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Seeking Input and Ideas from North American Indigenous Peoples

We believe that too many children are left out of mainstream picture books, so we research who is currently included — and how — to spark conversation and change.

We would like to improve on how we categorize Native stories, including origin stories and the sacred. Humbly recognizing that it can take many people to know a story, we are looking for guidance in augmenting our system in a way that honors and respects Native stories. If you would like to contribute, please email me at karonson@bates.edu. I look forward to hearing from you. -- Krista Aronson (Director, Diverse BookFinder and Associate Professor of Psychology, Bates College).

More About The Diverse BookFinder

I am a mixed race woman.

I know what it feels like to be stereotyped, marginalized, undervalued, and ignored.

Messages about my status and relative importance in the world were sent early through the lack of picture books featuring characters who shared my background and experience. My goal is for all children to see their lives represented in the books they read. I use my psychological training and privilege as a tenured professor to provide data to inform the expansion of children’s literature. My hope is to assist inclusion of broader representation of human experiences so that children can find themselves, and also learn about lives that differ from their own.

Picture books are powerful tools. Psychological research indicates that they help children build a sense of self-esteem and significance and foster curiosity, understanding and empathy.

This cuts to the core of the inspiration behind the Diverse BookFinder. Everyone can use the Diverse BookFinder to see who is represented within diverse books as a whole and who is not -- as well as how they are being represented to children. However, since launching, our team has in-turn learned a lot -- and we’re reaching out to you to help us learn and resolve a serious issue that’s become apparent in the cataloguing of Native American stories.

The Power of the Diverse BookFinder is in the Data

For example, using the website’s search we can take a look at some numbers for books featuring Native/First Natives/American Indian/Indigenous characters published since 2002. In minutes we’re able to see some clear facts, trends and gaps:

  • More white characters are featured within multicultural picture books than Indigenous peoples. Note: not all representation is good representation and not all Native characters appear in Native stories.
  • The full collection of books features characters from approximately 50 US Tribal Nations.
  • Only 25 of these books feature interactions between Native and non-Native characters, a good number of which depict these interactions within the contexts of “exploration” and “Thanksgiving.”

(Note: We add books all of the time so our numbers are always changing. These numbers were retrieved on October 18, 2018).

Using these numbers we can advocate for change, but to get these numbers we need to categorize.

We can generate these numbers because we have developed a system to identify, capture and report the racial/cultural background of a depicted character. Following in the footsteps of other projects like the First Nations House of Learning Subject Headings used in the Xwi7xwa Library of the University of British Columbia Library System, our database blends traditional cataloging with our specialized vocabulary.

Problematic Categorization Language: Religious Stories

Native scholars have raised concerns for many years about how conventional subject heading vocabularies in cataloging practice (including Library of Congress and other systems) categorize origin and sacred stories from indigenous people as Folklore, while those from Christian traditions are labeled more specifically with “creation” or “revelation,” or even as nonfiction.

This practice trivializes and demeans the significance and sacredness of Native religions and spiritual traditions.     

Knowing this when we launched the Diverse BookFinder, we tried to address this double standard by cataloging religious stories from Christian and all other traditions in Folklore as well. We were wrong. This was an inadequate solution to the problem. We received valuable feedback about this problem from Cynthia Leitich-Smith (Muscogee Creek Nation), and on Twitter from Debbie Reese (Nambe Owingeh Pueblo), which led us to remove folklore tags from all religious titles in the Diverse BookFinder, allowing these books to be tagged according to the religion they are intended to represent.

In addition we have re-reviewed writings regarding the sacred in books featuring Native peoples, including but not limited to:

  • Beck, P., Walters, A. L. & and Francisco, N. (1977). The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life. Tsaile, Ariz.: Navajo Community College Press.
  • Bruchac, J. (1996). Roots of survival. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
  • Bruchac, J. (2003). Our Stories Remember: American Indian History, Culture, and Values Through Storytelling. Vol. 1. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing
  • Seale, D., & Slapin, B. (Eds.). (2005). A broken flute: The native experience in books for children. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.
  • Slapin, B., & Seale, D. (Eds.). (1998). Through Indian eyes: The native experience in books for children. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California.
  • And, a review of https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com,

Seeking Input and Ideas from North American Indigenous Peoples

We’ve learned a lot through this process of re-reading and reflection, including the ways in which Native stories pose unique challenges to classification in general and our classification system in particular. We are seeking guidance as we augment our system in a way that honors and respects Native stories, increases findability and advocates for change. Please email me at karonson@bates.edu if you are interested in talking further. I look forward to hearing from you. -- Krista Aronson (Director, Diverse BookFinder and Associate Professor of Psychology, Bates College).