in all blogs
Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Intercultural understanding, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 30
By: Roger Sutton
Blog: Read Roger - The Horn Book editor's rants and raves
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Horn Book Magazine
, Intercultural understanding
, Add a tag
When I was a child, growing up in the various parts of India to which my father’s job took us, books were my friends, and I liked them funny. I discovered my grandfather’s P. G. Wodehouse collection at the age of eleven and was at once enchanted by the amiable lunacy of fictional worlds like the Drones Club and Blandings Castle. Lovable and ludicrous, they allowed me to claim an understanding of characters very different from me. I was at that age when laughter comes easily and convoluted story lines feel newly accessible. Plum’s immortal farces were a gift.
But funny isn’t something we’re taught to respect. That could be why, when writers embark on the serious business of crossing cultural boundaries in their work, they don’t often start out with humor. In 2004, Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith spoke at the Reading the World conference about the dearth of funny books with cultural resonance. Why, they asked, are multicultural books so very serious?
It was a valid question then. What’s surprising is the degree to which it remains valid today, especially in books for middle-grade readers. Books set in foreign countries are still largely about oppression, while those in hyphenated-American communities are about the challenges of finding oneself and becoming American. While many have humorous moments, they are not, by and large, funny books.
It seems especially necessary that children’s books, in the balance, convey more than a one-dimensional image of “the other,” yet the identity tale of oppressed people continues to dominate those books dubbed “multicultural.” Perhaps the problem is that the very notion of a culturally grounded story is perceived as worthy and important, not concepts we associate with laughter. But the truth is that you can’t see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity. Funny books with cultural contexts are capable of subverting and questioning issues of identity and belonging. By upsetting worthy apple carts, they offer new and necessary views of characters with cultural connections beyond the mainstream.
The pioneer in mixing humor with matters of race, culture, and, yes, oppression is undoubtedly Christopher Paul Curtis. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 was published in 1995. The scene in which Byron’s lips get stuck to the family car’s side-view mirror is the one most readers call to mind, but there are others, many of them much more pointed than that one, as when the boys are faced with the prospect of going to the bathroom in the woods. Byron says, sardonically, “Snakes? I ain’t scared of no damn snake, it’s the people I’m worried about.” He means white people, of course, on the family’s journey south. The humor slams the reader with the grimness of the circumstances, even while it gives the characters a means of coping.
Humor in The Watsons is a mechanism Curtis uses to lead readers to an understanding of the insidiousness of racism and discrimination. It allows us to align clearly with one group of people and against another, in a deliberate stance that counters the prejudices of the period. If you’re with Kenny and his family, you can’t condone the racism they have to endure. Inequity, discrimination, and injustice give thematic impetus to the characters’ journeys. Because we can laugh, we can bear to navigate those obstacles along with them.
Since 1995, other writers of multicultural books have ventured into humorous terrain. In Julia Alvarez’s How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay, the unorthodox use of a strikeout in the title places a tongue-in-cheek tonal stamp on the work before the reader has turned a single page. It’s plain that this relative is about to change young Miguel’s life forever. He can’t hold out against this woman who is practically a force of nature, and neither can the reader. Her character, larger than life and twice as real, creates a playfulness that runs through the book and it
And why does everyone think we all understand football? Last week I finally saw The Blind Side, whose climax involves a football game and a kid learning how to change from being a crap football player to a great footballer player. I couldn't tell the difference between what he was doing wrong and what he was doing right, despite the p r o l o n g e d football footage.
Now I'm reading Louis Sachar's new book The Cardturner, which revolves perhaps obsessively around the game of bridge. But what does Sachar, via his narrator Alton, evoke to explain it? Yup:
"I realize that reading about a bridge game isn't exactly thrilling. No one's going to make a movie out of it. Bridge is like chess. A great chess player moves his pawn up one square, and for the .0001 percent of the population who understand what just happened, it was the football equivalent of intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown."
Now I'm two
times deeper in the dark.
Whom? I never get that right.
In either case, J. L. Bell has posted one of the smartest things I've yet read about color and reading. Much of the current blogging discussion about the "whitewashing" of covers, etc., assumes that if evil publishers and ignorant librarians would only change their ways and open their eyes they would see a world of unprejudiced young readers eager to devour books regardless of the color of skin on the cover or on the main character. But as Bell asks, do we know this to be true or do we simply want to believe it?
I've been working on an essay about the last ten years in children's book publishing (note to ALA: yes, it's coming, already) and while I can be as self-righteous as anyone about the cynicism of publishing, I can also see that the school and library forces that, in the past, informed a moral code in children's books have an increasingly small impact upon an increasingly small piece of the business. The gatekeepers didn't "make" Harry Potter or Twilight, they followed along.
On a related note, I laughed when I read a reader's comment about the Times report on the Oscar nominations: "'Urban drama' means there are black people in it, in case anyone was wondering. Come ON, New York Times!"
Responding to the drama about Bloomsbury twice whitewashing a character on a book jacket, Mitali Perkins has a poll going on about how young readers react to covers with non-white characters. Go on over and cast your vote.
One thing and one thing only I want to say about the Bloomsbury covers and the call to boycott the publisher: Doesn't anyone think it's great that Bloomsbury is actually publishing books about kids of color where the color is not exactly the main thing? Okay, two more things: would Liar and Magic Under Glass have been published if their authors were not white, and would the covers have been the same?
Back from ALA but barely. Returned to Boston Tuesday evening then spent Wednesday on the phone for a Horn Book board meeting; faced today with two hundred pages of Guide editing and my Simmons class coming over to talk about reviewing in situ. It was a great conference--the author interviews went very well despite some problems with the sound system and Katrina was a selling demonette. Saw lots of old friends (including one I hadn't seen in thirty years, only at ALA via her library-architect girlfriend) and made plenty of new ones, too. Nikki Grimes's Horn Book article started kicking up a fuss on Monday when we published the new issue, and I hope the conversation continues. More later, with photos.
Wow, what a great movie. I'd gone in expecting another Spirited Away, which I found gorgeous but rambling and portentous and adult, but Ponyo is a true kids' movie. That's not to say I didn't have a fine time playing spot-the-allusion--forget "The Little Mermaid," Ponyo has The Magic Flute all over it--but the heroes seem like true five-year-olds. I also loved the way the human boy, Sosuke, interacted with his mother Liz Lemon--needing her, disregarding her, helping her--and always from the point of view of a kid, not from an adult's idea of how a kid should view things. It's great, too, in a world of airbrushed Pixar animation, to see moving pictures again--when was the last time a cartoon showed what looked like a hand-drawn line? And, best of all, I never once heard a joke or saw a scene that seemed intended as a sop or wink to the adults in the audience, something even the best Pixar movies do regularly. I love the fact that even nine-year-olds might feel too old for this film.
I think Sendak would adore this movie--it was preceded by a preview of Where the Wild Things Are and, truth be told, I felt a little worried by the wooden dialogue. But let's wait for the whole thing.
Zetta Elliott makes some great points re people of color in books and as authors.
Without in any way diminishing the very real problem of the white worldview of children's book publishing, I am struck by how often and widely charges of non-representation ("why aren't there more _____ in children's books?" "where are the books for ____ children?") are made of children's and YA literature. Books for and about boys. Books that show children in non-traditional families. Books that show children in traditional families, attending church. Middle-class black people. Girls who don't like pink.
The thinking goes that if there were more books about and for _____, more kids who are the same _____ would read. I wonder. Although I do believe that readers, at least in part, read for "the shock of recognition" Richard Peck talks about, I'm not sure that translates to wanting to read books "about people like me." It's more about being able to see yourself in circumstances unlike your own. To take the argument to its absurd conclusion, the belief that books should reflect their readers' circumstances means we could all give up reading and just look in the mirror.
But the concern here isn't so much with readers but with nonreaders. Do you remember the scandal of a few years ago with those Freakonomics guys, claiming that an enjoyment of reading was genetic? That kids didn't read because their parents read to them twenty minutes a day, they did so because their parents, as readers, were more likely to read to them twenty minutes a day? This is a little too mechanistic for me but I don't discount it completely. The pursuit of a more varied literary universe is an unalloyed wonderful thing--for readers. But I don't know that it will swell the ranks.
Due to popular demand, we're posting Lelac Almagor's And Stay Out of Trouble: Narratives for Black Urban Children from the September/October special issue on Trouble. And to further, er, trouble the waters, we have a response to the article from writer Sharon G. Flake. I'd be interested to hear any comments in the comments.
As previously mentioned, I am going to California to see our boys, their wives and the new grandson. Kitty and Lolly will be here to keep you all in line and I'll be back next week. Au reservoir!
Pirate Pete asked my thoughts on the Almagor/Flake debate. I was unable to post while it was at its height and did not want to stomp in at the end, but I felt like they were both right, a situation made possible because they weren't talking about the same thing.
It's the same dilemma we see presented by the Coretta Scott King Awards. Why is there not more overlap between the CSK Awards and the Newbery and Caldecott? While some have speculated, evidence be damned, that the Newbery and Caldecott committees sometimes pass over books by African Americans because they figure the CSK committee will fill in the blanks, I think it is because the committees have radically different criteria for their choices.
Where the terms for both the Newbery and Caldecott specifically say that those awards "[are] not for didactic intent," here is the CSK explicitly endorsing didacticism: "Given to African American authors and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions, the Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society."
The current dominant mode of children's-book evaluation at least nominally disdains "didacticism," by which it means preachiness or sermonizing. But the provision of explicitly uplifting messages (and, in picture books, the explicitly sermon-structured text) is a prevailing, if by no means absolute, characteristic of contemporary African American literature for young people. Whether this is because of the CSK criteria or whether the criteria and the literature spring from the same aesthetic, I don't know, but I think that the arguments on the Debating Black Books thread demonstrated more than anything an underlying disagreement of terms.
Over at SLJ's excellent Heavy Medal, Nina Lindsay and the Horn Book's own Jonathan Hunt are playing Siskel and Ebert with A Season of Gifts, a debate I predicted (or precipitated--my working theory about FlashForward) a couple of weeks ago.
So, what does it mean--if anything--that Phillip Hoose's National Book Award winning Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice is ineligible for the Coretta Scott King Award (because Hoose is white) and Jerry Pinkney's Lion & the Mouse is in the same position because it isn't about black people? Does it not matter, or have the CSK awards painted themselves into a corner?
People all over the Internet are making of fun of Jennifer Lopez for the remarks reproduced below, but to me she sounds like just about every author or illustrator of children's books I know. Especially this week.
I feel like I had that [Oscar worthy role] in El Cantante, but I don’t even think the academy members saw it. I feel like it’s their responsibility to do that, to see everything that’s out there, everything that could be great. Well, it is a little bit frustrating. It was funny; when the Oscars were on, I had just given birth on the 22nd, and the Oscars, I think, were a day or two later. I was sitting there with my twins—I couldn’t have been happier—but I was like, ‘How dope would it have been if I would’ve won the Oscar and been here in my hospital bed accepting the award?’ ‘Thank you so much! I just want to thank the academy!’ But we joked about it. It’s all good. Things will happen when they’re supposed to happen. I have the utmost faith and no doubt that it will one day, when and if it’s supposed to. You can’t get all crazy twisted over it.
Missed Connections: leaving Stony Brook station around 6:00 PM yesterday. Me, tall middle-aged man in a bowtie listening to iPod. You, medium-height young woman reading the Horn Book.
Any authors out there ever similarly catch a reader unawares?
I'm intrigued by Arthur Laurents's plans to bring West Side Story to Broadway next winter in a "bilingual revival," having the Puerto Rican characters speaking Spanish and otherwise making the show "more realistic." (Here's hoping he doesn't try to set it in the present, though, because that gorgeous, swanky 1950s brass would sound as corny as Kansas in August.)
That theme of bridging cultures (I know WSS is based on R&J, but making the Montagues and Capulets into Jets and Sharks throws us into contemporary contexts) came to me yesterday when I was editing a Guide review of The Umbrella Queen, a picture book by Shirin Yim Bridges and Taeeun Yoo. Apparently based on the "umbrella village" of Bo Sang in northern Thailand, the story is about a little girl, Noot, who longs to paint umbrellas the way all the women in the village do, but instead of painting the traditional patterns of flowers and butterflies, she paints elephants. The Thai king comes to judge the umbrellas in the annual contest and names Noot the winner, "because she paints from her heart." It's a nice enough little story, but has an unacknowledged dynamic that shows up time and again in American books for children about "other cultures," allegedly honoring different cultural norms but in fact contravening them to celebrate the spirit of individual expression. (Historical fiction does this too, as Anne Scott MacLeod wrote in a brilliant essay for us.) It's a case where the story's need for conflict subverts its simultaneous claim on cultural authenticity. There's no story if Noot happily paints flowers and butterflies, but the fact that she triumphs by painting elephants says, in effect, that the tradition that inspired the story isn't worth holding on to. Can you have it both ways?
Two books reviewed in the forthcoming issue of the Horn Book Guide:
From Bearport, Meish Goldish's Deadly Praying Mantis
From Lerner, Sandra Markle's Praying Mantises: Hungry Insect Heroes
Nothing* p.o.'d the late Zena Sutherland more than a nonfiction children's book ascribing virtue or venality to animals.
*Except maybe simultaneous translation in dialogue, as in "'Hola, Juan!' exclaimed the pretty teacher to the new brown-eyed and chubby-cheeked boy, 'Hello.'"
Maybe Sherry Jones, whose The Jewel of Medina was cancelled by Ballantine for fear of Muslim terrorist rage, was just working with the wrong division of Random House. The copyright page of each fall 08 Random House ARC I've received states "Random House Children's Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read."
Mitali Perkins Facebooked and Twittered a question to her friends: "should an author describe the race of a character or leave it to the reader's imagination?"
Good question, and she got some good answers. (Thanks, Gail, for the tip.)
It's a question we also face in reviewing--when do we mention the ethnicity or skin color of a character and when do we not? Sometimes, relaying details of the story will make things clear enough, but it's tougher when reviewing everyday-life-type stories, especially picture books, where the characters happen to be one color or another in a way that has no particular effect on the story or theme. And, as Justina Chen Headley points out in Mitali's post, we tend to mention skin color only when that color is not white. Awwwwwkward. I remember when Ms. magazine made a go of using "European American" wherever white people showed up in a story but it didn't last.
(And, really, there should be some kind of prize for the awkward ways in which well-meaning children's writers signal skin color: "Kathy's cocoa-brown-with-a-hint-of-whipped-cream face glowed warmly as she reveled in the attention of her more boringly-tinted friends." Yeah, I made that up but you know what I mean.)
I mentioned over on Facebook showing one of my favorite Christmas movies, The Snowman, based on Raymond Briggs's book, to the little Dutch kids from downstairs. One is two and the other four and they both seem to enjoy the film (or maybe it's just that hypno-glaze the Snowman himself demonstrates when he watches TV for the first time). But Elizabeth said, "But the snowman dies! Were the kids ok? I've heard that used as the 'difference between Americans and Europeans' argument. We have Frosty, who comes back to life. Their snowman dies."
They seemed okay--when the boy in the movie opens the door into the sunny morning to greet his friend, the four-year-old said "he melted." She also said "it was all a dream," so maybe she's just a realist by nature. I'm guessing she doesn't understand enough about death to see melting as possibly analogous. Has anyone else experience with sharing this movie with young kids?
Here's a link to that Bloomberg article we were discussing in yesterday's post.
PW has announced its (casually) bookseller-chosen Cuffie Awards, with Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury's Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes as the picture book pick. It is a big favorite here, too, getting a starred review and a spot on our Fanfare 2009 list. Every parent I know loves it, and the text and design beg for story hour sharing.
But I have a nagging problem with it. The whole point of the book is that everyone has ten fingers and ten toes, and that while we celebrate each baby's uniqueness, isn't it great that they (and, by extension, we) have this particular array of anatomy in common? "And both of these babies, / as everyone knows, / had ten little fingers / and ten little toes."
Except, of course, when babies don't. Not everybody does--some are born with fewer (or lose them due to disease or accident), some come with an extra one or two, some people don't even have two hands, for God's sake. I know that these people are relatively rare, but there is something that bothers me when a book so determinedly inclusive manages to be so clueless about what it's actually saying. If this book had a mouth, it would be cramming all ten toes into it right now. You would never (knowingly) read this book to a child who didn't have ten fingers and toes, would you? And shouldn't that give us pause about sharing it with the ones who do?
I don't usually have much patience for debates about "sensitivity" and have no idea why this book bugs me as much as it does.
Esme Codell takes Marc Aronson's part in this perpetual debate. One historical point--Esme cites Ouida Sebestyen's Words By Heart as one book that "makes an outstandingly inspirational and educational contribution to an African-American audience and to everyone else as well," thus making the Coretta Scott King Awards suffer for its ineligibility. But I remember the intensity with which the Council on Interracial Books for Children tore into that book for what they saw as its obliviously blinkered whiteness, which is just what the CSK Awards are trying to avoid. But the main argument, as made by Andrea Davis Pinkney and others in our pages, is that the point of those awards is to bring black writers and illustrators into the field and reward them for uplifting books. Ten years on from that debate, I have more problems with the second half of that equation than the first. Good messages do not always a good book make and frequently are the cause of its shortcomings.
The Horn Book has a snow day today but our latest issue is out and, partly, up. We've posted an intelligently bristling argument from Farah Mendlesohn what's wrong with contemporary YA SF as well as veteran Joanna Rudge Long's thoughts on what to look for in a "Three Little Pigs." The print Magazine also includes Susan Fletcher's moving account of her epistolary friendship with Elvand, an Iranian writer and translator and we solicited stories of similar friendships from a handful of other authors for children. Catherine Murdock weighs in on the absence of mothers in children's books--it's A Good Thing--and Elizabeth Wein looks back in time. In better bookstores, bathrooms, and libraries now (or soon).
From Work with Children in Public Libraries by Effie L. Power (ALA, 1943):
"Nationality and race influence mode and type of reading and therefore library selection. Jewish boys and girls are inclined to read serious books on mature subjects, and Italian children who live most naturally out-of-doors under sunny skies read reluctantly but enjoy picture books, poetry, and fairy tales. German American children make wide use of books on handicrafts which Jewish children largely ignore and from which Italian children choose few except those related to arts, such as wood carving, metal designing, and painting. The Czech children read history and biography. Probably the greatest readers of fiction are found among native American children."
I do like this:
"Girls, like boys, are seeking life, but in a different way. They need some so-called boys' books with moving plots and an adventurous hero to take them out of themselves and to keep them from becoming too introspective; for the opposite reason boys need some of the so-called girls' books, for their suggestions of self-analysis and wholesome sentiment."
The most arcane thing I've found thus far is a small LP from 1963 called "A Message from Lois Lenski: The Making of a Picture Book." Who's got a record player?
The May/June issue is out, bedecked with a pastelly portrait of Frances the badger digging into her bread and jam. Along with the articles you can read online--an interview with Sarah Dessen, Jack Gantos on booze and books, Janet Hamilton on science books--the print edition includes an essay by Linda Sue Park about food, glorious food in children's books with associated anecdotes by Lynne Rae Perkins and Peter Sis and a heartbreaking poem by Arnold Adoff; Lizza Aiken writing about her mother Joan; and writer Debby Dahl Edwardson on what raising children in the Arctic taught her about the who-can-write-what-about-whom debates. Caldecott Honor winner (and once co-conspirator with me in creating the perfect birthday present for Elizabeth) Melissa Sweet contributes the Cadenza, "4 p.m." Subscribe, already.
View Next 4 Posts
Eric Carle and Walter Dean Myers are USBBY's nominees for next year's Hans Christian Andersen Awards. The complete list of nominees is here.
The disproportionate number of men, worldwide, nominated for this award this year reminds me to link to Editorial Anonymous's current discussion of the CSK Who-Can-Win-What question. My thoughts on that have already been documented*; let me also remind you that the Horn Book will this July be publishing the speeches by the winners of the CSK Author and Illustrator Awards along with those by the usual Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder crowd.
*But let me just add: after a year in which two of the biggest buzzed books, Kingdom on the Waves and Chains, were by white people writing in the voice of African Americans, let me just say that EA is NUTS to think white writers are excluded from publishing about blacks by virtue of their exclusion from the CSK.