by Lane Smith
Roaring Brook Press, 2016
Picture book, fiction
Interest level: K-3
Reading level: 1.6
2 out of 5 stars
It was difficult for me to figure out how many stars I wanted to give this book. I ultimately decided on two stars, which is meant to reflect that parts of the book are exceptionally well done, but that ultimately I cannot recommend the book because of the insensitive stereotypical depictions of Native Americans.
Within the world of children’s literature, there have been many discussions about There is a Tribe of Kids, but that discussion hasn’t been publicized in popular media, so most readers don’t even notice the racism in the story. Which speaks to the stereotypes that are so deeply entrenched in our society, that most people don’t even recognize them.
The story follows a young child who is clothed in a garment made of leaves. The child is first seen sitting among three young goats, also known as kids, while an older goat “speaks” to them from a rock above their heads. You can see some small trees next to the child, with two of them snapped off to form horns that the child wears as he interacts with the goats. The three kids climb up the rocks, and the child is unable to continue fitting in with this group and is left behind. Casting the horn/branches aside, the child walks off and encounters a penguin, where the child tries to act like penguins, only to be left behind as they plunge into the icy waters and so on.
On each of the pages that show the child interacting with a different animal, Smith has included a repeated phrase that speaks to the theme of the story — There was a GROUP of ANIMALS. The format mentions the specific name for a group of whatever the animal is. So for young goats, the text reads “There was a TRIBE of KIDS.” For the penguins, “There was a COLONY of PENGUINS.” This playing with words–repetitions of phrase, capitalizing key words, and infusing double meaning–are some of the traits of brilliance that Lane Smith uses in his writing.
What is troublesome is how Smith wraps up the story by having it return full-circle to where it began–“There is a TRIBE of KIDS.” The tribe of kids at the end of the story are not young goats, but are children, dressed in clothes made of leaves like our main character. Some of the children are depicted wearing leaves sticking up out of their hair. This depiction, combined with the word “tribe” is what makes readers think of Native Americans wearing feather headdresses, or kids playing Indian. And that is what destroys the credibility of the story.
While you can tell from all the positive reviews on Amazon and GoodReads that most people aren’t bothered by the inclusion of the stereotypical and misrepresentative images, that doesn’t make them okay. Debbie Reese, on the American Indians in Children’s Literature websites, notes that “Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a research psychologist, has conducted studies of the effects of stereotypical images on the self-esteem and self-efficacy of Native students. She’s found that these images have a negative impact on Native students.” By continually allowing stereotypes that portray Native Americans as wearing feathers in their hair and running wild, we are demeaning Native people. When we accept the image of a feathered Indian in a children’s book, we are not only allowing, but encouraging our children to continue to mock and demean a culture. That is not acceptable.
As I said at the start, Lane Smith is an amazing wordsmith, and his story of a child searching for his natural group to fit in, makes for an engaging story, and it could have been a good book to use to introduce children to the idea that groups of animals have unique names. The racism of the final pages makes this a book that I cannot recommend.
To find out more about American Indians in Children’s Literature, and read about the Native perspective on There is a Tribe of Kids: https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/search?q=there+is+a+tribe+of+kids
Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal, has a thorough summary of the current debate: http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2016/07/19/there-is-a-tribe-of-kids-the-current-debate/#_