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):
- culturally specific books that illuminate the experience of growing up in a particular non-white cultural group;
- 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;
- culturally neutral books that feature people of color but are fundamentally about something else.
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.