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Writing Multicultural Fiction for Children (Part 2): Nuts and Bolts
by Eugie Foster

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

We are conditioned from birth to acquire social competence in a single culture: our own. While beneficial sociologically, it can leave us with preconceived notions that even the most conscientious and well-meaning may not be aware of. In order to avoid imbuing our writing with unwitting prejudice, writers of children's multicultural fiction need to methodically scrutinize these boundaries for possible cultural bias.

Writers should take care not to imply that another culture is backward, primitive, or inferior, and also avoid treating unfamiliar practices as exotic or peculiar. Bear in mind that your stories are a reflection of your protagonist's life and that he or she is an individual. Don't assign general personality traits or behaviors to an entire group of people.

Familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of a culture before writing about it. Take pains to learn and understand its history, values, belief systems, and the behavioral expectations of its members. While errors of representation are the most glaring, errors of omission are in many ways more insidious.

To illustrate: Many writers do not realize that something as basic as normative eye contact varies dramatically across cultures. The European-American or "white" convention mandates that listeners maintain a relatively steady gaze on the speaker while the speaker makes intermittent eye contact with listeners. Children are taught that it is disrespectful, an indication of straying attention, to let their gaze wander when a speaker is addressing them [1]. Furthermore, direct eye contact is considered a sign of honesty and sincerity [2].

However, among Native Americans, protracted, direct eye contact is typically seen as invasive and rude, especially if directed at an elder [3]. Likewise, in Asian and Hispanic cultures, direct eye contact is considered disrespectful, particularly if the speaker is in a position of authority or respect, or is significantly older than the listener [4].

Even for African-Americans, who exhibit the same quantity of direct eye contact as European-Americans, there are telling differences. When examined closely, the listener-speaker eye contact pattern is the opposite of European-Americans. The speaker regards the listener, while the listener tends to look away [5].

Now consider the different connotations the following sentence could have based on cultural settings: "Susie did not hesitate to meet Grandfather's gaze." Is Susie's behavior indicative of her truthfulness and sincerity? Or is she being insolent and hostile?

It is also difficult, and in some cases, impossible, to explore a culture without its religion coming into play. If you're drawing your inspiration from folklore, religious beliefs often have an indispensable role in storylines and themes.

Be aware that there are certain animals, objects, or practices which are taboo or sacred in nearly every religion. For example, Buddhists and Hindus are prohibited from eating meat, Friday is a holy day for Muslims, and Sikhs are forbidden to drink wine or smoke tobacco.

And then there are those behaviors which aren't precisely illicit, but through superstition and custom may as well be. The Japanese, for instance, consider it unlucky to the point of unthinkable to stick chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice at the dinner table; it's how offerings are made to the dead.

However, while these cultural differences generate pitfalls to be avoided--as factual errors--they can also be enriching details to incorporate into your work. Highlighting and celebrating diversity in behavior and belief can bring an unfamiliar culture into crisp focus for readers.

What are Publishers Looking For?

The demand for multicultural children's literature is high in response to a dearth of good material. Publishers are especially interested in contemporary stories that explore issues that today's diverse population of children are encountering. However, as more writers jump on the multicultural bandwagon, some niches are getting filled faster than others. In an interview in 2004 [6], publishers contended that while books about Asian cultures were on the rise, they weren't seeing a corresponding growth in books about Hispanic cultures, and that Latinos were "almost totally unrepresented."

Likewise, the interest in world folktales has decreased since the initial "boom," although it is still a rich field to mine. Magazine markets remain receptive to them, in some cases keenly enthusiastic (e.g. the Cricket Magazine Group), and while some multicultural children's book publishers (e.g. Lee & Low Books) expressly state in their guidelines that they are not seeking folktales, others (e.g. All About Kids Publishing) confirm they are. Also, publishers remain interested in story collections and folktales from less well-known cultures.

As in all avenues of publishing, it's always advisable for writers to explore new terrain and break stereotypes, even in an arena as receptive as multicultural literature. Stories about wealthy African-Americans and middle-class Hispanics will be more likely to interest an editor than another story about working class Latinos, for example.

Folktales as Children's Literature

Speculative fiction writers attracted to children's multicultural fiction are often drawn to folktales--stories steeped in cultural identity, magical fantasy elements, and that seem readymade for a young audience. However, as any folklorist will be quick to point out, up until the nineteenth century, folktales were told and read by adults [7].

Traditionally, folklore was an expression of how early peoples perceived nature, their social order, and as an escapist manifestation of their fears, needs, and desires. As such, folklore is rife with depictions of cannibalism, human sacrifice, torture, child abuse, and violence [8]. The popular folk and fairy tales that contemporary society views as kids' fare are highly sanitized adaptations which, in the process of being stripped of inappropriate content, have also had distinctive cultural characteristics filtered out.

It is the task of children's writers who rework folktales to make them suitable for and accessible to their target audience while maintaining cultural authenticity. To that purpose, some stories lend themselves better to a young readership than others. Animal tales, stories featuring a clever or trickster protagonist, and fairy stories, are typically more approachable fare than, say, folktales about eating dead people or father-daughter incest.

At the same time, some folktales which would seem ideal for children may not get a positive reception from publishers. Editors are generally uninterested in didactic tales, rightly supposing that today's young people will not tolerate stories that preach or lecture. Yet, so much folklore, at its core, is intended to provide insight into the mechanisms of the natural world. How to balance this instructional tradition with the dictates of marketing may seem a daunting undertaking, but this has forever been the domain and challenge of the storyteller. Remember, our primary objective is, and has always been, to entertain.

Find Out More...

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

Helpful Sites:

The Baldwin Project
A compendium of resources for parents and teachers, including public domain texts of children's literature: nursery rhymes, fables, folk tales, myths, legends, and fairy tales.

Encyclopedia Mythica
The Internet encyclopedia of mythology, folklore, and religion. Articles are categorized into mythology or folklore areas, with mythology further divided into geographical regions and folklore broken down into "general folklore," "Arthurian legends," and "folktales."

Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts, edited and/or translated by D. L. Ashliman
D. L. Ashliman is the author of A Guide to Folktales and Folk and Fairy Tales : A Handbook. His site has a very comprehensive collection of world folktales sorted by thematic/plot classification.

Godchecker: Your Guide to the Gods
An encyclopedic collection of world pantheons, spirits, demons, and saints, conveyed with a light, tongue-in-cheek tone.

Internet Sacred Text Archive
A huge compilation of public domain texts about religion, mythology, legends and folklore, and occult and esoteric topics--some hard to find or unique to the Internet. As per their About Us: "In particular, comprehensive translations of the Shinto texts, the Kalevala, the Upanishads, and the Rig Veda have never appeared anywhere else on the Net, to our knowledge. The African and Polynesian texts are also unique to this site."

Myths and Legends
A large and nicely organized collection of links to world mythology and legends, fairy and folktales, and essay sites, sorted and organized by geographical region, with commentary by Christopher B. Siren.

[1] Kochman, T. (1981). Black and white: Styles in conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Stewart, E.C. & Bennett, M.J. (1991). American cultural patterns: A cross-cultural perspective. Revised Edition. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, Inc.

[3] Darnell, R. (1988). Implications of Cree interactional etiquette. Unpublished Master's thesis, University of Alberta.

[4] La France, M. & Mayo, C. (1975, April). "Communication breakdown: The role of nonverbal behavior in interracial encounters." Paper presented at the International Communication Association Convention, Chicago.

[5] Johnson, K.R. (1976). "Black kinesics: Some non-verbal communication patterns in the Black culture." In L.A. Samovar & R.E. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural communication: A reader (pp. 259-268). Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

[6] Scharer, P.L. (2004, September). "Trends in Publishing Multicultural and Global Children's Literature: Conversations with Four North American Publishers." Paper presented at the 29th International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) World Congress, Cape Town, South Africa. http://www.sacbf.org.za/2004 papers/Patricia Scharer.rtf.

[7] Shavit, Z. (1989). "The Concept of Childhood and Children's Folktale: Test Case--Little Red Riding Hood." In A. Dundes (Ed.), Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook (pp. 129-158). Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

[8] Zipes, J. (1979). Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk & Fairy Tales. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

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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