Year of Publication: 1980
Genre: Fantasy (Middle Grade)
Format (How I Read It): Paperback
At first, Omri is unimpressed with the plastic Indian toy he is given for his birthday. But when he puts it in his old cupboard and turns the key, something extraordinary happens that will change Omri’s life for ever.
For Little Bear, the Iroquois Indian brave, comes to life…
Themes: Greed. Power. Brotherhood. Friendship.
Character Development: Omri is a likeable main character. His best friend, Patrick, really isn’t at first but he manages to redeem himself by the end. Little Bear and Boone (the toys that come to life) are definitely stereotyped, but could have been worse (I was expecting much worse).
Plot/Pacing: It’s a well-paced plot! The concept itself hasn’t aged well and isn’t incredibly culturally responsive, but the overall story is well-crafted and engaging. You never really know what’s going to happen next.
Writing Style: There’s a lot of dialogue and, overall, it’s a really grounded fantasy. I’m not the biggest fan of fantasy, so I always appreciate when it’s done in a grounded way like this (though that’s just my personal preference).
Emotional Investment: Moderate.
Windows and Mirrors: England?
Overall Thoughts: To be honest, I was debating on whether or not to review this one at all. Just by the title alone you can tell that it’s outdated and a lot of the language used is offensive. I wanted to read it to see if I felt comfortable having it in my classroom at all (and also because, as a kid, I used to like to the movie so I wanted to see what the book was like). I’m keeping the review relatively short since, although it exceeded my expectations, it’s still not culturally responsive and therefore not the kind of book that I’d like to focus on in this blog. However, I felt that it was important to share my thoughts since this book is often seen as a former classic of children’s literature and it still often appears in classrooms and home libraries. Hopefully sharing my thoughts will be helpful for other educators and guardians when deciding whether or not to share this one with their students!
The first thing I noticed while reading this book is that it’s set in England. Was the movie also set in England? I really don’t remember, but I feel like that impacted the book positively. A lot of the Native American stereotypes that are portrayed in the book are done so intentionally. What I mean by that is that Omri becomes very aware that the little he knows about Native Americans comes from western movies, and that a lot of his understanding of the culture is inaccurate (and that there are many different cultures associated with various Native American groups). In the United States, there are social studies content standards that require students to learn about indigenous groups from all over the U.S., but it makes sense that a boy in England wouldn’t know much outside of the stereotypes shown in western movies. So yes, there were many stereotypes, but the book was a lot more self-aware regarding this than I expected.
That being said, the character of Little Bear (though he defied Omri’s expectations and taught him a lot about different indigenous groups and their cultures) was still fairly stereotypical. Boone (the toy cowboy) was also very stereotypical. He defied his stereotype by being very sensitive and somewhat cowardly, so at least there was that, but it was still a little over-the-top. Something I appreciated though was that the backstories of the toy characters had them coming from a very specific time in history, which explained why they held the prejudices that they did. Overall, the crafting of the story and characters seemed very intentional and carefully thought out. It doesn’t excuse the stereotypes and offensive language by any means, but it helps.
Speaking of the offensive language, it really only happens when the toy characters are talking to each other (other than the language used in the title anyway). Little Bear and Boone are meant to be prejudiced against each other (this is something they learn to overcome throughout the story), and due to the time periods they come from they use some really outdated language to refer to each other. However, there are ways to avoid using this language while still expressing the backgrounds and feelings of the characters. The words Boone uses to refer to Little Bear are really derogatory and not something that should show up in children’s books in modern times. On a less important note, because of Boone there are also a lot of references to liquor, whiskey, and tobacco. These things aren’t inherently inappropriate, but it’s my personal preference to not have these things come up in kids’ books (at least not in such a casual way).
Overall, this book was not nearly as bad as I expected, but it was definitely still not culturally responsive. The story itself, though, is fun, creative, exciting, and full of adventure.
Recommendation: I think I’ll leave this in my classroom library, but I won’t use it for any teaching purposes (not for read-aloud, book clubs, etc.). It obviously has its faults, but it’s an exciting concept that could still get the attention of reluctant readers. If your student or child is reading it, just make sure to use it as an opportunity to have conversations about the issues and themes that come up (and to discuss that there are certain words that are hurtful or inappropriate and why we don’t use them anymore).
Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!