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Writing Multicultural Fiction for Children (Part I)
by Eugie Foster

Return to Writing for Children · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Multicultural fiction has been in demand by children's editors and publishers for the last several decades. Many of the major publishing houses actively seek it or have imprints that specialize in it (e.g. Dial, Knopf, Roaring Brook), and there are a number of small presses dedicated to ethnic subject matter (e.g. Cinco Puntos, Children's Book Press, Lee & Low). Additionally, children's magazines like Cricket, Calliope, and Wee Ones are typically either receptive to it, or have an explicit focus on world cultures. It's a trend that shows no sign of abating.

The roots of this popularity originates from the '60s [1], when teachers and librarians began calling for texts representative of the diversity present in the classroom, as well as from parents seeking reading material that introduced and positively characterized their own cultural identities. It has been further spurred by the current movement away from an exclusively phonics-oriented approach to reading instruction, to a balanced literacy model -- due in large part to the increased influence of the sociocultural theories of developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky [2].

Vygotsky postulated that social communication is the primary means by which children become aware of their own thinking, behavior processes, and reasoning. Learning and cognitive development occur through reciprocal, active involvement where children interact with more knowledgeable members of their community who mediate and guide their learning [3]. This learning support system, or scaffold, builds upon the child's current abilities and past experiences [4,5].

Research supporting Vygotsky's theories has demonstrated that cultural background has a pronounced effect on children's reading comprehension [6]. Educators have come to realize that reading material that reflects children's everyday experiences, of which their cultural upbringing is a markedly salient aspect, helps to expand language and concept development, promote curiosity, and engage the imagination [7]. School boards, responding to the growing diversity of their student bodies, are seeking reading material that draws from the experience of different cultures in order to provide children from varied backgrounds motivation to read [8].

All of these factors have combined to produce a ready market for multicultural children's literature, a welcome change from a publishing climate which has otherwise steadily constricted and become more impenetrable for the aspiring writer. Inevitably, frustrated writers have sought to capitalize on this, seeing it as an easier way to break into publishing. But lacking sufficient background, either personal or academic, or true interest in the subject matter, these prospective authors have only succeeded in glutting the market with poorly researched stories riddled with inaccurate portrayals of world cultures and nationalities.

Conversely, there are writers who hesitate to embark into territory which they or others might deem "inappropriate." They may be stalled by proponents of the attitude that an author doesn't have the "right," regardless of ability or interest, to pen stories featuring a culture that they are not a part of. Or they could be concerned about offending an ethnic group, so anxious that they might get some cultural detail wrong that they eschew the attempt altogether.

As a writer of color who has dipped into the cultural ink well of a host of storytelling traditions from around the world, my take on the political correctness issue is straightforward. While it is undeniable that writers should do their utmost to avoid errors when describing another culture, and assiduously keep from perpetuating incorrect assumptions or offensive stereotypes about a people, they should also not be afraid to explore the stories, history, and beliefs of other cultures.

Traditional folktales from around the world, regardless of nationality of origin, have fundamental and unequivocal similarities in underlying plot elements [9]. This is compelling evidence that ancient peoples adopted and adapted these narratives as they were exposed to them by travel, trade, or conquest [10]. Modern-day, non-indigenous writers of multicultural fiction are merely carrying on an enduring tradition. Stories don't belong to a culture; they belong to the authors who pen them, the readers who enjoy them, the storytellers who orate them, and the listeners who love them.

However, it cannot be denied that the nature of multicultural fiction requires more than good storytelling. Writers must also observe high standards of accuracy and factual precision. In that regard, writers of color often possess an advantage, both in having a basis of experience from which to produce tales of representative authenticity, as well as having greater initial credibility with editors and readers. But that doesn't mean a non-ethnic writer isn't able to or shouldn't write multicultural fiction. What it does mean is that a writer who hasn't been immersed or raised in a particular culture should be prepared to do copious amounts of thorough and exacting research.

Ideally, everyone should have the opportunity to study foreign cultures by traveling to distant lands, meeting native people, and discovering the nuances and details of customs and societies first hand. Alas, for most writers, that's not a realistic option. But there are still a myriad of resources available to assist writers in depicting foreign cultures accurately. After all, writers of historical fiction, another genre that requires factual precision, can't travel to the eras they write about either.

Aside from the obvious ones: anthropological books and websites on literary traditions, historical influences, and ethnic particulars, writers may want to interview foreign nationals or immigrants, for example, to get an individual's perspective, or sample authentic cuisines or folk music to acquire a feel for a culture's aesthetic. Being a good multicultural writer requires being a thorough and creative researcher.

And for authors who long to write multicultural fiction but who remain intimidated by their own perceived pigment-impairment, remember that we are a people with a lineage that is in actuality a hodgepodge of varied cultures and ethnicities. Whatever a writer's background, their experiences originate from a unique cultural identity with a family and roots that have distinct characteristics. A multicultural story simply reflects that we exist in a multicultural world.

Writers of children's literature have, as their primary audience, readers with an insatiable curiosity and a consummate appetite for discovery. Parents and teachers seek out multicultural literature because it will enrich children's world views, promote their curiosity, and engage their imaginations. It seems counterproductive to generate an exclusive and elitist attitude regarding who is and isn't suitable to write it. It does, however, behoove writers to take great pains to ensure children are reading the highest quality and caliber of fiction we can produce, with impeccable accuracy and sensitivity to cultural details.

Find Out More...

Writing Multicultural Fiction for Children (Part II): Nuts and Bolts - Eugie Foster

[1] Underdown, H. (1995-2001). "Writing and Illustrating Multicultural Children's Books." The Purple Crayon, http://www.underdown.org/multicul.htm.

[2] National Reading Panel. (2000). "Teaching children to read." Washington, DC.

[3] Berk, L. E. (1994). Child Development (3rd ed., pp. 256-258). Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.

[4] Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and Society: the developmentof higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original works published 1930, 1933, and 1935)

[5] Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In R. W. Rieber, A. S. Carton (Eds.), & N. Minick (Trans.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol 1. Problems of general psychology (pp. 37-285). New York: Plenum. (Original work published 1934).

[6] Hall, W. S. (1989). "Reading comprehension." American Psychologist, 44, 157-161.

[7] Gay, G. (2002). "Preparing for culturally responsive teaching." Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-116.

[8] Gambrell, L. B., & Marinak, B. (1997). "Incentive and intrinsic motivation to read." In J. T. Guthrie & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Reading engagement: Motivating readers through integrated instruction (pp. 205-217). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

[9] Aarne, A. & Thompson, S. (1961). The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. The Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

[10] Ashliman, D. L. (1987). A Guide to Folktales. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Copyright © 2006 Eugie Foster
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Eugie Foster is a short-fiction writer specializing in genre and children's literature. She has sold more than a dozen stories to the Cricket Magazine Group, including Spider, Cricket and Cicada, as well as to an assortment of other children's magazines including Dragonfly Spirit and Story Station. She holds an M.A. in developmental psychology, has co-authored a textbook on child development, and is a frequent speaker at Dragon*Con's Young Adult Literature Track. She is a member of the SFWA and managing editor of Tangent (http://www.tangentonline.com). Foster maintains a list of children's SF/F magazine markets at her website, http://www.eugiefoster.com.


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