Improving Native Representation in Children’s Literature
Dawn Quigley, PhD, author and St. Kate’s assistant professor of education, works non-stop to amplify Native voices in literature and education. Her efforts span classrooms, community workshops, and authored works of both academic and children’s literature. Those endeavors are not only the fruits of her passion for social justice; they comprise a calling born of personal experiences.
A childhood search for unrecognized historical perspective
The December 26, 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato’s town square is the largest one-day mass execution in U.S. history. Yet, throughout the dozen years of her childhood spent in Mankato, Quigley — an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe in North Dakota — only learned about the injustice at home. The historic chapter was never mentioned in history class, or anywhere else. She recalls spending hours at the Mankato public library — situated on the same site of the hanging — searching for stories that reflected her experience as a Native person.
“I spent hours combing through the children's section … for books and images and stories that would reflect what I knew from spending time on the Turtle Mountain reservation with my grandparents and relatives,” Quigley said. “I looked for Indigenous stories that I could relate to.”
Chronic underrepresentation among children’s literature characters
Quigley’s childhood search for Native representation is all too commonly the situation of today’s young readers. Native children, and children of color at large, lack adequate representative books about main characters who share their identity — let alone authentic representation by authors who actually have that lived experience.
According to a 2018 infographic by David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen, associate professor of the St. Kate’s Master of Library and Information Science program, 50% of the children’s books reviewed centered on the white experience, and 27% centered on animals or other types of characters — leaving a paltry 23% books on American Indian/First Nation, Latinx, African/African American, and Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American populations combined.
Quigley personally addresses this dearth of authentic diverse representation with her own published works for young audiences. Apple in the Middle (2018, NDSU Press) is a loosely autobiographical fiction children’s novel she wrote for her daughters to learn about her childhood visiting the Turtle Mountains. Her non-fiction children’s book Native American Heroes, which came out this fall from Scholastic Books, showcases Native role models and figures across a diverse array of careers.
“The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education reported that out of the approximately 3,400 books published in 2018, only 23 depicted Indigenous people. Not all of them were written by people with the lived experiences of being Indigenous, and some of them are misrepresentations,” said Dahlen, who was recently honored as a Changemaker by the Minnesota Women’s Press for her own advocacy for diversity in children’s literature. “Dawn’s novels are crucial first, because they are great stories, and second, because there are not enough positive, accurate depictions of Native people written by people who are Native.”
Dawn Quigley signing copies of her books at Indigenous Representations, a literature workshop held in November and co-hosted by St. Kate’s Master of Library and Information Science Program and the Minnesota Department of Education Office of Indian Education. Quigley was the keynote speaker at the workshop.
Photo by Michelle Mullowney ’17.
Healing through learning
In addition to her own writing, Quigley works to instill skills that build recognition and representation in her classes at the Loft Literary Center and at St. Kate’s, where she teaches in the education programs. In her curricula, she says she avoids having a “good” Native book list and a “bad” one, but rather helps her students evaluate texts for themselves using frameworks developed by Native people.
“Educational settings were, and still are, the site of Native people’s assimilation and attempted decimation through Native American boarding schools,” she said. “Therefore today’s educational sites must begin to be the site of Indigenous self-determination and trauma healing, beginning with the inclusion of Indigenous representations in literature.”
Developing more thoughtful, intentional writers
Just as she supports efforts to change assumptions in higher education, Quigley helps other writers develop more thoughtful and intentional practices. She was tapped as a subject expert for not one, but two November conferences: the Loft’s 2019 Wordsmith, as well as Indigenous Representations, a literature workshop co-hosted by St. Kate’s Master of Library and Information Science program and the Minnesota Department of Education Office of Indian Education.
At Wordsmith, Quigley co-led a workshop with author David Mura in which they discussed representations of Indigenous people and people of color by white authors, and the ways in which these representations lack the crucial authenticity and nuanced understanding of what it means to be part of a marginalized population
“We’ve lost land, we’ve lost children to Indian American boarding schools, we’ve lost clean water to fracking and oil pipelines — and I also think we’re losing bookshelf space, because other people are telling our Native American stories,” Quigley said during the workshop. She is a staunch supporter of grassroots initiative We Need Diverse Books, as well as #OwnVoices, the viral movement calling for diverse characters written by people who share those identities.
“There are 573 federally-recognized Native tribes, and I’m from one of them,” she continued. “I couldn’t even imagine the nuance, the history, language, and culture of writing about a different Native tribe. I couldn’t even write about a different reservation, because I don’t have that insider knowledge.”
Reclaiming shelf space, one book at a time
Quigley intends to use insider knowledge to “re-center the narrative” in her new upcoming book, one of three in a book deal announced in November by HarperCollins under their Native-focused imprint called Heartdrum. The new line of books, featuring a diverse array of Native writers, is part of HarperCollins’ efforts to increase and improve Native representation in children’s literature.
Quigley’s new series focuses on Jo Jo, a quirky and loveable first-grader who “just happens to be Native,” Quigley says. The first book, which will come out in summer of 2021, “is for non-Native kids and teachers and librarians to see a contemporary Native character — but more importantly, it’s for Native kids to see themselves as the star, that they’re not always ‘Othered’. I hope it makes them feel special.”
Visit Quigley's literature blog, Native Reader MN, for Native American literature recommendations.
- Professor writes first novel about a coming-of-age story inspired by her own Native American identity
- St. Kate's faculty Sarah Park Dahlen provokes hard look at diversity in children's book characters using infographic
- Corinne Duyvis, creator of #OwnVoices hashtag
- HarperCollins to Launch Native-Focused Imprint