We passed a national milestone recently and one of particular relevance to everyone who writes for children. Our last census demonstrated that more than 50% of kids in this country are children of color, and for children’s writers it’s cause for reflection. Adding to the issue is the fact that well over 90% of children’s writers are white. The writers of adult literature are slightly more reflective of our national landscape but it’s a very white world among the creators of children’s books and a mostly white world for children’s book characters. And for a nation of hungry readers this disconnect will be problematic unless we dramatically increase the number of non-white characters in books from it’s current level of about 10% every year. And how do we accomplish this? The long term solution, of course, is to raise up a generation of young writers of color to write the books they are longing to read. Unfortunately that is a very long term project. In the short term, white writers will have to make at least some of their characters reflect the cultures present in their communities, even if those cultures are not a part of their own families. And inevitably that raises the question–
What right does an author have to write a character outside their own cultural experience?
This is a question I’ve grappled with for more than a decade in writing my book which comes to bookstores in the coming week. Written in Stone is set among the Makah and Quinault tribes of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington in the 1920s. Pearl Carver’s story is one of cultural survival. It’s a story about how to continue being a true Makah, a true daughter of whalers when the whales have gone from the ocean.
So why in a universe of possible stories would I chose to tell this one? The first answer, the one that started me on the journey was simply that my students wanted a story about them. My first teaching job was on the Quinault reservation. My fifth grade class read Julie of the Wolves which in the early 1990s was the best book I could find (and afford) with a Native American main character. My class liked the story but insisted that Julie was nothing like them. The knew that, although they were usually classified as the same race, Alaskan natives have their own culture, language, environment, economy, and mythology, and that it was all very different from theirs. We had a great conversation about what a story about them should include, and one of my students who often summed up things on behalf of the class said rather wistfully, “Well I guess there’s never going to be a book like that unless one of us grows up and writes it.” That girl, grew up to be a teacher and I (who had planned on being a teacher my whole life) grew up to be an author. And I never forgot how much my students wanted to see somebody like them in a book.
So does that give me a right to write about their culture? Certainly having a personal connection to a culture you are trying to portray matters. If nothing else it makes it much easier to find detailed and authentic information, when you know people who are experts in the particular information you need. Most of what I learned about the cultures I was writing about come from conversations with my neighbors. For example, the grandmother of one of my students spent a week teaching my class traditional basket making techniques. I learned along with them and although I’m not an expert on native basket making, I do know how one Quinault grandma does it. And I know something about how she feels about her baskets and what it meant to my student’s to tap into this centuries old art as taught by a highly respected artist in their own community.
Connection matters.But it is far from the only thing needed. Robust research is also needed, and not just for a character of a different race. When I was working on my recent novel Second Fiddle I had an Estonian Soviet soldier character. Although the man was white, we were different in language, religion, generation, political background, gender, class, and education. I did extensive cultural research including spending time in worship with Lutherans, listening to Estonian music, reading (in translation) Estonian novels, watching documentaries and listening to Soviet officers talk about the Cold War era. If I needed that much research to really understand the perspective, the aspirations and the fears of a supporting character, all the more research was needed to write Pearl’s story in Written in Stone. And I was fortunate to find great sources and a pair of tribes with both an avid interest in their own history and the resources to keep and celebrate their heritage. The Makah have a world class museum in Neah Bay which houses the largest and most complete collection of traditional whaling implements in North America. The collection came from an archaeological site at Ozette, a former village of the Makah and the setting for my story. The Quinaults are avid canoe makers and this summer will celebrate a gathering of indigenous canoe makers from all over the Pacific. When I needed information I had primary sources aplenty.
But in the end I think the research its self was not enough. I didn’t start to really get a feel for my characters inner life until I started to take an interest in my own Irish heritage. Knowing how much my Quinault students loved their own traditional stories I made a point of reading my own children Irish fairytales and playing Irish music. They’ve gone on to become interested in Irish history and two of them have become accomplished Irish dancers. I remember a conversation I had several years ago with an Irish harper. He said that Queen Elizabeth, famous for her patronage of the arts and Shakespeare, had loved Irish music and kept a Celtic harper in her court. But she also hated and feared the Irish and knew how highly they regarded their harper poets. So she sent out an order to burn every harp and hang every harper as a means to crush Irish culture. And it nearly worked. Between active political repression and famine and epidemics, there were less than a dozen living harpers 200 years ago. But the Irish made a concerted effort at last to save their indigenous music, art, dance, and literature, and resist the dominance of British culture. So my children know when they dance the St. Patrick’s Day set or The Blackbird, that they are dancing steps hundreds of years old. They know the steps were not written down for fear of prison or even hanging, but were passed from one dancer to another. It is a one-of-a-kind feeling to perform in public an art form that somebody in your ancestry risked their life and livelihood to save for you. I feel it every time I play one of the traditional jigs or hornpipes on my violin. And once I understood that about my own heritage, I had the insight I needed to understand my character Pearl Carver’s struggle to hold on to her culture in the face of discrimination, economic pressure and a changing environment. Empathy in the end made the biggest difference.
So don’t think I necessarily have the right to write any story about any culture, but I know for certain that I have the right to tell this one. And perhaps that is the answer. If authors are being honest in their craft, their own connection, research, and personal insight will tell them if the story is theirs to tell.
Written in Stone goes on sale this Tuesday. There’s lots of information about it on my website. I’ve put together a board of related images here on Pinterest. And there are two book giveaways going on right now at Literary Rambles and The Styling Librarian, so stop by there and put your name in the hat if you are interested. And if you get a chance stop by your library and local bookstore and encourage them to carry books with characters that reflect the diversity of cultures your children attend school with every day.
From the Mixed-Up Files is the group blog of middle-grade authors celebrating books for middle-grade readers. For anyone with a passion for children’s literature—teachers, librarians, parents, kids, writers, industry professionals— we offer regularly updated book lists organized by unique categories, author interviews, market news, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a children's book from writing to publishing to promoting.