Multi-colored Threads of Home
When I first heard the term multiculturalism in children’s literature, my first thought was one of joyful celebration and anticipation. Enchanted as I am with the nature of storytelling and the lyrical beauty of words – I sensed that this celebration of diversity would give space to distinct and resounding voices, formerly silenced and marginalized. Little did I know how naïve I was. Reading the edited book by Dana Fox and Kathy Short entitled Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children’s Literature has provided me with a veritable spread of polemical issues, conflicting perspectives, not to mention the sociopolitical underpinnings that provide a tenable-yet-shaky frame for a more thorough understanding of multiculturalism in books for children. Gradually, I came to realize that there are multiple layers that permeate this deceptively-innocuous intention to bring the world to a child’s hands through a book. Issues range from insider-outsider perspectives (with Jacqueline Woodson’s plaintive Who can tell my story and Marc Aronson’s heartfelt A Mess of Stories) to questions of ethnic essentialism and problems of cultural authenticity. Needless to say, my views about my beloved picture books have now become more nuanced and textured as I begin to gradually appreciate the quiet struggles and the thinly-veiled tension that serve as the backdrop of these narratives for children.
When Marjorie very kindly invited me to share my top ten multicultural books for children, all these thoughts were raging through my mind. I knew that I wanted to steer clear of these thorny, hardly-resolved, and undeniably complex issues. At the same time, I wanted to go beyond folklore and festivals. I decided that I might as well develop my own criteria of picture books that spoke to me.
The list that I have here is made up of narratives with a pulse, with soulful characters who are confronted with inner demons yet are able to transcend the sordid realities of life through flights of fancies, quilting dreams, or the promise of spring. While life’s shadows take on a tangible form (be they rabbits or wolves), the reader feels a deep sense of faith with winged-hands that are unafraid to search, reach out, and ultimately discover home within one’s self.
In Allen Say’s Grandfather’s Journey, the reader gets to know the restless heart of a wanderer. In the review that I have written in GatheringBooks, I noted that:
Each page is filled with luminous paintings of places that Grandfather has been accompanied by sparse text that is one or two sentences long. While it is perfect for very young children, I envision that it would also be great for older kids who would wish to explore geography, develop a sense of space and time, while providing a means to understand one’s roots and cultural identity.
While the story is linear, starting with grandfather’s leaving his home in Japan as a young man to “see the world” and ending in old age with grandfather’s longing left in the air for the reader to touch and grasp – each portrait seems to be filled with untold narratives, inviting the reader to sit back and imagine the possible labyrinthine stories the picture brings.
The book also touches on the concept of transnational identity as Say’s grandfather would miss the mountains of Japan while he is in California, yet he would also long for his ‘home’ in California while in Japan. There is that continual search for something elusive outside of one’s self – the search for home.
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival must be among everyone’s top ten list, as it provides a surreal and powerfully-moving representation of all the strange and odd experiences that moving to and living in another country (outside one’s own birthplace) might engender. Absolutely wordless, the monstrous scales and paper boats in the skies provide the reader with a glimpse of the various Ellis Islands of the world – human geese flying south to find refuge. The muted narratives of displacement are rendered even more compelling with the subtle snapshots of pain, inviting the readers to infuse their own ‘river of words’ as they ‘read’ through the wordless tales of deliverance.
This ‘wordless’ concept of home is also something that Jeannie Baker played around with in Mirror as the reader is regaled with the outstanding duality of what life is like in both Morocco and Sydney for two young boys. From a journey of bedtime and morning rituals as ingeniously portrayed in two different parts of the world – one is able to glimpse desert and dry land mirrored with cityscapes, cars, and airplanes. There is also the startling realization that despite the remarkable differences in appearances, there are things that connect us regardless of barriers in geography, language, cultural practices: there is always the night sky, the moon, family, food, and love.
This notion of kinship that goes beyond skin color and language is likewise evident in Brothers by the husband-and-wife tandem Yin and Chris Soentpiet. Ming, a young Chinese boy just arrived in San Francisco to live with his older brothers, who was among the first Chinese railroad workers in the city. Ming was immediately thrust into doing his family duty to mind the struggling store that they are renting to make ends meet. He was warned never to go past Chinatown, as their almond-eyed presence – while necessary for the country’s survival – was neither embraced nor accepted by the ‘locals.’ Things changed when Ming met Patrick, an Irish boy with “brown hair and eyes the color of the bright sky” as he found a friend who is like him in spirit. The two boys’ friendship illustrates how linguistic and cultural boundaries are oftentimes intangible walls of our own making.
These walls may actually prove to be insurmountable for some as could be seen in Armin Greder’s sparse-yet-intensely-gripping The Island. This picture book demonstrates how the pervasive fear towards people who are different could prove to be tragic and beyond redemption. There is darkness seeping through the pages of the book as the reader is confronted with the extent of man’s unfounded rage and haunted by the many atrocities people tend to commit in the name of fear, and how the voice of reason and compassion may easily be smothered by the shadows of what-ifs and relentless musings of the worst aspects of human nature.
In John Marsden’s The Rabbits as illustrated by Shaun Tan, the shadows are given allegorical and aesthetic form as one sees rabbits in suits and numbats in trees populating this metaphorical universe. This picture book allows the reader to take on a radical shift in perspective as one is privy to the sentiments of the locals – not the foreigner, not the immigrant who is struggling to fit in and belong – but a condensed view of colonization from the mistrustful and wounded eyes of the colonized. In the review that I have written in GatheringBooks, I noted that:
The straightforward, deceptively-simple retelling of Australia’s history is matched perfectly by Shaun Tan’s amazingly-stunning artwork that complements the narrative with dark black spaces, monochrome illustrations of how the rabbits have overtaken the entire country (“Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits. Millions and millions of rabbits. Everywhere we look there are rabbits.”), the sepia-toned undercurrents of loss and tragedy, and the deliciously-surreal representation of all that is right and unjust, pure and sullied, and what it means to stand one’s ground (regardless of how shaky and small and crumbling it is). The book is a reminder, as well, of what we value as we cry out in anguish and claim ownership of what is rightfully ours – as one’s entire world is overtaken, captured, and judged to be less than what it is.
This arbitrary yet heavily-pronounced judgment of the superiority of one cultural group as compared to another is clearly evident in Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche as the reader gets to understand more clearly the gritty aspects of war through a child’s innocent eyes. I was struck by how young Rose Blanche proudly waved the Nazi flag as she and other German kids viewed the coming of the soldiers as a cause for celebration and festivity. The red-ribboned girl, however, discovered truths that even our adult minds are incapable of comprehending when she followed the soldier’s truck amidst the clearing – her innocence and youth stripped from her eyes as she sees gaunt and emaciated faces and bodies in striped pajamas. In my review of this book I wrote:
Rose Blanche is a heartbreaking reminder of the real costs of war – and the fact that nothing is worth the gaping black chasm that takes the place of youth, and friendship, and the lovely act of becoming. In war, there is nothing but abrupt ends, cut-off laughter, and discarded dreams. I invite you to open this book and celebrate the sweet song of spring – and perhaps, in time, we can indeed, create a world that is worthy of the beautiful children we have brought into this world. Collectively, we can strive to be the heroes and peacekeepers that our children have always regarded us to be.
This courage to face one’s fears and grit to go beyond one’s self is evident in Margaret Wild and Anne Spudvilas’ Woolvs in the Sitee. While the book begins with a sense of inevitable doom and resignation – a darkness that threatens to engulf – this does not overwhelm the reader who touches that bit of sunshine and warmth in the pages – primarily because it is rarely seen that it is even more apparent. There is that keenly-felt struggle to find meaning and transcend one’s pain to save another and a decisive invitation from the young protagonist, Ben, to “Joyn me” in facing one’s own ‘woolvs.’
Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach takes us on a different quest as the readers gets to fly among quilted stars together with Cassie Louise Lightfoot, as she ‘owns’ George Washington Bridge and New York through her flights of fancies. It is an evocative graphical representation of a young girl’s resilience amidst poverty as seen in Ringgold’s stunning story-quilts-transformed-into-picture-book. It is a celebration of a child’s indomitable spirit as she declares the world to be hers for the taking while she pursues her dreams in winged feet and star-filled eyes.
I end my list though with poetry as I share the amazing collaboration between Maya Angelou and the gifted graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in Life Does not Frighten Me. I must have read this book more than a dozen times as the lines sounded more like a whispered prayer to me – an antidote against things that go bump and creep in thine soul: ghostly clouds and barking canines, big old meanies and fire-breathing dragons. A perfect gift as well to the Paper Tigers ladies as they celebrate their tenth year anniversary. In this beautiful picture book, the reader is given a dream catcher, an amulet, a magic spell that would shatter the darkest of evils and make the shadows go crawling back where they come from – with the powerful words:
I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won’t cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.