Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Seeing All of Us in Diverse Children's Books

This past March I sat around a table with a group of women, discussing my latest picture book, A Path of Stars, the story of the relationship between a young Cambodian American girl named Dara and her grandmother, a survivor of the "Killing Fields." The group happened to be inmates at the local women's prison, participants in a wonderful reading and writing program led by author Monica Wood (When We Were the Kennedys); I was the visiting author-illustrator. 

Going around the circle, each participant--mostly white women raised in Maine--shared a response to the book. No one said, "I really liked this opportunity to learn about another culture," though I'm sure they did absorb new information. Instead, what I heard again and again was, "I really loved this book because it reminded me of my relationship with my grandmother."

In the course of the conversation, we discovered another connection between the characters in my book and the women. Like Dara's grandmother, they were survivors.

A scene from A Path of Stars; Dara and her grandmother

So often, "multicultural" books are relegated to the purpose of examining differences, such as during Black History Month. What if books with diverse characters and cultures--like the ones in the previous post--were seen as being about, and necessary to, all of us?

Face research for Dara in A Path of Stars
In 1998, I traveled with a black South African friend to southern Africa, as preparation for illustrating a nonfiction book, Africa is Not a Country by Margy Burns Knight and Mark Melnicove. I wasn't planning to do any specific research so much as to look for some sense of connection, some insight that would inform my attempts to portray the diverse range of African cultures, none of which I belonged to and all of which I knew little about. I expected the countries I would be visiting--Swaziland and Zimbabwe as well as South Africa--would be the most culturally different of anything I'd ever seen, the equivalent of traveling to the moon.

That wasn't my experience. As I shopped open air markets in Capetown, walked the dusty paths of my friend's hometown neighborhood of Dube in Soweto, and bought food from street vendors in Durban, instead of a sense of curiosity at the exotic, my response was recognition. Despite the different colors of the landscape and the different customs of people's lives, I kept seeing things that seemed somehow familiar. It took me days to realize that I was reminded of the neighborhoods I'd grown up in in 1960s South Korea, of the ways in which daily life--from brushing teeth to bathing to baby care--was communal and took place in plain sight in the streets and alleyways. In the streets of southern Africa, I saw my own story. 

This was the insight that I brought back with me from my trip, the touchstone I held onto as I went through the lengthy process of research, consulting, collaboration, and critique, to create accurate and respectful images. It taught me that after all the essential work, there's another aspect to authentic representation that can't be found in the data. If we are to truly connect across all our differences, we have to let our hearts respond, and we have to trust those responses as true expressions of our common humanity.

I don't leap over differences to get to commonalities. As I'm researching and creating, I'm focused on the particular details of what defines human uniqueness, in groups and in individuals. The details of difference matter, and have meaning. I keep remembering how little I know, what blinders I'm wearing, that I often can't even imagine what questions to ask. I assume I will make many mistakes. I seek lots of input from primary source experts, people with lived experience, to help me see what I can't see.

But the North Star towards which I am navigating is the core belonging of each of us to one human community. In the images we communicate of "other people"--through the words and pictures we create as writers and illustrators, and the books we share with children as educators and parents--the sweet spot is lively, particular human being. To see, and reach for, our own selves reflected there. Anything less is not enough for our children. 

Ultimately, authentic diversity isn't about getting it "right." It's about getting each other. 

Posted by Anne Sibley O'Brien, author and illustrator of several books for young readers, including A Path of Stars. Anne blogged for Unabridged about the process of creating A Path of Stars here.

Meet Anne during Children's Book Week! 
In partnership with Primary Source and Charlesbridge, Anne Sibley O'Brien will be discussing race, ethnicity, and diversity in children's books. 

Her program, entitled "From the Heart: Illustrating Across Race and Culture," will take place on Tuesday, May 14th from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM at the Watertown Public Library, 123 Main Street, Watertown, MA

A reception and book signing will follow at the Charlesbridge Original Illustration Gallery 
at 85 Main Street, Watertown, MA (two doors down). Free and open to the public! 
For more information about this event, please click here.

1 comment:

Tina Cho said...

Great post! I like what you said that besides cultural differences, there are other commonalities to be found for all readers!