Saturday, June 23, 2007

Interview with publisher Kent Brown About Authenticity

René Colato Laínez

Kent Brown is the publisher of Boyds Mills Press and Highlights for Children Magazine.

What does a manuscript need to have in order to be multicultural?

My belief is that depiction of events, traits of persons, customs, which reflect a culture make a book multicultural. So, a book about baseball, where the kid has a minority name, unless there is some substantial culture learned by the reader, is just a book about baseball.

For example, I did a book with Laurence Pringle called Octopus Hug. In it, a father plays special games with his kids, including one that is a big pile-up on the floor, the octopus hug. So far there is only suburban US culture depicted. The illustrator chose to depict an African American family. The book got special use because it was a book depicting a father taking an active role with his children, and many members of the African American community praised the book as an important work to the African American community. Was this book multicultural? I don't know. I don’t think is was in the sense that it depicted any cultural flavor; it did, however, "teach" that suburban families might all have the same routines and fun, regardless of ethnic background, which is likely true (more of a statement about economic class than ethnicity).

Of all those manuscripts that you receive in a daily basis how many are real multicultural or have the potential to be multicultural?

Ah, if Octopus Hug is multicultural just because of the artwork, then a high fraction of the fiction we receive could be multicultural.In my definition, less than 5% of submissions reflect some multicultural claim. I believe that some fraction could be made multicultural by superficial editing, such as the use of ethnic groups in the artwork. Again, not sure how to count them.

A thought: we do books that have kids in wheelchairs, completely incidental to the story. So these books are not about a physical disability, but they tend to reinforce the normalness of seeing disabled persons, and show that they are a regular part of society. That is a desirable thing with respect to multicultural topics: that we see, incidentally, a mix of ethnic groups, cultural artifacts, ethnic observances, etc. But those incidental pieces, while working toward better acceptance of differences and a celebration of our diversity, do not themselves constitute multicultural.

What is lacking in these stories?

What is lacking in a great many stories presented as multicultural is a perspective that lets the reader know more of unique cultural or accurate historical viewpoints.

Are they full of stereotypes or misconceptions?

Well, the bad ones are. And there are some instances where an accurate depiction, however accurate, may reinforce stereotypes.
Two examples:

I receive awful lot of stories about Mexican culture that has kids whacking a Piñata. Nothing wrong with this artifact of Mexican holiday celebration, but having stories about piñatas, over and over, as if that the only thing we might identify with Mexican tradition, subtly reinforces that Mexicans are a people who spend their time whacking piñatas.

Another common example: Chinese New Year. We did this in Highlights magazine. Has the advantage of being attractive to illustrate, picking the parade in San Francisco. Surely that is a part of Chinese (on Chinese-American culture and tradition). But its portrayal has the tendency over time to "teach" that Chinese people are people of big parades and big dragons.

Can an author write books outside his/ her culture?

Can a Euro-American capture the emotion of emigrating from Central America across mountains and rivers? Can you make it up? Not without understanding its relevance in American culture, the experience as shared by many living in the US, and the likely high emotional stake in the whole process.
Can someone read about it enough to capture all the flavors? Probably. Do they usually? No. Can men write about the emotional lives of women? Some can. But it takes insight, extensive research, and pure effort.
So now lets take the other side of the coin.

I did a book by a suburban white middle class woman. She illustrated a book set in Jamaica. Was it accurate? Was it appropriate? Yes, because this woman had a passion for Jamaican culture; lived there seven years, and had a post-graduate degree in cultural ethnology.

She went on to illustrate a book set in Nigeria. She had not been there. But she got books from the British Museum of the period. She studied the look of the landscape. She did research into the trees and plants of the area the book was set. She got a cultural anthropologist at Harvard to review her sketches, and presented them as well for comment to the Nigerian born author. Could and African American yuppie, born in Westchester County, NY, going to Ivy League schools, and generally having no interest in Nigerian culture, done better?

My example is art. You asked about writing. Yes, I think anyone can write about a specific culture. But it does not happen authentically very often. The people most passionate and steeped in a culture are typically the best to write about it. Most of those examples are members of the culture.

What do these authors need to do in order to write an authentic multicultural picture book?

Passion, anyone can do it. But those who care are most likely to get it. With the passion is an intense knowledge. Mostly such passion and knowledge exists in a within the ethnic group members. But I think it’s not exclusive.

I never lived the life depicted in What Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman, for a magnificent example. I doubt Carolyn lived exactly that life. But she knows it. She nails it cold. We are there, and it is believable.

Virginia Ewer Wolfe nails down the character and thoughts of a young woman living near poverty, though she has not lived that way. Somehow she has studied it, not just imagined; living as a youngster on an apple ranch with connected labor housing, watching her mother stitch up a worker on Saturday night at the kitchen table, gave her some credential, not quite living it, but clearly pretty important in her development.

Muchas gracias Kent


Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear about which published books fail in authenticity.

Mary Emma Allen said...

I enjoyed learning Kent's insights into this topic. Very informative interview.