PaperTigers 10th Anniversary: Multi-colored Threads of Home by Dr. Myra Garces-Bacsal

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Dr. Myra Garces-Bacsal is an Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Education, Singapore and was just nominated for the NIE’s 2012 Excellence in Teaching Award. In addition to teaching, Myra shares her passion for the written word through Gathering Books, a children’s literature and YA fiction website with a vibrant blog. At the 2010 Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore PaperTigers was honored to co-host a panel discussion with Myra and with Tarie Sabido of Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind. As part of our 10th Anniversary celebrations we asked Myra if she would send us her Top 10 list of multicultural books and she submitted to us this most wonderful and insightful article:

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.

PaperTigers’ Global Voices feature with award winning author Holly Thompson (USA/Japan)~ Part 2

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

English-language Asia-set Children’s and YA Fiction ~ by Holly Thompson

Part 2 of 3 (read Part 1 here)

Some years back as we settled into our bicultural family life with young children here in Japan, although we were surrounded by books in Japanese and took full advantage of Japan’s healthy picture book and middle-grade market, we discovered that finding English-language reading material to support our bilingual children was no easy task. Because our children attended Japanese schools, English education happened in our home, and we needed a steady supply of English-language books. But libraries in Japan stock few English-language books, and bookstores here carry very few and at hefty mark-ups, so whenever friends or family visited from the U.S. they brought books to us. Returning from a trip back to the States, our luggage was always heavy with books. We book-swapped with families in Japan, we ordered from Scholastic with our English-after school group, and we pounced on book sale tables at international school fairs. At last, Amazon Japan with free and quick delivery of affordable overseas books came to the rescue.

Always on the lookout for books relating to our lives while raising our bilingual children, we soon became aware of a lack of English-language children’s books that reflect Japan. English-language picture books set in Japan were rare, and those that existed, we discovered, tended toward folktales and nonfiction. Where were the day-to-day stories that reflected the landscapes and people and value systems surrounding us? Where was Japan?

We treasured our Allen Say books, especially Kamishibai Man and Grandfather’s Journey.

We read and reread the bilingual Grandpa’s Town by Takaaki Nomura. We enjoyed folktale retellings like The Seven Gods of Luck by David Kudler and Yoshi’s Feast by Kimiko Kajikawa. and biographical works like Cool Melons—Turn to Frogs by Matthew Gollub. All excellent, but we were discouraged that such English-language titles set in Japan were few and far between.

Searching for other Asian cultures in English-language picture books yielded similar results—folktales, nonfiction and concept books, but few fictional stories set in Asia.

As the children grew older, we came to realize that even less common than English-language picture books set in Asia were English-language middle-grade and YA novels set in Japan and Asia. What we found was mostly historical fiction. Of course we read and loved Korea-set historical novels by Linda Sue Park, Japan-set novels by Lensey Namioka such as Island of Ogres, Geraldine McCaughrean’s China-set The Kite Rider, and Minfong Ho’s Cambodia/Thailand-set The Clay Marble. We had our antennae out searching for Asia-set stories, and this 2009 blog post by librarian and children’s literature specialist Jenny Schwartzburg lists many of the titles we discovered.

But we wanted more. Contemporary realism in all its guises. Fantasy. Humor. Mysteries. Sci-Fi. The full spectrum. We wanted the ordinary everyday life of tweens and teens in Japan and Asia in English. Translations (to be addressed in Part 3 of this 3-part series) would seem to be the solution, but there are so few Japanese, and more broadly, so few Asian children’s and YA books translated into English that our choices were extremely limited.

At long last, though a bit late for our grown children, I think we are beginning to see an upswing. More English-language children’s and YA fiction titles set in Asia, are being published and winning awards. And these are being written not just by authors with limited, surface experience in Asia, but by those with solid footing in Asia such as Candy Gourlay (Tall Story), Mitali Perkins(Bamboo People), and Uma Krishnaswami (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything).

And in many parts of Asia there are laudable efforts in place to nurture English-language, as well as local-language, writers. There are now professional organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators providing networks and mentoring for English-language writers and illustrators in Asia. There are conferences such as Singapore’s Asian Festival of Children’s Content, the Japan Writers Conference, the Manila International Literary Festival, and Asia Pacific Writers, which will hold its third summit this year in Bangkok. We now have the Scholastic Asian Book Award and the new SingTel Asian Picture Book Award. There are creative writing MFA programs in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and AsiaWrites now announces residencies and opportunities. These are welcomed developments for the future of Asia-set and Asia-related books for children and young adults. Hurrah! An Asia-grown literature boom is long overdue.

Why is it so important to cultivate English-language writers in Asia? Because not only do the vast numbers of English-language readers in Asia need to find Asia in all its manifestations in the books they read, but English-language readers around the world need the opportunity to set foot in the different universes of Asia through literature.

When books are published these days, they travel the world. A book, like a website, goes abroad. A children’s or YA book in English does not only communicate with readers in the country in which it is published but it speaks to English-language readers wherever it may travel. Let’s hope that English-language publishers everywhere will come to realize that Asia, with its huge, diverse and growing population, deserves greater attention and more playing time through Asia-set fiction for children and teens.

Holly Thompson was raised in New England and is a longtime resident of Japan. Her verse novel Orchards(Delacorte/Random House) won the 2012 APALA Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature  and is a YALSA 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults title. She recently edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories (Stone Bridge Press), and her next verse novel The Language Inside (Delacorte/Random House) will be published in 2013. She teaches creative writing at Yokohama City University and serves as the regional advisor of the Tokyo chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Visit her website: www.hatbooks.comPart 3 of her series will be posted here on the PaperTigers’s blog on May 30. Part 1 can be read here.