by Kathy G. Short, The University of Arizona
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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