Advocating for Authenticity and Diversity in Children’s Picturebooks

If I were in charge of this holiday, all U.S. students be would studying the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of social justice. They would be reading, discussing, marching, or otherwise working in their communities to bring about positive change.

Students and classroom teachers would also have access to diverse library collections – and most especially school library collections – that provide students with books and resources that represent the diversity of human experience. Since most librarians do not have the opportunity to actually read the print resources they select before they purchase them, they must rely on published book reviews. This means that children’s and young adult book reviewers are mediators between readers and their literature.

During the month of December, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Margaret Mercado, Pima County Public Library children’s librarian who reviews children’s and young adult literature for two well-known review sources. Mary Margaret and I are advocates for diversity and live in a community where Latinx students and families are the majority in the largest school district. We walk and talk most weekend mornings and have often shared our concerns and frustrations with the content, quality, and quantity of books that reflect Latinx culture.

To formalize our blog interview conversation, we created a framework for evaluating the cultural components during our discussions. We adapted our framework from Critical Multicultural Analysis of Children’s Literature: Mirrors, Windows, and Doors by Maria José Botelho and Masha Kabakow Rudman and WOWLit’s “Evaluating Literature for Authenticity.”

Publication Practices
1. Who are the author, illustrator, and/or translator?
2. What are their backgrounds?
3. Who was the original publisher?

Authenticity in the Story
1. From whose perspective is the text written?
2. Are characters, plot, and setting authentic, or are stereotypes presented?
3. What do the review sources say, and how have cultural “insiders” responded to this text?

Authenticity in Visual Elements
1. How does the illustrator’s background or research influence the visual elements in this book?
2. What meanings are communicated through the images?
3. Do the visual elements authentically and accurately portray cultural information?

Authenticity in Sociopolitical and Historical Context
1. What kind of first-hand experience or research informs the text?
2. What current or historical factors shape the story or information in the text?
3. How are current or historical power relations reflected in the text?

We posted once each week in December on the WOW Currents blog. The links below lead to each week’s post. With each link, I have shared a comment and my biggest takeaway(s) or remaining question(s) from that week’s post.

Part 1: Goals and Process for Children’s Book Reviews
In the introductory post on December 4, 2017, Mary Margaret shared her background, how she got started as a children’s literature book reviewer, and her reviewing process. In reading this post, you will note that it was from giving a book review editor critical feedback on a particular review that resulted in Mary Margaret being invited to review for that source. She answered a call for reviewers for the other source for which she reviews.

For the most part, Mary Margaret reviews children’s picturebooks and Spanish language or Spanish/English bilingual books. She constructs book reviews in three parts: 1. the story or information, 2. illustrations for visual incongruities or strengths, and 3. cultural components of the book with her recommendation. She believes it’s her job to “to find any negative, inauthentic or inaccurate elements and point them out in (her) review.” Mary Margaret’s cultural insider knowledge for Mexican themed books gives her  a distinct advantage when reviewing Latinx themed books.

Part 1: Further Questions
1. When librarians read book reviews, do we notice whether or not cultural information is included in the review?

2. Do we consider or question the reviewer’s knowledge in terms of assessing cultural authenticity in the work?

Part 2: Publication Practices
In this post, Mary Margaret provides one very clear example of a book in which the author’s and illustrator’s cultural knowledge (or research) was lacking. In her review, she justified her “not recommended” rating with specifics from the story and the illustrations. She also shared information about the importance of language and translation in relationship to authenticity.

Part 2: Takeaway
This was my takeaway from her responses in this post: “Even though I am culturally competent in both Mexican culture and Spanish language as spoken in (parts of) Mexico and the U.S., I would not be a competent translator for a story situated in Cuban or Puerto Rican culture. It is not appropriate to assume that anyone who is fluent in both English and Spanish can effectively translate any story into the other language.”

Part 3: Authentic Picturebook Stories
Mary Margaret offers three recommendations for determining cultural authenticity. These are her suggestions for librarians/reviewers who are cultural outsiders:
1.     If there is humor in the story. Mary Margaret asks herself: “Am I laughing at or laughing with the character?”
2.     In addition to characterization and language use, she examines the plot. She asks: “Who has agency and power in this story? Does succeeding or failing, winning or losing, have any connection to a stereotype about which I am aware?”
3.     Is the story setting authentic?

Part 3: Takeaway
Mary Margaret’s question about publishing Mexican themed picturebooks is this: “’While a rural setting with a poor family may be ‘appropriate’ for historical fiction, I often wonder, ‘Where are the books with middle class Mexican children and families playing video games, using cell phones and flying to the U.S. to visit Disneyland?’”

Part 4: Authentic Picturebook Illustrations
Since Mary Margaret’s responses to authenticity in story were comprehensive, we decided to carry over the conversation about picturebook illustrations to week four (and did not have the opportunity to explore sociopolitical and historical authenticity on the WOW Currents blog). This post about authenticity in illustration is packed with information that cultural outsiders may find especially illuminating.

Since many errors in illustration are not caught by art editors, it seems that librarians will want to consult cultural insiders about authenticity in picturebook visuals. For many that may be after the fact of purchase. Still, books published with errors can be used in classroom-library lessons as examples for what not to do.

Part 4: Takeaways
Mary Margaret identified several author-illustrators whose work is culturally authentic and shows congruity between story and illustration.

Adriana M. Garcia, illustrator of Xelena González’s book All Around Us (Cinco Puntos, 2017). The story honors traditions while steeped in a contemporary setting.

Yuyi Morales’s magical realism illustrations are perfectly aligned with Laura Lacámara’s story Floating on Mama’s Song (Katherine Tegen Books, 2010).

Duncan Tonatiuh’s Mixtex illustration style provides the perfect blend of contemporary and historical elements in Salsa: Un poema para docinar/Salsa: A Cooking Poem by Jorge Argueta (Groundwood, 2015).

Continuing the Conversation

The information in this interview will be part of an article for publication that includes responses to a survey I conducted in which twenty-six children’s and young adult book reviewers participated. I will also share both the survey and this interview at the Texas Library Association Conference on April 4th in my session titled “Intercultural Understanding through Global Literature.”

And please mark your calendars. On Tuesday, January 23rd at 1:00 p.m. Central, AASL and Scholastic Books are offering a free, one-hour webinar titled: Mirror, Mirror, Who Do You See in Your Books? Reaching Diverse Readers. Read about it and consider arranging your schedule so you can participate.

References

Botelho, Maria José, and Masha Kabakow Rudman. 2009. Critical Multicultural Analysis of Children’s Literature: Mirrors, Windows, and Doors. New York: Routledge.

WOWLit.org. “Evaluating Literature for Authenticity.” http://wowlit.org/links/evaluating-global-literature/evaluating-literature-for-authenticity

Image Credits:
Collage created at Befunky.com
Word Cloud created at Wordle.net

November Is Picturebook Month

Picture Book Month was founded by author and storyteller Dianne de Las Casas and her children’s book author/illustrator colleagues. The 2017 celebration is particularly heart-felt since this is the first year of the annual event since Dianne passed away in a tragic house fire.

Picture Book Month is on a mission: “In this digital age where people are predicting the coming death of print books, picture books (the print kind) need love. And the world needs picture books. There’s nothing like the physical page turn of a beautifully crafted picture book” (http://picturebookmonth.com).

Every day in November, the Picture Book Month Web site offers a new post from a picturebook champion explaining why he/she thinks picturebooks are important. School and public librarians will want to tap into this resource, think about their own picturebook selection practices, and consider how the information on the site can serve the literacy needs of children (and teens), families, and educators.

“Picture books are books in which both words and illustrations are essential to the story’s meaning… In a true picture book, the illustrations are integral to the reader’s experience of the book and the story would be diminished or confusing without the illustrations” (Short, Lynch-Brown, and Tomlinson 50).

My article “The Mighty Picturebook: Providing a Plethora of Possibilities” appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Children and Libraries, the journal of the Association for Library Services to Children. The photograph above was published on the cover. As can happen, my article was shortened to fit into a tight space. These are the main subheadings in that article and some of the information that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Young Audiences for Picturebooks
The photograph above shows a 12-year-old sister reading to her 5-year-old brother on the eve of his first day of public school kindergarten. Ready and Waiting for You was expressly created for this very purpose—for more proficient readers to engage emerging readers in conversations about what they will experience when they begin formal schooling. Engaging in dialogic reading with a trusted reader builds literacy skills and in this case, can build excitement and help ease the fears of young children. Children who are new to school or transferring to a new school can ask and get their questions answered by a trusted older reader.

Ready and Waiting for You also aligns with kindergarten curriculum that focuses on learning about the community of school. Adult readers might notice this book emphases the need for a “village” to educate a child: a classroom teacher, principal, office staff, nurse, librarian, computer tech, art, music and P.E. teachers, custodian, and parent volunteers, too. (Does your child’s school include all of these essential staff members who help educate “the whole child”? If not, why not?)

Word Count and Book Length
Word count and book length should not be the primary criteria for book selection. Many of today’s picturebooks offer fewer words. Are some stories constrained by lower word counts or the typical 32-page limit? It is important for anyone who shares picturebooks with young children to realize their “willingness to listen to stories grows with experience, which may result in a younger child who has been read to regularly having a much longer attention span than an older child with no story experience” (Short, Lynch-Brown, and Tomlinson 51).

Visual Literacy
“The ability to make meaning from images is an essential twenty-first century skill. Visual images dominate access to ideas and information via the screens that are all-pervasive in daily life” (Moreillon 2017, 18). Studying the illustration media and techniques used by picturebook illustrators can give youth a greater appreciation for the sophistication of this artform. Picturebook illustrations can inspire students to illustrate their own texts and give budding artists ideas for a possible career in illustration or graphic design.

Reading Comprehension and Inquiry Learning
Picturebooks can serve as mentor texts for reading comprehension strategy instruction. While word count is not the sole criterion for an appropriate mentor text, picturebooks that offer complete story arcs with developed characters and compelling themes tend to contain a thousand or more words. There are many examples in my professional book Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Elementary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact (Moreillon 2013).

Using Picturebooks with Older Readers
In addition to elementary school use, picturebooks are also used in middle and high school classrooms and libraries to teach comprehension strategies and literary devices. For example, picture books by Australian author-illustrator Shaun Tan provide opportunities for educators to model drawing inferences and for students to engage in rich discussions and infer themes for Tan’s sophisticated work. One such book is The Rabbits written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan. This sophisticated picturebook addresses the historical fact that some people have used technological advances to invade, dominate, and oppress indigenous people. This text clearly portrays the power of an analogy to communicate deep meaning. Although categorized as picturebooks, Tan’s work is not intended for a young child audience.

Making Meaning as Discovery
“Picturebooks offer exceptional opportunities for literacy learning and teaching as well as pleasure reading in preK-12 schools and libraries. When authors and illustrators create and publishers publish picture books with complete story arcs, compelling themes, intriguing illustrations, and rich information, parents and families, school and public librarians, classroom teachers and reading specialists can use these authentic texts in a plethora of ways” (Moreillon 2017, 19).

Check out the Picture Book Month calendar to see which authors and illustrators are participating this year. The Web site includes links to author and illustrator pages and provides resources and activities for students, educators, and families.

Celebrate the beauty and power of this artform to shape family literacy practices, to offer children mirrors and windows on the world, and bring delight to those who read or listen to the mighty picturebook.

References
Moreillon, Judi. “The Mighty Picturebook: A Plethora of Possibilities.” Children and Libraries, vol. 15, issue 3, 17-19.

Moreillon, Judi. Ready and Waiting for You. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2013.

Short, Kathy G., Carol Lynch-Brown, and Carl M. Tomlinson. Essentials of Children’s Literature. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014.

Image Credit: From Judi Moreillon’s Personal Collection – Used with Permission

Two More Book Recommendations

stories_of_my_lifeKatherine Paterson has been a long-time favorite author of many ‘tween and young adult fiction readers. In her latest book, Stories of My Life (2014), Ms. Paterson shares her own life story and shares how she has woven the people, places, and events in her life into her novels. At the American Library Association (ALA) Conference in San Francisco in June, I picked up a “Special Librarian Preview.”

In the book, Katherine answers three most frequently asked questions of authors: How did you become a writer? Where do you get your ideas? How does it feel to be famous? When educators guide student inquiry centered on author studies, these are some of the first questions youth want to investigate. Inquirers will be delighted to find her answers and may be surprised that even though a college professor encouraged her to write, Katherine, who considered herself a mediocre writer, had no intention of pursuing writing as a career. Later, she learned that “if you don’t dare to be a mediocre writer, you’ll never be a writer at all.”

Katherine Paterson’s book Jacob Have I Loved (1980) was the first of hers I read and remains an all-time favorite. To illustrate how Katherine’s own mother influenced the character of Susan Bradshaw, Louise and Caroline’s mother in that book, Katherine tells about her own mother’s reaction when she broke her mother’s precious antique Chinese tea service: “Are you all right, darling?” Katherine claims she could not have created a character like Susan Bradshaw had she not had the example of her own mother.

Heather_MommiesAt ALA, I stood in line to ask Lesléa Newman to autograph a copy of her just released edition of Heather Has Two Mommies (2015). This ground-breaking story, originally published in 1989, about a child with two mothers has weathered many storms—from censorship challenges and inflammatory reviews—to acclaim by being read into the Congressional Record and parodied by Jon Stewart. (See the downloadable author’s note available from the Candlewick Web site.)

With the June, 2015, Supreme Court ruling in favor of the freedom to marry for same sex couples nationwide, this new edition of Heather Has Two Mommies will speak to a new generation with bright new illustrations by Laura Cornell. Librarians and teachers who are committed to children’s access to literature with diverse characters will want to be sure to add this seminal story, this new publication, to their collections.

Stories of My Life cover image courtesy of Dial Books

Heather Has Two Mommies cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press

The Marvels – A Preview

marvelsA room bursting with librarians waited with baited breath for the appearance of an amazing children’s literature hero—Brian Selznick. When he flew up the center aisle, arrived at the podium, and faced the screen, the live (!) piano music began, the curtain went up, and all eyes turned to the images from Brian’s forthcoming book The Marvels. Readers who have come to expect great works of art from Mr. Selznick will not be disappointed. (There are no spoilers in this post.)

The Marvels begins in 1766 with more than two hundred images that tell the mysterious story of a theatrical family. Spanning several generations, Brian’s drawings portray the ships and their rigging, theater stages and scenery, and tell of  sea-going adventures and land-based dramas. (Did you know that theater terms such as “crew” and “boards” were derived from sailing terminology? I didn’t. Brian taught me that during his presentation.)

When the images end, readers find themselves in 1990 reading a story based in print only. A boy named Joseph has run away from boarding school and is searching for the address of an uncle he has never met. When he arrives at his uncle’s home at 18 Folgate Street, Joseph learns family secrets and more. Finally, an illustrated-only conclusion brings the first two parts of the book together in a satisfying present-day conclusion.

During this Scholastic-sponsored book launch at the American Library Association Annual Conference in San Francisco (June, 2015), Brian shared his finely drawn art, read from the print in the book, and shared bits of his writing and illustrating process. We were privileged to peek inside his studio to see hundreds of thumbnail sketches and then more than two hundred final illustrations displayed in sequence on his studio wall. We also had the opportunity to travel to London where Brian researched and worked on the book. He shared photographs of his apartment in Piccadilly and the marvelous home of Dennis Severs at 18 Folgate Street.

We who serve the literature needs of young people (and feed our own imaginations and love of story with children’s books) are once again thankful for the wonder that is Brian Selznick. Pre-order a copy today and kick off your fall reading with an awe-inspiring book.

Image courtesy of Scholastic Books, Inc.