After an uprising by teachers, the Minneapolis schools have expelled “Lazy Lucy” and “Nieko, the Hunting Girl.” A Utah education company is making sure they never show up in any other classroom.

Lucy and Nieko are imaginary characters in two of the 54 books that accompanied a reading curriculum hastily purchased by Minneapolis Public Schools for $1.2 million. When the “Little Books” were given to elementary teachers this summer, many of them were astounded and repelled by the stereotyped characters and gender roles as well as discredited or sloppy historical references.

A book titled “Kenya” explains: “Most people are aware that Kenyans are able to run very fast.” Another book states that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. Another describes the Tower of London (built starting in 1080) as “a very fun place to learn how people lived thousands of years ago.”

Once the teachers went public with their outrage, the school district quickly disavowed the books. So did Reading Horizons, the Utah company that has peddled the books since 2012.

“It’s clear that these books should never be used, and they won’t be,” said Laura Axtell, Reading Horizons’ implementation coordinator. A small team within the company wrote the books “in isolation,” she said, something that won’t happen again, because Reading Horizons is bringing in a diverse group to advise the company on any books it produces in the future.

Meanwhile, Reading Horizons is recalling the Little Books from the small number of districts where they have been inflicted on children, though no one, strangely, has complained about them before.

Given this brouhaha, I wanted to read these books before they were shredded, so I made a public records request to the Minneapolis schools — just in time. The books were packed and sitting on a loading dock, ready for shipment back to Utah. A staff member retrieved a set for me, and I read through them Friday in a conference room at district headquarters in north Minneapolis.

I knew that each one was written to showcase certain consonants, vowels and words. I knew that they accompanied exercises and software. The pictures and most of the stories are inoffensive and bland. Yet I kept thinking: $200,000 paid for this?

“Lazy Lucy” told the story of an African girl who, at 6 years old, sometimes shirked the job of keeping her hut clean. At age 10, she gets the job of fetching water for the family. But she decides to sleep late. She finds the water hole all muddy. After her mother chastises her, Lucy henceforth “was the first one at the watering hole each day.”

The irony was presumably lost on the unnamed author that hauling water is a principal reason that many girls around the world never go to school.

“Nieko, the Hunting Girl” lived in a cave, where her mother served mammoth bacon and fried dodo eggs, but she hunted with her father, “the chief of their tribe.” The pictures show her with a headband and arrows in a quiver. After she spots a saber-toothed tiger, she tells her father to keep quiet, and the beast passes them by without eating them. Her reward: Her father will make her a stone necklace. “Nieko shrieked with delight as they walked back to the cave.”

So a girl hunts best without lifting her spear?

I know that’s not the point. Yet the Reading Horizons debacle demonstrates that no book can be written or received in a cultural vacuum. Especially not in a city that replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

More than 700 people have signed a letter demanding the school district sever its ties with Reading Horizons. One leader of that effort, who made his case to the Board of Education last week, is Chaun Webster. Webster has the perspective both as a bookseller (he co-owns Ancestry Books in north Minneapolis) and a parent with two elementary school-aged children in the district.

Webster also read the books, which he found “quite disturbing, stomach-churning.” He makes the point that a “great wealth” of resources exist in the Twin Cities for educators looking for books that reflect the diversity of the district. “I have very little confidence in the competency of Reading Horizons to develop something that would be, in my opinion, acceptable for my children to be exposed to.”

Whether Reading Horizons will produce more Little Books remains unknown, but I feel certain the world has seen the last of Nieko and Lucy.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.