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Writing and Illustrating Multicultural Children's Books

by Harold Underdown

Written in 1995, updated in early 1999, with more updates in 2001 and 2008, including direct links to pages on Amazon for more information or to purchase individual books. See the site's bookstore page. Some details are out of date, but I believe the main arguments of this piece are still valid, and the recommended books still useful and interesting. I will continue to update this when I can.

Table of contents:

Multicultural children's books are very much talked about wherever writers and illustrators for children gather. I hear certain questions over and over: Is "multiculturalism" simply a hot new topic or category -- or does it mean something more? Is this an opportunity for writers? Who can write a multicultural book? Who can illustrate one? The field is complex and changing, but there is a place in it for creative people of all backgrounds.

The roots of the field

The term "multiculturalism" originates in education, springing from recent curriculum changes in the U.S. public schools that give more attention to history and literature from outside of Anglo-Saxon Europe. Multicultural education aims to celebrate all the cultures that make up contemporary American society.

What happens in the schools affects publishing, and so since the 1960's publishers have been hearing persistent calls from teachers, librarians, and parents (the people who buy our books) for more books that reflect America's cultural diversity. There is good reason for these calls. In the 60's, fewer than five percent of children's books were written or illustrated by people of color, that is by people of African American, Latino, Native American, or Asian American background, and books by members of other "minority" groups were similarly hard to find.

Change came slowly at first. Highly respected African American writers Virginia Hamilton and Walter Dean Myers got started in the 1960's, setting their books in their own culture, and filling them with authentic details of African-American life. Many other books of this time went only as far as becoming culturally neutral, depicting children of different races and ethnicities, but not revealing details of their culture. Today, more authors and illustrators of color are in the field, more books are getting published for the multicultural market, and the Coretta Scott King Award has a sales impact second only to the Newbery and Caldecott medals. Individual books such as Faith Ringgold's Tar Beach (Crown), set in Harlem's African-American community and illustrated with the artist's quilting techniques, have spectacularly succeeded. Cultural diversity is not only a good thing--it sells.

The current situation

What is out there?

Don't sit at your desk and write without knowing what's already out there. Take some time to get to know the books themselves--read them!

Award-winning multicultural children's books:
The Coretta Scott King Award
The Pura Belpré Award

Recommended multicultural children's books:
Multicultural Reading
50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know

In spite of this progress, at present many groups are still not published in proportion to their numbers in the population at large. There are increasing numbers of African-American authors and illustrators, but this development is impressive only by comparison to the even smaller representation of other groups. Jump at the Sun became the first African-American children's imprint at a major publisher when it was launched by Andrea Davis Pinkney in mid-1998. Asian and Pacific Americans are only beginning to break in, and there are even fewer Latino/as or Native Americans in the field.

As an article in Book Links stated: "The increase in multicultural books has resulted in a wide range of folktales, some historical novels, and a good number of nonfiction books about African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and native Americans.... Yet there are still far too few high-quality novels and picture books featuring children of these cultures (especially native American and Latinos) as protagonists in contemporary settings." This summary is in accord with my own experience; there's still an unmet need for realistic contemporary stories, set in specific American cultures. There are many folktales being published, sometimes because this can be a quick and easy way to do a multicultural book, with so many stories already available in the public domain, ripe for publication as a picture book. But there is also much of interest. Good examples are Ma'ii and Cousin Horned Toad(Scholastic), a Navajo tale by Shonto Begay, and John Steptoe's African Cinderella tale Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters (Lothrop Lee & Shepard). Collections can be good value for the consumer. Two notable ones are Medicine Story's Children of the Morning Light (Macmillan), his personal retelling of the stories of his people, the Wampanoag, a New England tribe, and a book which I should admit I edited; and The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural (Knopf), spooky original tales with African-American elements by Patricia C. McKissack. Virginia Hamilton has also compiled several excellent collections, such as The People Could Fly and Her Stories : African American Folktales. I think fiction is also a strong area, particularly among African-American authors. Read Walter Dean Myers' Somewhere in the Darkness (Scholastic), Virginia Hamilton's Drylongso (Harcourt Brace), or Eloise Greenfield's Nathaniel Talking (Black Butterfly). Nicholasa Mohr brings to life New York's Puerto Rican community in El Bronx Remembered (Arte Público Press). And there is a niche of note within this area: Americans who have spent some time abroad drawing on their experiences, as Suzanne F. Staple does in Shabanu and Haveli (Knopf), and Frances Temple in A Taste of Salt (Orchard). Short stories can be tough to sell, but there are such collections as Baseball in April (Harcourt Brace) by Gary Soto, a significant Latino writer. I've seen many wonderful and inspiring multicultural picture books. Among them are Bigmama's by Donald Crews (Greenwillow), Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan and Lillian Hsu-Flanders (Little, Brown), in which a truly multicultural Hawaiian family celebrates New Year's, and Huy Vuon Lee's bilingual At the Beach (Henry Holt). Allen Say won the Caldecott Medal for Grandfather's Journey (Houghton Mifflin), the simply told but powerfully illustrated story of his grandfather's journey to the United States. I know of less of interest in nonfiction, with most books aimed at the library market. Particularly imaginative examples include such unusual picture book nonfiction as Gwen Everett's biography, John Brown: One Man Against Slavery (Rizzoli), illustrated with striking paintings by noted African-American artist Jacob Lawrence; and Native American artist George Littlechild's This Land Is My Land (Children's Book Press), his look at American history. For older readers, see Many Thousand Gone: African-Americans from Slavery to Freedom (Knopf) by Virginia Hamilton and Mitsumasa Anno's Anno's USA (Philomel).

A few striking multicultural poetry books stand out in a thinly published area. Naomi Shihab Nye edited This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World (Four Winds Press), with wonderful selections from 68 countries. Read it whether or not you write poetry; it's one of the best children's books of the last several years. Other books to investigate: Walter Dean Myers turned to poetry for Brown Angels: An Albums of Pictures and Verse (HarperCollins); and Joseph Bruchac drew on Native American beliefs to write a cycle of poems for Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back (Philomel).

Opportunities (and barriers?) for writers today

What does this mean to a beginning writer today? I see greater interest among publishers in books set in specific contemporary American or foreign cultures, and in innovative nonfiction. In these areas we can't find enough good material to meet the demand. On the other hand folktale retellings, culturally neutral stories, and stories (or nonfiction) written about a culture that a writer does not know intimately flood in, and publishers are growing more selective as a result. The rush of authors into these areas is not the only problem. Also, reviewers demand authenticity, and will point out a problem that I have often observed myself: that authors writing about a specific culture that is not their own often make errors, of fact and emphasis and omission.

Whatever an author's background may be, in my experience it is best to stick to what she or he knows. This is so whether a writer grew up in a specific urban ethnic community like Chinatown or Harlem, or in rural Maine, Appalachia, Alaska or eastern Oregon, or in an area that mixed several cultures, or in a homogenized suburban neighborhood. Anyone can be a "primary author", in the sense that everybody has experience of a particular community and a family with unique characteristics, both of which form a part of that individual's cultural background, when growing up.

To look at this point another way, think of the best in writing for adults. No one thinks the less of William Faulkner, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alice Walker, Mark Twain, or Thomas Hardy because they do not or did not write stories set beyond the bounds of their personal experience. I anticipate an objection at this point--if you follow the line of my argument, how can anyone create characters different than themselves? Or how can anyone write an historical novel, and hope to be accurate? Of course, imagination can cross many bridges. But if one is writing about a contemporary culture, what if one imagines an aspect of it wrong? There will be plenty of readers who'll know, when there may not be if one's subject is ancient China. Of course, this is a complex situation, but in the end, of the thousands of manuscripts I have read during my career, several hundred would be called "multicultural," and of those, the most interesting were the stories based on personal experience or the folktales heard in childhood.

Does this limit what authors can do? I've often heard the concern expressed that "political correctness" is preventing authors, particularly white authors, from writing whatever they want to. Actually, in practical terms there is far more censorship pressure applied by conservatives and fundamentalists than by left-wing cultural police, who are simply far less powerful nationally. The impact of pressure from the right is of course hard to measure since its impact is seen in an absence, caused by a reluctance to take the risk of publishing something that may offend. In my experience, due to their desire to publish to the gaps in the multicultural market, most editors will look at the work of white authors who are writing about an African-American family or retelling a Chinese folktale or describing South American customs, and such work often gets published. There are other pressures: I've heard from authors of color that they are pushed the other way, that editors want to see only culturally specific material from them.

When an editor does hear from a writer from a different culture, cultural dissonances may cause problems. We all learn ways of telling stories from the people and books around us as we grow up, and these shape our preferences as adults. Since children's publishing in the U.S., is, after all, an almost uniformly white and middle class world, the editors, marketers, and reviewers often aren't used to dealing with people who are different. I know that my own WASP culture values independence and controlling of emotion, which makes it hard for me to respond on a visceral level to a story that shows a child happily immersed in his or her family and feeling comfortable with expressing emotions. Ideas of what is appropriate in a children's book are also culturally determined. For example, "we" don't like didactic stories, but many cultures have a strong tradition of didactic storytelling. Does that mean we don't publish such stories, or try to alter them to suit our taste? I've seen it happen. So, editors may not like a story for reasons other than its literary merit. Don't let this stop you, but be aware of it, be ready to explain what is important in your culture, and be prepared to shop for an editor.

Finding a Publisher--the Nitty-Gritty

As is evident in the examples above, many of the major trade publishers are active in multicultural publishing, even if they do not identify it in their catalogue or guidelines as a separate area of interest. So there is a wide market for writers, and much of the advice for writers I give in general applies in the multicultural field: Since policies on submissions are constantly changing, authors must always check that a particular one is accepting unsolicited material, and that a publisher publishes the type of book being submitted. Do they publish fiction? nonfiction? picture books only? only for a particular age range? Even within the field, there are many types of publishing, and in my experience authors waste much time and effort sending submissions to the wrong places. So it helps to understand a publisher's market too, be it library, trade, mass market, or educational; many of the entries in my reading list will give some insight in this area. Rarely is there something entirely new under the sun, but a cover letter, written by someone with knowledge of the children's market, can point out a new approach to a subject, or state what distinguishes a book from the competition.

It's useful to know the market, but not to write for it. In fact it's a bad idea to jump hastily onto bandwagons. A few years ago the media paid some attention to the Negro Leagues, and this gradually filtered through into children's books; I know of three or four books about the Negro Leagues--all of them general, all of them photo-illustrated--that were published in the span of a year. That's a good development, but not a sign that another proposal for a book like this will get the attention of an editor. The opposite is the case, for publishers don't like to fight for attention with previously published books. In fiction the same applies; strive for plots, characters, and settings that a reader won't feel are all too familiar. Getting beyond the commonplace is necessary, for there are thousands of children's writers trying to get published, but publisher's lists have been reduced since the boom years of the 80's. Little, Brown, the combined Simon & Schuster/Macmillan, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux are three companies who have cut the number of titles they are bringing out. Look into other areas, particularly small presses and magazines. Children's Book Press, for example, was a pioneer in the field and remains exclusively a publisher of innovative multicultural children's books. Lee & Low also specializes in this area. Meeting the needs of their own communities, you'll find specialized publishers like Just Us Books, publishing children's books by and for African Americans, and Polychrome Publishing for Asian Americans. Children's magazines generally are interested in multicultural writing, and Skipping Stones specializes in the field.

An update in 2001: Two major publishers are creating or have created multicultural imprints. As previously mentioned, Hyperion has launched Jump at the Sun, focusing on African-American themes and culture, and Bernette Ford at Scholastic, who has always had a multicultural element to her Cartwheel list, is starting an imprint dedicated to African-American and Latino/a books for the youngest children.

Looking to the future

Multiculturalism is not just a trend that will vanish again, for it has affected the way children's books are acquired and edited. There are still plenty of "traditional" children's books -- books that show a family that could live anywhere -- being published, but editors are increasingly becoming aware of culture as something that belongs in a story. I doubt that this is likely to be a short-lived trend, since recent reports from the Census Bureau point to the United States becoming a "majority minority" country, even more diverse than it is today. So the number and variety of multicultural books being published for children seems likely to increase. American children, the children of many diverse cultures, will become increasingly able to see themselves in books, and to see the reality and complexity of the multicultural society -- and the multicultural world -- that we live in.

Recommended Background Reading

Useful WWW resources:

Multicultural Reading Bibliography from Cynthia Leitich Smith's site: This is an excellent and comprehensive guide to books--be sure to browse her other pages.

Recommended Multicultural Book Blogs, a list put together by author Mitali Perkins.

Resources for Writers: From CBC Diversity--be sure to check out their ongoing blog.

Shens Books and Supplies The on-line home of an excellent multicultural catalog, including books in many languages and from other countries.

Bibliographies from Kay Vandergrift's home page: A good source for lists of recommended books

50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know from the CCBC

(If you want to buy any of the following books online, consider using one of the bookstores I recommend--your purchase will help to support this site.)

Printed resources:

Bishop, Rudine Sims. "Books from Parallel Cultures." Columns in The Horn Book Magazine: September/October 1992, 616-20; July/August, 433-38; January/February 1994, 105-109 (and subsequent issues). Excellent column on the latest multicultural children's books.

Cai, Mingshui. "Multiple Definitions of Multicultural Literature: Is the Debate Really Just 'Ivory Tower' Bickering?" The New Advocate: Fall 1998, 311-324. Discusses different understandings of "multicultural". Campbell, Betty. "The Sand in the Oyster." The Horn Book Magazine: July/August 1994, 491-96. Explores issues raised by writing outside of one's ethnic background.

Ford, Michael Thomas. "The Cult of Multiculturalism." Publishers Weekly: July 18, 1994, 30-33. Overview by a publishing insider.

Harris, Violet J. "From Little Black Sambo to Popo and Fifina: Arno Bontemps and the Creation of African-American Children's Literature." The Lion and the Unicorn v. 14 (1992): 108-27. Early history (i.e., pre-1960).
--- (ed.). Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8. Norwood, Massachusetts: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1993. Not just for teachers -- very useful bibliographies, historical info., guidance on approaches. Highly recommended.

Hearne, Betsy. "Cite the Source: Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, Part One." School Library Journal (July 1993): 22-27. Two-part call for standards in use of folktales.
---. "Respect the Source: ..., Part Two." School Library Journal (August 1993): 33-37.

The Horn Book Magazine, March/April 1995; this is a special issue dedicated to a discussion of multicultural books. Though most of the articles are distressingly in agreement, Thelma Soto's is required reading--a challenge to conventional views.

Kohl, Herbert. "Uncommon Differences: On Political Correctness, Core Curriculum and Democracy in Education." The Lion and the Unicorn v. 16 (1992): 1-16. Puts the call for multicultural books in a wider context.

Lempke, Susan Dove. "The Faces in the Picture Books." The Horn Book Magazine, Mar./Apr. 1999, pp. 141-147. A sobering update on the lack of progress in the '90's.

Lindgren, M. (ed.). The Multicolored Mirror: Cultural Substance in Literature for Children and Young Adults. Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin: 1991. Papers from a ground-breaking conference.

Miller-Lachmann, Lyn. "Multicultural Publishing: The Folktale Flood." School Library Journal (February 1994): 35-36. Explores some difficulties with folktales as a source of knowledge of other cultures.

Silvey, Anita. "Varied Carols." The Horn Book Magazine (editorial, March/April 1993). See responses: July/August 1993, 390-91; September/October 1993, 516; January/February 1994, 5. Different positions re authenticity.

Thompson, Audrey. "Harriet Tubman in Pictures: Cultural Consciousness and the Art of Picture Books." The Lion and the Unicorn (January 2001): 81-114. A thought-provoking exploration of what an illustrator brings or does not bring to a multicultural book.

"Today's Children of Color."(bibliography) Book Links (January 1994): 25-31. Useful introductory bibliography.

Woodson, Jacqueline. "Who Can Tell My Story?" The Horn Book Magazine, Jan./Feb. 1998 issue, with a response in May/June.

Copyright © 1995-2010 by Harold D. Underdown.


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