Saturday, July 07, 2007

Writing Multicultural Picture Books (Part 1)

René Colato Laínez

Prior to the 1960’s minority children could not find their own faces in picture books. The protagonists that they found were white children who did not reflect their heritage and did not speak their languages.

In 1975, Harriet Rohmer founded Children's Book Press. The San Francisco-based publisher was one of the first to offer bilingual and multicultural literature for the Hispanic children in the United States. Harriet was inspired to launch Children’s Book press after she enrolled her child in a bilingual day care center. Half of the children were from different Spanish-speaking countries; there were many African Americans, Native Americans and Asian Americans. She said in an interview with Children’s Writer:

"There were no role models. The typical book at a Head Start Center for young kids was ELOISE which takes place at New York’s Plaza Hotel, and that reality did not fit with any of the other kids at the center. Many of these children had come from migrant backgrounds, had come from rural areas in the South, had come from a completely different background than Eloise, and they were sort of looking and listening with blank faces. And it occurred to me that we really needed something different for our children. In part, I think there was the unspoken idea that books, particularly books for the very young, should be oriented to children of Europe’s roots."

In a workshop in the Reading the World Conference, Maya Christina Gonzalez illustrator of MY DIARY FROM HERE TO THERE/ MI DIARIO DE AQUÍ HASTA ALLÁ said:

"I have loved to draw and color for as long as I can remember. As a child I would go looking for my face in my coloring books, in my storybooks but I never found my round Chicana face, my long dark hair. So I would go to that blank page in the back or the front of these books and draw my own big face right there where it belonged."

The push for multicultural literature was a direct outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. African Americans began the initial push, and then the movement was followed in the 1970s and 1980s by Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, more than 17 million immigrants entered the United States, more than double the number that had arrived during the four preceding decades. Most of these immigrants came from Latin American and Asian countries due to war, political persecution, famine and unemployment. Immigrant children attending public schools in California, Texas, New York and Florida found that books did not reflect their culture.

An Overview of Latino Multicultural Picture Books

In the 1970’s Children’s Book Press in California and Arte Público Press in Texas became the pioneers in multicultural bilingual publishing for the Latino community. These new books allowed immigrant children to honor their heritage, their native languages and helped reinforce their identities.

Due to the great demand for books for Spanish speakers, major publishing houses began to publish books for the Latino community. Authors of the dominant culture wrote these picture books. They based their writing on observation and research. Some of these picture books were accurate but most lacked authenticity and were full of stereotypes. Also these major publishing houses had been translating popular American books into Spanish. Unfortunately, these books reflected a non-Hispanic culture.
In the last decade most of the multicultural picture books published in the United States have come from authors of color. They base their writing on their own personal experiences. In these multicultural books, the authors, illustrators, characters, and plots echo the realities of the Latino Community. Now publishing houses are more open to multicultural picture books. They seize the opportunity to make books in which children from every background can see themselves. But can authors write picture books outside the culture? The answer is yes. However, to write an authentic multicultural picture book, there are a number of crucial elements that we need to take into consideration.

First, let’s see the kind of multicultural picture book formats that are being published in the United States.

Most large publishing houses publish multicultural picture book in English and then they sell their rights to other countries. The book is translated under other publishing house (MY NAME IS YOON, published in the United States by FSG. Reprinted in Spain under the title, ME LLAMO YOON).

On the other hand most small presses specializing in multicultural picture books prefer to do their books in a bilingual format (Children’s Book Press) or they publish two versions of the same book in English and another language, most often Spanish (Lee & Low). Some books combine many cultures within one book. Other books represent a particular ethnic group within a larger culture.

Some presses specifically look for books about a particular culture that are written by an author belonging to that culture (Arte Publico/Piñata Books), but most will consider any well-written, well-researched manuscript.

But what is a multicultural picture book? These are some definitions by some multicultural publishers.

Multicultural stories reflect the diversity and experiences of minority and/or new immigrant communities in the United States today. We publish picture books about contemporary life in the Latino/Chicano, African American, Asian American, Native American, multi-racial and other minority and new immigrant communities. Folktales are not the focus of our current publishing program. (Children’s Book Press)

Our goal is to meet the need for books that address children of color by providing fictional stories and informational books that all children can enjoy and which promote a greater understanding of one another. We are not considering folktales and animal stories. (Lee & Low Books)

Our multicultural mission is to create books that work to preserve Latin American culture in the United States; books that value the strong language heritage brought to our country by children from Latin America, and books that promote bilingualism and will expand a child's cultural knowledge and perspective. We are especially interested in themes that deal with the contemporary bicultural experience of living in the United States, and stories that feature contemporary Latin American role models. (Luna Rising).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like that you included what publishers are and are not looking for.