The task of representing the immense diversity of the African continent in a picture book for U.S. children was a daunting one, especially for three white Americans from Maine. Each of us had lived and/or traveled in a region of Africa. We'd gathered and incorporated stories of daily life in various African countries from individuals who'd grown up in those countries, consulted experts in African Studies, and done gobs of research. We expected to complete the book by the publisher's deadline.
Then, at an ESL workshop she was presenting, Margy shared the concept for the book and our plan for listing the languages spoken in each country. A Somali woman challenged her: "Which language will you list first? The colonial one or a traditional one? How will you define a language?" Margy brought the questions back to our team and we decided to get more input on the book as a whole, especially concerning issues we hadn't even considered.
We asked Grace Valenzuela of Portland Public School's Multilingual Program if she could gather a group of Africans living in Maine to critique our work in progress. She agreed - if we'd be willing to have the discussion in public and open it to educators. We were excited about the prospect, but a little nervous as well, aware that the panelists might have serious criticisms or even tell us to abandon the project altogether.
Six generous people, from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Nigeria, and the Congo, agreed to serve on our panel. They each received copies of the working text and sketches to peruse in advance. Before an audience of about fifty classroom teachers and ELL specialists, we presented an overview of the book including a number of finished paintings. Then we sat down to listen to the panel's responses.
They had a lot of strong suggestions, including some pointed criticisms. They showed us things we couldn't possibly have seen on our own. Overall, they recommended that we strive for balance between contrasts to represent the complexity of the African continent. Some of these contrasts included the traditional and the contemporary; national identity and tribal identity; poverty and abundance; and the urban and the rural.
For example, the story we'd chosen from Mali described the journey of salt from the desert by camel to the city of Timbuktu, by cab to the docks on the Niger River, by boat to the city of Mopti, and by truck to markets in neighboring countries. "Why are you continuing to stereotype?" one panelist asked. In my sketch I'd only shown the camels, conveying the impression of a culture with no modern forms of transportation.
The critique by the panelists was invaluable to our efforts to authentically depict the daily lives of children in African countries. Some of their advice required major reworking, but to our relief they encouraged us to continue with the project. All of their input contributed to making a stronger book.
This blog looks at issues of race and culture in relation to creating and using children's literature, as seen by a white author-illustrator of multiracial, multicultural books. The illustrations are from my books and sketches. More at my website: AnneSibleyOBrien.com
Scroll down for links to posts grouped by interests: "Changing White Mind: A Travel Guide" "For Educators" "For Children's Book Creators" "On Transracial Adoption"
Anne Sibley O’Brien is a children’s book writer and illustrator who was raised bilingual and bicultural in South Korea.
She has received the National Education Association’s Author-Illustrator Human & Civil Rights Award for the body of her work with Margy Burns Knight (TALKING WALLS and other books); the Africana Award for AFRICA IS NOT A COUNTRY by Knight and Mark Melnicove; and the Aesop Award and the Asian-Pacific American Award for Literature for THE LEGEND OF HONG KIL DONG: THE ROBIN HOOD OF KOREA, a graphic novel which she wrote and illustrated. She has illustrated WHAT WILL YOU BE, SARA MEE? (Charlesbridge 2010) by Kate Aver Avraham and MOON WATCHERS: SHIRIN'S RAMADAN MIRACLE (Tilbury 2010) by Reza Jalali. Her latest book is A PATH OF STARS (Charlesbridge 2012), a picture book about a Cambodian-American family which she wrote and illustrated under commission from the Maine Humanities Council.
By Kate Aver Avraham, Illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
Moon Watchers: Shirin's Ramadan Miracle
By Reza Jalali, illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
Goodnight, Kuu-Kuu: My Cozy All-Day Village Safari
By Wamoro Njenga, illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
Changing White Mind: A Travel Guide
A central theme of this blog is the exploration of the experience of being white and my attempts to get conscious about the patterns of socialization I've absorbed as a white American, what I call White Mind.
My goal here is not to assign blame; guilt usually provokes defensiveness and denial, not change. On the contrary, I believe that the journey to awareness is a liberating one through which I can reclaim my self and my humanity.
I also don't attempt to address institutional racism here; it's a far broader challenge than personal bias, and many others are mapping out that territory on other blogs and websites. And I believe that the capacity to transform institutions is built of individuals who free themselves to see, and to act to create, new ways of being.
We are all one human family. I want to free myself to connect - deeply, warmly, authentically - with other members of my family. In the words of William Chase, "We are meant to be here together."
These posts are simply notes on my own journey toward that vision. I welcome comments from fellow travelers.