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Book review: We Are Water Protectors

  • 1.  Book review: We Are Water Protectors

    Posted 03-18-2021 06:40 PM

    I would appreciate your opinion. In prior years I would have without hesitation eagerly  applauded the latest Caldecott Award winning book, "We Are the Water Protectors", but now after being more mindful of implicit biases I have a concern regarding this book. The book itself is lovely and has a wonderful ecological message. It does not contain an explicit derogatory remark or illustration to any race or culture. However the antagonist is a black snake. The illustration of the black snake looks like a water/sewage pipe.  Is it enough to follow up with young readers by reviewing that the black snake is not a representative of the black skin of humans? Am I being so overly cautious and sensitive that I might miss a wonderful learning opportunity? 





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    Brenda Leger
    Publisher
    Children's Literacy Initiative
    N Little Rock AR
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  • 2.  RE: Book review: We Are Water Protectors

    Posted 03-19-2021 12:56 AM
    This is an interesting question, and I wouldn't have thought of that association!

    Some history on the Black Snake: the Black Snake is not a term invented for this book, and refers to a Lakota prophecy about a black snake "that would slither across the land, desecrating the sacred sites and poisoning the water before destroying the Earth." My presumption is that this prophecy was written before the colonization of the Americas, but I could be entirely mistaken. It was applied to the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline because of the color of oil-perhaps the prophecy was about oil, as oil pipelines are being snaked across Native lands without regard for life or nature.

    I am writing this reply as a white and Indigenous person who experiences a lot of white privilege in my day to day life—on sight, my skin is white. I would be interested in a Black parent or teacher's perspective. In the meantime, this is how I might handle myself in a classroom:

    I think that in this situation the issue is not that one snake is black, but is instead with the themes and patterns of connotation with color. Culturally, we see all too commonly stories where white and light colors represent good, and black and dark colors represent bad. In this situation I would re-examine my entire classroom's library, and make sure that we aren't reading a pattern of books that establish any patterns of bad colors.

    I feel that specifically taking the time to say "the black snake is not representative of the black skin of humans" would not be an appropriate connection to make in this book, and that instead, there should be other, more natural discussions of the colors of our skin that arise in the classroom-those can be facilitated by more relevant books. At the same time, we can't control themes that children are receiving from media outside of the classroom. How do we combat that existing theme? One way I might try would be to have a discussion after the book, and ask things like "why was the snake scary?" or "why was the snake [whatever the children said it is]?" (I lean away from "why was the snake bad" with children under 7 or so, personally—the snake itself is a pipeline/series of pipelines/oil, not a character really, but that's less apparent to very young children children and so I'm fishing for a phrasing that makes this feed less into "some people are bad") in order to let those assumptions come out if they already exist. I would try to get a read on the class's existing reaction, rather than start with adult associations. More open-ended questions, like "what did you think about the snake?" might be helpful here too.

    I noticed that at least some nonBlack children in my area don't immediately associate the word Black with a skin color, since humans don't have literally black skin-but I can't speak to whether Black children will make that connection from the snake's color alone. Again, I think in the end it's all about 1) open-ended, non-rushed discussion about children's feelings about the snake, and 2) making sure to curate a classroom library that has no themes of evil colors, or even has themes of "bad" forces that are notedly some other, irrelevant color.

    It's also relevant that I'm basing a LOT of this on study and just under one year in the classroom. I would love to hear more feedback from people with more experience in the classroom/raising children! I would also try to be mindful to center Indigenous and Black voices in this conversation wherever we can, but that isn't disparaging or shoving away the expertise of anyone else.

    EDIT: I now notice your original post says "young readers." A lot of what I say above still stands, of course, but if some of my suggestions about using the book in the classroom sound a little off, that's because I'm used to thinking about a younger, pre-reader classroom. With that said—I personally think this book is a good one to use with the whole class, or to use as a part of teaching about water protectors with the whole class! Or at least with some kind of supplementary information available?

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    Justice Ross
    Child Development Undergraduate Student
    Los Angeles Valley College
    North Hollywood, CA
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  • 3.  RE: Book review: We Are Water Protectors

    Posted 03-19-2021 02:16 PM
    Thank you. I couldn't agree more with your answer.

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    Brenda Leger
    Publisher
    Children's Literacy Initiative
    N Little Rock AR
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  • 4.  RE: Book review: We Are Water Protectors

    Posted 03-21-2021 11:33 AM
    Hello Brenda,

    My Name is Aisha Jahi, and I am an African-American.  I read the book and don't believe it not to be bias, implicit or otherwise.  To ensure that it it is not taken out of context, you might want to show a piece of black pipe.  Explain that the black snake is a metaphor for the pipe.  Children should not be deprived of meaningful and relevant instruction that teach essential lesson because of political correctness.
    Sometimes, I believe that too much emphasis is placed on the color of our skin instead of our humanity; what is politically correct versus absolute truth.  Color is all around us.  We use it to note beauty, differences and likenesses.  Leaves change in the fall, do we see implicit or other biases when beholding their beauty.  I believe it is time we embrace our humanity since we have more things in common that not.

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    [Aisha ] [Jahi]
    [Early Childhood/Special Educator]
    [PGCPS]
    Suitland MDAishaJahi
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  • 5.  RE: Book review: We Are Water Protectors

    Posted 03-21-2021 12:54 PM
    Thank you Aisha!  I really appreciate your comments!

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    Brenda Leger
    Publisher
    Children's Literacy Initiative
    N Little Rock AR
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