Volume 3 Number 2
©The Author(s) 2001
Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls
Children's picture books have an increasingly significant place in early childhood classrooms. Picture books that depict the variety of ethnic, racial, and cultural groups within U.S. society (known generally as multicultural picture books) allow young children opportunities to develop their understanding of others, while affirming children of diverse backgrounds. This paper discusses the possibilities and the pitfalls involved in the selection of multicultural literature for use with young children, examines two books featuring Mexican American protagonists to illuminate issues and problems in the images the books present of Mexican Americans, discusses some contemporary theories on race as ways of understanding such issues and problems, and considers possible actions for early childhood educators and teacher education programs to take.
Children's picture books have an increasingly significant place in U.S. early childhood classrooms. Fiction, poetry, and nonfiction offer young children a multitude of opportunities to gain information, to become familiar with print, to be entertained, and to experience perspectives other than their own. Picture books that depict the variety of ethnic, racial, and cultural groups within U.S. society (known generally as multicultural picture books) allow young children opportunities to develop their understanding of others, while affirming children of diverse backgrounds. In this paper, we will (1) discuss the possibilities, which we conceptualize as positive, and the pitfalls involved in the selection of multicultural literature for use with young children; (2) examine two books featuring Mexican American protagonists to illuminate issues and problems in the images the books present of Mexican Americans; (3) discuss some contemporary ideas about race as a way of looking at the possibilities and pitfalls of choosing multicultural picture books; and (4) invite further dialogue and action by early childhood educators and teacher education programs regarding race, children's literature, and young children.
Children's Literature and Early Childhood Education
The growing role of children's literature in the lives of young children may be seen in the numbers of books published per year. In 1940, 984 books for children were published in the United States. In 1997, there were 5,353 such books (Huck, Hepler, Hickman, & Kiefer, 2001). In a study of picture books reviewed or recommended in Young Children (the National Association for the Education of Young Children's practitioner journal), Reese (2001) found a similar increase. During the 9-year period from 1945 to 1954, 37 children's books were recommended, while 904 were recommended between 1990 and 1999. This increase reflects a growing awareness of what children's literature can bring to the early childhood classroom.
Uses of Children's Literature: Aesthetic, Psychosocial, and Instructional
Children's literature can serve several purposes, some of which are aesthetic, psychosocial, and informative/instructional.
Rosenblatt (1995) categorizes readers' involvement in a text along a continuum. At one end is aesthetic reading, in which the person is drawn into the story and participates through identification with characters. The primary goal is enjoyment or entertainment. At the other end of the continuum is efferent reading, in which the reader is primarily interested in gaining information. In their relationships with books, young children may operate all along Rosenblatt's continuum, using books for both enjoyment and learning.
Literature is also seen as having several psychosocial uses for young children. In general, literature is said to provide characters and events with which children can identify and through which they can consider their own actions, beliefs, and emotions. The characters and situations in books introduce children to what the world may look like through others' eyes and offer a chance to further construct their own views of self and the world. One important characteristic of high-quality children's literature, according to Temple, Martinez, Yokota, and Naylor (1998), is the degree to which it "tells the truth" about the human experience. "Moreover, the characters...are true to life, and the insights the books imply are accurate, perhaps even wise" (p. 10). Alison Lurie and others argue that these insights may not always be what adults want children to understand. In fact, children's literature can often be "subversive," celebrating "daydreaming, disobedience, answering back, running away from home, and concealing one's private thoughts and feelings from unsympathetic grown-ups" (Lurie, 1990). Traditional literature in particular, such as legends and fairy tales, is sometimes seen as resonating with common cross-cultural childhood psychological concerns (Bettelheim, 1977) such as abuse, abandonment, and coming of age.
Traditional literature is also seen as having a didactic purpose, at least in original form. Myths, sagas, and other aspects of oral traditions are said to have been vehicles by which any society would pass on knowledge, ideas, and admonitions to its children, in the absence of a writing system. Feminist scholarship has reframed many European fairy tales as carrying the culture's models for young women (Rowe, 1986; Lieberman, 1986). Contemporary educators in the United States sometimes use traditional literature as a window on other cultures, but this practice is seen as problematic (Hearne, 1993); Zipes, 1986). Nonfiction, or informational books, have openly didactic purposes: to foster an interest in inquiry and involvement in the world (McElmeel, 1995) or to inform, instruct, and enlighten (Freedman, 1992). Nonfiction literature is expected to make clear distinctions between fact, theory, and opinion. Scientific, mathematical, and historical content must be accurate, verifiable, and up to date; and stereotypes must be avoided (Elleman, 1992). An increasing number of informational books are written and illustrated in a manner that provides aesthetic as well as learning experiences.
Some critics, educators, librarians, and others involved with children and their books assert that literature (except for nonfiction) is art and need not be concerned too much with being verifiable. Others, who see interaction with literature as one potentially powerful factor in the child's construction of knowledge about people and the world, argue that some types of fiction should be held to standards of accuracy and authenticity similar to those for informational books. In line with this concern, some publishers have reissued children's classics such as Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, having altered or removed racist portrayals of Africans. Interest in accuracy and authenticity led Betsy Hearne (1993) to develop a scale for evaluating source notes in books of traditional literature; the ideal source note is explicit about a story's origin. Historical fiction in particular is the site of heated disagreement over the degree to which writers are accountable for historical and cultural accuracy (for examples, see Kohl, 1995; Reese et al., 2001).
One of the most persuasive rationales for sharing literature with young children is that it benefits language and literacy development. For years, researchers, teacher educators, parent educators, and parents have recognized the value of reading to children, and numerous studies document the beneficial effects of reading to preschool children (Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994). For instance, Wells's (1985) correlational study on the effects of picture book reading found that the frequency of listening to stories between the ages of 1 and 3 years was significantly associated with literacy and oral language skills as measured at age 5 by the children's teachers. Textbooks for future educators often include statements such as: "Reading aloud to children is one of the most useful ways of introducing them to the act of reading" (Krogh, 1994, p. 410).
The term "emergent literacy" began to appear in the early 1980s, as researchers sought to reconceptualize what young children know about reading, writing, and print before they begin formal schooling. Children as young as 1 and 2 years old are in the process of becoming literate (Sulzby & Teale, 1991), and the period of emergent literacy is said to continue until children read and write conventionally. This process can take place in the home or in community, day care, Head Start, pre-kindergarten, or formal kindergarten settings. The concept of emergent literacy casts the child as a "constructor of his or her own literacy" (Sulzby & Teale, 1991). Children create meaning from environmental symbols such as McDonald's golden arches (Goodman, 1987), as well as the illustrations and conventional print found in books.
Contemporary recognition and appreciation of the child's emerging literacy is such that Saracho and Spodek (1993) assert, "All early childhood teachers, at every level, must now be considered teachers of reading, even if they do not offer formal reading instruction" (p. xi).
Picture Books for Young Children
Picture books are the genre of choice for sharing with young children, whether teachers read aloud or the children use them independently. Picture books cross genre boundaries and may also be considered fiction, poetry, informational, or traditional literature. In a textbook frequently used with undergraduate preservice teachers, Temple, Martinez, Yokota, and Naylor (1998) identify three types of picture books: (1) wordless books, which rely solely on illustrations to tell a story; (2) picture storybooks, in which illustrations and text work together to tell the story; and (3) illustrated books, in which the text supplies most of the information but the illustrations augment what is said or serve as decoration (p. 171).
Words and illustrations do not simply tell stories. Together in picture books, they also create potentially powerful images of human beings. (See Zipes's  comparison of "Little Red Riding Hood" illustrations.) The child sees representations of peoplemale and female, adult and childin illustrations that foster impressions of whatever sorts of people are being portrayed (Lukens, 1990). In a sense, then, any given picture book featuring people may have a didactic outcome, even if teaching was not the book's intent.
Multicultural Children's Literature
When teachers share books with young children, they offer, among other things, exposure to ways of thinking about other human beings. For the child, illustrations and text combine to create particular views of individuals as well as groups of peoplecomplete with messages about what those people are like.
Prior to the 1960s, people who were not European or European American were virtually invisible in children's literature, or they were depicted in negative and/or stereotypical representations (Aoki, 1993; Nieto, 1997)a trend Harris (1993a) calls "pernicious" (p. 60). This invisibility gained national attention in 1965 when the Saturday Review published an article by librarian Nancy Larrick titled "The All-White World of Children's Books."
Sociocultural changes during the 1960s and 1970s fostered renewed interest in literature for adults and children that reflected "the diverse life experiences, traditions, histories, values, world views, and perspectives of the diverse cultural groups that make up a society" (Grant & Ladson-Billings, 1997, p. 185)in other words, "multicultural literature." Taxel (1995) describes a trend toward addressing "the interests, concerns, and experiences of individuals and groups considered outside of the sociopolitical and cultural mainstream of American society" (p. 155). Initially, European Americans were the exclusive producers of new images of people outside the mainstream. Through the work of individuals and of groups such as the Council on Interracial Books for Children (MacCann, 2001), this situation changed graduallysome would say glaciallyin the ensuing four decades. With varying degrees of success, one can now find children's picture books written or illustrated, or both, by African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans. Interest has also grown in children's books with accurate, respectful portrayals of gay/lesbian people, women, people with disabilities, and religions other than Christianity. A great many of these books are put out by small presses and face barriers to wider use that will be mentioned later in this paper. Overall, however, critics still see much room for progress.
Sims Bishop (1997) sees a dual role for multicultural children's literature; it can serve as a mirror or a window. A child may see his or her own life reflected in a book or may have an opportunity to see into someone else's life. Historically, children's books have given European American middle- and upper-class children the mirror but not the window. They could see themselves in the stories they read and heard, but they were unlikely to see anyone much different from themselves. Conversely, children outside the mainstream have had few literary mirrors that affirm their identities, although they had plenty of windows on life in the dominant culture of the United States.
Good multicultural literature can benefit all children in an early childhood classroom. Teachers enhance children's budding understanding and empathy when they make a point of sharing books that accurately and positively portray the backgrounds of the families in the classroom and that extend children's awareness to the significant groups in their community and the wider world (Derman-Sparks et al., 1989, p. 12).
Literary Criticism and Multicultural Children's Literature
In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison (1990) undertakes an in-depth examination of the presence and absence of images of Africans and African Americans in the adult American literary canon. A related body of critical literature has developed that examines children's literature for bias, stereotyping, and other sociocultural misinformation. Taxel (1995) and others consider such criticism of children's books to be essential "[g]iven the complicity of children's literature, and the rest of society's cultural apparatus, in providing legitimacy for racial and gender-related injustice and oppression..." (p. 163).
These critics often focus on well-known children's booksincluding some winners of prestigious awardsto illuminate their points about Eurocentrism and related problems (Atleo et al., 1999; Moore & Hirschfelder, 1999; Slapin & Seale, 1998; Kohl, 1995). Using primary sources for historical and cultural information, they give voice to viewpoints not often heard in the world of children's literature. They raise issues of accuracy and authenticity, questioning the perspectives, and sometimes the motives, of European American authors and illustrators who tell stories about or on behalf of marginalized peoples. They also strive to enlighten the public about literature that offers accurate information and authentic insider perspectives.
This criticism is likely to be found outside the widely recognized journals. In fact, mainstream publications may be reluctant to include reviews that put forward what they consider "extraliterary" (i.e., political) criticism (Reese, 2000). In contrast, reviews in Multicultural Journal, The New Advocate, and Multicultural Review are likely to consider cultural and historical accuracy and authenticity in books they examine. A number of textbooks (Harris, 1993b; Lehr, 1995) with similar critical bent are aimed at future educators.
Common Pitfalls in Selecting Multicultural Books for Children
Popular but Problematic Books: The First Pitfall
Limited availability of criticism that addresses accuracy, authenticity, and related problems often leads to a major pitfall for teachers seeking multicultural books. Teachers are sometimes caught by the unexamined assumption that a book is multicultural and worthwhile if it has non-European-American characters or themes and is critically acclaimed in well-known journals. For example, Native American scholars Reese and Caldwell-Wood (1997) found several problems when they examined popular picture books written and illustrated by European Americans in which Native American people or ideas play a central role. They note that in these books, the texts and illustrations together present a set of images of Native Americans, and thus a particular way of thinking about them, that is inaccurate and potentially misleading. The books in question received favorable reviews in Horn Book and other mainstream journals, and they have enjoyed years of popularity.
One such book is the award-winning Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, which features illustrations by contemporary European American illustrator Susan Jeffers and text attributed to Seattle, a 19th-century leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish people of the Pacific Coast of North America, who was known to his people as Sealth. In 1992, it was among the top-selling books in the countrya rare achievement for a children's book. Its strong message of environmental consciousness appears to be the basis for its continuing broad appeal. Native American reviewers have, however, identified significant problems with the text and with the illustrations (Seale, n.d.; Reese & Caldwell-Wood, 1997).
The text of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky has an interesting history. According to a 1993 memorandum from the Washington/Northwest Collections office of the Washington State Library (see Appendix I), at least four versions of the speech attributed to Seattle have appeared through history. In January of 1854, he spoke at length during negotiations involving the Suquamish, the Duwamish, and the U.S. government. Historians agree that the speech was translated into Chinook jargon "on the spot" since Seattle did not speak English. The first print version of what he said was not published until October 29, 1887, in a Seattle Sunday Star column by Dr. Henry A. Smith, a witness to the 1854 speech who had reconstructed and translated the speech from his notes. In the late 1960s, poet William Arrowsmith rewrote the speech in a somewhat more contemporary style, though it is still similar to Smith's version (Ellen Levesque, personal communication, September 29, 1993).
Later, Ted Perry created another version for "Home," a historical program about the northwest rain forest televised in 1971 (Jones & Sawhill, 1992). This version was constructed as if it were a letter to President Franklin Pierce, though "no such letter was ever written by or for Chief Seattle" (Ellen Levesque, personal communication, September 29, 1993). A shortened edition of the "letter" was exhibited at Expo '74 in Spokane, Washington.
At the end of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, Susan Jeffers writes, "The origins of Chief Seattle's words are partly obscured by the mists of time." She mentions Smith's version and states that, like Joseph Campbell and unnamed others, she has adapted the message. Readers and listeners are left with the impression that the book offers perhaps an abridged version of the actual speech. The Suquamish tribe's Web site (http://suquamish.org) reproduces the 1887 version, which addresses with great depth of feeling the state of Native-White relations in that place and time. In it, Seattle reluctantly, and perhaps with some anger, agrees that he and his people will move to a reservation, on the condition that they be able to visit their ancestors' graves without interference. Environmental responsibility does not appear to be the topic.
At some point after the first edition, copies of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky began to feature dust jackets with a statement from Jewell Praying Wolf James, "lineal nephew of Chief Seattle," saying that "....In Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, Chief Seattle's words have been transformed into an experience children of all ages and localities can use...."
The transformation of Seattle's words in the book exemplifies a problem Native American scholars, critics, and activists frequently identify: the co-opting of Native voices by non-Native writers. The several European Americans, including Jeffers, who have seemed to act as conduits for Seattle's words have in fact altered his original message considerably. Valuable and heartfelt though its environmental message may be, and despite the apparent support of Seattle's descendant, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky is seen as an example of how Native people's words have been obscured through appropriation.
Native American reviewers also note problems with the illustrations in Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. Counting the cover and end papers, there are 16 paintings. Horses figure prominently in 8 of these. Seattle himself was not from a horse culture. The Suquamish and Duwamish homeland is the northwest coast of the United States, and their traditional clothing, homes, and means of transport reflect that location.
Jeffers's illustrations, however, frequently represent Plains cultures. Current book jackets feature a quote from Jeffers: "My aim...was to portray people and artifacts from a wide array of nations because the philosophy expressed in the text is one shared by most Native Americans." Without a note in the text explaining which cultures are portrayed in each picture, however, young readers have no way to know that Seattle's people did not wear large feathered headdresses and fringed buckskin, live in tipis, and spend a lot of time on horseback. Long-standing stereotypes about Native dress and lifeways are thus reinforced (Reese & Caldwell-Wood, 1997).
Moreover, several illustrations, including the cover, show Native people as partially transparent, ghost-like figures. In contrast, the blue-eyed boy on the cover looks solid and lifelike, as does a group that appears to be a modern European American family at the end of the book. In combination with the fact that all Native people are represented in historical traditional rather than contemporary clothing, this portrayal suggests that Native Americans, in contrast to European Americans, no longer exist as a viable people. They have vanished and are only memories or spirits. Thus Brother Eagle, Sister Sky is not only seen as historically inaccurate in attributing its words to Chief Seattle; it also is viewed as perpetuating common visual stereotypes of Native Americans.
Reese and Caldwell-Wood also critique authenticity in Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott (1978) and Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin and John Archambault (1987), illustrated by Ted Rand. They are not alone in their criticism (Slapin & Seale, 1998). In Arrow to the Sun, author/artist Gerald McDermott misrepresents Pueblo social life, religious beliefs, and ceremonial practices (Reese & Caldwell-Wood, 1997). For Pueblo people, kivas are places of ceremony and instruction, not places of trial, but in Arrow to the Sun, the protagonist goes through a series of trials in the kivas. Readers may thus be misinformed about Pueblo beliefs. Furthermore, Perry Nodelman (1988), who is otherwise not especially critical of the book, notes that McDermott's uses of line, shape, and color differ in important ways from authentic Pueblo kiva art (pp. 94-95). This remaking of traditional art is visually engaging (it won a Caldecott Medal), but it fails to reflect the reality of either Pueblo design or religious belief (Reese & Caldwell-Wood, 1997, p. 175).
In Knots on a Counting Rope, Ted Rand's illustrations suggest primarily that the story is set in the Navajo nation, but his work shows a mix of material culture from several different nations. For example, traditional Navajo men in the story are shown with hairstyles typical of the Atsina, Blackfeet, Mandan, and Piegan nations. Also, Pueblo people are shown at a horse race wearing traditional ceremonial clothing that would be inappropriate for such an occasion (Reese & Caldwell-Wood, 1997, p. 177). Many readers have no way of knowing how to identify such problems and are left with misinformation about several Native cultures, while Native readers from those cultures are confronted with the discomfort of being misrepresented.
The responses of Native critics to these three books suggest that neither critical acclaim nor representations of cultures other than European American can guarantee that a book is good multicultural literature. Regardless of how engaging the stories are, or how important their themes, even their subtle inaccuracies may contribute to cultural misunderstanding and to potential discomfort for children whose cultures are inaccurately portrayed. Both the mirror and the window are thus distorted.
Two More Pitfalls in Selecting Multicultural Children's Books
Observers of early childhood classrooms notice two other problems that frequently occur when educators look for multicultural picture books. One is the assumption that a single book about a group can adequately portray that group's experience. We see this situation, for example, in a classroom where observance of African American History Month begins and ends with reading aloud from a book about Dr. Martin Luther King.
The other pitfall is the mistaken belief that one can easily find a wide range of good-quality multicultural literature in libraries and bookstores, so that one has only to visit either venue to locate authentic and accurate representations of non-mainstream groups. Such books exist in growing numbers, but they are not so readily available as one might hope.
The following analysis of two picture books featuring Mexican Americans leads into discussion of both of these pitfalls.
Picture Books Depicting Mexican Americans: Background Information
After the 1990 census, Mexican Americans were identified as the fastest-growing ethnolinguistic group in the United States. At that time, they constituted 5% of the country's entire population and 60% of the Hispanic-origin peoples in the United States (Barrera, Liguori, & Salas, 1993, p. 207). These figures are not, however, reflected in the number of children's books portraying Mexican American people. According to a study by Barrera and Garza de Cortes (1997), the annual average number of Mexican American children's books has risen from approximately 6 between 1940 and 1973 to 19 in the period between 1992 and 1995 (pp. 129-130).
In the following two sections, we consider two picture books with main characters who are Mexican American: A Day's Work by Eve Bunting (1994), illustrated by Ronald Himler, and A Gift from Papa Diego by Benjamin Alire Saenz (1998), illustrated by Geronimo Garcia. For each book, the plot is summarized and the text/illustration relationship examined to find what each book offers children in the way of a mirror or a window on Mexican American cultural experience.
A Day's Work
When A Day's Work begins, Francisco and his grandfather stand with other day laborers in a parking lot, waiting for work. Francisco is a boy of indeterminate age, perhaps between 8 and 10. In the second paragraph, he reveals three facts to this group of strangers: first, that his father has died, leaving his family in financial trouble; second, that his grandfather has recently arrived in the United States to help them; and third, that he plans to use his own English skills to help his Spanish-speaking grandfather find work.
Without telling his grandfather, Francisco decides to lie to a potential employer about his grandfather's skill as a gardener. He and his grandfather hurry to the employer's van, and the boy pushes away another man who tries to get in with them. The employer, Ben, takes them to an embankment to pull weeds and drives away. The two work all day in the hot sun. As they are congratulating themselves on a beautiful job, Ben returns and is outraged to find that they have pulled all his ice plants and left the weeds. Over Francisco's protests, Abuelo offers to repair the damage and remove the weeds without pay. Ben sees that Abuelo is honorable, allows them to come back the next day, and hints that he might hire the grandfather for more than just day labor. Reflecting that "he had begun to learn the important things, too" (p. 32), Francisco takes his grandfather's hand and leads him homeward through a golden cityscape.
Himler's watercolor and gouache illustrations are expressive and evocative, with a kind of gravity that sometimes hints at threat or overwhelming situations. In these illustrations, children see Mexican Americans who:
- Wait for work
- Scramble for work
- Lie to get work
- Push others out of the way to get work
- Are taken somewhere to work
- Work close to an area of high-priced homes
- Work hard and make a serious mistake
- Rest after working, not knowing they have made the mistake
- Are scolded by an employer
- Feel ashamed, dismayed, at fault
- Seek to correct the mistake
- In adulthood, assert moral leadership
- Are allowed by the employer to correct their mistake
- Face the consequences of their actions, thereby winning the employer's respect
- Are at a disadvantage if they do not speak English
- In childhood, mediate between adults who speak English and those who speak Spanish
- Walk home together
- Are males in a male work world
A Day's Work is entirely in English, with the exception of the words abuelo, senora, gracias, bueno, and two two-word phrases. The text refers to Abuelo's having come from Mexico but does not specify what part of the country. There is reference to the tortillas Francisco's mother sends for their lunches and to the chorizo the boy wants to buy with their earnings. Abuelo praises Francisco's English skills. We see the kind of role reversal many immigrant families experience, in which a child who is able to speak English becomes a go-between for the family and the dominant culture (Wong Fillmore, 1991). One also sees the boy taking the lead in finding work, to the point where he lies and pushes away a full-grown man in order to get it. Although Francisco's mother is mentioned, readers see and hear only males in this representation of Mexican Americanshard-working manual laborers.
A Gift from Papa Diego
A Gift from Papa Diego is the story of 6-year-old Diego, who lives in El Paso, Texas. He loves and identifies closely with his paternal grandfather, who lives far away, across the border in Chihuahua. This book is a bilingual parallel book; each page has both English and Spanish versions of the unfolding story. Little Diego lives with his parents and his teasing older sister in a house with a yard. He wants nothing more than to be with his abuelo on his 7th birthday. When a conversation with his father shows that he is not likely to get that wish, Little Diego begs for a Superman costume because he believes it will help him fly to Papa Diego. On his birthday, his family wakes him with a traditional song and he goes off to school imagining how he will fly to Chihuahua if only he receives that costume as a gift. That evening, his wish for the costume comes true, but his hopes are dashed when it does not help him fly. He retreats to his room. When his father invites him to rejoin the family, he doesand finds Papa Diego in the kitchen. Their reunion is joyful.
At the end of the book are a page of notes about the places in the book, a glossary of Spanish terms, and an author-illustrator biography page. The illustrations are photographs of three-dimensional painted terra cotta creations. The mood is light, cheerful, but with a solid, substantial feeling. Children who look at these pages see Mexican Americans who:
- Think about things and explore the world
- Have father-son talks about family issues
- Hug each other
- Wear a tie to work
- Imagine and daydream
- Long to cross a border that separates them from loved ones
- Have family conversations while preparing food
- Experience sibling rivalry
- Play the guitar and sing to a loved one
- Greet each other with affection
- Act on a mistaken idea, with no harm done
- Do kind things for others
- As adults, are sources of love and guidance
- As children, play, go to school, and interact with family members
- Eat together as a family
- Are in all stages of life: infant/child/parent/grandparent
- Are female, are male
- Write books or illustrate them
A Gift from Papa Diego contains detailed, culturally specific information about language and customs, both in the story and in the glossary at the end of the book:
- the Spanish text and the Spanish phrases embedded in the English text,
- the mention of four specific foods,
- family discussions of Chihuahua and the U.S-Mexican border, and
- the special birthday song Little Diego's family sings.
All are cultural markers, indicators that in fact this story is about a Mexican American family. Males and females alike have important roles. The story seamlessly shows how central their culture is in their daily lives.
A Day's Work integrates a few Spanish words and refers to two specific foods. It does not mention a specific area of Mexico or relate specific customs (such as the birthday song in Papa Diego). It counters the "lazy Mexican" stereotype and offers a look at the socioeconomic problems Mexican American immigrants often face, particularly those who do not know English. Its principal focus seems to be on the moral lesson about honesty in the context of working to survive.
The Second Pitfall: Believing a Single Book Is Adequate
Comparison of the two books shows what a difference an insider perspective can make. It is in the authors' approaches to language that the contrast is most apparent. With text in two languages and embedded references to the desirability of speaking both, Papa Diego overtly supportseven invitesdual-language fluency. In A Day's Work, Francisco is praised for his English skills, and Abuelo "doesn't speak English yet" [italics added]. None of the employers, including Ben, seems to know any Spanish. Spanish fluency is presented as unimportant or even unnecessary. In fact, not knowing English is implicitly the root, so to speak, of the trouble Francisco and his grandfather have. Abuelo cannot tell that Francisco has lied to persuade Ben to hire them, and he cannot communicate with Ben about the gardening job. He is completely dependent on his grandson to negotiate these transactions. Bunting's portrayal of Abuelo's predicament, intentionally or not, is situated within the politicized discourse on language in the United States.
A Day's Work is a socially conscious morality tale, presented as a story about a boy and his grandfather. Every major review of A Day's Work stresses the moral lesson about not telling lies and about making reparations after creating a problem. Teachers report using the book specifically to generate discussion about honesty. Bunting is known for her portrayals of people, particularly people of color, who live in poverty; it seems likely that in A Day's Work she means to make a statement (arguably a positive one) about Mexican Americans in U.S. society. A Gift from Papa Diego, on the other hand, is a story about a boy and his grandfathera story about love and familial devotion. Its picture of Mexican American experience is both complex and positive.
While teaching a children's literature class, we had a conversation with a Latina student who objected to A Day's Work. She felt that its outsider perspective resulted in images that fed into the stereotype of Mexican American men as manual laborers. Although the book seemed sympathetic, it still made them none too bright. Not being able to tell a weed from a desirable plant, she said, made Francisco and his grandfather look unnecessarily and unrealistically stupid. She asserted that a Mexican American child reading or hearing this book would likely feel embarrassed. Unimpressed by the fact that A Day's Work was named "A 1994 Americas Commended Title" by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs, she decided its problems outweighed any merits it had, and she would use several other books in her classroom instead (A. Herrera, personal communication, March 23, 2000). Whether or not one agrees with this future teacher's rejection of A Day's Work, her response shows awareness of critical issues and a commitment to providing authenticity and accuracy.
She also avoids the pitfall of assuming that a single book can adequately portray any group's experience. We would not propose that Papa Diego alone is adequate to portray Mexican Americans for young children, of courseLittle Diego's family's white-collar lifestyle is by no means the whole story of Mexican American life. One would need to seek out other titles to create a collection that provides an adequate window and an undistorted mirror.
Availability: A Third Pitfall
Mention of the search for titles leads to another pitfall of selecting multicultural picture books: the notion that accurate and authentic books with insider perspectives are readily available. Recognition and availability are significant factors for teachers seeking to use multicultural children's books. Availability has little to do with literary content but may affect whether a teacher even knows a book exists.
For instance, we had the following experiences when looking for copies of A Day's Work and A Gift from Papa Diego:
- The local library system had four copies of A Day's Work, all of which were checked out until the following week. Two nearby towns also had copies on the shelf.
- The local library had one copy of A Gift from Papa Diego, which was on the shelf and had never been checked out.
- The person who answered the phone at a local bookstore exclaimed, "Beautiful book!" when asked if they had a copy of A Day's Work. They had more than one copy in stock. She did not need to look up this information in the computer.
- The same bookstore employee had never heard of Papa Diego. She looked it up in the computer and said, "We don't stock it, but I can order it for you."
- Both titles were available from online bookseller Amazon.com. As of this writing, the sales ranking of A Day's Work was 3,822. Papa Diego ranked far behind at 243,386.
These experiences are by no means unique. Nor are they surprising, given the nature of the publishing and book-selling businesses. Eve Bunting's position in the world of children's literature is such that her books gain instant recognition. She has published over 100 books from the 1970s to the present. Ronald Himler is also well known; he sells his book illustrations on his Web site. Bunting and Himler do their work for major publishing houses. A Day's Work is put out by Clarion Books, a division of publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Company.
Benjamin Saenz and illustrator Geronimo Garcia do not garner the same recognition. Papa Diego is the first children's book for Saenz, primarily a writer of poetry and adult fiction. Garcia works as a commercial artist in Texas. Cinco Puntos Press, their publisher, is a small press with deep connections to Latina/Latino communities. In 1999, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) rescinded grant money promised to Cinco Puntos Press to assist with publishing a translation of The Story of Colors by Subcomandante Marcos, controversial leader of the Zapatista resistance in Chiapas, Mexico (Chouteau, 1999). A private foundation subsequently supplied money for the book. Cinco Puntos has since put out another book by Marcos with funding from the same foundation (Byrd, 2000).
Both Papa Diego and A Day's Work were favorably reviewed in Horn Book and other major publications. A librarian at the local library was impressed enough by Papa Diego to order a copy, but it remained on the shelf while all copies of A Day's Work were in use. A local bookstore stocked A Day's Work, but not Papa Diego. If the book is not visible, despite positive reviews, potential buyers will not be able to browse through it during their selection processes, and they are unlikely to know it exists.
A Fourth Pitfall: Time
Although the possibilities of using good multicultural literature in the classroom can be exciting, teachers can feel overwhelmed by the prospect of finding and evaluating the books. They do not want to offend anyone, nor do they want to harm any of the children they teach, but they worry they might inadvertently select and share inappropriate books. Typically, teachers' days are already busy and even fragmented; any new task, however worthwhile, can appear monumental.
Reliable, in-depth background information about the diverse groups and cultures in the United States is essential to evaluating multicultural children's literature. Unfortunately, such information may not have been part of teachers' basic elementary and secondary education, nor part of their everyday experience. As a result, many teachers find themselves trying to construct a complex new knowledge base in their adulthood. In the process, they may also need to deconstruct misinformation and biases they have absorbed (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2001), which adds an emotional challenge to the problem of finding time to locate and use available resources for helping children learn about other cultures.
We have discussed four problems teachers may encounter when seeking multicultural picture books for young children. Highly acclaimed books that portray groups other than European Americans, such as the Native American themed books mentioned earlier, may be criticized for perpetuating stereotypes and mistaken ideas. Similarly, as shown in the discussion of two books about Mexican Americans, a single book is unlikely to give an adequate picture of any given culture. Third, a teacher seeking high-quality multicultural books may be hampered by lack of author/illustrator recognition and lack of access to small presses with tiny marketing budgets. Time is the final pitfall; teachers' busy schedules can make the already challenging task of finding and evaluating good multicultural children's literature seem overwhelming.
Educators and preservice teachers can keep in mind that learning how to recognize and share good multicultural literature with children is a process, as is learning about people different from oneself. Having undertaken it, they can expect to make mistakes or errors in judgment. When that happens, they can acknowledge the errors and use them to inform their future decisions.
Theories about Race as Lenses on Selecting Multicultural Children's Literature
Educators and others who share literature with young children are often concerned about the pitfalls we have mentioned. They may wonder what might make teachers so vulnerable to the pitfalls we have described. They may question why many books with stereotyping, bias, and inaccuracies are still being published and circulated, while titles with unbiased, accurate representations may go unrecognized. They may also ask what might be behind the frequent failure of reviewers and award committees to note problems with accuracy and authenticity.
In this section, we employ some of the contemporary theory and scholarship about race and racism to address some of the common concerns educators and others raise regarding the pitfalls involved in selecting good multicultural children's literature.
Vulnerability to Errors in Selecting the Literature
Those who want to select good-quality multicultural literature for children may wonder why they and their colleagues are vulnerable to the pitfalls described here. The answer may lie in factors that have roots in childhood.
The value of diversity may not have been recognized within many communities, particularly within schools, until recently. Even now, textbooks may do little to advance multicultural awareness (Meltzer, 2001; Loewen, 1995; Slapin, 1995). Multiculturalism and the implementation of an anti-bias curriculum have been significant currents of reform in early childhood education in the past decade. As a result, some teachers may find themselves trying to construct a complex new knowledge base within a short time, either in teacher education programs or in classrooms with diverse populations. The anti-bias curriculum (Derman-Sparks et al., 1989) has its roots in a theory that oppressions such as racism and sexism arise from and are perpetuated by ignorance about and fear of difference. It takes an activist stance on bias, justice, and fairness, and it emphasizes the relationship between adult and child in the early childhood setting as the site of social change. The anti-bias paradigm assumes that modeling, intervention, and teaching can move children toward attitudes they need to get on well in an increasingly diverse world. It places the teacher in a position to critically examine pedagogy and the classroom environment, and to make changes that affirm diversity and help children resist bias.
Teaching in the anti-bias paradigm carries considerable responsibility. It is the individual educator who decides how to intervene when children exhibit bias, who selects the literature, who directs children's attention toward (or away from) images that further their understanding of other people and themselves. In the process, teachers may need to deconstruct misinformation and bias they have accumulated, adding an emotional challenge to the problem of finding time to locate and use resources that help prepare young children for life in a diverse world. Statistics show that, nationally, the majority of young women and men in early childhood teacher education programs are European American, disproportionate to the diversity their classrooms will present. These future teachers are likely to come from environments that did not provide the opportunity, the necessity, or the tools for critical thinking about constructions of difference, bias, and race. They may believe that they do not "have culture"that "culture" is an attribute of marginalized groups.
Along with accurate and unbiased information about the diverse groups (including European American cultures) within society, "race consciousness" is viewed by some theorists and scholars as an essential component of being able to identify and eliminate racism in its various contexts (Sheets, 2000, p. 16). (Racial identity development among other groups, such as "Black racial identity" [Sheets, 2000, p. 16] have also been explored, and may also have a bearing on how a teacher selects children's literature for classroom use.) Peggy McIntosh's (1998) "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" urges European Americans to critique the unspoken benefits of being White, most of which are assumed to be "normal" parts of life. Racial identity theorists Lawrence and Tatum (1998) have proposed that there is a developmental continuum of awareness in Whites' racial identity and related behavior, which can serve as a tool for critical appraisal of individual beliefs and attitudes. Some contemporary narratives may support this view, including those by Jewish American teacher and author Vivian Paley (1999, 2000), which highlight changes in her understanding of herself and the children and adults with whom she comes in contact.
It has been argued, then, that factors such as schooling that lacks salient information about the diversity of U.S. society, and that instead presents bias and misinformation; "White privilege," which obscures the real meaning of race in American life; and racial identity development, which reflects an individual's level of awareness about the role of race in his or her life and the wider world, all affect cultural awareness and understanding. These in turn affect how an individual interprets and uses children's literature. Teachers may be less vulnerable to the pitfalls if they are aware of deficiencies in their schooling, of the nature of White privilege, and of their own racial identity development.
Continuing Publication and Circulation of Books with Problematic Images
Teachers and others who want to select literature with strong authentic and accurate images of people from all groups in society often ask why authors and publishers continue to put out new books with problematic images, and why such books continue to circulate while titles with unbiased, accurate representations may go unrecognized.
Another developing theoretical perspective offers a possible explanation for such phenomena. Gloria Ladson-Billings (1998) and William F. Tate (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995) use critical race theory (CRT) as a framework for discussing the impact of race and racism in all aspects of education. CRT has its roots in critical legal studies, which examine extralegal social, economic, and political factors that affect the legal system and result in unequal treatment under the law. CRT challenges the dominant view that White European American experience is or should be the normative standard; it is presented as a form of oppositional scholarship that is grounded in the ways people of color in the United States have experienced racial oppression. It incorporates the use of literary narrative and storytelling in challenging the ways race is constructed in society (Villenas, Deyhle, & Parker, 1999). Delgado (1995) describes the endemic nature of racism in American society. It is not a series of isolated incidents, but is embedded, institutionalizeddeeply ingrained and sometimes blatant yet often so subtle that the society's members cannot see it. Critical race theory asserts that racism in the United States privileges persons of European background, with class and gender as additional factors. In effect, people of the mainstream learn from early on not to recognize racism or other oppressions, and to ignore or dismiss voices raising such issues. Thus myths of European American (White) superiority and "normality" are maintained.
Hibbitts (1994) views language (particularly metaphor) and other visual imagery as being manipulated to perpetuate the status quo in the field of law; his observations may have implications for studies of any medium employing words and visual images, including children's literature. Critical theorists McCarthy and Crichlow (1993) point out that members of minority groups in the United States tend not to have central control over the production of images of themselves. According to CRT, then, bias and cultural misinformation are present in children's literature in part because people outside the mainstream are not the ones creating the images; members of the dominant culture are creating representations based on their own mistaken assumptions of what the "others" are like.
What will be published, who will illustrate it, and how it will be marketed are all decisions that, historically and currently, rest primarily with European Americans, who own the largest publishing houses and continue to dominate the key decision-making positions. According to CRT, they are not likely to recognize or acknowledge the roles race and privilege play in the choices they make, and change comes "only when there is some perceived benefit" for those who hold the power (Asch, 2000). Decisions of authors and publishers figure prominently in Melissa Kay Thompson's (2001) "A Sea of Good Intentions: Native Americans in Books for Children," an example of how legal scholarship and literary criticism may inform one another regarding race and bias. Thompson draws parallels between bias in specific children's books (including popular contemporary literature) and bias in specific encounters Native Americans have had with the legal system, asserting that the court decisions and the books reflect the same underlying racism and support for the idea of White superiority.
Reviews and Awards That Fail to Acknowledge Inaccuracy and Inauthenticity
People seeking good multicultural literature often find that reviewers and award committees do not take into account issues of cultural and historical accuracy and authenticity.
Critical race theory and racial identity development theory may again offer insights into this situation. Criticism of children's literature, too, has historically been the domain of European Americans. Review journals such as Horn Book and School Library Journal play an important role in whether or not a book is recognized. The major journals are headed by European Americans, though certainly in recent years, these journals have sought out a more diverse group of reviewers and critical voices. They have also reviewed a number of multicultural books. Even so, mainstream critical favor sometimes falls upon a "multicultural" book that is subsequently panned by reviewers from the group being portrayed. Oyate, an organization that reviews and provides insider perspectives on Native Americans in literature, critiques several books on their Web site that found favor with mainstream reviewers (http://www.oyate.org/books-to-avoid/index.html).
Works by European American writers and illustrators continue to dominate the lists of winners of the two oldest prestigious awardsthe Caldecott and Newbery Medals. Some of the winners have been later criticized for racist content (as well as sexism and other problems). A slowly growing field of prizes has been intentionally created to bring attention to works of multicultural literature, though some objections have been made to such awards (Aronson, 2001). The Coretta Scott King Award (http://www.ala.org/ala/emiert/corettascottkingbookaward/corettascott.htm), the Tomás Rivera Award (http://www.schooledu.swt.edu/subpages/tomasrivera/index.html, the Pura Belpré Award (http://www.ala.org/alsc/belpre.htm), and the New Voices Award (http://www.leeandlow.com/p/new_voices_award.mhtml) are examples. An award for Native American children's literature is being discussed; members of the American Indian Library Association expect to announce the first awards in the next two years (http://www.globalthinkinginc.com/nativeculture).
Hade (1997) notes, "The meanings we hold about race, class, and gender (many of which may be stereotypes) mediate how we interpret text" (p. 235). Therefore, one must attend closely to the "premise that cultural awareness and understanding are prerequisites for the development and use of multicultural literature" (Barrera, Liguori, & Salas, 1993, p. 205). Like the teachers mentioned earlier, critics and award committee members may be evaluating books through a lens provided by schooling that presented inaccurate and biased history and social studies content and did little to promote cultural awareness and understanding. They may also lack critical insight into their own racial identity development and its impact on their individual approaches to children's literature.
Using Theories of Race to Examine Children's Literature
Ideas about race theory may be useful in facilitating "reading against the grain" at a deep level, providing teachers with both the rationale and the insights to select books with strong positive images of people from groups that have been marginalized. Reading against the grain is described as "a way to examine the unexamined, question the unquestioned, and hold up to scrutiny the unspoken assertions the text is making about the way lives are lived in society" (Temple, Martinez, Yokota, & Naylor, 1998, p. 43). It entails interrogating the literature based on such questions as:
- Are characters "outside the mainstream culture" depicted as individuals or as caricatures?
- Does their representation include significant specific cultural information? Or does it follow stereotypes?
- Who has the power in this story? What is the nature of their power, and how do they use it?
- Who has wisdom? What is the nature of their wisdom, and how do they use it?
- What are the consequences of certain behaviors? What behaviors or traits are rewarded, and how? What behaviors are punished, and how?
- How is language used to create images of people of a particular group? How are artistic elements used to create those images?
- Who has written this story? Who has illustrated it? Are they inside or outside the groups they are presenting? What are they in a position to know? What do they claim to know?
- Whose voices are heard? Whose are missing?
- What do this narrative and these pictures say about race? Class? Culture? Gender? Age? Resistance to the status quo?
The roots of this type of reading against the grain go back several decades. In 1948, for example, the National Council of Teachers of English published We Build Together, which featured "Criteria for Judging Books about Negroes for Young People" (Rollins, 1948, p. 4), a list of questions much like those listed above. The Council on Interracial Books for Children created Guidelines for Selecting Bias-free Textbooks and Storybooks in 1980; it serves as a model for similar documents today.
The point of reading against the grain is not to find "perfect" multicultural books. No such thing exists, nor is it likely that there are any books that are free of ideology. The purpose is to help illuminate the places that bias, stereotypes, and misinformation might be hiddenhidden, perhaps, even from the authors and illustrators who produce the images.
The critical literature about multicultural books can help educators to read against the grain themselves and help them guide children in the process. In her textbook Children and Books, Zena Sutherland (1991) writes, "The professional teacher, librarian, reviewer, or editor should know both the books themselves and the critical literature, since criticism entails making judgments that ought to be informed and objective" (p. 25).
If teachers are to interrogate literature effectively, they need to be aware of critical reviews that touch on issues addressed in critical race theory. They can look to journals such as Multicultural Review (http://www.mcreview.com/), Multicultural Education, and The New Advocate (http://www.christopher-gordon.com/newadvocate.htm). The September 2001 issue of The Lion and the Unicorn addresses critical race theory directly. They can also become familiar with more specialized publications such as Studies in American Indian Literatures (http://www.richmond.edu/faculty/ASAIL/sail-hp.html), African American Review (http://web.indstate.edu/artsci/AAR/), and Asian Perspectives (http://www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/t-asian-perspectives.aspx). The Smithsonian Institution also maintains a bibliography of review of books featuring Native Americans (http://nmnhwww.si.edu/anthro/outreach/Indbibl/bibliogr.html).
Educators can also become familiar with smaller publishers such as Cinco Puntos (http://cincopuntos.com and Children's Book Press (http://www.cbookpress.org). Another small press with a multicultural focus is Lee and Low, which is owned by Asian Americans (http://www.leeandlow.com/). Organizations such as Oyate, which focuses on Native American literature (http://www.oyate.org), are potential sources of books with insider perspectives. Teachers need to know they need not settle for images that mislead and miseducate. For example, they may replace the problematic uses and portrayals of Native American life in Brother Eagle, Sister Sky; Knots on a Counting Rope; and Arrow to the Sun (see Appendix II) with books like A River Lost by Lynn Bragg (Metis), The Good Luck Cat by Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek), and Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Smith (Muscogee Creek) (see Appendix III). Such books provide substantial views of contemporary Native Americans as people who live in modern houses, hold down jobs, have pets, take on environmental issues, and honor their own cultures in specific ways. The books by Bragg, Harjo, and Smith also give children access to authentic Native American voices. The Good Luck Cat and Jingle Dancer received awards from Wordcraft Circle, a Native American writers' organization, in 2001.
Knowing how to help children read against the grain in the literature they encounter is an important skill for teachers, one which is already part of some courses in teacher education programs. It is sometimes argued that books in which bias is openly and uncritically expressed can be used to good effect if teachers point out the flaws and discuss how and why such negative and inaccurate representations came to be. Such adult guidance is seen as facilitating children's greater awareness of stereotyping in literature and impressing on them the need for more accurate representation (Smithsonian Institution, 1996). Conversely, it is argued that few adults can themselves recognize the problems, let alone guide children effectively toward understanding the stereotypes and lack of historical context contained in the books (Thompson, 2001, p. 369).
A robust tradition exists in early childhood education of taking into account children's prior experience and building upon what they already know in order to facilitate learning (Dewey, 1938; Katz & Chard, 1991). While frank discussions of prejudice, racism, and other oppressions are essential to enabling children to recognize and oppose them (Derman-Sparks et al., 1989), developmental factors may intervene that render such discussions problematic (Katz, 1999) even when teachers and parents do fully recognize the bias in books and in society as a whole. It may therefore be in the best interest of all children to have solid grounding in accurate, culturally sensitive images before attempting to deal with problematic books. The positive images are seen as constituting a body of prior knowledge, a basis from which to question and critique bias. Within this knowledge base (to return to Sims Bishop's metaphor), children from groups outside the mainstream are affirmed by undistorted mirrors, and other children's awareness benefits from the view through clear windows.
Seeing Teacher Education through Theories about Race
Assumptions about others and self can be deeply ingrained, according to critical race theory and racial identity development theory. Multicultural children's literature "is only as culturally enlightened as the people who create it and use it" (Barrera, Liguori, & Salas, 1993, p. 235). Teachers need to see and identify the problems within books like Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, or to note the differences between A Gift from Papa Diego and A Day's Work. Future teachers are therefore seen as needing the guidance of early childhood teacher education programs that offer significant opportunities to read, hear, and discuss the critical perspectives on ideology, representation, and identity as they relate to literature, particularly multicultural literature. Teacher educators who have interrogated their own attitudes and beliefs are seen as being in a position to use this and related understanding to help preservice teachers prepare to critique race, power, and privilege in their lives and in the wider society, so they can become more effective teachers (Sleeter, 1998).
Such changes go far beyond a single course; they would involve reconceptualizing the foundations on which early childhood professional preparation restsincorporating the child-developmental paradigm that has dominated into an expanded view of the field, that intentionally and directly addresses teachers' and children's developing understanding of self and multiculturalism. Contemporary professional preparation programs in social work and counseling psychology often require a "didactic therapy" or self-awareness component as well as practicum experience and extensive coursework on theory and practice. The didactic therapy component, considered a key to becoming an effective practitioner, is likely to include both individual and group work. Those who advocate such deep change in teacher education do not suggest a requirement of personal therapy for early childhood teacher preparation, but rather coursework and practicum designed to promote critical awareness of one's own background as well as attitudes and beliefs about others (Sheets, 2000, p. 16).
We do not imply that such transformation within teacher education is without opponents, or that critical race theorists and other scholars feel the change would be simple.
A broadened dialogue is what we seek. Given the potential of good multicultural children's literature for fostering awareness of and empathy toward other perspectives, we invite early childhood professionals to begin bringing critical race theory and related ideas into the discourse about that literature and its role in the lives of young children. Such discourse can be extended into dialogue about teacher preparation and the foundations on which early childhood professional preparation rests.
As teacher educators, we recommend sharing with preservice teachers a message regarding their responsibility to "tell the truth" about human beings. We have reminded our students that they would not knowingly share literature with children that gave them false information about science or math, because it would damage children's understanding of the world. They are also called upon not to condone false or misleading information about groups of people in the literature they share. In fact, just as with science and math, they have an obligation to actively present the alternative: accurate, authentic images of all the people of the world. This practice is in the best interests of all their studentsthose who grow up "in the mainstream" of U.S. society and those from groups that have been marginalized.
Individual teachers and teacher educators need not wait for institution-wide support. They can begin now to read against the grain, and to make use of resources that can help to facilitate understanding of race and privilege in society. It cannot be assumed that only European Americans need to develop this awareness. Cross-cultural understanding is essential; individuals in any segment of society can be ill-informed, or well-informed, about any other group. New awareness can have an impact on the literature educators choose and the ways they share it with young children.
Embracing this awareness, they can approach children's literature in early childhood settings with determined optimism: "I don't recognize all the pitfalls yet, but I am awake to the possibilities of using this literature in early childhood settings. I don't always know what to look and listen for now, but I will find out. Now I know where to look, and I know how to look closely. Then I will make choices based on what I see and hear, for the good of all the children whose lives I touch."
A version of this paper was presented at a symposium honoring Lilian Katz in Champaign, Illinois, November 5-7, 2000. Portions of this paper were taken from Debbie Reese's 2001 doctoral dissertation, Native Americans in Picture Books Recommended for Early Childhood Classrooms, 1945-1999, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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Jean Paine Mendoza is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Of European American descent, Jean has been in the early childhood field for more than 25 years, in child care, preschool, kindergarten, first grade, parent education, and teacher education. She has taught children's literature and social studies in the teacher education program at the University of Illinois. Her current research focuses on motivation and the use of phototechnology in elementary classrooms.
College of Education
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1310 S. Sixth St.
Champaign, IL 61820
Debbie Reese is a visiting lecturer in children's literature at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Information and Library Science in Urbana-Champaign. She has taught children's literature to students in the teacher education program at the University of Illinois, College of Education. A former elementary school teacher, the focus of her research is representations of Native Americans in children's books. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on that topic. Reese is Pueblo Indian, from Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico.
Debbie Reese, Visiting Lecturer
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
501 E. Daniel St.
Champaign, IL 61820
Memo on Chief Seattle's "Ecology Speech"
To: Requestors of Chief Seattle's "Ecology" Speech
From: Washington/Northwest Collections, Washington State Library
The speech given by Chief Seattle in January of 1854 is the subject of a great deal of historical debate. The most important fact to note is that there is NO VERBATIM TRANSCRIPT IN EXISTENCE. All known texts are second-hand.
Version 1 appeared in the Seattle Sunday Star on Oct. 29, 1887, in a column by Dr. Henry A. Smith. He makes it very clear that his version is not an exact copy, but rather the best he could put together from notes taken at the time. There is an undecided historical argument on which native dialect the Chief would have used, Duwamish or Suquamish. Either way all agree the speech was translated into the Chinook Jargon on the he spot, since Chief Seattle never learned to speak English.
Version 2 was written by poet William Arrowsmith in the late 1960s. This was an attempt to put the text into more current speech patterns, rather than Dr. Smith's more flowery Victorian style. Except for this modernization, it is very similar to Version 1.
Version 3 is perhaps the most widely known of all. This version was written by Texas professor Ted Perry as part of a film script. The makers of the film took a little literary license, further changing the speech and making it into a letter to President Franklin Pierce, which has been frequently reprinted. No such letter was ever written by or for Chief Seattle.
Version 4 appeared in an exhibit at Expo '74 in Spokane, Washington, and is a shortened edition of Dr. Perry's script (Version 3).
Whatever version you read, the expressions in the speech are certainly uplifting. However, it's clear from this colored past that there is still some doubt as to the authenticity of Chief Seattle's original words. Anyone using the speech should keep this in mind.
The best description of the saga of Chief Seattle's speech can be found in an essay by Rudolf Kaiser: "Chief Seattle's Speech(es): American Origins and European Reception," published in Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature by the University of California Press, 1987. Another excellent discussion appears in David Buerge's article "Seattle's King Arthur: How Chief Seattle Continues to Inspire His Many Admirers to Put Words in His Mouth," appearing in the July 17, 1991, Seattle Weekly.
Problematic Children's Books
A Day's Work by Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. Clarion Books, 1994.
Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott. Viking Press, 1974.
Brother Eagle, Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers. Dial, 1991.
Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin, Jr. & John Archambault. Illustrated by Ted Rand. Henry Holt, 1987.
Recommended Children's Books
A Gift from Papa Diego by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Illustrated by Geronimo Garcia. Cinco Puntos Press, 1998. The Good Luck Cat by Joy Harjo. Illustrated by Paul Lee. Harcourt Brace, 2000.
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Smith. Illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. Morrow Junior Books, 2000.
A River Lost by Lynn Bragg. Illustrated by Virgil Marchand. Hancock House Publishers, 1996.
Name: Margaret Riehl
Position: Education Coordinator
Affiliation: Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago
Excellent article! The issues you raise are important and complex. You give excellent examples of "good intentions" that just don't work for the good of children. Much to think about.
Our Culturally Relevant Anti-Bias Commission of Chicago Metro AEYC is constantly asked for "a list of good multicultural books"-your article points out why responding to these requests is so difficult.
Name: Rinda M. Byers
Affiliation: Former Preschool Teacher, Two's and Three's
Your article is fascinating and so insightful: I am of multicultural heritage: American, Thai, and Native American. Two issues perhaps could use more study and discussion:
What about criteria for authentic books about children with truly multicultural heritages such as I have? Isn't it a kind of bias in itself to say a book is Mexican when it is about a Mexican-American child and culture? Etc.
Also, do you have any ideas about how we, as multiculural writers for children, may be able to convince more publishers, especially larger, mainstream ones, to buy manuscripts that are more culturally authentic? Good writing and authentic background are simply not enough to easily sell manuscripts dealing with multicultural issues and families.
For example, take a story about say just a poor family, a family struggling with homelessness, about to be put on the streets. A very common misperception is that children in poor families are automatically abused children. In fact, they may be very loved children, although suffering the effects of economic deprivation and social prejudice. Economic status also may be "multicultural" in this sense.
Again, I do state emphatically again that it's tough as a writer to, in a sense, "hold true" to what is authentic and to not just sell out your values to what a public wants to buy. Perhaps it is the writers and buyers of books as well who need the kind of information and support in your scholarly article if better multicultural books are to be published. How can you help to better inform/communicate with them as well instead of just discussing these issues among the reviewers and librarians? How could you, for example, communicate effectively to writers at a writers' conference?
Again, a VERY well-written, thoughtful, sensitive discussion. Thank you so much.