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.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Updates and Downloads

Bringing Asha Home was selected as one of Bank Street College's Best Children's Books of the Year.

The "Indian to Indian" talk really got me wondering if maybe it's time to rethink and reframe the discussion about multicultural books. No one writing for the adult literary market has to compete with Charles Dickens any more, but being that children's books hang around forever, I sometimes feel I'm still trying to compete with–well, Jungle Book. And so many schools and libraries still seem to espouse the idea of selecting books based mostly on the community's demographics. So this week my talk at the joint conference of the New Mexico/Mountains and Plains Library Associations in Albuquerque was titled Beyond Food, Flowers, and Festivals: Evaluating Culturally Specific Books. It featured a number of titles, including Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's Almost to Freedom, Cynthia Leitich Smith's Tantalize (some cultures are guaranteed to be new and surprising to all of us!), Janet Wong's Minn and Jake, Lulu Delacre's Rafi and Rosi, my Naming Maya and The Closet Ghosts, and others. Some you'd think of as "multicultural" books, and others you wouldn't. Download the handout here (pdf file)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Updates and Downloads

Bringing Asha Home is on the CCBC Choices 2007 list.

Coming up, this evening in fact, is the National Writing Project Rural Sites Network conference in Albuquerque NM. I'll be speaking at the opening dinner along with Marguerite Houle (Vermont College grad, MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults, Summer 06). Our session is titled "Indian to Indian: How Humor Dances Across Borders and Speaks the Truth."
Download our handouts here (pdf format):
Marguerite's bibliography
Uma's bibliography

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Blue Rose Girls: POETRY FRIDAY: Yoga Poems

Look for Janet Wong's wonderful book of yoga poems, Twist, illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Author-illustrator interviews on the Blue Rose Girls: POETRY FRIDAY blog