Diamonds in the Rough: The Search for Socially Responsible, Multicultural Children's Literature

By Macbeth, Janine | Colorlines Magazine, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Diamonds in the Rough: The Search for Socially Responsible, Multicultural Children's Literature


Macbeth, Janine, Colorlines Magazine


Way back in the day when the pickings were slimmer than slim, maybe, just maybe, enjoying a book like The Five Chinese Brothers (first published in 1938) was alright. But today, and yesterday (and even the day before that!), any book that opens, "Once upon a time there were five Chinese brothers and they all looked exactly alike" is completely unacceptable. Let alone the fact that the story was written by a white author and a white illustrator; sharing this piece with children as a fun and magical, unproblematic book is poor guidance, to say the least.

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And yet titles like this one continue to be celebrated by nostalgic white readers. Celebrated, then defended to the point of backlash. For these readers, many of whom were raised with books like these, The Five Chinese Brothers is far from controversial. From the teacher who first heard the story in the 1950s and keeps sharing it with her first grade class, to the enthusiastic reader who attributes criticism of the book to "PC nonsense," folks hold their childhood favorites dear.

In 1965, Nancy Larrick's groundbreaking article "The All-White World of Children's Books" was published in the Saturday Review of Books. Known as the first published critique of the absence of people of color in children's literature, the article highlighted Larrick's five-year study of more than 5,000 children's books. Her study found that less than one percent of these thousands of books reflected any contemporary images of African Americans. This article, coupled with the development of ethnic studies in the 1960s and '70s, paved the way for the diversification of a predominantly white children's publishing industry. Ten years after the article, a Jewish San Francisco mother founded Children's Book Press, the first house to publish exclusively multicultural children's books. Since then, small presses dedicated to diversifying children's literature have continued to sprout, building the multicultural children's book industry from the ground up.

Successful titles with non-white subject matter sparked the attention of mainstream publishers in the mid-to-late 1980s. The still dramatically white children's book industry embarked upon a two-pronged effort to capitalize on the newly discovered multicultural children's market. First was an attempt to infiltrate the genre by expanding it to include Euro-centered stories as multicultural. As Jaira Placide, editor at Jump At the Sun (an African-American children's imprint at Hyperion Books) explains, "When the multicultural children's genre was first created, multicultural meant everything that wasn't part of the Euro-centric white mainstream. But eventually the name multicultural got away from its original meaning to include European stories as well."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Simultaneously, larger publishers have tried to cash in on the burgeoning multicultural market by publishing their own titles with brown faces. To their credit, larger houses have published quality texts destined to be classics, but just as many times (if not more) a general lack of cultural understanding within the company has led to the printing of socially irresponsible representations of people of color. The Other Side (published in 2001 by Penguin Putnam), for example, depicts young girls separated by a literal and psychological fence in the pre-civil rights era. A young African-American girl overcomes these barriers, and the pressures of her peers, to befriend her white neighbor. On the surface, the book promotes the breaking of racial barriers. The story, however, presents the potential white friend as the victim of exclusionary and mean Black girls who have the advantage of age, size and number. This book is more likely to promote shame in young African-American readers than reaffirm positive images of self and community.

When multicultural book sales began to fall in the late '80s, market analysts explained that multicultural children's books were a passing trend. …

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