René Colato Laínez
ALEXIS O’NEILL is the author of LOUD EMILY (Simon & Schuster),THE RECESS QUEEN (Scholastic Press), and ESTELA'S SWAP (Lee & Low Books). She is the Regional Advisor for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)-Ventura/Santa Barbara Region.
WHAT DOES A PICTURE BOOK NEED TO HAVE IN ORDER TO BE MULTICULTURAL?
The answer to “What does a picture book need to have in order to be multicultural” is: “authenticity” in the story and in the illustrations. I won’t say “accuracy” because even within what appears to be a single culture, there are multiple perspectives based on individual experiences. But the words and images must ring true to people within that culture in terms of syntax, behavior, beliefs and dress.
OF ALL THOSE BOOKS IN THE MARKET HOW MANY ARE REAL MULTICULTURAL? HOW MANY PRETEND TO BE MULTICULTURAL WHEN THEY ARE NOT? OR HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO BE MULTICULTURAL? WHAT IS LACKING IN THESE BOOKS? ARE THEY FULL OF STEREOTYPES OR MISCONCEPTIONS? CAN YOU GIVE ME TITLES OF BOOKS THAT HAVE THESE OR OTHER PROBLEMS?
I haven’t yet read every book there is to be read so I really can’t answer these questions fairly. A few years ago, there was a push by publishers – (rightly pressured by educators) -- to represent a variety of ethnicities in children’s books. Some book creators addressed the issue by making a visual potpourri of skin colors in the illustrations and a variety of exotic character names in the text to suggest diversity. But in many books, this was purely a superficial fix. (One test for authenticity in the text would be that the story could be clearly identified with a specific culture or group within a culture without looking at the illustrations.) Today, there is a better representation of authentic stories told by a diversity of authors and illustrators.
CAN AN AUTHOR WRITE BOOKS OUTSIDE HIS/ HER CULTURE?
I think passion should direct what an author writes about and what illustrator draws. After the heart of the story is created, then it’s their responsibility that the story is as true as it can be.
WHAT WAS YOUR PROCESS IN WRITING ESTELA'S SWAP?
I moved to Southern California in 1991 and fell completely in love with this state and the diversity of people in it. But the longer I was here, the more annoyed I became that there were too few children’s books that celebrated living in this part of the country. I wanted to write a book that was distinctly Southern Californian. I wanted to write a book that kids here might identify with.
On Sundays, my husband, David, and I often wandered through the Swap Meet that was held at our local drive-in in Simi Valley. Growing up in New England, I had experienced garage sales and flea markets, but never anything like a Swap Meet. It was like a carnival and neighborhood garage sale all rolled in one. Families would often drop by after church to check out the goods, eating chili dogs and tacos, and walking in time to the Latino music blaring over the loudspeakers. Sometimes, David brought computer equipment or car parts to sell. Other times, we just picked through boxes of treasures. I also loved seeing kids in a bargaining mode, earning money for the things they wanted to buy. Before my experiences at Swap Meet, I was a nuts-and-bolts shopper. If a seller told me a price, I paid that price. But once I swung into the rhythm of the Swap Meet, I began to love negotiating agreeable prices.
The more I went to Swap Meet, the more I wanted have a book take place in this particular California setting. Then I began to wonder, what kind of story might take place here? Who would my main character be? What might he or she be doing here? What would be the problem he or she would have to face?
I knew that my character should be Hispanic. Those were the faces I saw all around me. Then I began clipping newspaper articles and photos of young folkloric dancers and mariachi musicians. I attended Ballet Folklorico recitals and talked with educators in Oxnard who were working to revive traditional music and dances. Before long, I had my main character – Estela – who was trying to earn money for dancing lessons. When she tries to sell her music box at Swap Meet, a powerful Santa Ana wind throws her plans into chaos. But her spontaneous act of generosity and an old flower vendor’s unexpected swap eventually help her realize her dream.
The first version of this story was written as an early chapter book. But when Lee & Low Books expressed interest in it, I rewrote it as a picture book for them. What gratifies me is that the book has gone into a second printing and the publisher has just released a Spanish translation of it, Estela en el mercado de pulgas, in both hardcover and paperback. It was named to the Vermont Center for the Book Beyond Differences Top Ten Diversity Books list and was selected for the California Readers’ 2005 California Collection of 100 books for elementary readers. So, Estela’s Swap must feel authentic to enough readers to have all this happen!
WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE FOR AUTHORS WRITING OUTSIDE THEIR CULTURE?
I advise authors to be true to the story and authentic to the culture about which they are writing.