Poetry Friday: Star Tile
Monday Coffee Talk, June 25th

Multicultural Books, or Is "Whacking the Pinata" Necessary?

Today at La Bloga, bilingual-picture-book author René Colato Laínez continues a series of interviews with book-industry executives about cultural authenticity. He talks to Kent Brown, the publisher of Boyds Mills Press and Highlights magazine. Boyds Mills is publishing one of Laínez's new works—a fact I wish Laínez had acknowledged; still, the interview is a good one, and contains much food for thought.

[Brown]: What is lacking in a great many stories presented as multicultural is a perspective that lets the reader know more of unique cultural or accurate historical viewpoints.

[Laínez]: Are they full of stereotypes or misconceptions?

[Brown]: Well, the bad ones are.  And there are some instances where an accurate depiction, however accurate, may reinforce stereotypes.
Two examples:

I receive awful lot of stories about Mexican culture that has kids whacking a Piñata. Nothing wrong with this artifact of Mexican holiday celebration, but having stories about piñatas, over and over, as if that the only thing we might identify with Mexican tradition, subtly reinforces that Mexicans are a people who spend their time whacking piñatas.

Another common example: Chinese New Year. We did this in Highlights magazine. Has the advantage of being attractive to illustrate, picking the parade in San Francisco. Surely that is a part of Chinese (on Chinese-American culture and tradition). But its portrayal has the tendency over time to "teach" that Chinese people are people of big parades and big dragons.


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Great information! In graduate school, I had an African American professor who on the first day of class said, "I don't like watermelon and I can't jump rope." The whole class was stunned and uncomfortable. Relinquishing stereotypes is important in seeing the literature, yet in many cases stereotypes help writers into the roles.

You know, Wisteria, you just gave me an idea of what I might add to this post--another quotation from the book I just read about the Hartford Ct schools and the lawsuit to desegregate them. Or maybe that's a whole nother post in itself.

But yeah.

Wow, THIS is an interesting discussion... Because we were recently talking during SBBT about whether or not non-lesbian/gay writers could/should write YA with those characters, and then it turned toward should non-minority authors write stories featuring minorities, etc. etc. -- I think sometimes when the writing is done for the sake of trying to support a particular group because they are downtrodden or whatever, watermelon and piñatas is what one ends up with... Hm.

Hey, TadMack. I had at least one reader who really didn't like it when I had the multicultural-book Kid Lit carnival as a Fiesta. I think because all too often this is the way multicultural books are presented. While I didn't change the carnival (because I wanted to feature San Antonio's Fiesta celebration), the reader's comment did give me pause.

In the city school where I volunteer, most of the children are children of color. When I read to them, I find myself wishing that the children in the books looked more like them.

In both that school and my son's, I've noticed a number of picture books & beginning readers feature a "multicultural" cast of characters but with a Caucasian child as the lead kid. What is that telling children when they see it time after time?

The same 1st grade class at the city school was making Father's Day cards recently. One boy's card read, "Happy Father's Day, Mom," and I so wished someone had modified the assignment for him and the others who lived with their mothers only.

Which is a long way of saying that I think we as a society can be much more thoughtful in figuring out what children need--and want.

Really good food for thought here.

The neighborhood where I work is extremely diverse, and I am constantly on the lookout for books I can add to the collection that feature characters who look like the kids who use my library. And it's getting better, I know, but it's still really hard. Especially when the community has as many Haitian-, Korean-, Brazilian-, Cape Verdean-, Ethiopian- and Pakistani-American kids as it does African-, Chinese- and Mexican-American. Sometimes a pinata-whacking or Chinese dragon-parading story, however well-intentioned and however much of an improvement over the Dick & Janes of the past, is still not enough. The children's book industry has a long way to go, I think, before it can really reflect the diverse population it's meant to serve now.

So, what can we do to change it? How can we let publishers know that librarians and teachers and parents are very much interested in seeing more diversity in children's books? How can we seek out and encourage writers of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to create these books?

Yeah, Eisha, yeah. Exactly. What can we do to change it?

I am going to put on my thinking cap.

It seems to me that the best way to get more diversity in children's picture books is not to stick pinatas in, as it were, but to translate books published in other languages.

I just discovered the International Children's Library, a website where you can download or read on line children's books in all the languagues in which they were written. I posted pictures a few of my favorite Iranian books at my blog, as well as the link. Incidently, Serbian dragons are very strange.

I agree that's part of the answer, Charlotte, and look forward to checking out those links at your blog. Cool.

I also think that in the U.S. we need more books that reflect our country's diversity in both their subject matter and illustrations. For instance, back when Pooja Makhijani wrote here about the Hindu holiday of Diwali, none of us could find many (if any) books that just incorporated the holiday into a larger story. The books we did find--several of which are excellent--were more introductions to the holiday.

Thanks for starting this conversation; it's fascinating and timely. There was an article going around the kidlitosphere a month or so ago--from an India-based children's book publisher--that discussed similar issues. And Anne's brought up the topic of books about Jewish kids, where the Jewishness is always an Issue of some kind (usually holiday, immigration, or anti-Semitism based) and not just woven into the book.

There seem to be certain tropes that Western readers are used to, and Western publishers are used to providing, and that the gatekeepers of the market balk at anything that goes beyond those familiar paths. I think it's actually slightly better than it used to be, in in part due to the Harry Potter phenomenon and the Chicken House and Bloomsbury imprints-- the Britishness is now allowed to stay in British books (more or less), and there seems to be more popular children's literature in translation than there used to be.

Book Book wrote, "There seem to be certain tropes that Western readers are used to, and Western publishers are used to providing, and that the gatekeepers of the market balk at anything that goes beyond those familiar paths."

I see that too with Southern novels for children; several I've read in the last couple of years are direct descendents of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Good book, but, ya know, let's move on. What's it like in the South today? What's it like for a child whose parents immigrated from Latin America and now work at a chicken-processing plant in Arkansas? There are all kinds of stories out there, and I want to hear more of them!

This is great and quite thought-provoking. Thanks for posting it.

Jules (who is very behind on her blog-reading, because of the wonderful SBBT, but I'm trying to get caught up)

One of the best things those of us who want great multicultural books for kids can do is BUY THEM. Publishers are in this to make money. If we support the kinds of books we say we want with our pocketbooks, publishers will give us more.

Susan -- GOOD POINT.
What is life like for these people and this culture today? I think that immediacy is missing from much of multicultural children's books, and that's maybe what causes editors to balk at purchasing much more - it's all basically a spin-off of one idea.

I, too, will be thinking...

Hi, Kim. You're right. Publishing is a business, of course.

When I find good books like I'm talking about, I'll write about them. That's one thing to do.

TadMack, you put your finger on something: immediacy. Yep.

I was amazed to see the cover of Penguin's "Asian-American" children's book catalog. But the cover? It's a lovely painting, but how does a Chinese American kid feel about seeing the pigtail, calligraphy, coolie in canvas clothes ... My book's in the catalog, so I might be getting myself in trouble, but I've been stewing about this.
The text inside is fine but seems to highlight the problematic cover:

"Asians account for a large portion of the world's population,and people of Asian descent in the U.S. are increasing. We are fortunate that the availability of quality Asian American literature has increased over the past decade. It is easy to say "Put more Asian American books in your classroom and library." But that is only a start; the reality is that we need to correct outdated and misinformed images of Asian Americans by eliminating books that are no longer considered appropriate in today's search for culturally authentic material. Our children need books that are culturally sensitive and offer authentic images of Asians and Asian Americans. They need access to a balanced set of books that show all kinds of backgrounds and experiences ... Asian American experiences have their roots in their Asian homeland, but are naturally influenced over generations by living among other Asians and other ethnic Americans. Many Asian American children may feel more connection to the U.S. than to the country of their cultural origin because they were born and raised in the U.S. Both kinds of books are necessary ... Much of the literature about Asians that is used in classrooms is set in "long ago and far away" times. Using only folklore or historical fiction creates a one-sided view among students."

hey, Mitali. I see what you mean. That cover does seem to be a choice that's out of keeping with what's being said inside.

I come back to the multicultural subject again and again, partially because I keep trying to articulate (not to mention figure out!) exactly what I mean. In the US today, I feel like diversity is interwoven into our daily lives, and I'd like to see more books like the fabulous MONSOON SUMMER, which reflect this interwoven quality.

Thanks for the heads up on that catalogue. Hmm.

Very interesting conversation indeed. I second the comment about the importance of BUYING multicultural books. Having worked at two multicultural publishers, that is one of the main things that can keep a business going (obvious, I know). But in terms of finding quality/authentic multicultural books and who can write them - both are tricky questions. I tended to prefer to work with authors who came from the background being represented. This isn't because I think people can't write outside their background, but rather because there is such a domination of books written by white authors about white culture, it seemed important to diversify the authors as well as the stories.

Interesting conversation however, it seems to me, that as a hispanic woman, the people who are mostly worried about this "academic" conversation are the members of the majority group. Is it guilt? Not everyone of hispanic descent is concerned about showing pinatas or having whites as the main characters/stories in literature. We should be proud of every single one of those traditions. The biggest problem with minority children is not that we are, or not, the hero/heroine in the book but the examples of the adults in our lives. If our parents, the spoken word, do not insist in the importance of scholarship and reading who cares about the written word. The second biggest problem is that we are little by little, minimizing the importance of the cultural factors such as generations of values and symbols and replacing them with our modern interpretation of values. The paradigm of the melting pot has all but destroyed the values of the minority groups making them run of the mill Americans. Get better role models within the family unit and that will take care of the problem. Pull up your pants, stop showing all that skin, study hard and work even harder, stop wasting time, be respectful of your elders and most of all look for something outside of yourself. Look at God, the one who is slowly but surely being relegated to the dusty shelf that no one even looks at.

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