Children's Literature Resources and Commentary

Things to remember and ponder

Representation in Multicultural Children’s Literature

on April 18, 2013

One aspect of multicultural children’s literature that has come out time and again is that stereotypes are prevalent and should be avoided. There are myriad facets to the subject of stereotypes. We could analyze where they come from, how they change over time, how to spot them, whether some are acceptable in any circumstances, and what to do about them when we find them in our library’s holdings. I’d like to focus on an element of where stereotypes come from and how they are perpetuated: representation.

One of the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary¬†definitions of ‘representation’ is as follows: the action or fact of one person standing for another so as to have the rights and obligations of the person represented. I feel this definition applies very well to an analysis of multicultural literature. So often when we talk about representation, we just talk about whether a group is authentically portrayed in a book. In this case, our discussion falls more under the umbrella of authenticity than representation. When I think about representation, I want to know if the author wrote as one standing in for the characters, if the author took upon him- or herself the rights and obligations of the characters.

How does this way of understanding representation help us analyze stereotypes in multicultural children’s literature? If you start with the basis that appropriate representation means standing in for the characters, then you can analyze stereotypes by asking, ‘Would these characters, if they were writing the story, talk, act, or think this way?’ The presence of stereotypes is then hinged on the story and the characters, not necessarily the author.

One caveat of analyzing stereotypes: some people believe authors should not write about cultures as outsiders. They believe every author should only write about their own culture. However, if we only have ‘insiders’ writing about their culture, then we have several issues. First, how do you define the boundaries of a culture to define who is an insider? I am of German descent, therefore I am a German-American. However, most would not consider me an insider to German-American culture. I was born and raised in Wisconsin, as were my parents. Even my grandparents and great-grandparents were born in America. None of us lived with other German families in a German-American community. Who in my family, then, is an insider to German-American culture? A second issue is that everyone’s life experiences are different. Just because an African-American from Chicago writes about his experiences, this does not mean every African-American man from Chicago will consider that writing an accurate representation of his life. One author cannot possibly write as if he were standing in for every member of his audience. So this limitation on only having ‘insiders’ write about a culture in order to overcome the burden of representation and reduce or eliminate stereotypes is simply unrealistic.

If the burden of representation is based on an author standing in for the characters, then the issues of many stereotypes can be overcome with enough research and building an experience base. Lauren Redness wrote about a 100-year-old woman’s life and experiences in the 20th century by doing lots of research on the woman, meeting with the woman, studying her diaries and momentos, and researching the setting of the woman’s life. Lauren herself certainly wasn’t 100 years old and had never lived these types of experiences, yet critics and readers alike acclaimed her book for its accurate representation of the woman’s life. Relating more closely to children’s literature, Judi Moreillon’s ‘Sing Down the Rain‘ is a great example of a multicultural children’s book that was thoroughly researched in order for Moreillon to stand in for the characters. She writes about her experience researching, writing, editing, and gathering feedback on her book in ‘The Candle and the Mirror: One Author’s Journey as an Outsider’, her essay in Fox and Short’s ‘Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children’s Literature’. Moreillon discusses what it took to write about American Indians when she did not share their heritage, and how rewarding the results of her efforts were. American Indian children enjoyed and appreciated her book. Perhaps on some level it would encourage them to do their own writing. There are ways to overcome that unspoken boundary between cultures and write about others as if you were standing in for them. It just takes a lot of hard work and research, and humility on the part of the author who is representing the culture.

This is not to say that research alone can eradicate stereotypes and fix all of the problems borne of misrepresentations in literature. Even members of a culture don’t always give a perfectly accurate representation of their own culture. The important point here is that cultural groups can be correctly represented by people of their own culture or another. Stereotypes can come from and be perpetuated by misrepresentations. Careful research to present an accurate and authentic piece of literature can build up the way a group is represented across the boards and can help change some of the stereotypes that have built up over time.

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