Academic journal article MELUS

Judging Authors by the Color of Their Skin?: Quality Native American Children's Literature

Academic journal article MELUS

Judging Authors by the Color of Their Skin?: Quality Native American Children's Literature

Article excerpt

In 1965, Nancy Larrick's "The All-White World of Children's Books" identified the extent to which children's literature and those responsible for publishing it were biased against black children. This essay made teachers and librarians more aware of the dearth of black characters and subsequently characters from other ethnic groups in children's literature, at least characters who were not stereotyped or unrealistic. Three decades later, children's literature has become more diversified, but the debate about incorporating ethnic characters continues to spark controversy. These days, the controversy seems to be centered on who has the fight to create ethnic stories and characters, a debate complicated by the notions of what makes a piece of literature ethnic. Do we categorize ethnic literature solely by the color of the author's skin? Or should we instead consider the authenticity and viewpoint of the text, no matter what the author's origins? And what about subject matter? If a story written by an Ojibwa author does not deal with topics indigenous to his or her people but instead tells of a more universal conflict, would we still categorize that book as "Native American"? (1)

I approach this debate over authenticity and quality through the realm of Native American texts for children's literature. The focus on children's literature complicates the debate since the fact that the books are created for young readers affects how we judge the literature. Typically child readers judge less well for themselves than most adults these issues of authenticity and fairness since they have not been exposed to life, history, literature and people of other cultures. In order to ensure that young readers see past stereotypes and insensitive portrayals, ethnic texts may lean toward didactic content. (2) Moreover many authors of books for children may underestimate young readers' ability to follow plot lines that are not chronological or that are told from multiple points of view. Even Native American authors who typically write multiple-viewpoint, non-chronological novels for adults tend to streamline the stories they write for children. As a result young readers are not exposed to Native American narrative strategies, even if they are exposed to Native American situations and characters.

As my test case I take Sharon Creech, whose 1995 Newbery medal winner Walk Two Moons brings aspects of Native American literary traditions to a text with a Native American protagonist. In so doing Creech has found herself embroiled in the ethnic literature debate because she herself is not Native American. I will argue that Creech's Walk Two Moons makes a significant contribution to children's ethnic literature in that it may paradoxically be read as a very Native American novel in theme, structure, and style. The novel merits inclusion in a classroom both because it challenges our definition of multicultural texts and because it introduces the unique narrative traditions of Native American literature.

Rudine Sims Bishop identifies three categories of "multicultural literature," determined by the content of the text rather than the ethnic background of the author. This coincides with the ideas many have regarding the authority to create ethnic characters. In a 1997 discussion on the CHILDLIT listserv, a resounding comment made by many participants was that writers of fiction should be able to create characters with different skin colors, just as they create characters who are not the same gender as they are, who have different beliefs and ideas, or who live in different places or periods. Hazel Rochman considers prohibiting someone who is not of a certain race, ethnicity, or skin color from creating a character of that race or ethnicity to be a form of "apartheid" (Against Borders 17). That she has chosen such a politically charged word is no accident since this matter is itself so politically charged. …

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