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Diamonds in the rough: the search for socially responsible, multicultural children's literature.

Way back in the day when the pickings were slimmer than slim, maybe, just maybe, enjoying a book like The Five Chinese Brothers (first published in 1938) was alright. But today, and yesterday (and even the day before that!), any book that opens, "Once upon a time there were five Chinese brothers and they all looked exactly alike" is completely unacceptable. Let alone the fact that the story was written by a white author and a white illustrator; sharing this piece with children as a fun and magical, unproblematic book is poor guidance, to say the least.


And yet titles like this one continue to be celebrated by nostalgic white readers. Celebrated, then defended to the point of backlash. For these readers, many of whom were raised with books like these, The Five Chinese Brothers is far from controversial. From the teacher who first heard the story in the 1950s and keeps sharing it with her first grade class, to the enthusiastic reader who attributes criticism of the book to "PC nonsense," folks hold their childhood favorites dear.

In 1965, Nancy Larrick's groundbreaking article "The All-White World of Children's Books" was published in the Saturday Review of Books. Known as the first published critique of the absence of people of color in children's literature, the article highlighted Larrick's five-year study of more than 5,000 children's books. Her study found that less than one percent of these thousands of books reflected any contemporary images of African Americans. This article, coupled with the development of ethnic studies in the 1960s and '70s, paved the way for the diversification of a predominantly white children's publishing industry. Ten years after the article, a Jewish San Francisco mother founded Children's Book Press, the first house to publish exclusively multicultural children's books. Since then, small presses dedicated to diversifying children's literature have continued to sprout, building the multicultural children's book industry from the ground up.

Successful titles with non-white subject matter sparked the attention of mainstream publishers in the mid-to-late 1980s. The still dramatically white children's book industry embarked upon a two-pronged effort to capitalize on the newly discovered multicultural children's market. First was an attempt to infiltrate the genre by expanding it to include Euro-centered stories as multicultural. As Jaira Placide, editor at Jump At the Sun (an African-American children's imprint at Hyperion Books) explains, "When the multicultural children's genre was first created, multicultural meant everything that wasn't part of the Euro-centric white mainstream. But eventually the name multicultural got away from its original meaning to include European stories as well."


Simultaneously, larger publishers have tried to cash in on the burgeoning multicultural market by publishing their own titles with brown faces. To their credit, larger houses have published quality texts destined to be classics, but just as many times (if not more) a general lack of cultural understanding within the company has led to the printing of socially irresponsible representations of people of color. The Other Side (published in 2001 by Penguin Putnam), for example, depicts young girls separated by a literal and psychological fence in the pre-civil rights era. A young African-American girl overcomes these barriers, and the pressures of her peers, to befriend her white neighbor. On the surface, the book promotes the breaking of racial barriers. The story, however, presents the potential white friend as the victim of exclusionary and mean Black girls who have the advantage of age, size and number. This book is more likely to promote shame in young African-American readers than reaffirm positive images of self and community.

When multicultural book sales began to fall in the late '80s, market analysts explained that multicultural children's books were a passing trend. To mainstream white audiences, diversity and brownskinned faces are trendy. Marina Tristan, associate director at Arte Publico Press in Houston, explains, "It has something to do with where you're coming from. It's not a trend from our perspective."

Independent multicultural presses are vanguards for both growth and positive change in the industry. These smaller houses, committed to equal representation in the children's book publishing industry (and the institutions it directly impacts like schools and libraries) are responsible for the creation and much of the diversity in multicultural children's literature. They are also more likely to understand the cultural significance of a unique, previously unpublished idea. Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson shopped their AfroBets ABC Book idea to numerous mainstream publishers who rejected the proposal, claiming there was no market for the book. In 1988, the Hudsons launched their own company, Just Us Books, and began publishing African-American children's titles. AfroBets ABC Book proved a great success, selling over 350,000 copies. Similarly, when Children's Book Press released Family Pictures/Cuadros de Familia in 1990, the industry met the book with confusion and little appreciation. It couldn't understand the straightforward narrative and illustrated family scenes, much less the book's significance to Mexican-American and Latino families. Despite the industry's blank gaze, 15 years later the book has proven to be the Press' alltime bestseller, having sold more than 400,000 copies.

Multicultural publishers along with authors and illustrators of color are actively and continually expanding their industry. Diverse folk tales from Africa, the Americas and Asia laid the initial groundwork. The genre has since broadened dramatically to include multifaceted historic and contemporary subjects and characters. Among the fruits of their labor are biographies of legends like Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X, as well as stories of children from immigrant and migrant communities. Stories about less traditional families, like those of multiracial children and their differently raced parents and family members, and stories of children raised in same-sex households, though rare, also are increasingly available.

Instead of following formulas for success, these smaller presses take risks and create new opportunities in the field. They bring a consciousness all too rare in the industry. As Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books (a family-run, New York-based publishing house) explains, "A minority-owned company like ours has a personal attachment to the stories we publish. When you are a minority it is not a big leap to empathize with people of color ... since the life experiences growing up have been consistent across ethnic groups. We believe that the work we do is important and fills a void in the children's book marketplace."

Multicultural houses create children's books that document the hidden histories and stories that before were told only within our own families and ethnic studies courses--stories of exploitation and transformation packaged with grace, understanding and compassion for all generations. Thanks to these publishers, the experiences of underrepresented children across the country and the world are reflected in texts packaged especially for them.

When asked of her commitment to multicultural children's books, Ruth Tobar, Children's Book Press' first executive director of color, sums it up: "This work is political--it's very political. It's about the children whose names and faces we'll never know. We have to keep them in mind."

Janine Macbeth intends to start her own company one day and publish books for diverse children of color. She currently works for Children's Book Press.


A long time ago and on into the present: Communities around the world pass along oral traditions. Stories and folklore are shared (and altered) from generation to generation, from griots and grandmas, elders and aunties, to us. These were the beginnings of multicultural children's literature.

1881-1905: Joel Chandler Harris, a white southerner, publishes the Uncle Remus series. The poems and proverbs printed were based on stories told to him by enslaved men and women throughout his childhood.

1899: Briton Helen Bannerman publishes The Story of Little Black Sambo, a story she invented to entertain her daughters on their trip through India. Harris and Bannerman introduce stories about non-white characters to children's literature while setting a precedent for these stories to be told by white authors.

1965: Nancy Larrick writes an article entitled "The All-White World of Children's Books" for the Saturday Review of Books. The article is considered one of the first racial critiques of the children's book industry and a precursor to the creation of multicultural children's literature. A compilation by the same name was edited by Osayimwense Osa and published in 1995.

Late 1960s: African-American authors and illustrators become more visible in the children's book industry. Authors like Virginia Hamilton and Walter Dean Myers; illustrators like Jerry Pinkney, Tom Feelings and Leo Dillon.

1969: The Coretta Scott King Award is created. The award celebrates and further legitimizes the contributions of African-American authors and illustrators to children's literature.

1975: Children's Book Press, the first known publisher of exclusively multicultural children's books, is founded by Harriet Rohmer, a San Francisco mother committed to creating children's literature that reflected her son's diverse classmates and their experiences.

1983: Viola Florez-Tighe is one of the first educators to advocate the use of multicultural literature in school curriculum. Her research showed that using culturally authentic children's literature encourages language and thought-process development, as well as feelings of self-worth in children of color. As a large portion of the children's book industry lies in school and library sales, studies like this one significantly broadened opportunity in the market.

1980s: Multicultural children's books establish their presence so strongly in the industry that larger mainstream publishers begin to follow suit and publish books including, and even starring, adults and children of color.

1998: Andrea Davis Pinkney launches Jump At the Sun, the first African-American children's imprint at a major publisher, Hyperion. The creation of this imprint marks the weight and strength of multicultural children's publishing, symbolizing a mainstream shift that values the publishing of books that depict people of color. On a different note, the for-profit company understands that multicultural children's books can be financially viable.

1998: Proposition 227 is passed in California. Prop. 227 made it unlawful for schools to use foreign-language books in the classroom. Since much of the bilingual and foreign-language children's book market was in California, Prop. 227 dramatically reduced the publication of foreign-language children's books in the U.S.

1998: The Cooperative Children's Book Center reports that six percent of the children's books published in that year were written and/or illustrated by a person of color and/or had African-American, Latino, Native-American or Asian-American themes. At the time, 30 percent of the United States was known to be non-white.

2004: The Cooperative Children's Book Center reports that multicultural children's titles have increased from six percent in 1998 to 11 percent. The United States' "minority" population continues to grow.



Children's Book Press (San Francisco, CA; founded in 1975) is a non profit publisher known for its role as a pioneer in portraying underrepresented communities, including migrant and immigrant families. The majority of CBP's books are bilingual, printed in English and Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Chinese or Korean.

Lee & Low Books (New York, NY; founded in 1991) is one of the few people of color-owned publishing companies in the U.S. and one of the first to focus on contemporary stories about children of color. Their books house stories children of color can identify with and are packaged for the enjoyment and education of all children.

Just Us Books (East Orange, NJ; founded in 1988) publishes Blackinterest books that share Black history, culture and experiences, presenting a clear and positive perspective for people of color in the 21st century.


Pinata Books, Arte Publico Press (Houston, TX; imprint founded in 1994) publishes children's and young adult literature focused on U.S. Hispanic culture. Arte Publico Press is perhaps best known for being the original publisher of Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street.

Jump At the Sun, Hyperion Books for Children (New York, NY; imprint founded in 1998) publishes picture books and young adult novels that embrace Black culture and celebrate African-American experiences.

Cinco Puntos Press (EI Paso, TX; founded in 1985) specializes in publishing literature from the U.S./Mexico border, Mexico and the American Southwest. CPP is guided by its sense of place, drawing strength from its location in EI Paso.

Shen's Books (Fremont, CA; founded in 1985) is a catalog and distributor of multicultural children's books from many publishers. Shen's is committed to sharing culturally diverse books with all students and parents.



Jazzy Miz Mozetta

Brenda C. Roberts, Frank Morrison (illus.)

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004

Miz Mozetta lives rhythm and dance, and is stylish to the core--but it takes a minute for the young whippersnappers break dancing across the street to recognize it. This is an energizing intergenerational story that breathes history, heritage and Harlem with each word and stroke of the brush.

Baseball Saved Us

Ken Mochizuki, Dom Lee (illus.)

Lee & Low Books, 1993

Your classic American base-ball underdog story is the spoon full of sugar for this book's medicinal crash course in World War II Japanese internment and disenfranchisement. Baseball Saved Us explores racism in a way that neither overly simplifies nor alienates the issues for readers ages two to 102. An absolute must for every library.


Antonio's Card / La Tarjeta de Antonio

Rigoberto Gonzalez, Cecelia Concepcion Alvarez (illus.)

Children's Book Press, 2005

Young wordsmith Antonio is faced with a potentially complicated situation. He's looking for a way to express his love for his lesbian mother and

her life partner, Leslie, but is not sure what to do when his classmates continually make fun of Leslie. Antonio's Card is an emotional story that captures the nuances of Antonio and his family's experience. The subtleties of the text and illustration are intuitively crafted.

Skin Again

bell hooks, Chris Raschka (illus.)

Jump At the Sun, 2004

bell hooks' third children's book with Chris Raschka introduces young readers to race as a social creation that colors a piece of our multifaceted experiences. The text and illustrations' poetic and lyrical quality present a way of interacting with the world rather than a traditional story format. This approach allows the book to transcend colorblind rhetoric by honoring experience and identity while valuing interpersonal connection. A vital text for all educational levels--from early ed to critical theory grads.


House That Crack Built

Clark Taylor, Jan

Thompson Dicks (illus.)

Chronicle Books, 1992

This story, based on the rhythms of the familiar House That Jack Built, traces the creation and uses of crack cocaine from its beginnings on the plantation to its consumption in the inner city. The book's illustrations are rife with disturbing characters, from drug dealers and gang members to prostitutes and crack babies. Though its intent may be to highlight the many interconnections of drug use and abuse, House That Crack Built fails to present an even picture. Instead, every character is Latino, dark, dangerous and somehow contributes to the deadly cycle of crack cocaine. The absence of a single positive persona of color suggests that people of color (and especially Latinos) are prone to drug use and responsible for their/our own oppression.


Riding the Tiger

Eve Bunting, David

Frampton (illus.)

Clarion Books, 2001

Beware the sinister, inner-city urban jungle tiger! A young white boy moves to the city from the suburbs and is lured into a life of crime by the neighborhood tiger. The boy soon finds that the longer he stays, the faster and more dangerous the ride becomes. If the threat weren't clear enough, the dark, black tiger speaks some strange invented slang. Need we say more?


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Title Annotation:culture
Author:Macbeth, Janine
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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