Saturday, March 17, 2007

Beyond Food, Flowers, and Festivals

In response to requests for more specifics, here's a little more about my presentation at NMLA/MPLA: the rationale for it, and a brief overview.

I started with Rudine Sims Bishop's categories of multicultural books (from Mingshui Cai's Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults: Reflections on Critical Issues):
  1. culturally specific books that illuminate the experience of growing up in a particular non-white cultural group;
  2. generically American books that feature members of so-called minority groups but don’t do much to define those groups culturally, or the cultural content is homogenized;
  3. culturally neutral books that feature people of color but are fundamentally about something else.
But those categories are changing and growing as more writers of color enter the market. Meanwhile even though some terrific scholarship exists I also find that on the ground, schools and libraries often end up making buying decisions based not on the qualities of books or where they fit in any kind of analytical assessment, but instead on how the demographics are shifting in their communities. So I hear a lot of "your books are lovely but I don't have any South Asians in my area. I have (xyz) people." This kind of nose-counting exercise really takes us away from the conversation of books. The way I see it any of us writers of color can write today because Virginia Hamilton trod this ground before us. That's not to conflate us all into a single category but to make the point that all kinds of children ought to be reading all kinds of books.

For years I've been talking about our need to get "beyond food, flowers and festivals" (the tokens by which multicultural books have long been represented on shelves). Then I discovered that Mingshui Cai writes in similar vein about 4F's (food, fashion, festivals, and folklore). Given the recent success of American Born Chinese and some of Joseph Bruchac's new mystery titles, I'd argue that folklore might no longer belong in that scheme. I think it's making a comeback, but in a new way.

The other point I made in the talk is that if there's no humor in a culturally grounded book we should wonder how authentic it is. Writers who capture the essence of a culture also always seem to capture laughter in some form, even (or maybe especially) when the subject is dark or difficult.

I didn't include books written about cultural groups by writers from outside those groups (so-called "cultural courier" books). Not because I want to make a blanket statement about them, but because that's another conversation altogether.

I did talk about ways to assess multicultural books, by examining aspects of craft and posing lots of questions: What's the story? Who are the characters and what do they want? Is the setting now or long ago? If long ago whose version of that time? Does the story privilege one set of values over another? Are assumptions made about whose values are better, the reader's presumed values or those of the character? Who's telling the story and why? I mentioned the work of Sandra Williams who studied patterns in the development of national children's literatures of Singapore and Nepal. I heard her speak in Singapore a couple of years ago and she raised some really interesting questions about children's literature as an expression of identity.

There was lots more along those lines. We looked at several titles as examples. I'd passed out books randomly to people in the audience and I had them read when we got to considering each title, so people could leave with a lot of different writers' (and readers') voices in their heads.

We ran out of time and I inadvertently ended before a possible Q & A by mentioning book giveaways, at which point all those who had green stickies on their chairs got up to claim their books and that was that. (Lesson: same deal as in elementary school when you don't give out the art supplies until you've reached the point of planned creative chaos!) But several people (we had maybe 70-80 attending the session) came up afterwards to tell their own reading, writing, teaching, learning stories. So I know this was an important conversation because people seemed to want to hang around and talk.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Uma, and for advancing this conversation. I'll be sure to link on Cynsations.

  2. Uma, it's amazing that you're bringing this up at this time. My friend Gail, who is African American, has her first picture book coming out in the fall, Shante Keyes and the New Year's Peas, and she was just telling me about wanting to expand "beyond food" in her school visits.
    We've also discussed the lack of humor in many multicultural books. If I didn't know any black people, for example, I would guess from their children's books that they were very serious people in general. CB

  3. My response zigackly. Cyn and Greg were the ones who launched me on this exploration of humor with a talk they gave at Reading the World some years ago, about the dearth of funny multiculti books. And since not all writers of color are completely bereft of humor this must reflect--um, something else!

  4. Wish I could have seen your talk, Uma! I'm currently working on a YA novel concerning characters of mixed ethnicity, another "gray area" that isn't currently well reflected in published literature. I think that the more dialogue is opened that goes beyond traditional discussions of multiculturalism, the more interesting (hopefully) the offerings in multicultural literature will get. Thanks for your post! I'll link to it on Finding Wonderland.

  5. Thanks to Cyn and a. fortis for the links. I wanted my picture book, Bringing Asha Home to show a family of mixed ethnicity without hitting the reader over the head with the idea. Identity can be a tricky thing to convey without being heavy-handed.