member of the Nambe Pueblo. “If you like reading and you see yourself in books, you know that you matter. On the flip side, if you never see yourself in books, or if you see negative stereotypes of yourself, you disengage because it’s not meeting your needs.”
Navajo author Daniel Vandever, of Haystack, New Mexico, arrived at the same conclusions before writing and illustrating his first book, “Fall in Line, Holden!” published this year by Salina Bookshelf. The book follows Holden, a young Navajo boy, through a day at boarding school where he expected to conform to rigid behaviors, stay inside the lines and follow the rules.
But Holden, who is constantly reminded to “fall in line,” can’t stop his imagination from transforming his bleak environment into one filled with wonder. As he progresses through the school day, Holden’s carefree spirit begins to influence the other students.
Vandever, 30, said he wanted to write a book for his nephew that accurately portrayed Navajo characters and told a story rooted in history. He spent six years writing and illustrating the book, which depicts Holden sporting a tsiiyéé (traditional hair bun), but dressed in modern attire and having very contemporary daydreams.
“All of this started with me wanting to tell a story for my nephew,” Vandever said. “I think every kid deserves something they can identify with, something to relate to. Every kid should be able to see themselves in a book.”
Vandever is the grandson of Navajo Code Talker Joe Vandever Sr. His father attended boarding schools on the Navajo Nation, where he was stripped of his language and culture.
“By writing about boarding schools, I’m telling my father’s story,” Vandever said. “But it’s also the story of an entire generation, and my family was impacted by it. I think it’s crucial to start conversations about what happened.”
After his parents split up, Vandever moved with his mother to St. Louis, Missouri. There, he came face to face with Indian stereotypes—even in the classroom, he said.
“As a second-grader in Missouri, I really saw a lot of false representations of who I was supposed to be,” he said. “So I shielded my identity, stifled my creativity, and this led to inner conflict. It really limited how I saw myself.”
Vandever found sanctuary in the library, where he immersed himself in Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. He also sang traditional Navajo songs and repeated stories from his grandparents.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Vandever made his way back to the Navajo Nation. He earned a master’s degree in community and regional planning and works as communications director for Navajo Technical University.
But Vandever never let go of his imagination, or his love of children’s literature. When he began writing “Fall in Line, Holden!” he hoped it would appeal to both children and adults.
“I wanted my nephew to understand the value of creativity and free-thinking,” he said. “But children’s books are for everyone, and they can be just as impactful as other books, and even more intimate. Even in their simplicity, children’s books can bring everyone to the table for some kind of discussion or understanding.”
Vandever’s book offers an authentic Native voice in an industry where the quantity of books about Native Americans is low and the quality is, perhaps, even lower, Horning said. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which began counting children’s books about Africans in 1985, added three more minority groups in 1994: Asian, Latino and Native.
Historically, the center has found that books written about Native Americans by non-Native authors were problematic, Horning said. Books commonly revealed an ignorance of separate Native nations and often perpetuated erroneous stereotypes.
“When we look at our numbers over time, the books by Native authors and illustrators have always been a relatively small number,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many aspiring authors are still writing about a ‘little Indian girl.’”
Although the number of books by Native authors still is low, the quality is gradually improving, Horning said. Books like Vandever’s, which offer “authentic voices from different Native nations,” are helping shift the tide.
“Daniel is so important in the overall context of children’s books,” she said. “In this book, Native children can see themselves, and children from the outside can get a more realistic picture of what life is like.”
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center counts books from major commercial publishers, where most of the problematic books originate. It doesn’t regularly receive books from small, independent or tribal presses.
Small presses are much better at producing quality books about Native Americans, Reese said. Because small publishers they lack funding and publicity, however, those books don’t often
appear in libraries or schools where they would have the biggest impact.
“The big presses are still publishing books of questionable quality that are biased and stereotypical,” Reese said. “We’re still getting problematic books every year, published by big publishers and written by privileged authors who don’t know what they’re talking about.”
By contrast, good books by Native authors can help “unwrite myths,” Reese said. She reviewed Vandever’s book on her blog and said its “Native accuracy” made her heart swell.
“If you’re going to see Natives in a book, they’ll be wearing feathers and skins and fringe,” she said. “In Daniel’s book, we get realistic stuff, but we also get playful. He talks about school being rigid, and then he blows it out of the water. He talks about falling in line, but he steps way out of the lines in his book.”