Building Cultural Citizenship: Multiculturalism and Children's Literature

Article excerpt

In his influential book White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (1998), Ghassan Hage compares different versions of multiculturalism using an example from a children's book, The Stew that Grew by Michael and Rhonda Gray. The book presents an allegory of Australian cultural diversity: the 'Eureka stew' which features ingredients brought by all the ethnic groups that make up the Australian nation. According to Hage, it is an allegory fraught with ideological paradox: 'far from celebrating cultural diversity--or rather, in the process of so doing,' the book actually embodies 'a White nation fantasy in which White Australians ... enact ... their capacity to manage this diversity.' (p.119) He explains that although the stew is presented as the palatable blend of all the cultural influences which went into its making, it is not a mix where all cultures are equal: The Anglo character Blue is in charge of the cooking throughout; the 'ethnics' are reduced to the function of adding flavour.

By means of this illustration, Hage called attention to the debates surrounding multiculturalism which gained momentum in the late 1990s when not only the concept, but the very term, were under pressure from various fronts: from the political right, as exemplified by Pauline Hanson as well as the Howard government, but also from the left, where writers like Hage questioned the commonly-held view of multiculturalism as a progressive social agenda. The limitations, complexities, and paradoxes of multiculturalism were also highlighted by the British critic Pnina Werbner, who in 1997 dubbed it 'an important rhetoric and an impossible practice.' (Werbner and Modood 1997, p.22) Multiculturalism, these debates revealed, means different things to different people: it is an ideological/normative concept but also an empirical demographic and sociological fact. It functions very differently whether conceived as an official government-sponsored policy framework or, by contrast, as everyday lived reality (see Lopez 2000, Ang 2001, Stratton 1998, Hage 1998 and 2003, Gunew 2004).

The papers in this issue enter the debate surrounding cultural diversity and multiculturalism through the critical lens of children's fiction and a theoretical terrain sensitive to the ideological paradoxes informing not just the texts themselves but also their status and circulation as cultural artefacts. Children's literature is centrally concerned with the domain of everyday life: relationships within the family, with friends, at school, and in the wider community. The growing individual is gradually introduced to a wider world of social and cultural interaction, with potential for conflict as well as for personal growth. Books dealing specifically with multicultural issues examine the effects of migration, resettlement, and cultural negotiation on individuals and their immediate environment; they also create imaginary realms nurtured by a diverse cultural repertoire.

Children's literature plays a crucial role in the development of (multi)cultural literacy, not only through the individual child's encounter with texts and images, but through the workings of institutional 'filters' (schools and educational bureaucracies, libraries, the publishing industry, wider diffusion through visual media) which determine social and cultural agendas. It thus has a major impact (greater, perhaps, than any other mode of cultural production) on the shaping of individual and group perceptions of their social environment and beyond that, on the future of social and cultural relations. It is this impact, or power of influence, which makes parents, educators, and even politicians acutely sensitive to the messages conveyed through the words and images of children's stories and inclined to take action if the texts are perceived to challenge their own agenda. As an example, one might mention the intervention of Amanda Vanstone, immigration minister in the Howard government from 2003-2007, who publicly decried what she saw as an attempt to 'politicise children's literature' in Morris Gleitzman's refugee novels Boy Overboard and Girl Underground (Bantick 2005, p. …