Dismantling the Thanksgiving Myth with Children’s and YA Literature

By Rebecca Hopman

Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

It’s that time of year when many elementary school kids across the United States don capotains, buckle boots, headdresses, and moccasins to celebrate Thanksgiving. Cue the romanticized and often derogatory imagery of Native Americans, the tidy and tired story of the Pilgrims and Indians where “everyone gets along [and] everyone gets to eat.” [1]

painting of pilgrims and indians sitting down to eat at the first Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) Source: Wikimedia Commons (Jennie Augusta Brownscombe [Public domain])

Earlier this month, Sidney Wegener wrote about “Why We Should be Anti-Celebrating Thanksgiving.” She points out that the kids learning the “Pilgrims and Indians” story grow up to be adults who perpetuate this false narrative, instead of coming to terms with the much more complicated reality. “While not all families have the economic resources to participate in traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations,” Wegener writes, “everyone has the capability to change the way they think about this national holiday.”

So how can parents responsibly talk with their kids about the Thanksgiving story and Native Americans, without falling back on the “Pilgrims and Indians” myth or homogenized and romanticized depictions of Native peoples? One way is to read books about Native characters, written by Native American/First Nations authors.

How do you find those books? Thankfully, there are many resources online for just that purpose. (I have included a selection of websites and articles below.) But while there are a growing number of children’s and YA books by and about Native American/First Nation peoples, they are still vastly underrepresented in the publishing world.

In 2002, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed 3,150 children’s books published that year. Sixty-four of those books (or 2%) featured a main character or significant secondary character who was identified as a Native American or a member of the First Nations. Only six books (or 0.2%) were written by Native American/First Nations authors. Last year, out of 3,653 books, 55 (1%) featured a main or significant Native American/First Nations character. Thirty-eight books (1.5%) were written by Native American/First Nations authors. [2]

In 2014, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign – and later the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit organization – was launched to support diversity in children’s literature. [3] They, along with many authors, scholars, critics, editors, and readers, have increasingly called on the publishing industry to produce and promote books for children and young adults that respect and reflect a broader range of identities and experiences. Critically, this effort must include publishing more books written by diverse authors and hiring diverse editorial staff. [4] Publishers, of course, respond to what sells, so you can join this effort by buying books by and about diverse people or by checking out books from your local library (you can often request or recommend books for purchase if the library doesn’t have them in their collection).

So, this Thanksgiving, whether you have children or teens in your life or you appreciate a good children’s or YA book, take the opportunity to choose a story that is about Native characters, written by Native American/First Nations authors.

Woman reading to two children

Source: Wikimedia Commons (San Jose Library [CC BY-SA 2.0])

November, in addition to being Native American Heritage Month in the United States, is also Picture Book Month. Celebrate both by reading and sharing picture books written by and about Native Americans and First Nations peoples. Find some suggestions in the resources shared below.


Resources

Native American children’s and YA book recommendations and resources:

Diversity in children’s and YA books:


Notes

[1] Klem-Marí Cajigas, “Tackling Racism in Children’s Classics: The Thanksgiving Story,” Nashville Public Library. Accessed on November 9, 2019. See also “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?” by Dennis Zotigh, National Museum of the American Indian, November 23, 2016.
[2] Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens is compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. More information can be found on their website. Accessed on November 9, 2019.
[3] The We Need Diverse Books organization defines diversity as “including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” I use this definition when referring to “diverse” people in this piece.
[4] Kacen Callender, “We Need Diverse Editors,” Publishers Weekly, November 1, 2019.

Lydia’s Diaries: Uncovering Women’s History in the Archives

By Rebecca Hopman

Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

“Topsy’s Journal. Strictly private!

So begins Lydia Olsson’s diary. Olsson was an early female student at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and the five diaries now held by Augustana Special Collections document her life on campus. I encountered Olsson’s diaries in the archives nearly a decade ago, and reading them changed my path in life.

Five notebooks with different cover designs arrayed on a black background

Lydia Olsson’s diaries. Courtesy of Augustana Special Collections.

In the summer of 2010, I was a rising senior at Augustana College. Built near the banks of the Mississippi River, Augustana is a typical liberal arts college. And I was a typical liberal arts student. Majoring in history, English, and German, I planned to become an archivist, and was preparing to apply to library science graduate programs that fall. In the meantime, I worked in Augustana Special Collections, processing archives and exploring the stacks.

Over the summer I worked longer hours, and during my lunch breaks I liked to browse the collections for something interesting, like a cache of love letters or a salacious diary (being an archivist means you are basically a professional snoop, reading all those private documents people left behind). Augustana Special Collections is full of such things, given that it holds many of the personal and professional papers of students, faculty, and staff from throughout the school’s 160 years of history.

One day I was looking through the finding aid for the Olof Olsson family papers and came across a listing for “Diaries, 1892-1896.” Olsson was the third president of Augustana College, and these diaries were written by Lydia, his third child. Intrigued, I pulled the appropriate box out of the stacks and opened the first book.

Topsy’s Journal. Strictly private!

Journal kept by Lydia Olsson of 18.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles to-day. To-morrow may be dying.” [1]

“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.” [2]

Black and white photograph of three young women and one young man

Lydia Olsson and her siblings, c. 1890s. Seated, left to right: Mia Olsson, Anna Olsson, Hannes Olsson. Standing: Lydia Olsson. Courtesy of Augustana Special Collections.

Topsy was Olsson’s nickname for herself, and, as I found by examining the rest of the diaries, she liked to begin each book with a couple of mottoes or quotes. Reading on, I was immersed in the daily life of a young woman attending Augustana College, just as I was doing 118 years later. She took a variety of courses, had a robust social life, and was close to her family. She joked about the young men on campus who were vying for the attention of their fairer classmates, thought seriously about the role of religion in her life, and contemplated her future.

Was at Sarah’s for supper and then we went to Chapel together. Mahnquist stared at us and smiled a long while, which made us nearly croak. I told Sarah I could see my picture in his greasy hair. Everybody has gone to bed and here I am sitting writing such nonsence. I am wicked! (January, 29, 1893) [3]

Mia and I were talking about marriages . . . Mia herself don’t want to marry, and I well, I truly havn’t made up my mind if I do or not. Some day when I get old and sensible I am going to think over every thing and see what conclusion I come to. The first question is: Do I? and will I ever regret it? The second: Who to? and do I love him with all my heart and soul, or is it a fancy. 3rd: Is this the one that Providence has picked out for me? 4: – Will we always love the same? (December 22, 1893)

The diaries resonated strongly with me, and I began to research what life was like for a young woman attending college in the 1890s. Looking deeper into the archives, I kept coming across letters and diaries written by the young women of Augustana. Their stories were a different kind of history, one that I hadn’t encountered in class. Forget kings and wars and important dates, these were ordinary people living ordinary lives. National and international events appeared on occasion, but they weren’t at the center of the narrative.

Mia was piling wood this morning, so Emil Lofgren went by and he helped her, so did I. Some went skating on the pond this morning. There don’t seem much to thank for now as Harrison didn’t become elected! (November 24, 1892) [4]

I consumed books and articles about life writing, learning that diaries, letters, and journals were often the only outlets for women’s writing. I checked out piles of published journals and correspondence written by women, from Virginia Woolf and Mary Boykin Chesnut to more obscure writers. Why hadn’t we read these sorts of sources in my history classes?

For the first time, I became interested in something I recognized as women’s history. It sounds odd to say that now, but at the time I didn’t know this was an area of study. Of course, I had learned about many fascinating women in class, but they were mostly queens or presidents’ wives or other notable women. And I encountered them in history textbooks, newspaper articles, political cartoons, and government documents. In rare cases I read a speech or a letter, but never anything that dwelled deeply on their private lives or how they experienced the world around them.

Black and white photograph of three women standing amongst bushes and trees

Lydia Olsson and her sisters, Mia and Anna Olsson. Courtesy of Augustana Special Collections.

Reading Lydia Olsson’s diaries changed my idea of what history could be, and of who I could learn about. While earning my master’s degree in library science and working as a librarian and archivist, I kept reading about women’s lives, becoming more committed to the idea of studying them in an academic program. It’s thanks to Olsson that I’m here at Sarah Lawrence College, fueling that spark her writing lit in me.

And hereby endeth this chapter. Hoping to sow better seed in the future I close and zeal my book. – Topsy­ – (January 16, 1893)

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For those who’d like to learn more about women’s life writing, here are a few suggested sources:

More suggestions can be found on this webliography. Fair warning that it hasn’t been updated since 2012.

And for those interested in the women of Augustana College, I encourage you to read Ann Boaden’s Light and Leaven: Women Who Shaped Augustana’s First Century (Rock Island, IL: Augustana Historical Society, 2011).

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October is American Archives Month. Celebrate by exploring your local archives and special collections – you never know what you might find. Sarah Lawrence College students, faculty, and staff can learn more about the Sarah Lawrence College Archives on their website and Facebook page.

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[1] The opening stanza of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”
[2] A quote from the German dramatist and poet Friedrich von Schiller.
[3] Olsson’s original spelling, grammar, and word choice are retained in these quotes.
[4] Olsson is referring to the 1892 United States presidential election between incumbent Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.