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Tricksters & Animal Stories
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Let’s Explore Why We Wait For First Snowfall to Share Indigenous Trickster & Animal Stories
How do we show care in the way we experience each other’s stories? How do we show respect to the people whose stories we keep? To the stories themselves?
Why we wait for snowfall to read trickster & animal stories
The foreword in Beaver Steals Fire was my first introduction to the practice of reserving these stories for the snow season. This is an issue respect, non-violation and consent when we’re reading the stories of people who acknowledge stories as living beings.
I was resistant to this practice at first – it’s my literal job to read lots of stories all year. But observing this practice for the last few years has left me less stressed and out-of-sync with the world. Reserving these stories for winter also gets my kids super ramped up for the gray, miserable, and bitter Boston winter. These stories sustain us when we are totally done with winter, but we still have months to go.
Don’t kids really need human protagonists to internalize moral lessons?
Dude. OF COURSE NOT.
Human-protagonist stories are disproportionately more likely to be of European/colonist origin (think Grimm’s Fairy tales), whereas animal stories have been used with sticking power & great success throughout Africa, Asia, and Turtle Island for several thousands of years.
Which (human vs. animal) stories stick with kids the longest? Months later? Decades?
Outside a clinical study where adult interaction and story discussion would have been strictly controlled: Which generate the most self-reflection and family discussions?
Which stories do kids ask to read again?
Which stories do kids reflect on, bring up, and talk about years later?
Are we really comfortable with prioritizing a select few academic studies over the traditional Indigenous storytelling traditions of families all over the world who have successfully used animal stories to connect the youngest generations with cultural values?
These animal stories are counter to the modern colonist push for human protagonists. In 2017 the internet was abuzz about ‘scientific research’ about kids absorbing social messages only when stories feature human characters. I’ve heard so many white parents and educators talk about this as if this was a proven fact. It sounded suspect, so I dug into it a bit. So far as I can tell, this is typical internet regurgitation. They’re all talking about was one study from the University of Toronto: 2017, Nicole E. Larsen, Kang Lee, Patricia A. Ganea.
But it sounds like science! Swapping out our kids’ favorite animal stories for boring human characters is so easy to implement! Reading the original research study is hard (and expensive!) Science is real so we have to trust it! NO. Dammit, this is not how science works!
So the early childhood internet took off with it, and you can find 33 million results on google about ‘children’s books having a greater moral impact with human protagonists‘ or some over-simplified clickbait pop-psychology like that.
Given the first few pages of google (I don’t have time to vet THIRTY-THREE MILLION RESULTS): All these articles cite JUST THE ONE North American study, using western colonist-settler storytelling practices. Using ONE group of a hundred 4 to 6-year-olds, three books. These three books were: a bland book with raccoons written by a white woman, the same book with human protagonists, and a book about seeds. I can’t find any evidence that this study has been replicated or tested using non-white storytelling methods, traditional oral methods, or any books my kids wouldn’t immediately toss in the trash.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. This study was so shallow, presumptive of passive white storytelling as the default, and not the kind of theory adults should push an entire publishing industry based on.
This is how the internet works. Bloggers need content so they can get clicks, so they can get paid. So they don’t read the study, they just regurgitate what the other bloggers are talking about. Other bloggers see how this is trending, and re-publish it as fact. More ‘reputable’ sites see that there are THIRTY-THREE MILLION PEOPLE/AI BLOGBOTS spouting this shit and they want to seem on-trend, so they publish an article on it, which makes this concept seem even more valid.
An average parent or teacher seems everyone talking about it as common knowledge, so they stop buying books with animals and start asking authors to write more books featuring boring humans with irrelevant opposable thumbs. By spouting off this nonsense without thinking critically about the source, this is how we mislead each other, over simplify, and perpetuate incomplete, shallow, or even just bad science. The internet is a dumpster, and we are the pizza crust rats spreading plague fleas and misinformation.
How to get kids to absorb a moral lesson from the story
We’re not talking about responsible representation for under-represented kids from targeted groups, or actual biographies and history. We’re focusing on internalizing a moral value. So for these purposes, the actual story you pick, what the characters look like – that’s irrelevant. Pick a problematic book from your local library dumpster, it does not matter. What matters is how you discuss the story afterward, and whether you take the time to connect the emotions we feel reading these stories with the experience of people we care about in everyday human conflict. When you pick up a book – what matters is that you’re reading critically and watching out for plague fleas. (Example metaphorical plague flea: ‘She’s not like the other girls, she’s cool!‘ (what, because all other girls are trash?))
We’ve unpacked undiagnosed disability and reconciling non-confirming gender identity with basic books featuring anthropomorphized crayons and puzzle pieces. We’ve discussed the ableism and the social model of disability using a goofy book about dancing dinosaurs and mutant lemons. I’d argue these concepts would be harder to internalize if the authors of these books were too hung up on making any one character look too much like the reader, or a token representation of a Black girl with afro puffs (tokenism du jour: white authors are all about non-threatening Black protagonists with cute hair.)
And while my kids can be kind of shitty sometimes, not to mention developmentally behind at basics like washing dishes or changing their socks without screaming, the few things my kids have a firm grasp on are the morals of anti-supremacy, inclusion, and transformative justice. And they didn’t internalize these values by confirming the protagonist in a story matches their human bone structure. They initiated the best discussions after reading about anthropomorphic bears and office supplies.
- Beaver Steals Fire (ages 4-7)
(Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) On the importance of controlled burns to prevent wildfires and accepting Indigenous wisdom on respecting seasonality even if you’re a naive settler, because they have centuries of scientific knowledge that we just lack.
- Rainbow Crow (ages 3-10), followed with Beautiful Blackbird (ages 4+). Van Laan is not Indigenous, and obtained permission from an authorized storyteller to retell this Lenni Lenape story in print form. Indigenous criticism has pointed out that the story has been over-simplified and lacks nuance – but for now, it’s still best book we could find to engage the Earthquakes when we spent a week visiting the territory of the Lenni Lenape people.
Not having access to the original spoken experience, I have nothing to compare it to. But reading this book together with a set of 7-to-10 year olds felt peaceful, transformative, and the song and message in it pulled us all together.
Another caveat we have – the white author’s language around Crow’s black feathers as ‘ugly’ or unwanted for regalia is highly problematic, and I find it hard to believe that the original story would have used such derogatory phrasing if it was written by a non-white author.
We took time to unpack who was reading this story, what assumptions they were raised with to equate blackness as ‘ugly’ – and how Rainbow Crow’s transformation (like all transitions) come with pain in the change of identity. But that the author’s manufactured anti-blackness is not baggage that we need to keep or carry.
The ending of Rainbow Crow affirms Crow’s beauty, but doesn’t go into the depth I want to unpack this. I highly recommend following up this book with Ashley Bryan’s Beautiful Blackbird – an affirmation of Black joy and beauty.
- Coyote Tales (ages 6.5+) There’s not much to look forward to in winter, so let the chaos, charm, and terrible example of Coyote warm the cynical, humorless cockles of your heart. Around age 7, many kids start to develop the cognitive ability for reason that makes this type of witty humor HILARIOUS. These kinds of selfish trickster foibles help kids feel smart and project themselves just enough into a mischievous situation that they learn what not to do.
Discuss (best practices for story time, no characters with opposable thumbs needed)
Take it from a human who didn’t see someone who looked like me in a book until my 30’s. If you read the story as an experience and the launchpad for a conversation, it doesn’t matter whether characters in our stories have articulating knuckles or share our hair texture. If anything, we should be expanding who we see as ‘like us,’ respecting the personhood of animals, water, and life, rather than narrowing our exposure to stories where everyone looks exactly like us. Welcome to anti-speciesism!
- Use declarative language:
Helpful to avoid putting kids with communication disabilities & emerging speakers on the spot, this sparks internal consideration but doesn’t treat story time like a pop-quiz.“Rainbow Crow kept flying at great risk to himself, because he knew everyone else would die if he gave up. To me this feels courageous. I wonder how you feel about Rainbow Crow.”
- Ask open-ended questions:
“I see do you think Raven pitted everyone else against each other? I wonder, why did he choose to do that instead of help everyone understand each other?””I wonder if Raven will continue to get away with it? What we think will happen to him when everyone realizes what he’s done?”
- Draw connections:
Connect the conflicts, mistakes, and behavior in these stories to recent or upcoming events in our kids’ lives, or even to our own family of how we got to where we are now.“Rainbow Crow sacrificed the things he was most proud of to help his community. Did I ever tell you the story of the Japanese occupation and famine, when your great-great grandmother sacrificed her life so our grandparents could survive and raise us?”
- Make storytelling interactive
If the story you’re reading is bland or dry, engage kids with call-and-response, choose stories with repetition and anticipation, move back and forth through the story.Avoid the robotic plug & play read aloud, where you tell kids to sit and listen silently, glassy-eyed, as you read a story to them from beginning cover to end cover. No!Reading together should be an act of participation, exploration, even rebellion.
- Repeat favorite stories
Choose stories based on how engaging they are to kids, not how cool they look on your bookshelf. If you’re buying a kid’s book to show off how anti-racist you are, you’re missing the whole point of anti-racism work.Read stories together with the kids until they are done with them, not when you’re bored of reading it. Push through and read Goodnight Moon with increasing gusto in inverse correlation with how sick of it you are.Mark a date on your calendar to revisit the story a year, two years from now, at a season or milestone when you feel kids will be able to unpack a deeper layer.
It’s okay to put the book down, but not the conversation. If kiddos aren’t feeling the book you’ve chosen, work harder to find another book on the topic, a youtube video, or just be brave and admit you don’t know how to start talking about this subject, and would like your kid’s advice on how to start.
Additional resources to dig deeper:
- Find Trickster Stories that connect to your family’s culture, or stories told with permission from your local Indigenous nations.
- Animal Stories
- Autumn Favorites
- Winter Favorites
- A rundown of our favorite Sun Wukong stories for kids
- On animal personhood & rights: Stories About Animal Rights & Anti-Speciesism
- On the personhood & rights of water: We Are Water Protectors