Having written book reviews for various publications, I am aware of the difficulty of succinctly conveying a summary of the text, description of the illustrations, discussion of themes, and evaluation of the book in a few sentences. Many book reviews are one short paragraph, providing little space to convey much of a sense of the book. My conversations with other educators over the past several months have led me to wonder about the unwritten rules for writing these reviews that have developed out of a need to be so brief. I wonder if we have fallen into some practices as reviewers that send unintended messages to the mainstream audience for reviews.
Yoo Kyung Sung is writing her dissertation on a postcolonial analysis of picture books published in the U.S. that focus on Korean-American protagonists. Part of her analysis included reading and analyzing the reviews of these books. She found that none of them evaluated the cultural authenticity of the books or raised questions about authenticity or accuracy, even though there were some serious problems in most of the books. Reviewers seemed to accept that the books were authentic, particularly if written by a Korean American; a stance that is understandable since none of the reviewers were cultural insiders.
What I find particularly interesting is that Yoo Kyung found that the reviewers assumed a particular audience and intention. They assumed a non-Korean-American audience as readers of the book and so focused on the ways in which the book could build multicultural awareness for a broad mainstream audience for reviews. They particularly highlighted themes that are shared across cultures, such as adjusting to a new school or dealing with a bully. On one hand, this decision makes sense because this type of review would persuade a larger group of librarians or teachers to purchase the book. Also, Yoo Kyung points out that these reviews could reflect the audience that the authors of the books had in mind — that even when the authors are insiders, they are writing to a broad mainstream audience for reviews rather than to Korean-American children. Clearly, there are major market implications and publishers would want to reach this broader market.
On the other hand, this constant focus on speaking to a mainstream audience is a matter of concern. Rudine Sims Bishop argues that authors of color who write for children within their own culture often write to enhance children’s self-concept, challenge existing stereotypes, and pass on the central values and stories of their culture to their children. Authors writing outside their culture for a broader audience often intend to build awareness of cultural differences and improve intercultural relationships. Both intentions are significant, but they result in different stories for different audiences. By always focusing on multicultural awareness within reviews, the needs of children from within a culture and these differing intentions are overlooked. Reviews that only focus on cross-cultural connections may also unintentionally devalue the needs of readers within a culture.
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