by Kathy G. Short, The University of Arizona
The need for book reviewers who are either cultural insiders or who consult with cultural insiders in writing their reviews has become increasingly apparent to me. Seemi Aziz Raina and Yoo Kyung Sung in their research on the representations of Muslims and Korean Americans in children’s literature have identified many subtle issues that would be difficult to identify by someone who does not have some kind of insider knowledge. They have also found that the recency of that insider knowledge is critical.
One issue that both have found prevalent is that many of the books that portray children in other parts of the world, such as Pakistan or South Korea, show contemporary society as set in the past. Children in Pakistan and Korea live in small rural villages or remote areas of the desert, wearing clothing and living in homes that signal “long-ago” within a supposedly contemporary picturebook or novel. For example, Ted Lewin’s illustrations in The Day of Ahmed’s Secret show camels and no traffic on the modern streets of Cairo, when in actuality the streets are filled with traffic jams of cars and trucks. The Trip Back Home by Janet Wong with illustrations by Bo Jia, shows modern Korea as a small village in which farmers raise pigs in their front yard and wear old-fashioned clothing. The technological sophistication of modern Korea with a rich urban life and contemporary fashions is absent. The main character in this book goes from urban U.S. to rural Korea to visit family and, in doing so, steps back in time. The message that American children receive is that the rest of the world is backward, living in the past, setting up a sense of superiority for their lives as Americans who are privileged and progressive.
An immediate assumption is that these dated images of contemporary society are the result of cultural outsiders who don’t do their research, however both Yoo Kyung and Seemi have found that cultural insiders often include these dated images of their countries of origin, something that reviewers would be unlikely to question. These insiders, who often immigrated to the U.S. as children or young adults, seem to be writing from their memories of that country, unintentionally creating stereotypes. Others, who are second or third generation Americans, write out of their parents’ memories, creating an even larger time gap, particularly since the book supposedly portrays contemporary life. These stereotypes become so strong that even a historical fiction novel like The Shadows of Ghadames, set in Libya in the late 1800s, is assumed to be contemporary society by our undergraduate teacher education students. Clearly, both of these countries do have rural areas where one might be more likely to see what urban dwellers in those same countries would label as a traditional lifestyle. The problem is that contemporary urban life is virtually absent from these books, even those by cultural insiders.
As a reviewer, I do not have intimate knowledge of the range of cultures present in children’s books, and so often ask someone from that culture for a response to a book that I need to review. What I am struggling with now is why I was asked to write that review and if I should agree to do so. It seems that editors should search out reviewers who are cultural insiders and who could raise critical issues in how those cultures are being represented within books. The reviews would thus become a way for all of us to gain deeper insights into those cultures, instead of reinforcing our stereotypes.
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