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A Tribe of Kind Souls: a closer look at a double spread in Lane Smith’s There Is a TRIBE of KIDS

There Is a TRIBE of KIDS (capitalization as part of the title/design), written and illustrated by Lane Smith (Stinky Cheeseman, The Happy Hocky FamilyIt’s a Book, etc.), was published in May, 2016 (two months ago.)

This book has received four starred reviews from major review sources and positive reviews from others. However, the use of the word TRIBE and some of the images on a particular double-page spread toward the end of the book have sparked heated debate (in which I took part) in several online places.  A short description and link to each of these reviews (with comments) can be found at the end of this post.

I read and re-read this book many times and have considered all the reviews cited below and many additional comments sprinkled throughout the internet.  Finally, I feel that I am ready to share my own take on this book.  I must stress that this is but ONE of many potential interpretations of the book which features very few words and delivers most of its “messages” with pictures that can be differently interpreted.

By no means do I want to discount Debbie’s and others’ pain when they face certain images (that they see on the second to last double spread) which definitely trigger strong emotional reactions from past and personal experiences.  (My own triggers are seeing erroneously attributed so-called Chinese cultures or imageries and boy do those get me seeing red!)

So here it is,

Fairrosa’s Interpretation of the Double Spread in There Is a TRIBE of KIDS:

I must confess that my initial reaction to the word TRIBE in the title was a skeptical one: how would it be used in the book?  to indicate some relations to Native American cultures?  to indicate something primitive?  When I finally read through the book (many times over,) I realized that, as Debbie Reese and many reviewers pointed out, it is a play on word.  Tribe is a collective noun for a group of “young goats” (kids) and Tribe is also a collective noun for many human groups that share the same cultural, geographical, or historical experiences.  The word is still used widely.  It is used by American Indians as their official group names.  It is used by the Jewish people.  It is also used by groups who need to bond over their unique identities and experiences, such as the deaf community (as found in Tribes, a play by Nina Raine from 2015.)

In the case of this book, Lane Smith used it to indicate a very specific “kind” of human beings: children. The child protagonist, after mimicking all kinds of animals, finally found his own “tribe.”  The text is all in past tense — until the very last spread which is in present tense, proclaiming the currency and the universality of childhood.

Here is my interpretation of the second to last spread accompanying the text, There was a TRIBE of KIDS (note the past tense!)

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 11.11.46 AM

(reproduced with permission from Roaring Brooks Press)

Since our child protagonist is not in this picture, so unlike the previous encounters, we don’t see him mimic or play act.  We see this child (looking a bit like Burt in Mary Poppins, doesn’t he?) welcoming the new child (our protagonist, off page, unseen) into a TRIBE.



We, readers, along with the child protagonist, observe the scene with keen interest:

A TRIBE of kids from around the world and from both yesteryears and now, dressed much like our protagonist (in leaves, branches, and flowers,) being themselves and playing like all children might:

We watch, as they

swing, eat and play with their food,

tribe02 tribe15 tribe08

collect seashells and flowers,

tribe04 tribe25

play balls, crawl, balance, dance,

tribe03 tribe09

tribe11 tribe12

scout, explore,

tribe13 tribe26

take care of a younger sibling, 


dress up like an adult (a princess, a king, a judge?)

tribe19  tribe20 tribe27

give a hug,


dangle, slide,

tribe14 tribe17 tribe16

model, run (like an olympian with a torch,)

tribe23 tribe24

hide, and seek.

tribe28 tribe18

tribe22  tribe21

What I do not observe is the child protagonist attempting to mimic any of these KIDS, as if these are roaming animals. I also don’t see the “wildness” linked to a colonial sense of the word TRIBE (as stated by Minh C. Le and as troubling to others). I see children engaging in regular childlike and childhood activities.  And if I were to read this book with a young child, that’s how I would posit it — “Look, do you play hide and seek, just like these kids?  Do you pretend to be a king or a princess sometimes?  Do you play with your food?  Do you love going down the slides or sit on a swing?  This makes you part of the TRIBE of all children in the world.  You belong with each other and you accept and embrace one another.”

As I pointed out in the beginning of this post, my interpretation is different from some others’ views, including those of Minh C. Le’s, Sam Bloom’s, and Debbie Reese’s. All three wrote thought provoking reviews of this title — and I urge all to read them and take their concerns or potential hurt and mis-use of this book seriously.

Il Sung Na’s ‘The Opposite Zoo,’ and More by Minh C. Le (New York Times)
Le feels that the “juxtaposition of the word ‘tribe’ with the woodland utopia conjured uncomfortable associations,” and a particular image is problematic “in its echoes of the longstanding trope in children’s literature that uses Native imagery or ‘playing Indian’ to signify wildness.”

Reviewing While White: There Is a Tribe of Kids by Sam Bloom (Reading While White)Bloom finds himself in agreement with Le’s take on the book and ponders why all the reviewers for the major publications have given this book such favorable feedback when he sees even more images that are problematic.  He posits that perhaps it is due to Lane Smith’s long-time fame and status as a celebrated children’s book creator.  He also links to a page delineating the negative associations that the word TRIBE contains from the Teaching Tolerance site. Bloom concludes his essay by strongly indicating that he does not recommend this book. He writes, “If it wasn’t Lane Smith’s name on the front cover, could we more easily see the problems inherent in There Is a Tribe of Kids? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that this is a book that I personally won’t be sharing with (human) kids.”

Lane Smith’s new picture book: There Is a TRIBE of KIDS (plus a response to Rosanne Parry) by Debbie Reese (American Indians in Children’s Literature)
Reese details the picture book and focuses first on the word play and the repeated pattern of a child going through the natural world, mimicking behaviors of groups of animals, while garbed in leaves.  Reese then moves on to discuss the double spread that features a TRIBE of KIDS (children) and the specific images she finds objectionable.  She also delineates many counter-points to Rosanne Parry’s review of the book.  Reese uses words like “rolling your eyes” and “grinding your teeth” to express how irate she is with Parry’s proposed interpretation of the book’s images.

Rosanne Parry also wrote a blog post in response to Sam’s post: A Tribe of Book Reviewers (Writing in the Rain Blog). Parry writes to share her interpretation of this book and her disagreement with Sam’s take on the book as a reinforced negative portrayal of children “playing Indian.” Parry’s take on this book is in accordance with reviewers who see that there are multiple cultures represented in the book and that the book’s focus is on the importance of a sense of belonging and the warmth of acceptance in every child’s life, regardless of their origins or skin tones.  The final “snapshot” seems to encapsulate this sentiment — the kids of pale and dark skin tones locked in a friendly embrace to show their kinship and solidarity:tribehug

For those interested, here are links to all four starred reviews:



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18th Day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

It has become more and more apparent to me that the experience of an Asian person is so drastically different from that of an Asian American’s.

An Asian who grew up in her own country (like myself) didn’t have to struggle to be recognized or represented in books or other media.  In Taiwan where I was born and lived until my late 20s, the demographics were almost 100% ethnic “Chinese.”* Even if, like most young people, I experienced much self-doubt and dark days when constructing my own identity, dealing with my “ethnicity” was never part of that process.

On the other hand, my young Asian American students (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, Indian) must contend with the fact that their ethnic backgrounds are a significant part of their identity forming process.  Even in a city that is highly diverse, they still belong to only about 12% of the total NYC population (and about 6% of the U.S. population.)  This means that if you evenly spread out all Asian Americans in NYC, there is about 1 person of Asian heritage per 10 people in any room.  We can further break down the population by ethnic groups.  For example, there are about 20,000 ethnic Japanese and 100,000 ethnic Koreans living in New York City (approx pop 8.5 million).  This means that you will have to put about 500 people in a room to encounter a single Japanese person and about 100 people to meet a Korean person.  It is then of little wonder that many things that do not bother me in the least might really offend my Asian American students: I was never under the threat as being “the other” nor would I ever have to explain or defend my culture to my peers.

Since I can only consider Asian American youth experiences,  as an “outsider,” the only way for me to learn is first to not impose my own past experiences onto them and then to keep listening to Asian American friends and students so hopefully I can gain some degree of understanding in order to act as a supportive and effective ally.

* Due to the complex modern history this accounting is not truly accurate: there are those who migrated from Mainland China in 1949 (14%), those who had migrated from Mainland China some 400 years ago (84%), and the aboriginal tribes, who were colonized and have lost most of their cultures and languages (2%).

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17th Day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Today is for celebration!  Celebrating one of my favorite Asian American authors – Gene Luen Yang.

Gene is generous. Gene is funny. Gene is wise. Gene is brave.

Gene is generous.

In 2013, he came to my school and met with high school students in the Asian Cultures and Science Fiction/Fantasy clubs to chat about graphic novels, Boxers & Saints, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and growing up as an Asian American nerd and answer many many questions — all on his own time, without charge!

Addendum: A friend of mine pointed out to me that such “free” visits are not the norm for most libraries or authors — my school is in NYC where Gene’s publisher is located, this was part of his promotional tour for Boxers & Saints, and I and the school I work for are frequently tapped by the NYC publishers to host informal author events like this.  This is yet another case of how one person’s view can be so influenced by the circumstances and thus limited without the reminder from someone else who has the view from a different vantage point.  That said, Gene’s generosity is not limited to “free visits” but is demonstrated his willingness to engage the students and freely shared thoughts and views.

geneyang2 geneyang1

Gene is funny.

I had the great pleasure to listen to Gene talking about Graphic Novels on a panel at last year’s USBBY Conference.  He used humor to drive home some serious considerations in a way that the audience would easily accept.

Gene is wise.

As a recently appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene has set up a great campaign for all readers to Read Without Walls with three simply stated but significant goals that will advance the scope of diversity in any young reader’s world:


Gene is brave.

He spoke the hard truth publicly without skirting around the issues.  One such memorable speech was delivered at the National Book Festival gala in September 2014.  You can read the whole transcript at The Washington Post.  These words were not only wise, almost prophetic, they should be heeded ever more now that so many of us get our news and views from extremely short, often volatile, and sometimes sensationalized sound bites littering the edge-less world of the Internet.

But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong. We’re afraid of what the Internet might say.

This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research. But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.

After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.

I offer three further thoughts inspired by Gene’s words:

First, I think this call for “doing homework” should not be limited to authors, illustrators, or editors and publishers.  The demand of meticulous cultural research must extend to all the critics of books — we must also do our homework before delivering verdicts to praise or condemn a literary work, especially when large swatches of the text contain cultural allusions unfamiliar to us.

Second, I think it is crucial for those who are promoting works about and by diverse creators to remember that simply “of a culture” does not guarantee any book creator having understanding of the multiplicity of the entire history or full scope of that specific culture.  Even those writing “within” a culture must do their homework!

Third, although book creators must heed Gene’s call for NOT fearing of where their creative hearts tell them to go, I feel compelled to call on critics and advocates to educate ourselves on informative and productive ways to critique literature so that we may uplift the whole field.  We must figure out ways to turn our initial anger and frustration into useful and illuminating insights and advices to help improve representation and authenticity in all future books for young people.




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15th Day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Starting today, I’ll post here and on other social media some articles and perhaps my own thoughts on media representations of Asian Pacific Americans in the United States.   Here Media include movies, tv shows, books, and games.

Today’s offering from the New York Times, an article by Keith Chow, first published on April 22, 2016.

Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?

The TL:DR version:

Even a modest hit like the “Harold and Kumar” trilogy, starring John Cho and Kal Penn, was able to quadruple its production budget after box office and home media sales. Meanwhile, films with white stars fail at the box office all the time. Chris Hemsworth, who stars in this weekend’s “Huntsman” sequel, has had many more box office flops than successes, yet he is considered a bankable movie star.

Such facts reveal Hollywood’s dirty little secret. Economics has nothing to do with racist casting policies. Films in which the leads have been whitewashed have all failed mightily at the box office. Inserting white leads had no demonstrable effect on the numbers. So why is that still conventional thinking in Hollywood?

And don’t forget to scroll through the

Whitewashing, a Long History slide show, featuring slides such as this one:

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 4.49.11 PM

And they didn’t even touch on Tilda Swinton cast as a Tibetan (now Indian?) Mystic (The Ancient One) in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange or Scarlett Johansson as Mokoto Kusanagi in the American Remake of a Japanese SciFi film, Ghost in the Shell. 





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Dear Ellen Oh, You Are Not Me!

I was going to challenge Ellen Oh’s use of “WE”  when I read the first paragraph of her blog post Dear White Writers because I had a knee-jerk reaction and found the use of this collective pronoun problematic. Indeed, I often find sweeping generalization of all kinds problematic.  And because I believe strongly that ANYONE CAN write about ANY topic and create ANY character they are passionate about as long as they have done diligent preparation, her proclamation of “Yes We Need Diverse Books. But that doesn’t always mean that we want YOU to write them” made me feel that I was not included in that general “We.”  My thoughts went immediately to these queries: What did she mean by “We”?  Who are the “We”?  Did she include me, a Chinese American librarian, when she used “We”?  Or did she mean only the people who are officially involved with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks organization?  (By the way, when I submitted my volunteer form through the site, I was informed that too many people were interested in being involved so that my request was denied.)  Or did she mean just the Korean American writers, like herself?   Or all the Asian American writers?  Or anyone that is not White?  Or simply all those who agree with her?  You see — the use of We is too imprecise and too absolute at the same time to not make me think of all the possibilities in one shot!

But I went on and read the entire post and found that I actually agree with most of her points, except perhaps this following accusatory sentiment.  She wrote,

Don’t do it because “you believe in diversity and want to help the cause.” Don’t do it because you think you are helping us. Because you’re not. The truth is, you’re only doing it for yourself. Because you think it is going to help you get published.

I think it is GREAT if all writers believe in diversity and want to help the cause — regardless of their skin colors.  Actually, I think many of such efforts could be very helpful.  In any kind of social movement, ally-ship between the insiders and the outsiders is crucial in its success.  So, I say, please do include diverse characters and address many topics in your books: whether you are white or a person of color and whether you are writing from an insider or an outsider lens.  Just be very aware of which lens you are using and do not presume that you know it all.  You just may be helpful.  I also feel very uncomfortable seeing a universal condemnation to an entire group (white writers, in this case) and accusing them all for wanting something (to be published) that is simply a natural desire for anyone in the field (children’s and YA lit world.)

Aside from this strong disagreement, I want to specifically endorse these following points.

Ellen wrote in her blog post:

We don’t want publishers to say, “Well, we already published a book about that,” and then find that it was a book that did not speak the truth about us but rather told someone on the outside’s idea of who we are.

And I cannot agree more!  “That” refers to topics or characters existing to fill a “diversity quota.”  There should not be a quota.  The publishers of children’s books must start examining their own output and ensure the widest possible diversity in character representations, subject matters, and book creators.  Diversity should not be something that needs policing and reminding.  It should be so natural that no publishing teams would think twice about offering all kinds of books and about all kinds of characters and experiences.  In fact, the publishers themselves should be the frontline champions of diverse books!

Ellen also wrote this paragraph that a white author who has been worrying about whether they are “allowed” to write POC stories should take to heart:

So here’s the truth that needs to be repeated again and again. Don’t write a POC’s story unless you need to tell it with such a burning desire that it will eat you alive and so you will come into our houses and walk in our shoes to get it right, and that way it isn’t written ONLY from a white lens. Don’t do it unless you are willing to invest in a whole lot of time and commitment and get into some heavy conversation about what it is like to live our lives, deal with racism and micro-aggressions and fear and hate. Don’t do it because you think it is a hot trend. Don’t do it because you think it will help you get published. Don’t do it because you just love Kpop and Kdramas and oh wouldn’t it be cool to bring it to an American audience? Don’t do it because your mama is 1/32nd Native American and somehow that gives you a pass to write about the culture (it doesn’t). Don’t do it because it is exotic, mystical, spiritual, etc.

Thank you, Ellen Oh, for proposing these sensible and achievable goals for your fellow writers.  Even though you are not me, WE (two) definitely share a lot of common expectations and aspiration.


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Trying to Hold Multiple Sides of the Same Truth

This is the image I hold in my head these days whenever entering a difficult, complex, multi-layered conversation.  I imagine a room where the TRUTH is placed in the center, and I have to make sure that I walk around this virtual room, examining the matter from as many angles as possible, even though of course I have my starting point and an original perspective.  I cannot trace the original maker of this graph (from 2005) but am grateful for his/her help in keeping me from completely unbalancing myself:


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Publishers, Editors, Everyone: Keep Your Courage and Keep Up the Good Work!

I unpacked a box of galleys for early 2016 titles from a children’s publisher yesterday and noted that quite a few titles feature POC characters or are written by POC — in all genres and reading levels.  I hope this is not just a fad, not a trend, not a reactionary act to a current movement, but the sign of real change and the harbinger of the new norm!

I want to publicly say this to publishers, editors, marketing folks, sales reps, authors, agents, anyone working in the Children’s publishing world:

With recent disputes on many titles for young readers, it might seem extremely daunting to move forward, to have to tread so carefully, to have to hear so many conflicting and often angry voices, to have to defend or admit missteps — especially if and when you are all trying hard and working diligently and honestly to AVOID offenses or mistakes. Just know that mistakes will be made, the readers and critics will continue pointing things out and reminding all of us how to do it better the next time, and It will take a while and much learning before any equilibrium is even a possibility.

I know this must seem such a heavy burden and you might just want to put it down and forget about all that’s unpleasant or painful.

But, please keep up the good work. Actually, please do a lot more good work. Please do listen. Please listen for the message and do not stop listening simply because you do not like the tone the message is delivered in. Please continue to to evolve.

We are all lovers of literature.  One thing I see literature lovers most capable of is the immense scope of our imagination in dealing with complex issues.  Do we not always applaud great children’s literary works for their complexity, for their bravery, and for their visionary integrity?

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of these much valued qualities in times of conflict?

Please tell each other and yourselves that, “No, this is NOT the time to put down the heavy pack of all the issues. It is NOT the time to turn away from the road leading to a better future.  It is NOT the time to leave other travelers by the road side to struggle by themselves. And, it is NOT the time to seek each other’s defeat.”

I know that I need to consciously remind myself all of these on a daily basis and it is taking a toll on my own sense of balance. But then I think of all the good that this will accomplish and believe that the peace of mind will come and it will all be worth the burden.

We need to help each other understand and unpack superbly complicated and often painful issues. The ultimate goal shall be that we all succeed TOGETHER. Just know that it will take a lot of determination and courage — especially from those whose daily jobs are to produce children’s books.

We need you to continue the journey upward, especially when the going gets really really tough.

Let us walk and talk in each other’s company, help each other grasp difficult and emotional concepts. And let us find each other in the not too distant future on the summit of true equity, TOGETHER.


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