Multicultural Children’s Literature as an Instrument of Power harmony caused us to

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Multicultural Children’s Literature
as an Instrument of Power
Multicultural Children’s Literature
Has the focus on racial
harmony caused us to
overlook issues of power in
children’s literature?
Stuart H. D. Ching
“After a while it’s like a game,” says
Before reading Eve Bunting’s Smoky
Night (1994) in my children’s literature
course, we watch a clip from Matters
of Race (Nielsen, 2003), a documentary
on race-relations in America. The
excerpt covers the 1992 Los Angeles
Riots—the beating of Rodney King, the
upheaval in South Central L.A. after
the officers who brutalized King were
acquitted, the stoning of white truck
driver Reginald Denny during the rioting, residents of South Central L.A.
raising protest signs and chanting
amid fierce looting and vandalism, a
Korean storeowner weeping in a burning street. An aerial video captures
plumes of smoke rising over the blazing city.
The class discusses the King beating
and the brutal stoning of Reginald
Language Arts,
Denny. We discuss the L.A. Riots in
relation to the 1965 Watts Riots.
Finally, we discuss how and if one
can portray this intersection of race,
violence, and power ethically in a
children’s book. Then we discuss
Smoky Night, particularly its explanation for the riots:
Mama explains about rioting. “It can
happen when people get angry. They
want to smash and destroy. They
don’t care anymore what’s right and
what’s wrong.”
Below us they are smashing
everything. Windows, cars,
“They look angry. But they look
happy, too,” I whisper.
This semester’s discussion is especially
interesting because our university is in
Los Angeles and several students grew
up in South Central Los Angeles during the L.A. Riots, the 1992 historical
event from which Bunting’s story
emerges. They recall their parents hurrying them to shelters or different
parts of the city. Some try to recall
their parents’ explanations: something
bad was done to a man and now people are mad.
This insider perspective acknowledges
power used by a nation-state to
unjustly and brutally exert force
against a citizen. The masses respond
with a counter-display of power.
However, Bunting’s text excludes
this central conflict over power. For
Bunting, who writes as a cultural
outsider, the rioting is chaos—the
event, a frenzied “game.” But for
many residents of South Central
Los Angeles, the violence reflects
Vol. 83 No. 2, November 2005
Copyright © 2005 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
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experience. Like metaphor, the rioting
concretely and viscerally compresses
the legacy of systemic injustice that
ghettoizes large segments of urban
America into one image. Within this
latter perspective, rioting in reaction
to the beating becomes a moral
protest, an expression of power in
response to a legacy of powerlessness.
Multicultural education has always
focused on power in the forms of educational reform and resistance to
racism and inequality (Banks, 2001;
Nieto, 2002). Fox and Short (2003)
draw on Banks and Nieto to suggest
that multicultural children’s literature
shares multicultural education’s
purposes and raises related debates
regarding intersections of power, race,
and culture. The authenticity debate in
children’s literature particularly
addresses this intersection within
racial and cultural contexts: the power
to narrate, the power to tell one’s own
story, the power to self-determine, the
power to self-realize, the power to
self-represent, the power to change
Selection criteria for
multicultural literature
typically promote
cultural awareness and
sensitivity, and often
overlook the control,
deployment, and
management of power.
Despite these emphases on power, current selection criteria for multicultural
literature typically promote cultural
awareness and sensitivity, and often
overlook the control, deployment, and
management of power. Criteria across
a range of sources informing the selection of multicultural literature
commonly include general descriptors
such as the following: The text and
illustrations use historical information
and develop setting accurately; the
author portrays characters positively;
the text and pictures affirm diversity
within a cultural group; the story integrates cultural content and events naturally; the author portrays individuals
and communities authentically; and
the work resists stereotyping or romanticizing the experiences of minorities.
Multiculturalism, in this sense, focuses
on tangible traits and overlooks deeper
ideologies that affect the distribution of
power in society.
These criteria strongly promote
cultural awareness and sensitivity. In
addition, they affirm the post-civil
rights racial context that Gordon and
Newfield (1996) identify as an era in
which “most Americans believe themselves and the nation to be opposed to
racism and in favor of a multiracial,
multiethnic pluralism” (p. 77).
However, while such criteria offer crucial support for intercultural
awareness, they may also overlook
inequitable management of power. As
Gordon and Newfield (1996) explain,
excluding power enables a spirit of
pluralism to flourish while concealing
pluralist rhetoric’s “repressive effects”
(p. 77). Thus, examining implicit ideologies—or as Bishop (2003) puts it,
“ideological underpinnings”—that
manage and deploy power supports an
equitable selection process. This
article, then, serves two purposes: first,
to build on the work of educators and
artists who have inserted new
standards of ethnic understanding that
explore intersections of race, culture,
and power within multicultural
children’s literature; and second, to
place this intersection in the
foreground of the selection process for
multicultural children’s literature in
order to promote equity.
Gordon and Newfield (1996) define the
two framing categories of pluralism
Multicultural Children’s Literature
The class conversation returns to several themes within Smoky Night—
power and powerlessness, those who
can speak and those who are spoken
about. Does Bunting’s text liberate
and empower the citizens of South
Central Los Angeles? Or does it discipline and attempt to educate them on
race relations without addressing the
systemic issues of power that oppress
and impoverish poor communities?
Our discussion is complex, insightful,
and provocative. As educators, we ask
more questions than we can answer.
And as I sort through the rich discussion, I begin to think that we will be
better, more equitable selectors of
multicultural children’s literature
because we are now talking about literature as an instrument of power.
inequity into equity, the power to articulate reparation for historical injustice.
Rudine Sims Bishop (Sims, 1982)
begins her seminal work Shadow and
Substance this way: “There is power in
The Word. People in positions of power
over others have historically understood, and often feared, the potential of
The Word to influence the minds of the
people over whom they hold sway”
(p. 1). She then identifies three distinct
categories of African American
children’s literature—“melting pot,”
“social conscience,” and “culturally
conscious”—that appropriate and
manifest power differently based on
authors’ varied ideological intentions.
Recently, scholars engaging in the
authenticity debate have extended and
illuminated the treatment of power in
diverse cultural and geographical contexts represented in children’s literature
(Cai, 1998; Smolkin & Suina, 1997;
Harris, 1996).
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Multicultural Children’s Literature
within multicultural education as
“assimilationist pluralism” and “multiracial democracy.” Assimilationist
pluralism “requires different groups
to follow standards they had no share
in making and that they may dislike,
even as it presents these requirements
as the bedrock of orderly freedom.
These standards are very difficult to
criticize because they seem inclusive,
neutral, and unifying rather than
racial and divisive” (p. 81). In
contrast, multiracial democracy
invites diverse groups to participate
fully in the democratic construction
of society. The former overlooks or
does not fully consider power; the
latter assumes active contest over and
weighs the ethical and unethical uses
of power. For those who hold power,
the former produces comfort while
the latter produces discomfort.
We can see assimilationist pluralism
concretely in two popular children’s
books by Eve Bunting, So Far from
the Sea (1998) and the aforementioned Smoky Night (1994). Pivotal
scenes in So Far from the Sea evoke
what Young (2002) has called “sympathy” for suffering, which enables
readers to affirm a stance of moral
correctness while overlooking ethical deliberation over power. When
the protagonist, Laura, asks her
father why Japanese Americans
were unjustly interned, he reasons
that the event is inexplicable; that
internment is a “thing that happened long years ago” and “cannot
be changed” (p. 30); and that some
tragic events in history have “no
right or wrong” (p. 14). Although
Japanese Americans have attempted
to resolve this injustice by seeking
reparations for their internment, the
discourse of So Far from the Sea
transforms the discourse of reparation into a discourse of racial
harmony. Within the discourse of
racial harmony, Japanese Americans
must forgive their perpetrators without seeking just reparation. Hence,
Language Arts,
in the end, Laura achieves closure
only by forgiving and moving
forward. The concluding metaphor,
a ship “moving on” and “heading
away from this unhappy place,”
reveals this moral position (p. 30).
While forgiveness is noble, when it
subordinates or erases reparation, the
book’s Japanese American characters
cannot fully mature. Instead, at key
points, rather than articulate full critical awareness, they are erased by
dominant ideology. And, although
the book’s powerful illustrations
honor the suffering and affirm the
patriotism of Japanese Americans, the
Japanese American characters remain
confined within the ideology of racial
harmony and assimilative pluralism.
Multiracial democracy
invites diverse groups
to participate fully in
the democratic
construction of society.
Within this ideology, critical
awareness remains infantile. Although
the characters mature as they cope
with loss, they cannot realize full
economic, cultural, and political
development, since they repress questions and hard truths that might otherwise move them to activism.
Literary scholar Candace Fujikane
(1997) reminds us that fiction plays a
major role in reproducing narratives
of development and underdevelopment.
Because So Far from the Sea
transforms reparation into racial harmony, the characters and their communities remain underdeveloped, or
Hence, when children’s fiction substitutes racial harmony in place of reparation, the work may masquerade as
advocacy when, in reality, it subverts
minority causes. Eve Bunting’s Smoky
Vol. 83 No. 2, November 2005
Night is a good example. Smoky Night
substitutes racial harmony in place of
systemic critique, and this leads to
misinformation in two ways. First,
rather than address the systemic
inequities that catalyzed the L.A. Riots,
the book lifts the event out of its
historical and socioeconomic contexts,
ignoring the political and social structures that created the subsistent living
conditions that ignited the upheaval.
Rather than address these conditions,
Smoky Night focuses solely on the
racial conflicts among the characters.
Rather than address the debilitating
social context, Smoky Night harmfully
assigns substandard social values to
the citizens and communities residing
in South Central Los Angeles. As the
quote at the outset of this article suggests, the residents of South Central
Los Angeles riot because they cannot
differentiate between right and wrong.
For them, rioting becomes a “game”
played out by minorities plagued by
substandard morals.
Second, although at the end, the characters learn interracial understanding
from their cats, this discourse does
not empower the ethnic communities
that are the text’s subjects. The closing dialogue follows:
“Look at that!” Mama is all amazed.
“I thought those two didn’t like each
“They probably didn’t know each other
before,” I explain. “Now they do.”
Everyone looks at me, and it’s
suddenly very quiet.
“Did I say something wrong?” I whisper to Mama.
“No, Daniel.” Mama’s tugging at her
fingers the way she does when she’s
nervous. “My name is Gena,” she
tells Mrs. Kim. “Perhaps when things
settle down you and your cat will
come over and share a dish of milk
with us.”
I think that’s pretty funny, but
nobody laughs.
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among others, indeed complicate this
simplistic binary by dealing thoughtfully with issues of power. The multiracial poet Ai (1999) has said that
Dana Fox and Kathy Short’s (2003)
recently edited volume Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural
Authenticity in Children’s Literature
provides an important context
informing this discussion. In the
introduction, the editors intelligently
synthesize the authenticity debate,
mapping the discussion without lapsing into finite and binary
explanations. The editors note that
they were concerned “by how often
the debates seemed to swirl back to
dichotomies and simplistic
outsider/insider distinctions. “One of
our goals in pulling together this
edited collection was to invite new
conversations, questions, and
critiques about cultural authenticity”
(p. 4). Chapters by Mingshui Cai,
Laura Smolkin and Joseph Suina,
Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen, Violet
Harris, Rudine Sims Bishop, Thelma
Seto, and Jacqueline Woodson,
their existence. In contrast, in Under
the Blood-Red Sun, Graham Salisbury
(1994) uses his authorial power
ethically by advocating for Japanese
Discourses of racial harmony are appealing because
they celebrate good will and benevolence.
more than ever, race is “a medium of
exchange, the coin of the realm with
which one buys one’s share of jobs
and social position.” If transcending
race “were less complex, less individual it would lose its holiness” (p.
277). Authenticity valuably preserves
the sacredness, or “holiness” of race.
At the same time, authenticity’s continued debate calls for more terms
that articulate complex intersections
of ethnicity, culture, and power.
One criterion for determining a
work’s authenticity is the author’s use
of power. For example, Gary
Paulsen’s The Tortilla Factory (1995)
unintentionally elevates European
Americans and subordinates ethnic
communities by romanticizing ethnic
agricultural and factory labor: “in the
spring the black earth is worked by
brown [emphasis mine] hands that
plant yellow seeds, which become
green plants rustling in soft wind.”
Rather than questioning the social
structures that relegate segments of
the population to labor, the book
locates such labor within an idyllic
landscape. Moreover, none of the ethnic characters that labor in the
Tortilleria, or tortilla factory, speaks;
these voices are subsumed within the
pastoral text that erases hardship. The
characters become the objects of an
outsider’s gaze, which romanticizes
Americans. Through his novel, Salisbury enables readers to understand
human suffering as he portrays the
racism directed toward Japanese
Americans following the bombing of
Pearl Harbor.
In separate studies proposing related
versions of critical literacy, Caughie
(1998) and Young (2004) make an
important differentiation between two
kinds of cross-cultural/interracial
passing—passing as deception and
passing into advocacy. The former signifies passing as other, or using one’s
elevated position to co-opt the identity
of another for personal gain. The latter
signifies replacing one’s comfortable
position with a deeper understanding
of power relations that enables one to
comprehend and advocate for
another’s cause. The former excludes
power; the latter foregrounds power.
This distinction between deceptive
and ethical passing pervades critical
debates on cross-cultural authorship
in children’s literature. Critiquing
outsiders who steal cultural material
from marginalized groups, Seto
(2003) objects to European American
writers who pass deceptively, i.e.,
who attempt to pass as other without
attending to issues of power. According to Seto, this unethical form of
passing is equivalent to “cultural
theft” (p. 93). Scholars and writers
also suggest that awareness of power
is a necessary prerequisite for passing
into advocacy. As children’s author
Jacqueline Woodson (1998) insists,
“My hope is that those who write
about the tears and the laughter and
Multicultural Children’s Literature
The text coupled with the final illustration—the two cats snuggled against
each other—becomes a metaphor for
interracial harmony where previously
there existed strife and ignorance.
Discourses of racial harmony are
appealing because they celebrate
good will and benevolence. But while
the discourse of racial harmony nobly
condemns bigotry, it has tangible
limits. Sustained by the discourse of
racial harmony, Smoky Night cannot
awaken young readers to the
economic and social conditions that
continue to ghettoize urban pockets
of America and that create the
substandard social conditions that
catalyze violent upheaval. Because
this discourse overlooks power, it
cannot change the inequitable
systemic structures and hierarchies
that reproduce these conditions in
the material world.
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Multicultural Children’s Literature
the language in my grandmother’s
house have first sat down at the
table with us and dipped the bread
of their own experiences into our
stew” (p. 38). The dinner guest, or
cultural outsider, neither exploits the
host’s generosity for personal gain
nor determines the menu and directs
the course of the meal. Rather, she
defers graciously and humbly to the
host. She receives the meal—or the
gifts of culture, experience, and
memory—with the utmost care.
Hence, as Young (2004) suggests,
equitable representations of ethnicity and culture must emphasize the
explicit and implicit uses of power
in texts. Below, I characterize two
kinds of multicultural literature for
children by differentiating between
works that focus primarily on pluralism and works that embody both
pluralism and power. Pluralism celebrates diversity, inclusiveness, and
common humanity. The following
books are examples of ones that fall
under pluralism:
• Sandra and Myles Pinkney’s Shades
of Black (2000) beautifully celebrates
diverse skin tone in the African
American community;
• Bernard Most’s The Cow That Went
Oink (1990) humorously supports
• Eve Bunting’s Jin Woo (2001)
celebrates inter-country adoption;
• Pat Mora’s edited volume Love to
Mama: A Tribute to Mothers (2001)
celebrates mothers in the Latina
• Edna Coe Bercaw’s Halmoni’s Day
(2000) portrays intergenerational
acceptance between a Korean
granddaughter and her
• Ken Mochizuki’s Passage to Freedom
(1997) recounts the heroic story of
Language Arts,
Chiune Sugihara, who saved
thousands of Jewish refugees in
Lithuania during WWII;
• Jonah Winter’s Frida (2002) tells the
story of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo;
• Janet E. Hoffelt’s We Share One World
(2004) calls for global peace and the
embracing of all cultures; and
• Erin Eitter Kono’s Hula Lullaby
(2005) shares the Hawaiian hula
through picture and rhyme.
These books advocate knowledge
of diverse cultural practices, experiences, and significant people. They
also express appreciation for cultural
differences and instill pride in one’s
own culture. Against the history of a
traditionally European-American
canon, they insert perspectives representative of a diverse nation. They
reveal and affirm diversity within a
single culture. They express faith in a
common humanity that is enhanced
when shared faith in human
goodness emerges from embracing
Despite these strengths, these books
serve only half the purpose of multiculturalism in education. Collectively,
as a group, they do not directly
address power. Hence, if one hopes
to teach multiculturalism’s full complexity, one must venture into the
latter sphere—pluralism that
manifests power. These literary
works foreground the ways in which
power, race, and culture produce
equity and inequity in society. What
follows are some books that fall
under this category.
Lenore Look’s Love as Strong as
Ginger (1999) beautifully portrays
the relationship between Chinese
American Katie and her Grandma.
Through both the author’s note and
the story, the book succeeds in
challenging structures of power that
create oppressive labor conditions.
The author’s note that introduces
the book sets the framework:
Vol. 83 No. 2, November 2005
This story was inspired by my grandmother, who worked in a Seattle cannery in the 1960s and 70s. She was
among the older immigrant women,
mostly from Southeast Asia, who,
because they lacked English and job
skills, did the only work they could
find: shaking crab. The work paid
very little: three pennies for every
pound of crabmeat. . . . Though Seattle canneries are gone now, and my
grandmother has passed away, it isn’t
hard for me to remember that time in
our lives when I lived without yesterday or tomorrow and Grandma served
heaven on a spoon.
The story renders this hard life
through vivid details of the factory
where one “minute” equals one
“penny,” where crab meat sticks to
Grandma’s cheeks, where the only
place to sit is the “toilet upstairs,” and
where Grandma weeps, exhausted.
Allen Say’s Grandfather’s Journey
(1993) similarly challenges nationalism.
While dominant representations of
nationalism erase differences and force
homogeneity, Say’s text suggests that
one may realize dual citizenship in
two countries without compromising
one’s allegiance to either. Referring to
Japan and the United States, he says:
“The funny thing is, the moment I am
in one country, I am homesick for the
other” (p. 31). More than longing nostalgically for Japan, Say affirms his
American and Japanese identities
with equal weight. This stance enables
Say’s text and illustrations to counter
assimilation narratives and meltingpot ideology.
Michael McGuffee’s The Day the Earth
Was Silent (1996) both evokes the discourse of racial harmony and awakens
children’s awareness to issues of
power. Through the eyes of innocence,
the book and illustrations idealize
global peace. Through the eyes of
experience, the book measures and
contemplates the meaning and costs of
such peace. The book expresses the
former through its main storyline in
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Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair (1997)
has sparked both praise and outcry,
likely because of its complex weave
of narratives and the contradictions
between images and text. Amid the
public and academic response
surrounding the book, according to
Lester (1999), the picture book
critiques racist attitudes toward
African American physical attributes,
affirms African American cultural
and religious traditions, and rewrites
American history from an African
American perspective. Romare Bearden’s beautiful book Li’l Dan the
Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story
(2003) also affirms African American
significance in national history by
reclaiming the memory of African
American soldiers who fought in the
Civil War. The boy, Li’l Dan, liberated
by an African American regiment,
later saves the soldiers’ lives by
pounding out the sounds of artillery
on his drum and scaring the Confederate rebels away.
In addition, Angela Johnson’s a
sweet smell of roses (2005) portrays
the racist barriers against African
Americans in the nation’s quest for
freedom and equality. The book’s
text and its moving illustrations
reveal both the courage of those who
protested and the racism of adults
and children who resisted the civil
rights movement. Finally, the book
honors all of the unnamed heroes,
Scholars and writers
also suggest that
awareness of power is
a necessary
prerequisite for passing
into advocacy.
including children, who sacrificed
for liberty, stating that, “a sweet
smell of roses is a tribute to them.
The brave boys and girls who—like
their adult counterparts—could not
resist the scent of freedom carried
aloft by the winds of change.” Last,
Pamela Munoz Ryan’s coming-ofage novel Esperanza Rising (2000)
raises issues of power such as labor,
class, and inter- and intra-racial
conflict and strife.
These books collectively address
issues of power. They present their
multiethnic characters as subjects
rather than objects. They counter
dominant, oppressive ideologies.
They also portray the full cultural
and political development of their
characters, and they elevate underprivileged communities or nations.
In this way, they directly attend to
issues of power within intercultural
The goal of my argument is not to
reduce multicultural literature into
two finite and opposing camps;
rather, it is to show the complex layers of discourses composing any work
and how books function differently
within the broad umbrella of
multicultural literature. Thus, as
Bishop (2003) notes, the “ideological
underpinnings” of an apparently nonpolitical book may indeed give the text
political function, as in Sandra and
Myles Pinkney’s Shades of Black
(2000), which affirms the beauty of the
African American child against a history of negative representation in public media. Edna Bercaw’s Halmoni’s
Day (2000) may function similarly,
presenting dignified images of Korean
Americans against a history of antiAsian immigration legislation. In this
way, while books do not explicitly
assert political discourses, they may
still politically affirm the minority
child’s presence in American society.
Likewise, overtly critical books may
include elements that detract from the
book’s political function. For example,
Love as Strong as Ginger evokes the
narrative of the American dream—or
America the land of opportunity where
all things are possible—and this partly
overshadows the book’s systemic
critique. As Grandma states, “Katie, in
America, you can become whatever
you dream.” This affirmation of America’s benevolence partly excuses its
contrasting brutality.
Grandfather’s Journey also evokes and
affirms the immigrant dream—the
myth of the land of opportunity and
the myth of assimilation—before it
complicates it. The Day the Earth Was
Silent makes a significant gesture
toward global issues of conflict stemming from unequal distributions of
power, but the book refrains from situating these issues prominently in the
text’s foreground. Nappy Hair evokes
problematic images of minstrelsy in
the faces of the characters even as it
uses these images within a context and
storyline that subverts racist attitudes
and empowers African Americans.
Esperanza Rising situates its critique of
American racism and unfair labor
practices within its main narrative, the
immigrant dream. This narrative,
which partially subsumes the novel’s
critical perspectives on power, also
Multicultural Children’s Literature
which a classroom of children dream
of world peace. The children take their
dream to higher levels of administration—the principal, the president, an
international tribunal of nations.
Through this persistence and idealism,
they initiate an international peaceday. In addition, the book expresses
the latter through its final image of an
African American child, a few years
later, holding a marble at arms length
and measuring within its sphere the
full depth, complexity, costs, and profundity of global peace. While the
book celebrates racial harmony
through child-like ideals, it simultaneously evokes the complex and
difficult realities of achieving such
peace. In a discourse intelligible to the
child, it articulates the “worldliness”
that Edward Said (2000) once stated
should inform all multiethnic
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partially excuses citizens from participating (even indirectly or passively) in
such unfair labor and racial practices.
Unraveling discourses of power is
always complex as an extended discussion of Allen Say’s Home of the
Brave (2002) demonstrates. Home of
the Brave, a picture book on Japanese
American WWII internment, critiques
national assumptions of citizenship
Multicultural Children’s Literature
We must ask why
selection criteria for
children’s literature
commonly subordinate
power and focus more
on interethnic
related to Asian Americans. Once
labeled a “yellow peril,” Asian Americans have historically been perceived
as strangers within the nation (Takaki,
1989). WWII Japanese internment
exemplifies this exclusion. Because
the Japanese American characters are
literally “homeless” (excluded from
citizenship because of ethnicity), they
remain orphaned—“lost together”
(p. 16)—within the sterile national
landscape of the book. In different
parts of the narrative, cast on a barren landscape, swept down a turbulent river, enclosed within a dark
tunnel, lost upon a stark plain, and
situated amid dust-blown barracks,
the characters struggle to survive. In
the end, as the characters “watch
their nametags drift into the air . . .
to a homeland elsewhere, each individual seems to dream of a ‘home’ in
America that the nation has yet to
realize” (Ching & Pataray-Ching,
2003, p. 127). The book’s title—home
of the brave—intensifies this critique
by acknowledging Japanese Ameri-
Language Arts,
cans who served America honorably
in WWII. In this context, the title
ironically suggests that, because of
race, America rejects its bravest citizens from full participation in
In multiple readings of this book, I
have asked myself the following:
• Does the book’s subject matter, topic,
or theme demand attention beyond
racial harmony and require emphasis
on equity or reparation? In the case
of Home of the Brave, the context of
Japanese internment does demand
equity and reparation. This stance is
portrayed ethically in the text. The
haunting images of homeless Japanese American children and their
unresolved suffering at the end suggest that equity, which can only be
achieved through reparation (both
in material compensation and
recognition of full citizenship free of
prejudice), is still forthcoming.
• Does the work demonstrate
awareness of or challenge existing
structures of power and domination?
Unlike So Far from the Sea, which
excuses national accountability for
Japanese WWII internment, Home of
the Brave directly confronts legislative injustice and holds the nation
accountable for its actions.
• Does the historical context demand a
narrative of cultural survival? Unlike
So Far from the Sea, which adopts a
narrative of racial harmony, i.e.,
mutual forgiveness without
reparation, Home of the Brave resists
cultural genocide and affirms the cultural survival of a people. By doing
this, it names and refuses to forget
the injustices that need to be
corrected in order to ensure a people’s
• For books that may exceed a child’s
social development, does the book’s
communal function justify its
selection? Indeed, a book like Home of
the Brave is difficult for young readers, and in my children’s literature
Vol. 83 No. 2, November 2005
course, we often raise this issue. Yet,
we also discuss the book’s commemorative importance. Books such as
Home of the Brave, which commemorate a community’s struggle and survival, evoke a mythical place in the
community’s memory. Such books
serve the community as much as the
child by affirming the arc of the child’s
cultural existence—the struggles that
have come before and those the child
will fight in her/his lifetime. Such
books commemorate the community
that has persevered before and, by
imparting the memory of this struggle
to the child, affirms that child’s participation in the community’s future.
If multicultural education and debates
over authenticity in multicultural
children’s literature have always
addressed power, we must ask why
selection criteria for multicultural
children’s literature commonly subordinate power and focus more on
interethnic understanding. First, no
doubt, writers, publishers, and educators work within the constraints of
popular and professional constructs of
childhood. Researchers, librarians, and
book critics have long debated and
deliberated over the aspect of “safety”
related to violent content (Tomlinson,
1995; Harris, 1996; McClure, 1995;
Kiefer, 1995). However, they have not
fully challenged the structures of
American imagination that associate
critiques of American nationalism
with violence inappropriate for young
readers. I believe that safe narratives
“protect” young readers from fully
comprehending the violence that
modern nation states necessitate in
their formation and sustained unity.
As Renan (1990) notes: “Forgetting . . .
is a crucial factor in the creation of a
nation . . . . Indeed, historical enquiry
brings to light deeds of violence that
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Second, from an economic perspective,
there is another kind of safety at work—
namely, the bookseller’s assurance of
economic return. In other words,
books that rub against the national
spirit are economic risks. According to
Oddi (1995), booksellers are subject to
such market pressures: “A bookseller,
by virtue of what she chooses to stock
or refuses to carry, reflects her sense
of the marketplace as well as her personal values” (p. 249).
I want to emphasize that, like most of
my colleagues and many children’s
authors and the dedicated teachers
who work with children, I long for
and dream of racial harmony. Indeed,
I teach because I maintain faith in a
more ideal and racially harmonious
America and world. I also celebrate
this discourse of harmony when it
appears in children’s works such as
those discussed in this article.
However, when discourses of racial
harmony are not accompanied by
discourses of power, the teaching of
multicultural literature to children
remains incomplete. In other words,
harmony is never a value-free
concept that can be achieved in an
ideal space beyond politics. Harmony
is always a negotiation of power. As
Seto (2003) insists, “You can never
separate politics from literature . . . .
For centuries Euro-Americans have
defined us, rewritten our histories,
our cultures, our religions, even our
languages—and have profited handsomely from these efforts” (p. 96).
Finally, because we live in a time in
which most Americans believe they
abhor racism and support diversity, a
selection process that does not explicitly address issues of power may
reproduce rather than challenge systemic injustices based on race and
within a pluralistic society). The
framework of a multiracial
democracy, which is comprised of
pluralism grounded in a critique of
power, is the only equitable stance for
evaluating and teaching multicultural
children’s literature.
In the PBS film series Matters of Race,
Christopher G. Bourdeaux of the Pine
Ridge Indian Reservation, Oglala
Lakota Nation, recounts the devastating effects of the boarding school
Equity in multicultural children’s literature must
affirm our common humanity and call attention to
issues of power.
The two spheres of multicultural literature discussed in this article have
qualities that are equally important.
Pluralism emphasizes interpersonal
openness and a common humanity.
In school settings, books operating
in these spheres teach children to
work collaboratively, to cultivate
interethnic friendships, and to see
each other through eyes of care
rather than hate. The awareness of
power is equally important, for it
pushes beyond racial harmony and
explores issues of power that help us
understand why heated social issues
often divide schools, communities,
and nations along racial lines.
Our common humanity is so fragile.
All the more, we should cultivate
that humanity on both interpersonal
and systemic levels. Equity in multicultural children’s literature must
affirm our common humanity and
call attention to issues of power. In
the applied context of children’s literature, these combined objectives
differentiate Gordon and Newfield’s
(1996) two forms of multiculturalism,
assimilationist pluralism (which
includes pluralism but excludes
power) and a true multiracial democracy (which foregrounds power
experience. He states that the boarding
schools were supposed to “educate us
till we could be good, productive
members of society. Kill the Indian and
save the man—it was the law.” Resisting cultural genocide, Bourdeaux
affirms his permanence: “Look what
we all went through, all indigenous
people, look what we went through all
these years, and we’re still here . . .
we’re still here . . . .”
Bourdeaux’s testimony is compelling,
clear, straightforward—and intelligible to young readers. It embodies a
cry for cultural survival. Voices like
Bourdeaux’s belong in children’s literature, but their absence is the
norm. In 1996, Maria Nikolajeva
spoke of a new era of children’s
books—as the title of her landmark
book suggests, Children’s Literature
Comes of Age. Although children’s
literature has come of age, multicultural children’s literature has much
room to grow. In order for this literature to mature, educators may evaluate books and their potential with
power foremost in mind. This stance
supports the diverse classrooms of
the nation and, within each
classroom, the children who deserve
this right to equity in literacy.
Multicultural Children’s Literature
took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose
consequences have been altogether
beneficial. Unity is always affected by
means of brutality” (p. 11). In place of
violent historical injustices, then, the
modern nation state perpetuates a
“heroic past, great men, glory” (p. 19).
No wonder, then, that publishers, educators, and authors shy away from
national and systemic critique. From
one perspective, such criticism would
rock the ethical foundations that
make national citizenship a moral
endeavor. I would counter that such
criticism makes citizenship an even
more ethical pursuit.
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Author Biography
Stuart H. D. Ching is assistant professor of English at Loyola Marymount
University, Los Angeles.