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Arrow to the Sun and Critical Controversies

This is the fifth of a continuing series of articles celebrating the history of the Caldecott Medal, which marks its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. Librarian and children’s literature historian Kathleen T. Horning looks at one seminal but unheralded Caldecott book of each decade — identifying trends, noting the changing nature of the picture book, wrestling with issues and definitions. Here she examines the 1975 winner, Arrow to the Sun (Viking), adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott, through the lens of cultural authenticity.

Arrow to the SunJust as there is a tradition of speculation prior to the announcement of the Newbery and Caldecott Award winners each year, there is also a tradition of second-guessing the committee after the announcement has been made. “What were they thinking?” is a common question — and because the proceedings and discussion are forever confidential, we will probably never know. And since the books that win have staying power, they are often re-examined and criticized anew, even decades after they were first published.

Gerald McDermott’s picture-book retelling of a Pueblo Indian tale, Arrow to the Sun, was published by Viking in 1974, a time when librarians were immersed in the politics of children’s book selection. Professional  arguments were raging within the American Library Association between members of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (advocating content- neutral selection decisions) and the Social Responsibilities Round Table (decrying racism and sexism), with fires stoked by the Council on Interracial Books for Children, who at the time were calling for children’s librarians to look at older books with a more enlightened and socially conscious eye, to reevaluate them (and, presumably, to weed them out of library collections). The Council, a few years earlier, had called for reconsideration of old chestnuts such as Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo and Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle, and few in the profession argued in favor of keeping these books on library shelves. But when the spotlight fell on more recent Newbery Award winners such as 1970’s Sounder and 1974’s The Slave Dancer, many in the children’s literature establishment grew defensive. At the ALA Annual meeting in 1974, for example, Helen Mullen, the chair of a committee charged with reevaluating all of the Notable Children’s Books published from 1940 to 1970, reported to the Children’s Services Division board that they had decided “not to reevaluate any of the Newbery/Caldecott books chosen during the 30 year span and not to focus on racism or sexism in their re-evaluations.”

When Pamela Pollack, then the associate editor of School Library Journal’s book review section, questioned the committee chair about this decision, she was “shushed from further discussion on the grounds that she [didn’t] work with children daily,” as reported by Lillian Gerhardt in her post-conference report for SLJ. At the time, the president of the Children’s Services Division was Barbara Rollock, and the president-elect was Spencer Shaw, both prominent African American children’s librarians, as was Helen Mullen, the chair of the committee that made the recommendation. So we can’t argue that this decision was being made by an out-of-touch, elitist group of white librarians who didn’t comprehend the issues or care about library services to children of color. These three were all skilled at negotiating the minefield of racial politics in their profession and in the world at large, and they apparently chose to align themselves with the ALA establishment on this issue, representing the viewpoint of the Office for Intellectual Freedom.

In February 1974, School Library Journal had published a critical article by Mary Gloyne Byler, a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, called “The Image of American Indians Projected by Non-Indian Writers.” She points out several examples in children’s books where Native characters are portrayed negatively,  stereotypically, or as objects of pity. She concludes:

It is time for American publishing houses, schools, and libraries to take another look at the books they are offering children and seriously set out to offset some of the damage they have done. Only American Indians can tell non-Indians what it is to be Indian. There is no longer a need for non-Indian writers to “interpret” American Indians for the American public.

Such was the critical landscape in the children’s book world when Arrow to the Sun made its entrance. But it caused not a blip on the Council on Interracial Books for Children’s radar at the time; it was not reviewed positively or negatively by the Council, even after it won the Caldecott Medal. No one reviewed it with Byler’s concerns in mind. Instead, it received glowing reviews in the professional journals, including starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. It was included on the comparatively short list of best books of the year in Horn Book Fanfare.

All the reviewers were impressed by the illustrations, which were described as “elementally beautiful,” “visually eloquent,” “bold,” “energetic,” “ambitious,” and “captivating.” None of them talked about cultural content beyond calling it a “Pueblo Indian tale,” a descriptor used in the book’s subtitle. The only discouraging words were made in reference to the animated film version of the story that McDermott had created simultaneously (“simultaneous” being the operative word, as the Caldecott committee apparently saw no issue with the prohibition against honoring books adapted from other media). Those who had seen the twelve-minute film felt the book suffered in comparison. The Booklist reviewer, for example, wrote: “The stylized, geometric spreads in bold golds, oranges, reds, and browns have lost some of the crispness intensifying the film.” Even so, as previously noted, Booklist saw fit to give the book a starred review.

William Cole, writing for the general public in Saturday Review, came down on the side of those professional reviewers who were dazzled by the artwork: “You’re paying for some of the most gorgeous colors ever put in a children’s book — the colors of the Southwest, with shades of orange and yellow predominating. This could win prizes.” Cole’s observation turned out to be prophetic when Newbery–Caldecott chair Bette Peltola announced Arrow to the Sun as the Caldecott Medal winner on January 23, 1975.

The news of McDermott’s win may have been overshadowed that year by the Newbery Medal winner selected by the same committee: Virginia Hamilton, author of M. C. Higgins, the Great, became the first African American to win either of the major ALSC awards, and much was made of this landmark event in the children’s book world. There was just one Caldecott Honor Book selected that year: Jambo Means Hello: A Swahili Alphabet Book, illustrated by Tom Feelings, an African American artist. Clearly, the 1975 Newbery–Caldecott Committee was willing to make courageous choices, outside of the mainstream of American children’s literature.

But the second-guessing of the committee’s choice for the Caldecott Medal began almost immediately. Critic Selma G. Lanes blasted the committee in an article in the November 1975 School Library Journal called “A Sign of the Times: The Caldecott Winner for 1975.” Her critique of the art in the first paragraphs compares McDermott’s art to that of Randolph Caldecott and finds it well outside the range of Caldecott’s genius:

While Caldecott breathed life into every drawing he ever made, color or black-and-white, McDermott somehow manages to squeeze out any suggestion of it in his work, despite a near-psychedelic palette that makes his artwork virtually jump off the page. And, where Caldecott’s pictures flowed effortlessly, one into the next, McDermott’s lumber graphically forward with about as much natural grace and motion as those mechanical rabbits that launch dog races.

The bulk of her article is aimed at questioning the cultural authenticity of both the text and pictures. An example:

Scarcely a whit of bona fide ethnic charm can be found in McDermott’s work. His Pueblo Indian art is all contemporary slick, straight from his own sketch pad and cerebellum. A sophisticated colorist, he knows exactly how to make contrasting colors vibrate, one against the other. But his high-keyed palette and abstracted forms are far too bright and à la mode for the sun-parched earth oranges and browns of the Indian Southwest.

She sums up Arrow to the Sun as a “showy, leaden book about Indians that few Indians would recognize as representing their heritage” and wonders, of the committee that selected it: “Is there, perhaps, a misdirected social conscience at play?”

A year later, in her essay analyzing a decade of Caldecott Medal winners, “Picture Books, Art and Illustration,” published in Lee Kingman’s Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1966–1975 (Horn Book), Barbara Bader was also highly critical of the committee’s choice, calling it “the most problematic of the lot.” She, too, was concerned about the authenticity of the story and McDermott’s artwork, being especially troubled that the people in the book were depicted by Kachina figures: “But in actuality kachina dolls represent supernatural beings, rain spirits and the like, not human figures. To blur the distinction is to rob the kachina-image of its point and to suggest, wrongly, that geometric dolls represent the Pueblo image of people. (From early times the Pueblos have drawn human beings realistically.)”

If both Lanes and Bader, two non-Native critics, took issue with the cultural depiction, what would Native critics make of it? Some twenty years later, Debbie Reese and Naomi Caldwell-Wood reviewed the book for their chapter in Violet J. Harris’s Using Multiethnic Literature in the K–8 Classroom, in which they examined the depiction of Native Americans in children’s literature. In a section called “Controversial and Problematic Books,” they acknowledge that the story is “captivating” but critique it on two major points: the fact that McDermott sets the boy’s trials inside kivas (“places of ceremony and instruction — not places of trials”) and the idea that the fatherless boy was ostracized by his people, a concept foreign to the Pueblo. (For Reese’s more recent thoughts on the book, visit http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com.)

The most extensive critical review of the book from a Pueblo perspective appeared in The New Advocate at the end of 1997 in an article titled “Artistic Triumph or Multicultural Failure?: Multiple Perspectives on a ‘Multicultural’ Award-Winning Book.” Joseph H. Suina, a multicultural education professor and member of the Cochiti Pueblo, and Laura B. Smolkin, a professor of language arts and children’s literature, interviewed five adult Pueblo Indians (four teachers and an artist) to get their take on Arrow to the Sun. Their varied responses reveal the complexity of the cultural lens through which each individual looks. The three members of the more conservative Eastern Rio Grande Pueblos, for example, had an immediate response to McDermott’s use of Kachina figures, which the authors summed up: “For humans to illustrate, make models, or choose to imitate Kachinas is to tamper with the forbidden realm of the supernatural, and is deemed sacrilegious.” One of the teachers who showed the book to her students observed that it made them noticeably uncomfortable. A fourth grader said: “This shouldn’t be here in the library. Somebody at the Pueblo is going to get mad at this.”

But the authors also point out that the reaction was different in the less conservative Western Pueblos of Zuni and the Hopi Mesas, where Kachina carvings are sold to tourists in shops and roadside stands. The two teachers they interviewed from this area had no issues at all with the Kachinas and were comfortable sharing the book with children.

The Rio Grande Pueblo people Suina and Smolkin interviewed were troubled (as were Reese and Caldwell-Wood) by the use of the kiva as a place of trial and by the idea that a child without a father would be shunned by his peers, a notion that seemed foreign to the majority of their informants, both Eastern Rio Grande and Western Pueblos. And one woman found the overall color scheme of the book to be jarring, particularly the juxtaposition of black and orange, something she associated with Halloween. “I was looking for the pumpkin in these colors…It’s very strange to have those two colors together in the Pueblo world.”

All in all, they concluded that there was no single “Pueblo” response to the book: “Depending on the particular pueblo, each of the nineteen varying from its closest neighbor, the book is welcome or unwelcome, its art work stimulating interest and excitement or creating a concern with content.”

After presenting an analysis of the book from several different Pueblo perspectives, Suina and Smolkin evaluate the book within its own tradition — that of the European tradition of picture books. They conclude that “within this tradition, McDermott’s work merits the Randolph J. Caldecott Medal, designed to honor the artwork of the most distinguished American picturebook for children from a previous year’s published works. Clearly, then, judging the book from its own traditions, Arrow to the Sun is an immense artistic success.”

Although Arrow to the Sun had a distinctly modern artistic sensibility in the mid-1970s when it was first published terms of multicultural Caldecott Medal books and part of a long tradition of books created by white artists about races that were not their own, beginning
with Mei Li (the 1939 Caldecott winner) through Song of the Swallows (1950), Nine Days to Christmas (1960), Once a Mouse (1962), The Snowy Day (1963), and A Story a Story (1971). As criticism of such books grew sharper, with critics raising concerns about authority and authenticity, the number of Caldecott Medal books about people of color by white artists dwindled. There were just three more in the years after Arrow to the Sun was published: The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses (1979), Shadow (1983), and The Hello, Goodbye Window (2006). (In that same time period, we saw just a handful of Caldecott Medals go to artists of color, most notably for the first time with back-to-back awards going to Leo and Diane Dillon in the two years following Arrow to the Sun, for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears in 1976 and Ashanti to Zulu in 1977. These two books mark the first and second time a Caldecott Medal was given to any artist of color. There have been just four since.)

Have the critical controversies arising from books such as Arrow to the Sun made artists or publishers wary of creating books from outside one’s own culture? Have they made librarians reluctant to award them? Have they made us all afraid to engage in the sorts of courageous, intelligent, and critical conversations our counterparts were freely having forty years ago? Distinguished art should inspire these sorts of exchanges, and should encourage disagreement and differing perspectives, even if they make us uncomfortable.

The first time the Caldecott honored an artist of color was in 1942, the year Make Way for Ducklings won the Medal, when the second runner-up was In My Mother’s House, written by Ann Nolan Clark and illustrated by Velino Herrera. Herrera was a member of the Zia Pueblo, and although he was a celebrated artist, he was notorious among the Pueblo for allegedly giving his adaptation of the sacred Zia sun symbol to the government of New Mexico for use as the state symbol. We see it today on their state flag and their license plates, but it remains controversial, and for many years the Zia Pueblo have been engaged in legal battles with the state of New Mexico over its use.

Who owns the sun? And who owns the right to shoot even a metaphorical arrow its way? Is it not, as Gerald McDermott remarked in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, the artist’s duty to “pierce the screen of convention,” whether by arrow or by brush, even if it means risking controversy and criticism?

From the September/October 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For supplemental material on Arrow to the Sun, click here.

Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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