Sensitivity Readers, Cultural Considerations, and Legends of the Lost Causes
I’ve never really commented on the recent news articles and discussions about sensitivity readers and their work with children’s books. I suppose that’s just because they make a fair amount of sense to me. If you’re writing about someone unlike yourself, you should be told up front what you are doing wrong with the portrayal. Just seems logical. So, when the middle grade novel Legends of the Lost Causes by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester came out I didn’t think too much about it. The book incorporates some aspects of the Osage Nation’s culture but the book was blurbed by a director of the Wahzhazhe Cultural Center. So I just assumed some vetting was involved.
On March 16th Debbie Reese posted a critique of the book on American Indians in Children’s Literature. In the piece she noted the blurb and wrote, “I wonder, though, if they were given the whole book? Or just the snippets about Osage culture? We don’t know. I also wonder if anyone who is Abenaki (or who has expertise about Abenaki people) was asked to look over the Abenaki parts?” She then asked other questions about the choices made in the book.
Fast forward a month or so and the folks at Macmillan had an interesting query for me. Would I like to interview one of the authors (Brad McLelland) and Ms. Hudgins about the book? They gave me a little additional information about her. In addition to overseeing the day to day operations of the Wahzhazhe Cultural Center (including staff management, financial and administrative reporting, and cultural enrichment activities) she is a member of the Osage Nation and has knowledge of Osage culture and traditions as practiced by the Osage people. I was intrigued. Why not? A book has been released. Concerns and questions have been raised. Let’s see if we can’t answer some of those questions. First, I spoke with Brad:
Betsy Bird: This is your first book for children, as I understand it, and you are yourself a resident of Oklahoma. I wonder if you could talk a little about the decision to write a fantasy novel that includes, in some way, Osage legends and myths. When pitching this to Macmillan, did you encounter any resistance to the idea?
Brad McLelland: Thank you for having me! The road to getting Legends on the shelves has been quite a lengthy one—the planning of the series began all the way back in 2010, when Louis and I were graduate students at Oklahoma State University—but the journey’s been so exciting too. Especially because we’ve been able to form such a unique partnership with the Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center and its affiliate, the Osage Language Department.
When Louis and I first decided to tell a fantasy story set in the Old West, we knew we would be tackling a challenge, but we decided right away that our story should be grounded in as much historical accuracy as possible, which meant including other cultures of our chosen setting. The Osage hold a prominent history in the region, so for us, writing a Western that begins in Missouri (and eventually makes its way into Kansas Territory) would have felt incomplete without including them. Of course, throughout the series we make reference to the other important Nations of the region, but the Osage became much more central to the overall plot.
But let me back up for a moment and make sure I clarify that Legends does not actually include Osage legends and myths. Those are not our stories to tell. Rather, the series introduces a small number of Osage characters who bring portions of their culture into the foreground of our narrative. The reader will see these character relationships deepen and grow, hopefully in exciting and innovative ways, as the series continues.
Once that decision was made, Louis and I began our research. Louis started his part of the work up in Idaho, where he moved in 2011 to become a professor at Lewis-Clark State College. I started mine at our “home base” in Oklahoma. While exploring various books and resources on Osage culture, I became aware of the Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center, which is headquartered in Pawhuska—about a 45-minute drive from my home. By this point, Louis and I had finished a working draft of Book 1, and we were closely communicating with our agent, Brooks Sherman, who made sure to stress the importance of gaining the proper sensitivity readers for the book. I grew excited about the possibility of working directly with Osage specialists, so in late 2015 I called up Vann Bighorse, the director of the Cultural Center at the time. Vann was immediately gracious and agreed to look over the novel and its cultural content. So began my partnership with the Cultural Center. It continues to this day.
As for any resistance from the publisher, early on we communicated with Macmillan about our wonderful partnership with the Cultural Center, and the extensive research and sharing of information that followed, as we were seeking a publisher that would share our deep commitment to authentic representation. The additional honor of receiving a blurb from the Cultural Center solidified Macmillan’s decision, I believe. I can say with clear certainty, and with great gratitude, that Louis and I would not be on the bookshelves today if the Cultural Center had not shown such enthusiasm for working with us.
BB: Where did the idea for the book come in the first place? How did your collaboration with Louis work?
BM: The concept for Legends began as a short story idea in my head several years ago. As a kid, I had always enjoyed reading the Western novels that I would find in my grandmother’s old bedroom boxes. Then I discovered Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which brilliantly blended two genres, Fantasy and Western. I wanted to do something similar. Then along came the idea of an outlaw pursuing an ancient artifact in the Old West, and I realized I might have an interesting concept. I filed it away, thinking someday I might return to it.
Fast forward several years to the Oklahoma State University creative writing program in Stillwater, where I first met Louis in a fiction workshop. We shared a few story ideas one day at a friend’s birthday party, and I told him the outlaw premise from my old college years. He grew excited right away, and we found we couldn’t stop talking about the concept. Not long after, we started working together as partners, building plot points and sketching characters.
Our collaborative process basically consists of constant, back-and-forth drafting and revision. For example, Louis will write a chapter then pass the book to me, at which point I’ll revise his chapter to include my own adjustments for voice and style. Then I’ll write the next chapter and send the book back to him, etc. We like to call this process our “perpetual motion machine” of drafting and redrafting, and it ends up yielding a book we can both feel proud of, a book in which every sentence reads perfectly to us.
BB: Was there a sensitivity reader that worked with you on the book before Jessilyn looked at it, or was the book passed directly to her?
BM: Vann Bighorse from the Cultural Center became our first official resource for the novel. He reviewed the book, and over a series of emails, provided excellent feedback. Then on the first day that I met him at his office in Pawhuska, he invited other members of his staff to join in the conversation, and together we looked over the material and discussed the Osage culture of 1855. We eventually moved the conversation into their library, where they shared numerous research books and ideas (many of which helped Louis and me in the drafting of Book 2). We talked extensively about the character of Keech Blackwood, and the use of fantasy elements in the narrative, and the various ways that the Osage would enter our magical world throughout the series. They were extraordinarily helpful and welcoming, and continued to offer feedback on the manuscript after that initial meeting.
When Jessilyn took over as Cultural Center director in 2016, she proved just as friendly and accessible. She read the next draft of the novel, offered her own notes and insights, and eventually brought another cultural specialist, Jennifer Tiger, into the process. Not long after, Jessilyn officially offered the blurb that’s been included on the book: “This is a fun and exciting story, written with the utmost respect for the Osage culture.” These two women have continued to work closely with us on the cultural content for Book 2, and Jessilyn has even provided feedback on the second novel’s cover sketch. Today, I maintain frequent communications with them, and also have the pleasure of working with their partner, the Language Department. The specialists and teachers there have both reviewed and directly provided all of the Osage language for the series thus far. It’s really quite exciting, particularly knowing that the characters you grow to love in your story receive so much care and attention from the proper experts. In fact, we’ve been able to enlist another sensitivity reader for a new character who arrives in Book 2 alongside the Osage (sorry, no spoilers!).
BB: You include parts of both the Osage Nation and Abenaki as well. Did anyone Abenaki look at this book as well, do you know?
BM: At the same time I was approaching the Osage Cultural Center, we also searched for a reader who could review the three Abenaki words used in the book. We first discovered these words while Louis and I were researching symbology and came across the incredible works of celebrated Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac. We created a backstory in which the Reverend Rose had once encountered the Abenaki tribe, putting on the ruse of a sincere man of God, before betraying them and ultimately stealing these three words to use for his own purposes. For this reason, throughout Book 1, and then definitively in Book 2, the main character Keech denounces Rose’s theft of these words and eventually refuses to use them.
Compared to the Osage material, this content is quite minimal in the story, but we still hoped to find someone who could give us a critique. I found a contact in Vermont who agreed to help us, but the book’s deadline took us into print before we could receive any official vetting. In the end, we hope these words inspire readers to grow more curious and learn more about the amazing Abenaki culture, and read the rich works of authors such as Bruchac. His collections in particular—books such as The Faithful Hunter and When the Chenoo Howls: Native American Tales of Terror—can give readers young and old a wonderfully fun insight into the abundant legends and mythologies of the Abenaki.
BB: What are you working on next?
BM: Well, Book 2 recently went through copyedits—and more detailed rounds with our Osage partners—so now Louis and I are knee-deep into the drafting of Book 3. Once the series is done after Book 4, I’m contemplating a solo middle-grade novel set in the Ozark Mountains, where I went to college. As a dedicated fan of folklore, I love the richness of that region and can’t wait to tackle a story that’s been on my heart for a long time. But first, Louis and I have to see Keech and the gang through their long, difficult journey to stop the Reverend Rose.
BB: Thanks, Brad. Jessilyn, thank you so much for answering my questions today. Can you talk a little bit about how you heard about the project and how you came to be the one to read the manuscript?
Jessilyn Hudgins: I first heard about the project from Brad. I came on as the Director of the Cultural Center in December 2016 and he (Brad) had been working with the previous director to ensure cultural sensitivity. I thought it was a worthwhile project and was appreciative that Brad had reached out and wanted to make sure he wasn’t stepping on any toes, culturally speaking.
JH: I read most of the book and all the parts pertaining to Osage culture. I became very intrigued when I first spoke with Brad and he gave me a brief synopsis.
BB: What was your experience reading the book? What kinds of notes did you initially have for the authors?
JH: Reading the book was like going on an adventure, it is very interesting. The first notes I encountered from the authors were all culturally related, specific things like areas where the Osages once lived, clothing worn, and cultural practices. Brad was very open minded and willing to change or take out anything that I was not comfortable with, which there were not many things. The authors were great in regards to cultural sensitivity.
BB: What were your thoughts on the Osage naming conventions listed in the book? Did the words and creatures (the wasape, the buffalo hair breechcloth, etc.) ring true for you?
JH: We had many discussions about Osage namings in the book, all ring true. We worked together with the Osage Nation Language Department to ensure everything was accurate.
Many thanks to both Brad and Jessilyn for speaking with me and for the folks at Macmillan for setting it up.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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