Monday, July 16, 2007

Reconsidering Ten Little Rabbits - Evaluating Books From the Viewpoint of Other Cultures

Imagine you are a teacher looking for counting books for your classroom. You want to include books that showcase a range of diversity, so in your search you come across a book that not only "celebrates Native American traditions" (from the publisher's description), but one that has been noted in the following ways.
Best Books
  • Adventuring with Books: A Booklist for Pre-K-Grade 6, Tenth Edition, 1993
  • National Council of Teachers of English
  • Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002; California Department of Education
Awards, Honors, Prizes
  • ABC Children's Booksellers Choices Award Winner 1992 Picture Books
  • International Reading Association Children's Book Awards Winner 1992 Younger Readers International
  • National Association of Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) Winner 1991
  • Redbook Children's Picturebook Awards Winner 1991
Chances are, with these honors behind it and the recommendation of school librarians and state sanctioned reading lists, you would be persuaded you to use this book in instruction.

Published in 1991, Ten Little Rabbits, written by Virginia Grossman and illustrated by Sylvia Long, is ostensibly a counting book that introduces rabbits in dress and activities typical of Native American tribes. However, the book does little to refute the stereotype that all Native Americans are alike.

Why am I rehashing the issues surrounding this book? I am working on a piece about using children's literature in math instruction, rigorously reviewing books in my collection and on suggested reading lists, and thinking deeply about what it means to include books that represent peoples and ideas outside of mainstream (dare I say white?) American culture. Have you any idea how hard it is to find a counting book that highlights African American children (there are lots set in Africa, but few of black children in the U.S.) and their experiences? The same is true for Native American children.

I was one of those teachers who eagerly bought Ten Little Rabbits upon the recommendations of librarians and instructors. I never really thought much about the message sent by this book when I first read it. I saw possibilities in the last pages for using the blanket images for studying patterns, symmetry and shapes. However, in 1995 I read the article "What's Wrong with Ten Little Rabbits?" in the children's literature journal The New Advocate. Reading Theresa McCarty's short review was like receiving a slap in the face. I wondered how I could have been so naive and so quick to accept a book about another culture without subjecting it to a more critical review.

The answer is, I didn't know any better. (A poor excuse, I know.) I have since learned that it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate what you don't know. While I hate having to rely on members of the Native American community to help me make these judgments, I know that I will never have the depth of knowledge or background necessary to accurately evaluate instructional materials that draw heavily from Native American history and storytelling.

So how do I evaluate books of other cultures? I currently use several resources to guide my selection of pieces for instruction. One is Donna Norton's Multicultural Children's Literature: Through the Eyes of Many Children. I find this short volume to be particularly helpful in applying evaluation criteria and identifying stereotypes. A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin, is an enormous and comprehensive volume that not only includes author reviews from A to Z, but also a range of essays that provide a wealth of information about Native Cultures and insights into reviewing works about Native peoples. This is not an easy book to read and at times, the anger in the reviews can be disconcerting, but it is valuable and educational nonetheless. I also read the following blogs for very helpful information and reviews.
Ten Little Rabbits still remains in my teaching collection, but not in the way it was originally intended. I now give the book to students (all preservice and inservice teachers) and ask them to review it for use as a counting book. Then, once all the glowing reviews are in (and they are all glowing), I hit them with the McCarty article and watch the blood drain from their faces. They are shocked, astounded and embarrassed -- all feelings I know well. From here we proceed to talk about why this book is not a resource we should use for instruction, and then push on to discuss how we can be more thoughtful evaluators of books for children. It's a tough lesson, but one that works well, and while my teachers learn new strategies, I learn right along with them. What more could I ask for?


  1. Hi Tricia,

    Excellent post. I'm sending readers of my blog over to read it.


  2. I recommend Molly Bang's "Ten, Nine, Eight," for a counting book with an African-American girl and father. We loved it as a bedtime book.

  3. Hi Genevieve,
    Yes! Molly Bang's book and Feast for Ten by Cathryn Falwell are the only decent books I have found. If you have any other ideas, I'd love to hear them.

  4. You said "I didn't know any better" is a poor excuse, but I don't know why people say that. How can you know more than you know? I think as long as you are willing to listen to people and consider how they feel it ought to be ok to not know any better. I am impressed when people are meek and simply say "I never thought of it that way - I'm glad you told me how you feel about that." I like this post, by the way. That is just a tiny peeve of mine.

  5. Marvelous post! Thanks so much for these resources. And thanks for being open about your process of coming to realize your need to expand understanding and change your approach. Your lesson to teachers is wonderful.

  6. I'm here via the American Indian in Children's Literature blog. I really appreciate your willingness to be more inclusive of other cultures and remain mindful of how these depictions affect the way children learn to see people of color. I give you an "A+"!