Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An Ongoing Question, An Ongoing Discussion

Guest post by associate editor at Charlesbridge, Julie Ham.

When Charlesbridge decided to host a diversity panel during this week’s Children’s Book Week, the onset of planning felt a lot like editing: asking the right questions was key. Who will speak well and honestly to this sensitive subject? Will the CBC partner with us? (Yes!) How will the panel contribute to this valuable, ongoing dialogue? Who will be in charge of buying the cheese? The crackers?!

I soon became preoccupied with one question that we think will come up during the panel discussion.

Can authors or illustrators write about or illustrate cultures and races different from their own? 

This question brought me back to a children’s literature graduate course I took about five years ago. We were examining Sold, a contemporary middle-grade novel about child prostitution in Nepal. We contemplated whether the author, Patricia McCormick (a white American woman), had the right to tell this story—one that falls outside her own experience and culture. As far as I could tell, no one else had written such a narrative for the middle-grade readership; I felt it needed to be told. Patricia had visited India and interviewed women and girls who had been sold to brothels, preparing herself to authentically tell this story as best she could. I felt confident that she had done her due diligence. I valued her choice to write about this subject matter and hoped her book would affect a diverse readership—a testament to the idea that the human condition—both good and bad—similarly touches all cultures, in all parts of the world. Maybe some of those diverse readers would be even closer to the book’s reality than Patricia was able to get through her research. Maybe they’d be inspired to tell their own stories.

This discussion has stayed with me for years. I continue to see how the question of who can write what is a difficult, persistent one. Now that I’m an editor of children’s books, it’s something that I must consider on a regular basis. Books about various races and cultures reflect the diverse world we live in, can break stereotypes, bring readers to a faraway locale, and/or encourage readers to consider their own racial or cultural roots. Knowing that the creators of these books are close to the subject matter tends to deem their stories all the more authentic and enlightening. But in the case of Sold, when we see authors writing outside their race and culture, it becomes almost instinctive to question authenticity, perspective, motivation, voice, etc. And so we revisit this question of who can write what, again and again. At Charlesbridge, I’ve noticed that many of our multicultural and racially diverse books are by authors and illustrators who write or illustrate from their own cultural experience. I see this frequently at other houses, too. These creators draw upon their identities realistically and artfully. They’re members of the cultural communities about which they write and illustrate. I trust their ability to understand these communities.

Anne Sibley O'Brien's
most recent multicultural book.
(I Am Here Now  due out Fall 2015)
But certainly there are other Patricia McCormicks in the world. I do believe that writing about or illustrating a culture or race beyond one’s own experience is possible, too. I’m open to books like these when they feel responsibly conceived and executed. Often, it all depends on an author’s research—and how deeply he/she has been invested in an experience outside of his/her own, on an ongoing basis. For example, I just acquired I Am New Here, a fiction picture book by author/illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien (due out Fall 2015). Annie writes of Maria from Spain, Jin from Korea, and Fatima from Sudan. These three characters have moved to America and struggle to feel at home in their new school. Annie is not from any one of the native countries of her characters. However, she spent much of her childhood in Korea, and so she pulls from her own experience of assimilating into an Asian culture as a white American. Additionally, she’s devoted a huge part of her professional life to creating and celebrating literature that features “new arrival” cultures. Her I’m Your Neighbor foundation helps communities use new-arrival literature to discuss commonalities and differences. Given all this, I trust that Annie will be able to authentically reflect the diverse nature of our world within her book and will be open to discussing and contemplating this goal throughout our bookmaking process. 

As a white female, my understanding of cultures outside my own experience can be limited. I want to be able to trust that a project stems from an author or illustrator’s personal experiences or from the research and thoughtfulness of someone who feels compelled to write outside his/her experience. But now, as I write this post, I’m beginning to wonder more and more about the advantages and disadvantages that come up as we often expect (or prefer) to see books about race and culture written and illustrated primarily by those who belong to said race or culture. You see, this is the beautiful thing about a good question—it often leads to other constructive questions. Thank goodness for forums, both virtual and physical, where we can consider these topics and hear multiple perspectives. Next week’s Diversity Panel at Charlesbridge is one such opportunity to keep the discussion going. I hope you’ll join us.

If you’re interested in joining the Diversity Panel Discussion at Charlesbridge, in Watertown, MA, this Thursday, please click on this link and scroll down to the bottom to register for the event.

Julie Ham is an Associate Editor at Charlesbridge, where she’s edited diverse books, including stories of real-life historical figures to tales of anthropomorphic plucky preschoolers and mixed-up middle-grade boys. She has an M.A. in Children’s Literature from Simmons College and long ago interned at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children. Julie also teaches Writing for Children at her local community center in Newton, MA.


  1. Well said, Julie! This is the very topic I addressed a few weeks ago at the NE SCBWI conference, and it's a complicated one for sure. For my presentation, I interviewed other authors who write outside of their culture as well as those who write within the parameters of their own cultures. All of them said that kids need more books that reflect a variety of cultures, and all of them emphasized the importance of research and having someone from the main character's culture read the manuscript for authenticity.

    Thanks for opening up this discussion here!

  2. As you say, there is so much to discuss, and it is a very complex area. I hope the panel proved fruitful in furthering insight, respect and a striving for authenticity... I wish I could have been there.