Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Rudine Sims Bishop. The transcript is divided into the following sections:
- What is multicultural literature?
- Cultural authenticity
- Change in the "All White World of Children's Literature"
- Mirrors, windows and sliding doors
- Beyond folk, food and festivals
- Diverse books in the classroom, all year round
- Reading Effie Lee Newsome today
- Celebrating children through poetry
- Pride in our heritage, strength through our families
- The new biographies
What is multicultural literature?
Multicultural literature has different definitions depending on who you're talking to. I think in the extreme people think it's basically all literature that includes every culture. And that's fine ideally, but then it means we don't need that definition of multicultural literature that's different from literature in general.
I tend to focus my part of focusing on multicultural literature on the literature by and about people of color. I'm willing to expand that definition to include other underrepresented or marginalized groups.
Cultural authenticity is I think hard to define and complex. I used to try to say that a person who is a member of the group that is being written about, if you will, or the cultural milieu that is being written about should recognize it as true, should feel true to such a person.
I don't know that that's very helpful for teachers who are not members of those groups. But it's — I think you have to look at who's done the writing and if necessary what kind of research they've done. It ought not to feel so exotic that these characters are almost alien.
Their humanity needs to come through. But you also then need to get a sense of their specific cultural milieu and how it might be the same, it should be the same as many — as anybody else's but also the ways in which it might be different and rich. You get that richness when you get the specificity and you get the difference.
I think children readers are looking first — first perhaps for a good story for something that they understand, can relate to, that speaks to them, that speaks to their experience. But the business with the need for diversity for the multicultural for is that business of their needing to see themselves as a part of that world.
And so I'm not sure which is more important to particularly the child readers. It may be that they're equal, that you need both the quality and the specificity, that the child needs to be able to say ah, I think that's, you know, that's me or that's my uncle Bob or my mom.
And for too many kids it's not that way, just books are — they are good and they're enjoyable, but they're not inclusive of them and the people that they know and that they see every day and live with.
Can a book be culturally specific and also universal? I think absolutely. I think that it's within the specifics that you find universal if that makes some sense. Someone once said that a book that could be about anybody is really a book about nobody, you know, something like that.
But it's the specifics that allow you to sort of enter that world. And once you're there, I mean it's all about the human condition, the human experience. And humans experience life in different ways.
And so it's rich to see how people do it, but we're really sort of solving the same problems, experiencing the same emotions and, therefore, it's the specifics that make it authentic and make it universal I think.
Change in the "All White World of Children's Literature"
Well, back in 1965 Nancy Larrick wrote a piece called “The All-White World of Children's Books.” And 50 years later we have changed. There's been some change, and there's been some of the more things change, the more they remain the same. Nancy Larrick was focused on African Americans in children's books. Negros was her term at the time. It was the proper term at the time.
It was 1965 and that was the natural focus. It was 11 years after Brown versus the Board of Education. So, there was all this business about school integration. It was the year — let me see, it was 10 years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. It was two years after the March on Washington.
So, there was a lot of focus on what was happening with African Americans. And her point was you can't simply integrate the schools or desegregate by having children from African American neighborhoods go to school with white children. You really have to integrate the curriculum, and that means you have to have books that include all of these children.
So, 50 years later one of the things that's happened is that there are a lot more books. She looked at five thousand two hundred some-odd books that had been published in the three years, 1962, '63, '64. Nowadays the estimate is that you get that many in any one year.
She found about 350, 349 out of those 5,000 books included as she would have said even one negro in the text or the illustrations. That was about an average of 6, 6.7 percent. Today there are a great deal more, but still not as many as there needs to be.
We have probably around 10 percent there seems to be. And that 10 percent is across a number of cultural groups. The council — the Cooperative Center for Children's Books out of Wisconsin does a count of books by and about African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and the Asian-Pacific Americans American Indians.
And across those four groups you get about 10 percent of the 5,000 books. There seems to be that ceiling. So, one of the things that's changed is of course there are a great deal more. Another thing on the positive side is that there is a greater diversity certainly. I started by saying that Larrick was looking at African Americans, but today we are looking at not only those four groups but other marginalized groups and concerned about including those groups within this diversity umbrella — under this diversity umbrella as well. So, some good changes but we still need some more.
When I was at ALA this summer, I somehow ended up wearing this button that says we need diverse books. And I just think that's an exciting new development. I'm not very good on tweeting and texting and all that good stuff, but I think one of the things that's exciting about this campaign is that they are taking advantage of social media so it has the potential to reach a lot of people that something like the Nancy Larrick piece would not reach.
I like the idea. I understand that they're really focusing on classroom, on books in the classroom, which is where we absolutely need to focus these books, and I think that's exciting. I understand that they're planning a festival of diverse books in 2016. So, I think it's really an exciting new development and has the potential to have an impact that's similar to if not greater than the Larrick piece of almost 50 years ago. It's something new and exciting in the field.
The Council on Interracial Books for Children started about the time of the Nancy Larrick piece. In fact I think Nancy was one of the founding members. It had profound impact in its day. It was responsible for getting the first books of Walter D. Myers; Mildred Taylor; Kristin Hunter perhaps, her first children's book, and calling attention to artists like Pat Cummings and so on.
I think that if it were to be reconstituted, it might have — I think it could still be effective. It would, again, like we need diverse books, need to take advantage of today's technology, but it was a thorn in the side of publishers, and maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing if it were to happen again. But that contest that they sponsored was a very effective move with, as I said, a really profound effect I think.
Mirrors, windows and sliding doors
We need diverse books because we need books in which children can find themselves, see reflections of themselves. I wrote a piece maybe 1990 it was published which I called “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” And I think that's really why we — children need to see themselves reflected.
But books can also be windows. And so you can look through and see other worlds and see how they match up or don't match up to your own. But the sliding glass door allows you to enter that world as well. And so that's the reason that the diversity needs to go both ways. I mean it's not just children who have been underrepresented and marginalized who need these books.
It's also the children who always find their mirrors in the books and, therefore, get an exaggerated sense of their own self-worth and a false sense of what the world is like because it's becoming more and more colorful and diverse as time goes on. So, I think that's why.
Beyond folk, food and festivals
Well, I have run across a number of misperceptions about multicultural, so-called multicultural literature. One is that the so-called multicultural books have as their purpose helping children from the dominant culture learn about these other cultures.
So, it leads to the folk food and festival school of multiculturalism. Let's do Chinese New Year and let's eat some rice and do dragons and whatever, and that's multiculturalism. That's a serious misperception. I think another one is that these books are meant for specifically the groups, the children from the groups that are represented in the book.
So, African American books are for African Americans. Therefore, if my class is 99 percent white suburban, I don't need to have any of these books in my classroom because I don't have any of those kids. Bad misperception. I think another one is that there is no market, that people of color don't buy books. Therefore, Barnes & Noble does not have to supply them, keep them in their store.
And then it's this vicious circle. They're not in the store. People don't buy them. Well, they don't buy books. And so it goes. If we could get rid of those, we'd be in pretty good shape.
Diverse books in the classroom, all year round
Diversity in children's books is going to flourish when we are able to have it just accepted as a normal part of schooling and librarianing if there's such a word. So, one of the things that I would hope people do is to really integrate diverse literature into whatever it is they're doing.
So, when you want to read aloud, find a book by an African American, find a book by a Latino, you know, read Pat Moore, read Walter D. Myers, read out loud and read those books. When people are doing their little research projects, I often look at the bibliography.
There's the study of we use these books to do X. So, I look at the end to see the bibliography. What were the books that they used? And so often there are no books that from underrepresented groups that are a part of that project. I think that's something. I think you have to also demand, if you will, people, publishers, marketers will respond to a demand.
So, if parents go into Barnes & Noble and say I want to see books about X, Y, and Z or I want to see these specific books, that I think they'll begin to show up. With the book clubs I think they can certainly be encouraged to include more diversity in the selections that they offer the children.
But basically it's that business of being diligent about making sure that classroom libraries are diverse and that those books are not just pulled out during February or during whatever month we celebrate American Indians, October, but that it's a part of all year round, any time. It's just a natural part of what happens in the classroom.
Reading Effie Lee Newsome today
Well, I once did a book you may know on the work of Effie Lee Newsome. I was working on my book, what I call my big book on African American children's literature that traces its development from as far back as I could go, which was basically 19th century up through the end of the 20th century.
And when you do that, first of all you get into church publications, the AME Church, but also into the 20th century, Carter G. Woodson and his publishing company. And so it was in the context of that research that I ran across this woman.
Also with W.E.B. Du Bois who did a magazine in 1920, '21 called The Brownies' Book. And some of the poems in The Brownies' Book were written by this woman, Effie Lee Newsome. She also did some columns in the book, sort of nature columns. She lived in Wilberforce, Ohio.
And her husband I believe was a bishop in the AME Church. So, I read a number of her poems and then she did a book, which came out in early — it might have been 1940, and I think it was published by Woodson's company.
And when you read the poems, some of them are [unint.], you know, 1920, '30 suite, but some of them I thought also just were still appealing. They seem to me to have some great metaphors, some great imagery. She had a little sense of humor. And I thought it was worth pulling them together for today's children.
And fortunately Boyds Mills Press was willing to do that. The illustrations were — from the book were the original illustrations, and Boyds Mills went to get permission. So, they simply reproduced those. But they're wonderful. They are.
Celebrating children through poetry
Poetry has a kind of magic I think. It's condensed. It's intense. It helps us to see — and it's short; well, condensed. So, but it helps us to see ordinary things in new ways so that they become extraordinary to us.
I think it also expresses feelings that maybe we weren't able to articulate. So, it's that moment of ah, yes, that's exactly how I feel that poetry can do for you. And it has that music with the rhythm and the repetition and the literation and all of those kinds of magic tricks that poets know how to do that I think no other genre does for us. And I think children respond to poetry in ways that they may not respond to longer literature.
Well, the poetry for children within the African American children's literature seems to me to be one of the genres that focuses particularly on self affirmation. One of the thematic threads I think that goes through African American children's literature is this valuing of children, of saying to them we see you as beautiful, we see you as competent, we see you as worthy, and you should know that.
And one of the things I remember about a number of African American books of poetry is that so many of the titles are children's names, you know. Even with — I was just thinking of Nikki Giovanni's Nikki-Rosa. But Nathaniel's [unint.] — I forgot the exact title for that one.
But many of the Danitra Brown, many, many of their poems have children's names as the title or as part of the title. Gwendolyn Brooks' Bronzeville Boys and Girls, I think every poem is a child's name. So, it's that celebration of children that is really one of the special things I think about the poetry.
Pride in our heritage, strength through our families
I think African American children's literature is both changing and maintaining or I think it's a matter of continuity and change. As I said, there are a number of thematic threads that have woven through African American children's literature, this affirmation of children, the importance of family as a bedrock of support and love and not just mother, father, siblings, but extended family, grandparents, the importance of elders in the family.
The importance of history, children knowing their history because the impression is, of course, that they're not going to get it in the schools. And so literature is one of the ways of knowing. And so they tell stories out of that, stories of black people's achievements. And I think that will continue for the most part.
At the same time, I think the literature will follow some of the trends that children's literature in general will follow. There will be the focus on, say, graphic novel/comic book format, the focus on the visual, the playing with forms. Jackie Woodson doing her memoir in free verse, those kinds of things.
And so I think the scope will expand, will perhaps get away from — not away from but add to the whole focus on sort of self-conscious sense of, you know, pride in our own heritage and who we are and tell our stories just as stories. And I'm hoping that we'll just have more folks as well.
The new biographies
I'm not sure that non-fiction is a new kind of door. I think we've had it around for a long time, but one of the things I think is happening is that people are writing biographies, biographical material about lesser-known individuals whose achievements are worthy and worthwhile. The Bass Reeves book on catching outlaws that was — has been a great seller apparently.
The Bessie Coleman book, an aviator. This year there's one on Misty Copeland, a ballerina. So, I think there is that stretching out and reaching out for names beyond Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, wonderful as they are. So, yes, non-fiction offers great opportunities also for subjects. People, African Americans in the whaling industry or kinds of things that we don't tend to think about and know about.