Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review - What Does It Mean to Be American?

What Does It Mean to Be American?
by Rana DiOrio & Elad Yoran
illustrated by Nina Mata
Date: 2019
Publisher: Little Pickle Press
Reading level: C
Book type: picture book non-fiction
Pages: 40
Format: e-book
Source: NetGalley

What does it mean to be American? Does it mean you like apple pie or fireworks? Not exactly. While politics seem to divide our country into the two opposing teams of red and blue, one truth remains: we are all Americans. But what does that mean? This continuation of the popular What Does It Mean to Be…? series provides a nonpartisan point of view perfect for any and all Americans who are proud of who they are—and where they come from, regardless of their political views.

(synopsis from NetGalley; see the book on Goodreads)

Full disclosure: I'm Canadian. I'm not unfamiliar with the USA, though. I lived there for a couple of years as a child, and I've crossed the border many times to shop or to visit family. We live close enough to the border that we get American TV stations, in all their pharmaceutical-fuelled glory. (Seriously... do Americans realize how many drugs are being pushed on them when they're trying to watch The Bachelor? "Be sure to talk to your doctor and tell them if you experience unexplained bleeding from your fingernails, swelling in the tongue, or death, as these conditions may become permanent." But I digress...) What I mean to say is that I'm pretty familiar with the USA, the concepts it was founded upon, and its need to constantly declare itself the bestest, most free-est country in the world.

To its credit, this book is nonpartisan. Unfortunately, that's about all it has going for it. The main narrative is laughably simple to the point of being complete nonsense, and it doesn't account for any of today's current problems. What Does It Mean to Be American? reads more like fiction than non-fiction. It's either completely deluded, or it's simply the USA the way some people would like it to be. If the sentiments put forth in this book were indeed true, then it would be a great country. But wishing the place you lived were a utopia does not make it so. You can't just say something is one way and--poof!--it's magically true. Let's take a look at a few of the premises this book puts forward:

Being American means ... believing that all people are equal, and should have the opportunity to be happy.

Yes, that's nice in theory, but all you have to do is watch the evening news to see that's not the case.

... following our dreams, and working hard to achieve them.

Okay, fine. But that doesn't just apply to Americans.

... having the freedom to choose whom we love, what we believe, what we do, and where we live, and to change our minds if we want.

Oh, boy. Can you see the issue here? This book holds America up as this great bastion of liberty, freedom, and tolerance, when in reality it's still struggling with accepting people who are different. It was late to the same-sex marriage party, and you've got Trump trying to ban transgender people from serving in the military. How is that freedom?

... knowing all Americans follow the same rules.

In theory? Yes... at the federal level. (The book contradicts itself here because the end matter talks about how states can have different laws. So I don't know why this point was even included.)

... honoring those who protect and serve us.

What... you mean the way Vietnam vets were treated when they got home? That's "honoring" them? What about all the homeless vets of today, suffering with PTSD and other injuries? They need more than hugs and salutes (which is what this book shows).

... cherishing our abundant natural resources...

Okay, I just can't do this anymore. You've got a president who wants to open up National Parks to be exploited for their resources, huge dead zones in American waters from agricultural runoff, and a large contingent of people who think that climate change isn't real (and therefore nothing needs to be done), and the book is talking about "cherishing" the land?

The book goes on to talk about being grateful, leading by example when people need help, and welcoming people from other countries, all of which would be laughable if they didn't make one want to cry. Right now, this book reads as little more than nationalistic propaganda, a tool to convince American children of their superiority in the world, ignoring the reality that's going on every single day.

This is also one of those books that feels like a school exercise. There are six pages of small text at the back with more "facts", although so much of it seems outdated and kind of irrelevant. The book actually tries to make the case that America cherishes its natural resources by quoting a song from 1895. It does the same sort of thing when it talks about honouring its veterans, by invoking the words of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. (Don't even get me started on how they threw in the Second Amendment without context.)

I was a little put off by the "greatest nation in the world" stuff, even though I was expecting it. At first, I thought this book might not be such a bad thing. At least it's something to aspire to. But when I thought about it some more, I realized how very problematic it is. By showing things the way they should be, the book completely ignores the way things actually are... which could lead children to believe that there isn't anything that needs to be fixed. The little mixed-race girl in the book is going to have a tougher time than the book leads us to believe. We don't need to watch more than a few minutes of the news to know that.

Thank you to NetGalley and Little Pickle Press for providing a digital ARC.

Premise: 1/5
Meter: n/a
Writing: 2/5
Illustrations: 3/5
Originality: 2/5

Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall: 1.67 out of 5

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