Stepping Back in Time in Contemporary International Books

by Kathy G. Short, The University of Arizona

Stepping Back in Time in Contemporary International BooksThe 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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5 thoughts on “Stepping Back in Time in Contemporary International Books

  1. Kathy,
    I agree that it feels inappropriate to be asked to review a book that focuses on a culture for which you are an outsider. However, to my way of thinking, it would be better that someone with your level of awareness and sensitivities review that book rather than another cultural outsider without your concerns.

    When my book Sing Down the Rain (link to the School Library Journal review posted on was first reviewed, the initial reviewers did not mention any of these: 1. that I was a cultural outsider, 2. that the illustrator was a cultural insider, nor 3. that the book includes an introduction by a Tohono O’odham elder who was the cultural advisor for the book. Since then, the book has received numerous critical reviews that focus on #1, rarely mention #2, and never #3. If #2 is mentioned, the fact that the illustrator took artistic license in portraying the women’s clothing is not addressed.

    I believe that people, insiders or outsiders, who have a heightened awareness of the cultural components of children’s and young adult books, should all participate in book reviews. The important thing for librarians, teachers, and parents to remember is that ONE review will not and cannot tell the whole story.

  2. Yoo Kyung Sung says:

    The other day I had a discussion with a few Koreans who miss life in Korea where the quality of service is much richer than in the U.S. The missed convenience of life earned an analogy that coming back to America from Korea is returning ‘a place of exile’ where I am the one who always ‘move’. For instance, we missed a free water bottle that comes with a gas filling service while I relax behind the wheel. We missed all kinds of delivery services beyond pizza. What Koreans were having homesick about was the convenience in the system. Things are faster, served, and even made for me. Surely there is an issue of cheaper labor than U.S. due to the large population in Korea. The Korean-American picture books I have studied have limited definition of Korean culture. There is no ‘gas station’ attraction. The stories of Korea need to be broadened because Korean cultures in the book have charms mainly in tradition and past.
    The long-ago Korea depictions reminds me of old time Korean newspaper in 70’s (perhaps 2009) which had a propaganda or a control of knowledge. Perpetuating a fact with falsity eventually produces pseudo truth. I hope there are more Korean-Americans books that define other good parts of Korea beyond tradition. Most of all, Koreans and Korean-Americans should be able to identify the culture portrayed in the books as theirs.

  3. Joanna Montoya says:

    I keep thinking of this quote by Susan Guevara, whom I read in a course I took. “we can say the authentic work is a work that feels alive. There is something true from the culture that exists there”. Although I agree with you that authors and illustrators should seek out reviewers who are cultural insiders, I do believe that it is possible for an “outsider” to write or illustrate something that will speak to the cultural insider who is reading the book. There are different levels of cultural awareness. I think that a good story teller is capable to write authentic material successfully.

  4. Genny O'Herron says:

    I appreciate being more sensitized to this issue. As we do book reviews in class (International Juvenile Literature grad course), I struggle with the issue of being a cultural outsider. It feels significant for me to name that specifically from now on. That simple statement raises the issue for others who might not have considered this question while reading other reviews.

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