Saturday, July 14, 2007


René Colato Laínez

One of the first picture books portraying an African America child was THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats published in 1962. One of the first picture books depicting a Hispanic child was GILBERTO AND THE WIND by Marie Hall Ets published in 1963. But are these picture books really multicultural? The answer is no.

In THE SNOWY DAY, we see a happy Peter playing in the snow. In the same case, In GILBERTO AND THE WIND, we see a curious Gilberto playing with the wind. But are we reading about Peter’s or Gilberto’s cultures? No. We just see two children playing. If the writers/ illustrators had used a different name and had used another tone of skin color, we would have the same story. In this case the names and cultures of the protagonists do not affect the story at all.

This is one of the major problems that writers make when writing a multicultural picture book, a foreign name or skin color on a page is not enough to have a multicultural picture book.

BONESY AND ISABEL by Michael J. Rosen is the story of Isabel, an adopted girl from El Salvador. Her new parents bring her to the United States. In her new house, Isabel meets a new friend, an old dog named Bonesy. Isabel loves to play with her dog. One day, Bonesy gets sick and dies. Michael J. Rosen does a great job describing Isabel’s house and garden. The relationship between the dog and Isabel is lovely and tender. However, this story cannot be considered a multicultural story. The reader does not learn anything about Isabel’s culture. The reader only knows that she is from El Salvador. The story is just about the relationship between Isabel and the dog.

Rosen could have a multicultural story if he had concentrated more on Isabel’s feelings and reactions toward her new family and country. How does Isabel feel about leaving her country? What are her reactions to her new parents who do not speak her language? What would Isabel do to adjust herself to her new environment? What is she bringing to the family? What is she learning? These questions are never addressed in the story. Obviously, the writer’s intention is to write about a girl and an old dog, and he does a wonderful job with this. This story pretends to be multicultural by having a girl with a Spanish name who comes from a Latin American country. Unfortunately, this is not enough to consider this an authentic multicultural story.

I also had this problem when I wrote my first manuscripts. In one of my stories, I had a Latino child trying to find a gift for his mother. As a teacher, I had the privilege of meeting an editor at CABE (California Association for Bilingual Education). After reading my story she told me, “You don’t have a multicultural story." I was sure that my story was multicultural. The story was based on a real event. How come she said that my story was not multicultural?

The editor told me that she liked my story but that it was not a multicultural story at all. She gave me a hint on how to prove if a story is multicultural or not. If I changed the name of my character to an English name and eliminated the Spanish words, my story would still work. I did it and she was right. I understood that in my case a multicultural story is more than a Hispanic character and a few Spanish words. The story must be unique and authentic. It has to be a story that minority children can relate to.

A multicultural picture book must authentically and realistically portrays themes, characters, and customs unique to the minority group for which they are written. A good example IS FIRST DAY IN GRAPES by L. King Pérez.

For Chico, a son of migrant workers, places don't have names but rather are associated with whatever fruit or vegetable is being harvested. Chico has experienced first school days in artichokes and first days in onions, and now his first day in third grade would be in grapes. Chico is understandably apprehensive about starting third grade at yet another new school because his previous experiences involved bullying and name calling- maybe because he's always new, or maybe because he speaks Spanish sometimes.

This is a very common experience that immigrant children deal with at school. Chico does not want to go to school not because he does not like to study but because he does not fit in. Children laugh and bother him at school. Chico is the new boy, the migrant boy who works in the fields and who does not speak good English yet. Chico struggles to write in English at school but he his good with numbers. He can add and subtract numbers in a flash. His teacher, Ms. Andrews, admires his remarkable math talent and invites Chico to compete in the Math Fair.

Remembering his mother's advice to study hard in order to be someone important in the future and his newly recognized math talent, he stands up to the bullies and wins the respect of his new third-grade peers. When the bullies return at lunch, Chico stands up to them and challenges them with math questions until they retreat. With enough positives to compensate for the challenges, the child finishes his first day of the school year with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

This story resonates with migrant students and those who have moved frequently. For others, it's an insightful glimpse of another way of life and a reminder that different kids have different talents. The author presents an authentic story of the migrant child. L. King Pérez lets the reader see Chico’s experiences and his fears of not fitting in. This is a story that can touch not only migrant children but also children who do not have a permanent home. This is a multicultural story.


Anonymous said...

I've got an added take on Peter and Gilberto: they were the acculturated kids that melting pot advocates hope all immigrants and minorities grow up to be.

In that sense, the two books didn't fail as multicultural books because they were never meant to. Rather, they succeeded in portraying the "success" of assimilation--something inimical to a multicultural society.

As they were published in the early 60s, it's easy to imagine they still reflected the 50's philosophy of stripping us of language and culture.

Let me know what you think and thanks for another excellent post on children's lit.

Rene Colato Lainez said...

Hi Rudy,

I am glad you like the post. I love Peter and Gilberto books. I use Peter and the Wind every year. It is one of the stories in Open Court our reading program.

Both books don't describe any culture by today's standards but they have portray positive role models. Specially in the 60's.