image credit: Macmillan Publishing
Sheinkin, Steve. Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team. Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan, 2017. 288 pages. Tr. $19.99, ISBN: 9781596439542
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team represents author Steve Sheinkin’s numerous contributions to the youth nonfiction genre. His narrative nonfiction titles are exceptionally written and universally intriguing to many audiences. His books for young adults have won a multitude of awards including the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, the Sibert, and the Newbery Honor. Sheinkin’s greatest skill as a writer is his ability to make complex historical subjects accessible and interesting to a wide audience. Information is organized in a fascinating story arc that encompasses a holistic perspective on the topic. Short chapters and simple, focused sentences make Sheinkin’s text suitable for middle grade readers yet adults enjoy the structure and detail he employs. Every reader appreciates the magnitude of photographs, which enhance the text throughout each book.
HOWEVER, in the case of Undefeated, particularly the subject of Indian boarding schools, Sheinkin may have written under the spell that many white writers with the best of intentions often do. According to multi-cultural children's literature advocate Beverly Slapin, he got it wrong. Other reviewers felt he did the research, but didn't write to the depth he has shown in previous titles. In other words, he dumbed down the stuff that reflects badly on a white audience.
Undefeated:Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team explores the unexpectedly fascinating history of American football (I am not a fan of the game but I couldn’t put this book down). As readers learn, the game as we know it in modern times, would not exist had it not been for the events surrounding the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and its scrappy team. Carlisle was one of the first boarding schools for young Indians, designed to “kill the Indian, save the man”. In other words, Indian boarding schools were meant to eliminate the native language and culture of the native peoples who had survived the complete upheaval of their homes and the colonization of the white man in America. This history, along with details about Thorpe's life (including his name) is where Sheinkin's research may fall short, according to Slapin. Rather than summarize the thorough critique of the book laid out by Slapin, I encourage readers to consider her points directly. Please read Slapin's review here.
I feel I still have more research to do in order to form an educated, well-informed decision about Undefeated. I cannot blindly accept the opinions of Beverly Slapin any more than I can blindly trust the interpretation of Steve Sheinkin. Slapin, sums up her lengthy review with "despite the copious research that Sheinkin conducted for this book (including 25 pages of source notes and six pages of works cited), his cultural filter as an outsider impedes his ability to tell the real story," (2017, conclusion) Incidentally, Slapin is herself an "ousider". It should be noted that despite her tireless efforts to promote inclusion and multi-cultural education, the particular review in question does not contain source notes. While the Slapin review is published on Debbie Reese's website American Indians in Children's Literature, Debbie Reese herself did not publish a review or commentary about the book as of yet, nor have I yet to find a review by a Native Person.
There is also the argument, often in play when discussing narrative non-fiction, that Sheinkin thoroughly researched his topic but chose to omit or simplify certain details in order to present a particular focus or create a narrative accessible to a young audience. Indeed, Carvell Wallace wrote in his review for the New York Times, "It’s hard to know which of Thorpe’s exploits are accurately remembered and which have become embellished into tall tales over time, but for the modern young reader, Sheinkin’s telling holds the kind of hearty inspiration that Old West tales used to nurture in the kids of earlier eras. Thorpe’s greatness may be aspirational, but Sheinkin’s brisk and forthright delivery makes it seem entirely possible" (2017). It is this exactly this type of mythological national narrative that critics like Beverly Slapin take offense with: the reinterpretation of historical events as a means of defending and upholding the goodness of white people in the present. A discussion of the book on the blog Reading While White comments on Sheinkin's deliberate choice to gloss over the harshest realities of Indian boarding schools: "Sheinkin is such a great writer, surely he could have included more analysis of this complex and painful part of history without it turning his audience off" (Reading While White, 2017). The discussion panel also points out that they read the book as non-Native critics.
I admit that I was very excited about Undefeated and had initially written a glowing review. The book is fascinating and entertaining. Only after a wise professor of children's literature pointed out its reported flaws did I research further perspectives. I am embarrassed to say that I have a long way to go in regards to judging books by the authority of their authors as opposed to the popularity of their authors. One of the reasons I wish to be a librarian is to question and counter white supremacy and the lack of inclusion of people of color in publishing and literature. AND YET . . . I did not question Sheinkin's authority to interpret the history of Jim Thorpe and the devastating issues that are the setting for his story. I am a regular visitor to Debbie Reese's website American Indians in Children's Literature and have applied her criteria for authenticity to research papers and reviews. AND YET . . . I did not question Sheinkin's interpretation of history. This goes to show how easy it is to fall back into the naivety I hope to overcome as a librarian. I will keep practicing.
Bloom, S., Horning, K.T., Schlieman, M. (March 21, 2017). Reviewing while white: Undefeated [blog post]. Reading While White. Retrieved from http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/2017/03/reviewing-while-white-undefeated.html
Slapin, B. (March 28, 2017). Beverly Slapin's review of Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School's Football Team [blog post]. American Indians in Children's Literature. Retrieved from https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/search?q=sheinkin
Tomeo, Melba. (July12, 2017). Personal correspondence.
Wallace, C. (January 13, 2017). Jim Thorpe, Native American, and his game-changing football team [review]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/books/review/undefeated-jim-thorpe-steve-sheinkin.html