Reading with a Critical Lens: Revisiting the “Dear America” series

by Colby Mayer (Furman University Education major)

It was not until I learned about critical comprehension while taking a class on young adult literature that I began to realize how many books were written with white children as the audience. While I believe that accurate portrayals of history are essential, I have discovered that many stories are left out. Reflecting on the Dear America series, which was widely popular when I was in elementary school, I now recognize limitations I had never noticed. The Dear America series and its multiple spin-offs have a combined 103 books, over 75% of which center white main characters. I was curious about how many of the Dear America books were about girls of color. What I found was disappointing, though not unexpected.

Of the 43 books originally published as a part of this series, only 8 were written about girls of color and only 5 of those were written by women of color. The books about girls of color include:

(Books written by women of color are marked with an asterisk).

*A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl by Patricia C. McKissack

*I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl by Joyce Hansen

My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl by Ann Rinaldi

The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl by Ann Turner

*Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North by Patricia C. McKissack

Valley of the Moon: The Diary of Maria Rosalia de Milagros by Sherry Garland

*Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl by Patricia C. McKissack

*With the Might of Angels: The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson by Andrea Davis Pinkney

When selecting texts for the study of history we must strive to discover which stories have been left out of the dominant narrative. As we work to include those texts, we must also search for those written by authors whose voices reflect the culture and experience of those whose stories are missing.

The importance of “own voice” texts is illustrated by a close look at two controversial books from the Dear America series written by authors outside the culture represented:

· My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl by Ann Rinaldi

· The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl by Ann Turner

These two books received pushback from Native American scholars who pointed out inaccuracies in the books.

My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl presents an oversimplified and inaccurate account of the experiences of children taken from their families and forced into Native American boarding schools. On the cover Nannie Little Rose refers to herself as a Sioux girl, which is not how she would have identified. In fact, she would have self-identified by her band (Sicangu), location (Spotted Tail Agency), or a smaller family group (Smith, n.d.).

Fiction Posing As Truth: A Critical Review of Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart Is on the Ground: The diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl by Cynthia Smith

What I found most alarming about this book are the “creative liberties” taken. In the author’s note, Rinaldi wrote about a visit to one of these boarding schools where she saw the burial ground. She reports that the names of the children who died while at the school “took on instant personalities” that she included in her book. Yet those children attended the school much later than the fictional Nannie Little Rose. Furthermore, Rinaldi paints the boarding schools in an almost positive light, by not showing the true horrors that took place there. There is no discussion of the coercion that many parents faced to send their children to these schools or the purpose of these schools to break the spirits of the children in attendance. This is particularly problematic when this book could be the first, and possibly only, introduction students have to the history of Native American boarding schools.

A more accurate depiction of boarding schools can be seen in the book, When We Were Alone by David Robertson.

Because the story is simplified, it is an appropriate book to use to introduce boarding schools to younger children. While it does not “sugar-coat” the realities of the boarding schools, it also does not venture into the graphic brutalities Native American children experienced.

Other recommended books include:

  • I Am Not a Number by Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis
  • When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton
  • Stolen Words by Melanie Florence
  • Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard
  • We Are Still Here by Traci Sorrell

The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl features the Long Walk from Fort Defiance to Fort Sumner in 1864 when Navajo families were forced out of their territories by the U.S. government. One issue is that a Navajo child is writing this story in a diary as her grandmother, Sarah Nita, tells it to her. This part of the story is quite confusing, as it would be considered disrespectful in Navajo storytelling for a child to write down the stories of their elders. In Navajo communities, elders tell stories to be learned, not to be written down, so it is unrealistic that an elder would ask a child to write down their story as they tell it. The book has other inaccuracies regarding Navajo culture, as well as historical inaccuracies. For example, the book shows the “kindness” of the soldiers throughout the Long Walk, which is historically inaccurate. Historical records reveal that soldiers beat, brutalized, raped, shot, and killed the Navajo. For greater detail I invite you to read the following article by Beverly Slapin who provides a more complete analysis/critique of the book.

[Archived] Avoid The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow, The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl by Beverly Slapin

Slapin notes, “the notion seems to be that translating Native experiences into a European worldview and form– while pretending to be an indigenous worldview and form– is a good thing.” When a book is written from a perspective different than our own, we must analyze how that story is told and where the information is coming from to ensure accuracy and authenticity. We must always seek to critically analyze the media around us and teach students to do the same.

The following questions fromCritical Comprehension: Lessons for Guiding Students to Deeper Meaning can be used to help unpack texts when reading critically.

For more information and lessons focused on critical comprehension, Katie and Lester’s new book titled Critical Comprehension: Lessons for Guiding Students to Deeper Meaningwill be released in February 2023. The book features a chapter titled “Interrogating the Past and the Present” that aligns with the ideas in this blog post.