Monday, November 9, 2009

BLESSING'S BEAD -- An Interview with Debby Dahl Edwardson

There's no better way for Jacket Knack to celebrate Native American and Alaska Native Heritage month than by bringing you the utterly unique cover story of a brand-spanking new novel featuring a main character who is Inupiaq. I'm talking about the young adult novel Blessing's Bead (FSG, November, 2009), and we bring you its cover story via an interview with the author, Debby Dahl Edwardson. Debby, pictured at right, is a resident of the northernmost part of the great state of Alaska. She is also the author of the picture book Whale Snow (Charlesbridge, 2003) which I own and love, and she holds an MFA degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. We learned about the cover of Blessing's Bead right around the time Justine Larbalestier's novel, Liar, was getting its cover replaced. Read on and you'll find out why Debby's cover came up in relation to that controversy.

CB: Your own daughter graces the cover of Blessing's Bead. How did that come about?

DDE: Long story. The publisher decided on a photo cover early on. My editor graciously involved me in the process. Initially, they were looking for an historical photo and I got involved in the search because I had a better handle on what’s out there in terms of historical Inupiaq photos. In the end we looked at lots of photos, historical and stock, and we also had some pictures taken of different girls, including my daughter.

CB: Who shot the photo? Was there a big photo shoot with the publisher's staff or something? Any stories about the photo's creation would be interesting, if you'd like to share.

DDE: There was no big photo shoot. I was forwarding photos that I found—both historical and contemporary stock. When they started leaning towards a contemporary shot I had several people take photos of girls I thought might look like the characters—either the historical girl, Nutaaq, or contemporary one, Blessing (whose Inupiaq name is Nutaaq.) The first group of photos we took was of one of my nieces, who I thought fit the part either way. A young Inupiaq photographer friend of mine [Rainee Higbee], who is also an artist and a writer, shot the photos. She even painted the traditional tattoo lines on her chin.

I have to say that I got all excited at this shoot, because my niece has a lip ring and I started thinking about all the connections between historical tattoos and contemporary tattoos and piercings. I thought a lot about that chilling opening scene in the made for TV movie of Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic that shows the contemporary girl in a tattoo parlor—right before she goes back in time to the Nazi concentration camp where she gets another kind of tattoo. So we shot pics of my niece both with the ring and with the traditional tattoo and I was even thinking that if they liked the ring ones I would write a lip ring into the book…

In the end, we were so focused on the art and imagery we forgot to get into the character aspect of it so I don’t think she had the right expression. The next bunch we shot were in a studio with another niece and my oldest daughter, who has a theater connection, coached her. In the end, though, this girl’s face was a bit too tough, I think, and lacked the needed vulnerability.

To be honest, I think I shot the pictures of my daughter Aaluk (Susan) out of desperation. Aside from the fact that she is very pretty, acting is one of Aaluk’s loves and I knew she could get into character more easily.

CB: What other images were considered and discarded? Why?

Well, I’ve told you about the contemporary ones that were discarded. My editor initially wanted to find an historical photo, but we never really found the right face. And I have to say, that I think there is a problem, in general, with photo covers or even covers that feature artistic representations of the characters because as soon as you give a reader an actual image of a character you are in a sense proscribing their vision, shackling their imagination, maybe even limiting their ability to identify. It’s hard to predict, but you want something that’s going to make the reader pick up the book. That’s the goal, isn’t it? The cover has to say, to as wide a group as possible, “hey, you gotta minute? I’ve got something to tell you.” None of the historical photos we looked at had that kind of draw.

And to be perfectly honest, the idea of using an historical photo rubs me the wrong way. It doesn’t feel right to me to take a photo of a real person, who never had a chance to consent to it, and use it for the cover shot of a book of fiction that may have nothing to do with the reality of her life and may even be insulting to her memory in subtle or not so subtle ways. And the people in historical photos have living relatives, usually. Where I live, in fact, people take great interest in identifying relatives in the many historical photos taken in the early twentieth century, photos which have often been sitting in distant collections for years undiscovered. I did check out all the historical ones we were considering for the cover of Blessing’s Bead and was satisfied that no one I knew could identify them, but it still made me very uncomfortable. How would you like it if you picked up a novel and saw that it had your great grandmother’s picture on it and nobody in the family had been contacted or had granted permission for its use? But if we’d found the right one, I would have tried. Just yesterday I saw a new bunch of historical Inupiaq photos I’d never seen before and found myself thinking—oh look! She would have been perfect—she even has the tattoo lines. But it’s a touchy proposition, I think.

CB: Do you recall why they chose the close-up, cropped image over the one where we see the girl's entire face?

DDE: Because it grabs your attention more, I imagine. They had one that was even a closer cut. I gave them input from a few writer friends and Inupiaq friends who all thought showing the fur of the parka gave it more context.

CB: How does your daughter feel about being a cover girl?

DDE: She’s happy about it, of course. I think she was surprised they picked her picture because when she first looked at the photos we took she said, “Mom, I don’t look Inupiaq enough.” (And when she first looked at the cover shot, she thought it made her look drugged but she’ll probably kill me for telling you this.)

CB: What with the recent controversy over the race of the girl's image on the cover of Justine Larbalestier's Liar, did you have any concerns about using this particular image?

DDE: Yes, of course. I initially agreed with my daughter and that’s what I told my editor: I don’t think she looks Inupiaq enough, which is odd because, after all, I am the one who had the picture taken. Then my editor said something rather perceptive. “How do you know Blessing isn’t part white?”

This reminded me of something I heard Vera Williams say once. She remembered reading More, More, More Said the Baby to a class one time and one of the kids asked, "how come that black kid has a white grandma?" The teacher, who was black, said, "how do you know she isn't black?" Indeed.

Basically, I have very mixed feelings about this whole issue. On the one hand, I identify with those who accuse the publishing industry of deliberately picking the lighter skin over the dark skin, the skinny girl over the chubby one, the one who fits the marketing image over the one who doesn’t. This isn’t healthy for any young reader--either white or of color. Period.

On the other hand, though, I get queasy about defining a person’s cultural identity by skin color. It used to be that a person with a drop of black blood was stigmatized and treated to the same racism their darker relatives faced. With Native Americans, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has set a different standard. If you want to qualify for Native services (not always a blessing, believe me) you have to have at least one-quarter quantum Native blood. This standard has become the means the federal government uses to define who is and who is not Native. I think it’s intrusive, ignorant and ultimately harmful to Native people. For example—I work at a tribal college and in a recent audit (yes a financial audit) they asked to see our student records and cited us as out of compliance because for one of the student records they looked at, the verification of Native blood was a copy of the student’s tribal enrollment card. The tribe in question defines its members based on family tree not blood quantum. Not good enough, the auditors said; he has to be able to prove he is at least one-quarter Native American. How sick is that?

This issue of blood quantum is one of the major issues facing the rising generation of young Native Americans and when I think about it in relation to the cover of Blessing’s Bead, part of me says, shame on you for saying but she doesn’t look Inupiaq enough; shame on you for letting her think that way.

My youngest daughter returned from her first year at Dartmouth with a video she’d made—interviews with light-skinned Native American students at Dartmouth about their thoughts on issues of racial identity and skin color [I'm working on acquiring the link to share--cb]. Who defines me, these kids were saying. Who has the right? Although these questions are not new to me, I’m fascinated by the many issues these interviews raise and gratified that my daughter, a light skinned Inupiaq, is raising them.

“Who will fix this?” She asks her father and I. “You will,” we tell her.

But surely we must reflect on this reality in all its complexity within the body of books we publish…and on their covers.

How do you know Blessing isn’t part white? No, that’s not the point. The point is that this book is firmly based in the Inupiaq culture and has a light-skinned Inupiaq girl on the cover, my own daughter. The issue is that even in my own mind, Blessing should look much darker. Sure—given the details of her life as I knew it, she is more than likely part white, but her identity is firmly Inupiaq and I wanted the picture to reflect that.

Now that’s a very interesting reaction for the mother of seven biracial children who all define themselves as Inupiaq, don’t you think?

The point is, that when we look at issues of race, we have always tended to put people into these boxes that say, “you belong here and you belong there,” and this is getting harder and harder to do. We should, instead, be looking at issues of cultural identity. We should instead be looking closer at issues of multiracialism and multi-ethnicity and how these are reflected in children’s books. And we need to do this quickly, because a rapidly growing percentage of the young readers currently defined as people of color fall into this category. We are totally ignoring the many nuanced levels of experience this group faces and yet within less than 20 years, they will be the racial majority in this country. Think of it: what percentage of our books reflects young people trying to negotiate identity on this level? And yet it is an experience so pervasive in this country that even our president is reflective of it. His face is the face of the future, I kept thinking, throughout his campaign. It was a good thought for me, the mother of multiracial children.

Would some white person, seeking political correctness, have seen Obama’s younger face on the cover of a children’s book and said, he isn’t black enough? Would some black person have seen it and said hey, this guy’s too white—his experience isn’t representative enough of the Black experience?

Think about it, people.

CB: We will, Debby. Thanks so much for telling your cover story and giving us your thoughts.

Find out more about Blessing's Bead and Debby Dahl Edwardson on her website.

Thanks also to A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy for cluing me in about the NA&ANH celebration in the States. Blogs--they're really useful, y'know? Here's more about the celebration.


  1. Thanks Carol and Debby. The topic of identity/race/stereotypes/perceptions is such a very large one. As we all know, there are so many important aspects to this very complicated issue. I enjoyed "listening in" on your conversation.

  2. What a gorgeous book cover. Intrigued by this book; have "listened" in with interest on the discussion here and at Through the Tollbooth this week.

  3. Fabulous! From the insightful questions to the open and honest answers from the author and the totally relevant dialogue. What a great find! Thank you! And thank you also for cluing ME in on the NA & ANH celebration.

    Warm wishes to both (and Debby's beautiful daughter and by the way yes, she is Inupiak enough!)


  4. Thank you so much for all your kind comments! Being totally open about these things is a potentially dangerous thing to do, I think. Thanks for being so receptive.