Introduction: The Landscape of Ethnic American Children's Literature

By Smith, Katharine Capshaw | MELUS, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Introduction: The Landscape of Ethnic American Children's Literature


Smith, Katharine Capshaw, MELUS


In The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), Carter G. Woodson asserts that "there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom" (2). By suggesting the formative influence of children's culture on social relations, Woodson highlights an idea that courses through the body of ethnic American children's literature. Whether writing in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries, authors infuse texts with the hope that through childhood, that potent period in an individual's development, sensibilities can be transformed. Children's literature allows readers a means to reconceptualize their relationship to ethnic and national identities. Telling stories to a young audience becomes the conduit for social and political revolution.

For some readers of MELUS, this volume may be their first introduction to the vital field of ethnic children's literature. Most interesting for scholars will be the field's special contextual and theoretical issues. A primary factor that distinguishes ethnic children's literature from adult literature is its complexly layered audience, for children's literature reaches various adult mediators as well as child readers. Publishers, librarians, schoolteachers, and parents read and evaluate children's texts in anticipation of a young audience, which is also multiply constituted. Ethnic children's literature becomes a particularly intense site of ideological and political contest, for various groups of adults struggle over which versions of ethnic identity will become institutionalized in school, home, and library settings; groups and individuals often advance specific reading and purchasing guidelines.

Extending the tiers of adult mediation are the multiple prizes and awards which help shape marketplace demand and expectations for ethnic children's literature. (1) In addition to the Caldecott and Newbery Awards, prizes specific to ethnic texts are becoming determinative, including the Pura Belpre Award given by the American Library Association (ALA), the Americas Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature sponsored by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs (CLASP), the ALA's Coretta Scott King Award, the Wordcraft Circle Award, the Carter G. Woodson Book Award, and the Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award, among others.

Institutions in their various forms--parents' groups, school systems, library associations, publishers--are powerful forces shaping the contours and content of ethnic children's texts. Julia Mickenberg's essay and the interviews here with Christopher Paul Curtis and Nicolas Kanellos acknowledge the complex ideological exchanges that preface the publication of any ethnic children's text. Because works often narrate and explain details of a traumatic past, like the internment of Japanese Americans or the enslavement of African Americans, to an audience innocent of historical knowledge, the stakes are high: adult mediators recognize the gravity of their role as gatekeepers to history and arbiters of ethnic identity. Scholars of ethnic literature will therefore find much complexity in the ways writers construct history and negotiate the demands of various audiences.

In addition to adult mediators and young readers, ethnic children's literature is often targeted both to insider and outsider groups. If part of its agenda is didactic in advancing revivified versions of history and identity, texts often consciously address both the ethnic child reader and those in other populations. For children of the ethnicity represented textually, authors encourage resistance to pejorative categorizations by asking the reader to reimagine herself, to identify herself with the texts' cultural models. For a reader from another ethnic group, texts often encourage cross-cultural amity and understanding as a means to dispel prejudice. Early children's literature (perhaps because of the features of the marketplace) appears even more sensitive to the presence of a non-ethnic child audience and seems deeply invested in realignments of social power and in responding to ethnic stereotypes, as Tony Dykema-VanderArk's essay reminds us. …

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