Details Matter—Especially If It’s My Culture!

by Kathy G. Short, The University of Arizona

Even cultural insiders get details wrong in children's literature and reviews of children's books. The small error of detail serves as a reminder of why those details matter in books that do not come from an insider's cultural perspective.Sometimes when colleagues who are insiders to a culture talk about small details of inaccuracies in particular children’s books, like the kimono being folded wrong or the atypical hairstyle of a character, my immediate response is to think, “Okay, I can see your point but aren’t you being a bit picky?” I want to point out that the bigger themes in the book are more significant and that differences exist within a culture, so that what seems like an error to one insider is considered appropriate by another. Even cultural insiders sometimes get these details wrong. I reminded of Yoo Kyung Sung’s conversation with a Korean American author whose young adult novels have won major awards, but who uses Korean terms in how the brother and sister address each other that are incorrect and that infer a feminization of the brother that is not intended. The author’s reply was that Koreans always point that out, and that she didn’t realize the terms were incorrect—they were the ones used in her family who had been in the U.S. for several generations.

A number of years ago I picked up a book that reflected my own cultural experiences, Raising Yoder’s Barn by Jane Yolen, whom I respect as an author, interested that she had focused on Amish culture and the significance of community. I was reading along, enjoying the book, when I encountered one of the characters saying, “Call Samuel Stulzfoot.” The book immediately lost credibility for me and I read the rest of the book, suspicious of the plot and the representations of Amish lifestyle and values. I was surprised by the strong sense of violation that I felt. Amish last names fall within a certain spectrum and I usually immediately know whether someone is from an Amish or Mennonite background by their last name. There are variations in spelling from family to family because of how immigration officials spelled a name when translating from German to English or from oral to written language, but the name I know and have seen many times is some variation of Stoltzfus. I was curious enough to ask several Mennonite/Amish historians who told me that Stoltzfoos was a possibility but never with “foot” at the end. This is clearly a minor error, a “t” instead of an “s,” and yet for me the error raised questions about the carefulness of the research. The “foot” made the character seem ridiculous to me, with a name that could be made fun of. I kept the book, but in my private collection, not in my collection of books that I use with teachers and kids.

My strong reaction to this minor detail reminds me that what I can shrug aside when the error comes from another culture is not easy to dismiss when it’s my culture. It’s not so much the detail as the immediate concern that if the author or illustrator could get those surface details wrong, then how much insight does that person have into the deeper cultural values and beliefs. I had the sense that the author was using Amish culture to make a point significant to an outsider looking in at the culture, as an observer making an object lesson of the Amish. Jackie Woodson makes the point that you need to sit at the dinner table with someone before you write about their culture—that you need some kind of significant relationship and experience. She told me that people will often have lunch with those who are of different cultural backgrounds from their own, but rarely do they sit at your dinner table. In other words, they don’t enter into significant relationships in personal space, only at the colleague or work space. She reminds me of the importance of taking the time to enter into significant relationships with insiders within a culture and to try on their perspectives; to not assume we can look from the outside and understand in an important way. The small error of detail signals to me that this is a book for outsiders to the culture, not insiders, and is a reminder to me of why those details matter in other books that do not come from my cultural perspective.

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5 thoughts on “Details Matter—Especially If It’s My Culture!

  1. Sandy Kaser says:

    I think this blog entry reinforces the personal connections that literature can have for each of us. When other teachers wonder why I work so hard to include “real” literature in my reading program when they are content to use mandated anthologies, the answer is that in “real” books we can find ourselves . . . or, as this author demonstrates . . . find those personal responses that define us. Although we can have experiences vicarously through literature, we also appreciate books that reflect our personal knowledge and experiences. We find such literature supportive just as we appreciate the support of people who have experiences similar to our own . . . and are senstive to those who might want to diminish our experiences or brush them off. This entry also points out the seriousness of our journey . . . that what is meaningful to us should not be presented in a way that could be interpreted in a less than respectful stance. Ahh, how different the response when it touches our soul.

  2. I like Sandy’s reference to personal connections, and this was really brought home by Kathy’s experience. I had a student ask me in class one time what was wrong with books like The Five Chinese Brothers — what difference did it make if they all looked the same? I think Kathy’s response is a good one — perhaps it doesn’t make a difference to you, but it makes a profound difference to a child from a Chinese cultural background who might be offended, feel diminished, or who might get turned off of reading altogether. If we can’t find books that speak to our personal experience, we might simply stop reading.

  3. Joanna Montoya says:

    “My strong reaction to this minor detail reminds me that what I can shrug aside when the error comes from another culture is not easy to dismiss when it’s my culture”. This is a good point, and I am glad to be reminded of the importance getting to know someone “at the dinner table” in order to better understand their perspective.

  4. Genny O'Herron says:

    Sitting down to lunch vs joining someone at his/her dinner table, an apt way to describe arranging contact vs being invited into intimate relationship: The difference between the superficial and the depth–of stories, of realtionships, of living. It is hard to know as a cultural outsider if/when small or large inaccuracies exist in a text, but Short reminds us how inmportant it is to get these details right. She also reminds us that there is a distinct difference between writing from the outsider and insider perspectives. As readers and writers this is worthy of more consideration–thank you Kathy for distilling the essence of a complicated matter.

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