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Best, Brian Floca. Brian's response made me think of Claire Light's terrific post about writing about white authors writing about people of color: "In response to the complaint of white writers about writing about people of color: "Damned if you do. Damned if you don't," I want to say: absolutely.

It's absolutely true. You're damned either way. If you don't do it, you're a racist. Yes, you are. Race and racism exist in this society, and if you ignore them, you're expressing a racial privilege that you don't, morally, have any right to. That's a subtle form of racism. If you do do it and get it "wrong", you'll get reamed, and rightfully so.

It's presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you don't belong to if you can't be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.

Roads Were Not Built For Cars 2015 | All rights reserved.

Further, if you do it and get it "right", or rather, don't get it wrong, you'll still get reamed by members of that culture you've represented who rightfully resent a white writer's success representing their culture. After all, every American ethnic minority has its writers: good and bad. The good writers are mostly ignored.

Inevitably, some white writer will come along and do a bang-up job portraying that culture and will get--in one book, in one section of a book--more attention than the poc writer got over the course of three or five or ten books.

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You're a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it's wrong. And that's so unfair to you, isn't it? Welcome to a tiny taste of what it's like to be a person of color. Of course, I don't know all of the stereographs that were produced by Russell and others during the construction of the railroad, but my impression has always been that these were images of the Chinese working on the railroad, not images of the Chinese celebrating the railroad's completion. Brian Floca's rationale for his treatment of the Chinese is interesting: he states that others have talked about the building of the line but fails to mention that the vast majority of these works pay minimal attention to Chinese labor as well.

As a final thought, I find it strange that anyone can write anything resembling a celebratory book about the transcontinental railroad these days. From the moment of its inception, it was a racist and racializing project that enriched the already wealthy, stole land from Native peoples, stratified labor, and inspired xenophobic and exceptionalist rhetoric about American manifest destiny. As racist, classist, sexist and imperialist boondoggles go, it ranks right up there.

Thank you both for a thoughtful conversation. I appreciate your thoroughness, and especially Debbie, your encouragement to contact tribes individually for informations specific to their history and culture. I've found that very helpful. Many tribes also have excellent museums and historical collections of their own--a great resource! There is, however, an element to consider that neither of you have mentioned so far.

In general picture books are for year olds with the bulk of the audience at years old. Locomotive is word heavy and visually intricate which would tend to hold the interest of older readers but still most will be younger than 3rd grade. As Brian mentioned, art is all about making choices and one of the considerations is which pieces of information are most appropriate for little kids. The reunion of a family, the wonder of seeing ecosystems you've never encountered roll by your train window, the fascination with how a train actually operates, those are all developmentally right on target for the intended reader.

The slaughter of buffalo, the oppression of Native Americans, train attacks and robberies, all those things are vital to a full understanding of our history. And yet they are not really developmentally right for primary grades. That is more properly the territory of middle grade books.

Opinions vary of course on what is appropriate for what age but I think most Jewish schools, for example, hold off on teaching the Holocaust until upper elementary or middle school, not because they are interested in denying the events but precisely because they want those important events to be fully and maturely understood. It is a great comfort to me as a writer to know that I'm writing into a whole field of other books. So for example when I wrote about the cold war, I didn't have to go too deeply into the atrocities committed by the Russians against their own soldiers from the Soviet Republics.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys covered some of that ground. And there are many other books for YA and adult readers that my MG readers will find some day.

So I agree that while Locomotive is an exemplary book in many ways, it is also incomplete, as all books invariably are. I'd love to see some recommendations for books to pair with this one that would round out the history of the west more completely. The one that springs to mind for me is Coolies a picture book about Chinese railroad workers. I wonder if there is a similar picture book about the Irish workers on the Union Pacific line. I'd love to hear about a middle grade or young adult book that delves into the issues Debbie has raised more directly.

Does anyone have additional books to recommend? Rosanne--you're focused on the 'intended reader' by age. The reader that I think Floca, and perhaps you, imagine is not a Native kid. Who we are matters in terms of what our kids know. And who we are matters in what we think our kids ought to know and when they ought to know it. Putting forth the argument that you put forth reinforces the status quo and existing power structure. First-- apologies for jumping into conversations that have been going on for a while Thank you for making this space, and for having the patience and fortitude to stay here and keep having the conversation as others come and go.

If that content is not age appropriate which is debatable what story is being told in its place, and why? Why does the author wish to tell this particular story? To me, the story was straight-up manifest destiny, pure and simple. In my reading, the story conveys that there were some destructive consequences, but through the railroad we who? As readers, we are asked to be propelled along that trajectory, and never asked to stop and question its direction. This makes for a fast-paced, engaging story for who?

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It seems a particularly strange moment to want to tell this story, too, given current conversation about environmental destruction and resources. This isn't just history. It might feel nice to some to sit on the train and enjoy the ride to the next stop, but I think all of us deserve a more critical approach to where we've been, and what it might teach us about where we're headed. Thank you so much for this blog, Debbie!

Have subscribed and will look for more great discussions!


Thanks again for being watchful, informative, and persistent! Post a Comment. While I'm trying to make myself feel joyful--because I love books, too--I'm not joyful. I'm angry. But my anger isn't necessarily at you. It's more at the status quo than anything. Your response indicates to me that you gave a lot of thought to what you included and how and why, and I'm glad of that. I'll address your comments in a moment.

For now, I'm addressing the whole-ness of children's literature.


Or, maybe, the Caldecott committee. And maybe all those who cheered when your name was called out. Some people are paying attention. Betsy Bird and Lori Ess held a "pre-game" event during which they noted the importance of my critique. Others are tweeting and sharing it via Facebook, so that's good, too.

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  5. So here I am, angry. It feels small and petty to be raining on your parade. Perhaps a bit later you can return here and we can continue to talk, because there is much to do, I think, and your assistance in helping us get a bit further down that road would be invaluable. On to your comments. I imagine you feel damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't when considering how you might illustrate anything to do with Native people. Myself and many others are deeply invested in those images being right, and you're right to be wary. Source material is highly problematic!

    Seems that Dee Brown is the go-to person for information about American Indians. Please let me know if you're looking for a article author for your blog. You have some really good articles and I believe I would be a good asset.

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