Whose worlds are we sharing with children?
Mat Tobin with some top tips on building a diverse and multicultural bookshelf and on becoming a 'culturally responsive teacher'
When I began my first year at Oxford Brookes University, working alongside trainee/pre-service primary teachers, two events occurred which radically challenged my concepts around multicultural literature. Before investigating these experiences, I think it important to share the following definitions collated by Dudley-Marling (2003: 305):
‘Literature by and about people who are members of groups considered to be outside the socio-political mainstream’
(Professor Emeritus, Rudine Sims Bishop, 1992: 39)
‘Literature that represents any distinct cultural group through accurate portrayal and rich detail.’
(Professor Emeritus, Junko Yokota, 1993: 157)
The words and phrases underlined were key in challenging those entrenched precepts that had informed my teaching, learning and ideological beliefs with regards to multiculturalism.
In 2015, Darren Chetty presented his paper, ‘The Elephant in the Room: Picturebooks, Philosophy for Children and Racism’ at Oxford Brookes and, inspired, I went on to read Anne Dolan’s You, Me and Diversity (2014). Both of these experiences had a profound effect on my concepts around race, representation, authenticity, privilege and multiculturalism. Together, they became a catalyst for a revolutionary change in how I looked at my place in the world, my duty as an educator of children and trainee of teachers and my still-shifting understanding of what is meant by multicultural literature.
They invited me to reconsider my perceptions of society and culture and, through an informed, critical lens, highlighted the many ignorances and subjective biases I had accumulated over the past 17 years as a primary school teacher.
I realised that I needed to be more critical about the books I was reading and sharing since I had only been:
- Presenting a euro-centric view of different people and their cultures
- Sharing a representation of the dominant white culture that was imitating and simulating a people from an outsider’s perspective (Reimer, 1992 cited in Fang, Fu & Lamme: 285)
Whilst Darren’s paper opened my eyes to the ‘gated-community’ that I had comfortably inhabited and inherited all my life, both his paper and Anne’s book also encouraged me to read children’s literature, especially that which represented an identity or racial, ethnic, linguistic or cultural group, with a ‘questioning and wondering stance’ (Fang, Fu & Lamme: 299).
Having been that teacher who had read and shared Eileen Browne’s Handa’s Surprise (1994) with children, I became uncomfortably aware that I had both reinforced and perpetuated an inaccurate, white euro-centric perspective of Kenya. As fortune would have it, within that year’s cohort was an Early Years PGCE student who had recently moved to the U.K. after growing up in Accra, Ghana (her father was a tribal leader) and had spent time in Kenya. I presented her with Handa’s Surprise and asked if she wouldn’t mind sharing her thoughts:
‘My view on Handa's Surprise:
1. Setting is definitely a Kenyan village not city.
2.What about the Kenyan city girl...can she balance a basket on her head? Some of them can successfully balance baskets on their heads but mainly to sell the contents in their basket for money...they may be selling fruits, pastries, water etc.
3. There is some perception that children in Africa have the privilege of seeing all kinds of animals. I was born in Accra...the Capital of Ghana...The first time I saw an Ostrich was in the London Zoo. I like the fact that two of the characters are girls. In some cultures in Africa...women/girls are considered inferior.
4. Personally, I believe that children, especially those in the Foundation Stage, who cannot read and so depend on pictures will form their perceptions about a group of people/place based on these pictures. It is therefore important that these 'pictures' are not one sided-so that children can form their opinions about other children or places from other countries, that is devoid of prejudice/bias.
Personal Experience (from the student): Before I travelled to England...my perception about the country was...everyone was rich, all the streets were clean and everyone was happy (All the stories I read ended with "and they all lived happily ever after')
Well.....this was not the case!!!’
‘Image from Tomorrow (2018) by Nadine Kaadan. Originally published by Box of Tales Publishing House, Syria and then published by Lantana. Translation by the original author. It tells the story of a young Syrian boy, Yazan who faces ‘the reality of war’ on a daily basis. Nadine based this story on the experiences she saw take place in her hometown of Damascus.’
The more I read about representation and authenticity in children’s literature, the more I keep returning to what this student shared. As readers, our perceptions of others are based on what we encounter in mass-media.
I knew that I had to change my own reading and teaching practice by becoming critical of the literature I encountered with regards to my inherited bias. In doing so, I, along with those future teachers I taught and worked alongside, would make that journey to become ‘culturally responsive teachers’ (Villegas and Lucas cited in Dolan: 50).
Whilst finding an authentic voice to represent another’s experience or culture is complex, and it is not beyond outsiders to write sympathetically, historically and accurate fiction, I would agree with Yokota when she states that the further you are from that group, the harder it is to ‘attain cultural authenticity’ (Yokota, 1993). Along with a small handful of U.K. publishers, Lantana Publishing is working hard to counter this, offering a platform for authors and illustrators from underrepresented and misrepresented races and cultures to publish and counter the overwhelmingly monocultural setting in children’s literature.
In reading any books that represent a people or culture that is not my own, I will become more critical of accuracy and authenticity by:
- Researching the background of the author and illustrator to see what experience they have of that culture or group and whether they present an authentic, lived experience (#ownvoices)
- If not, then is there any evidence of research to show how far they went to explore those people/places that they are representing? (Author/illustrator biographies - publisher’s websites - interviews)
- I will no longer buy or share books that I consider inauthentic or inaccurate and will continue to follow authors, illustrators, educators, librarians, publishers and scholars who are passionate and dedicated to celebrating authentic, responsible multicultural literature.
- I will ensure that most of the books I purchase with regards to authentic voices and experiences are purchased from U.K. publishers whose ‘About Us’ pages make it clear that inclusivity, authenticity and the accommodation of ‘a wide range of people and experiences - so ALL children can enjoy them’ (Alanna Max) will be central. Currently, Tiny Owl, Knights Of, Alanna Max and, of course, Lantana Publishing are who I turn to but I continue to look for more in our local context.
- Supporting students by providing them with the strategies to critique multicultural texts in order to question and assess their accuracies/inaccuracies too. I would rather educate the children and students about these problems rather than shield them from inaccuracies
‘Image from Phoenix Song (2015) by Tutu Dutta and Martina Peluso. Tutu’s previous children’s books had been published in Malaysia where she grew up. Phoenix Song tells the story of Arohan who must save his brothers. Although set in Malaysia it calls upon Chinese myth and legend. She read many books on Chinese folklore that had themselves been well researched. Martina lives in Naples but has exhibited around Europe. She organises cultural events for the young with the Kolibri Cultural Association.’
For the last two years, the CLPE Reflecting Realities report has provided evidence of the woefully disproportionate presentation of ethnic minority groups in the UK publishing industry. We still need to consider who is telling whose story. Such inequality shows us that much work still needs to be done in the publishing world yet publishers also need to see that these stories matter and that we want them.
If you are a librarian, a publisher, a teacher or a parent and have shelves with children’s picturebooks, consider whose worlds you are sharing. Does it represent the ‘colourful and diverse’ world that we live in (Bishop: 2015) or it is mostly monocultural?
When we begin to think about whose worlds sit upon our bookshelves we are better placed to consider what this says about ourselves and our attitudes towards a global citizenship. It is then that we can begin to question whether we are empowering ourselves and our readers to read the world multiculturally or not.
With the above checklist in hand and an eye on the books that you are placing in the hands of children, ask yourself: whose voices do you need to give space to; whose voices need lifting up onto your own shelves and how authentic are those voices?
Images from Nimesh the Adventurer (2018) by Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini. A book that celebrates one boy’s vivid imagination as he makes his way to and from school. ‘Ranjit is a British children’s book author of East Asian heritage. He uses words to reach out and inspire people in his community.’ Mehrdokht is an Iranian-born, U.K. based illustrator.
Bishop, R.S. (1995) Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors 30 January. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AAu58SNSyc
Browne, E. (1997) Handa's surprise. London: Walker.
Chaudhri, A. (2017) Multiracial identity in children's literature. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group (Routledge research in education, 185).
Chetty, D. (2014) “The Elephant in the Room: Picturebooks, Philosophy for Children and Racism,” Childhood & Philosophy, 10(19), pp. 11–31.
Dolan, A. M. (2014) You, me, and diversity : picturebooks for teaching development and intercultural education. London: Institute of Education Press.
Fox, D. L. and Short, K. G. (2003) Stories matter : the complexity of cultural authenticity in children's literature. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.
Yokota, J. (1993) Issues in selecting multicultural children’s literature. Language Arts, 70(3) 156-67
Mat Tobin teaches English and Children's Literature in Primary ITE and leads several modules on the MA/PGCert in Education with a focus on Reading for Pleasure and Children's Literature. Follow him @Mat_at_Brookes