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Multicultural Literature and the Politics of Reaction

by Joel Taxel - 1997

The social climate of the United States of today is dramatically different from that which gave birth to multicultural children’s literature. Conservatism’s rise to political ascendancy has sharpened the contentious “culture wars?that surround virtu-ally all aspects of American culture. One important dimension of today’s conservative movement is a backlash against the multicultural movement. Conservative defenders of the traditional literary canon, for example, see multicultural literature as a threat to the very fabric of Western civilization. Within children’s literature circles, charges abound that advocates of multicultural literature are ignoring traditional literary values and are focusing instead on ill-defined notions of “political correctness. ?This article explores this complex issue and the challenges it poses to those concerned with the creation, production, distribution, and consumption of children’s literature. The discussion addresses questions that speak to the very nature and function of children’s literature: its status as art, as entertainment, as a source of role models and ideology for children’s “impressionable?minds. Also discussed is the relation between the politically charged question of whether books about African Americans are to be written only by African Americans, books about Native Americans by Native Americans, and so forth, and the freedom of writers to write without restriction.

The social climate of the United States of today is dramatically different from that which gave birth to multicultural children’s literature. Conservatism’s rise to political ascendancy has sharpened the contentious “culture wars” that surround virtually all aspects of American culture. One important dimension of today’s conservative movement is a backlash against the multicultural movement. Conservative defenders of the traditional literary canon, for example, see multicultural literature as a threat to the very fabric of Western civilization. Within children’s literature circles, charges abound that advocates of multicultural literature are ignoring traditional literary values and are focusing instead on ill-defined notions of “political correctness.” This article explores this complex issue and the challenges it poses to those concerned with the creation, production, distribution, and consumption of children’s literature. The discussion addresses questions that speak to the very nature and function of children’s literature: its status as art, as entertainment, as a source of role models and ideology for children’s “impressionable” minds. Also discussed is the relation between the politically charged question of whether books about African Americans are to be written only by African Americans, books about Native Americans by Native Americans, and so forth, and the freedom of writers to write without restriction.

Multicultural literature for young people has been the subject of rather contentious debate in recent years. These controversies are best conceptualized as part of the larger debates about education, and culture in general, that rage throughout American society.


Contemporary debates in the United States about multicultural children’s literature are best understood in the context of historical trends and developments in American society. Unfortunately, most of these discussions are conducted with little, if any, understanding of the relation between controversies surrounding multicultural literature for young people and broad sociocultural and political developments in American society. Like too many previous debates about education in the United States, current disputes about multicultural children’s literature, and multiculturalism in general, are often presented ahistorically; events and movements are discussed as if they spring out of nowhere (Kliebard, 1975).

My point here is simple and unexceptional: If, as many critics have noted, the movement that has sought to cultivate and nurture a more inclusive canon in children’s literature is an outgrowth of the civil rights and women’s movements of the sixties and seventies, today’s reactionary backlash against it cannot be understood outside of the profound shift to the Right in American politics and political discourse of the past several decades. During this time, we have witnessed a triumph of American conservatism that is as startling as it is complete. Liberalism of even the most modest hues is in disrepute, and to be labeled a liberal in contemporary American political culture is to be an anachronism. It is no exaggeration to say that many, if not all, politicians—certainly those in the South where I reside—avoid at all cost being branded with the “L word.” The American Left, which has never enjoyed much direct influence on mainstream political discourse, seems increasingly irrelevant; it appears to be powerless, unable to generate a coherent response or strategy to the overwhelming power and influence of the Right.

During the recent primary season, Republican candidates for president rushed headlong to the Right, courting such reactionary groups as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Christian Coalition, the voice of Christian fundamentalism in the United States. The latter, under the astute leadership of Ralph Reed, has gained a remarkable measure of respectability in a short time. For example, a little more than a year ago, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, an organization central to the so-called Jewish Lobby, published a scathing indictment of the religious Right for “bringing to cultural disagreements a rhetoric of fear, suspicion, even hatred . . . and for trafficking with bigots and conspiracists” (Levitas, 1995, p. 882). Today, this same group is establishing alliances with it.


These developments both shape and are shaped by the culture wars that have been raging in the United States for several decades (e.g., Gates, 1992). The increasing political power of groups like the Christian Coalition and the NRA, along with the phenomenal influence of right-wing “talk radio,” has added to these debates a ferocity, a self-righteousness, and a mean-spiritedness that is striking. Reactionary talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and convicted Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy now play pivotal roles in shaping and defining the national agenda. They were instrumental, for example, in the defeat of the Clinton health care program and are major players in the ongoing efforts to dismantle state and national affirmative action and welfare programs. Aided and abetted by simplistic, racist tracts like The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), right-wing talk radio has contributed to what Atlanta Constitution editor Cynthia Tucker (1995, Apr.) referred to as “the utter breakdown of the rules of tolerance” (p. D-7).1 Growing intolerance has fostered an atmosphere in which engagement in racist and sexist discourse no longer is socially unacceptable. The misogynistic vilification of Hillary Rodham Clinton is a telling instance of the breakdown alluded to by Tucker.

Prominent politicians also have engaged in public speech that would have been unthinkable in the recent past. House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R.-Tex.), for example, was able to easily explain away a tasteless slur against an openly homosexual colleague in the House, while Senator Alphonse D’Amato (R.-N.Y.) suffered no appreciable loss of standing when he directed some crudely racist comments toward Simpson trial judge Lance Ito, a Japanese American (Tucker, 1995, Apr.). The effects of the alarming decline in the civility with which we discuss matters central to our nation’s future are also in evidence on college campuses. Over the past several years, my colleagues and I at the University of Georgia have noted with alarm a perceptible increase in the degree to which students are willing to publicly articulate racist and sexist sentiments. I doubt seriously that our experience is an isolated one. The remarkably disparate reactions of the white and black communities to the verdict in the Simpson trial make it apparent that the polarization of attitudes about race and its role in American society is as great as it has been in several generations. As Harris (1996) notes, “debates about race create primordial responses that indicate a racial chasm that appears permanent” (p. 113).

Recent attacks on the multicultural movement must be understood in this context and seen as part of a general assault on selected aspects of American culture by conservatives. Senator Robert Dole, the Republican candidate for president, engaged in the popular practice of denouncing Hollywood and the record industry. In a speech that provided an illuminating glimpse of the hypocrisy and venality of contemporary American politics, Dole lambasted contemporary films and music for peddling “nightmares of depravity” (Powers, 1995, p. B-1) said to be a leading cause of the ever-increasing violence in American society and the overall debasement of American culture. Dole’s speech interestingly failed to mention his aggressive support of the removal of the ban on a small number of assault weapons, and his selectivity in naming names was also quite revealing. Thus, while he lambasted the films of Oliver Stone (e.g., Natural Born Killers), a well-known liberal, Dole went “out of his way to avoid criticizing the reactionary exploits of prominent Republican actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis” (Frank, 1995, p. B-3).


The work of Michael Apple (1993) and others has shown that America’s culture wars focus on all aspects of our nation’s formal and informal system of education. Cultural conservatives especially have become the protagonists in public debates about cultural literacy and the status of the literary canon. As Cope and Kalantzis (1993) point out, cultural conservatives have invoked the specter of a cultural crisis that blames education. Their purpose: to create a crisis atmosphere in order “to reframe the educational agenda to suit their own moral purpose” (p. 104). In the United States, this reframing process is well under way.

One interesting instance of what I am referring to is the attack on “outcomes based education” (OBE) in the United States. When educational outcomes were discussed in my graduate school classes at the University of Wisconsin several decades ago, we generally referred to the work of people like Tyler (1950), who sought to define learning in ways that are discrete and easy to measure. More recently, however, the meaning of OBE has been transformed in dramatic ways by conservatives who have appropriated the term as a slogan to marshal opposition to virtually every progressive reform of the past decade. A recent piece of anti-OBE literature circulating in Georgia, for example, urged parents to beware of certain “buzz words” purported to be harbingers of OBE. These include:

student outcomes, portfolios, cooperative learning/skills, multicultural activities, blended (family grouping, nongraded, multi-aged) classrooms, student performance based assessment, environmental studies, develop democratic behaviors, critical thinking skills, peer tutoring, learning styles, conflict resolution, site-based management. (Souders, n.d.)

Efforts to demonize these promising reforms no longer can be laughingly dismissed; they are increasingly successful. Anti-OBE groups are passionately committed, are extremely well organized and financed, and are able to yield power far beyond their numbers. In several school districts near my home, these groups have taken over school boards, have succeeded in removing books from school libraries, are seeking to have the biblical story of creation taught alongside evolutionary theory, and are thwarting even the most modest change efforts. Perhaps their greatest victory occurred in the Republican landslide election of 1994 when an unknown candidate endorsed by the Christian Coalition defeated a reform-minded incumbent for the position of state superintendent of education. These developments, in conjunction with radical attacks on the national and state budgets designed to punish the poor (Tucker, 1995, Sept.), have created a political climate that is profoundly dangerous to the future of public education. It is in this context that current debates about multiculturalism and multicultural children’s literature must be considered.


Multiculturalism or multicultural education refers to education that addresses the interests, concerns, and experiences of individuals and groups considered outside of the sociopolitical and cultural mainstream of American society. In the United States, multicultural education often is interpreted as a reference to groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Smith (1993) states that multiculturalism “has assumed a broader interpretation. It is often inclusive of the handicapped, gay and lesbian individuals . . . any persons whose lifestyle, enforced or otherwise, distinguishes them as identifiable members of a group other than the ‘mainstream’ ” (p. 341). Nieto (1996) suggests that multicultural education “challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in schools and society and accepts and affirms the pluralism (ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, economic, gender, among others) that students, their communities, and teachers represent” (p. 307).

“Multicultural approaches do not represent a single theory of education” but rather “a continuum of theories and practices” (Vincent, 1992, p. 302). McCarthy (1991) points to three models of multicultural education that, while varying in important respects, underscore the positive qualities of minority cultural heritage. These include models that emphasize:

1 . Cultural understanding—Here the focus is on the need for students and teachers to be more sensitive to racial/ethnic differences in the classroom. This often is referred to as the “we are all different, we are all the same” approach.

2 . Cultural competence—The emphasis here is on the need for students and teachers to develop competence in the language and/or culture of groups outside of their own particular cultural heritage.

3 . Cultural emancipation—This last model, described as “somewhat more possibilitarian and social reconstructionist,” focuses on the incorporation of minority culture in the curriculum. It derives from the belief that such inclusion has the potential to improve minority school achievement and the future possibilities of these students. (p. 304)

Vincent (1992) concludes his review of the underlying philosophy and politics of multicultural education by noting that early multicultural approaches to inequality conceptualized the problem “as one of prejudice, misunderstanding and ignorance,” whereas more recent variants “seek to develop cultural awareness and promote the cultural and political interests of minority groups” (p. 311).2

As is the case with the broader concept of multicultural education, the term multicultural literature also is used in a variety of ways. For CIA and Sims Bishop (1994), the critical factor to consider when discussing multicultural children’s literature is the relation between the literature and the larger pedagogical intentions of multicultural education. Despite general agreement that multicultural literature “is about some identifiable ‘other’—persons or groups that differ in some way . . . from the dominant white American cultural group” (pp. 57–58), problems exist because “the definition of multicultural literature is contingent not on its literary characteristics, but on the purposes it is intended to serve” (p. 59). Multicultural literature thus is best considered a pedagogical construct and instead of “suggesting unifying literary characteristics, the term implies a goal: challenging the existing canon by expanding the curriculum to include literature from a variety of cultural groups” (p. 59).

Cai and Sims Bishop (1994) suggest that multicultural literature actually consists of at least three distinct kinds of literature. Their classification scheme provides a useful heuristic that clarifies some of the complex and difficult issues that have surrounded multicultural children’s literature in recent years. The broadest of the categories is world literature, said to include all literature. In the United States, world literature especially is meant to include the literature of “underrepresented peoples.” Cross-cultural literature refers to works about the interrelations of peoples from different cultures, as well as books about people from specific cultural groups that are written by individuals not of that group. As we shall see, it is this group of books that has been the focus of the most vociferous and bitter controversies. Parallel culture literature refers to books written by individuals from “parallel cultural groups” such as African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Their works represent the “experiences, consciousness, and self-image developed as a result of being acculturated and socialized within these groups” (Cai & Sims Bishop, 1994, pp. 65–67). Many critics look to these books as a way to compensate for a defining reality in the history of American children’s literature: “Until quite recently, people of color have been either virtually excluded from literature for young people, or frequently portrayed in undesirable ways—as negative stereotypes or objects of ridicule” (Sims Bishop, 1993, p. 39).3


In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison (1992) addresses the “studied indifference” in most literary criticism to issues of race in the construction of what is deemed “American.” She explains the telling “paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject” by noting that “in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse” (p. 9). Morrison argues that “when matters of race are located and called attention to in American literature,” a common response is a “dismissal mandated by the label ‘political’ ’’ (p. 12). This excision of the “political from the life of the mind is a sacrifice that has proven costly” because it risks “lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist” (p. 12). Most troubling to Morrison is the denial of the importance of race in a “wholly racialized society” where there “is no escape from racially inflected language” (pp. 12–13).

Harris (1993a) points out that while African Americans have been depicted in general literature since the seventeenth century, these “depictions are stereotyped, pejorative, and unauthentic” (p. 167). Derisive and disparaging treatments of women, African Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities also filled the pages of the textbooks that dominated American schools in the nineteenth century (Elson, 1964), as well as much of the first half of this century. Demands for multicultural literature, and for multicultural education, were an outgrowth of the civil rights and women’s movements of the sixties and seventies (Cai & Sims Bishop, 1994, p. 57; Johnson, 1990, p. 130; Smith, 1993, p. 340) when educators began scrutinizing the representations found in curriculum materials and literature for young people. Especially significant was the postulation of a relation between the distorted representations of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other historically oppressed groups in textbooks and children’s literature and the overall distribution of power and resources in society (e.g., Apple, 1979; Taxel, 1981). McCarthy (1993), for example, points to the “connection that subaltern school critics made between knowledge and power,” specifically “the deep imbrication of traditional canonical school knowledge in the legitimation of authority and inequality in society. In this sense canonical knowledge was official knowledge” (pp. 289–290).

Criticism and protest during the past several decades did contribute to a long overdue opening up of American literature and culture in general to the voices of long silenced groups. Shacochis (1995) contends that the past fifteen years “have constituted a golden age in American literature because those who have been cast to the periphery by the centrifuge of Western history and the power dynamics of American power are telling their stories in greater number than ever before” (p. 14). Harris (1993b), citing the “unprecedented artistic and literary excellence” of the literature created in the 1980s and 1990s, suggests the dawning of a “golden age in African-American children’s literature” (p. 59). Sims Bishop (1991) is a bit more cautious in her assessment, noting that of 5,000 books published in 1990, only 1 percent were written by African Americans. Even when one considers nonblack authors writing about African Americans, the number does not increase appreciably. Sims Bishop concludes that “over the past few years, the total percentage of books published each year featuring African-Americans has been hovering somewhere between one and two percent” (p. 31). However, unlike the books of previous decades, most current books about African Americans are parallel culture literature; they are written and illustrated by African Americans themselves. There are exceptions, and many of the criticisms and controversies related to African-American children’s literature focus on these “cross-cultural” literary exceptions.

Most critics also agree that representations of girls and women in fiction, fantasy, folk literature, biography, and other nonfiction are richer and more varied today than was the case twenty years ago. However, progress often is contradictory and some question the nature and the extent of the “progress” actually made. Ernst (1995), for example, notes that “while the number of females in books has increased, research indicated that the stereotypical behaviors with which they have been portrayed have not been changed” (p. 68). In addition, the overwhelming number of children’s books feature central characters who are males who continue to have a disproportionate number of positive characteristics attributed to them (Ernst, 1995, p. 74). Progress in gender representations also has been undercut by the remarkable popularity of formulaic romance series, and the phenomenally popular Babysitters Club books targeted at various age groups (Christian-Smith, 1991). The latest of these mass-market phenomena, The American Girls series, is self-consciously constructing an image of the American girl and is being marketed via direct mail along with high-priced dolls and an unending list of clothes, accessories, and curriculum materials for use in schools. Analysis of this series not only provides a fascinating glimpse of the mass-market construction of a very particular notion of gender, but important insight into critical, insufficiently discussed and understood developments in the political economy of publishing (Story, forthcoming).


Children’s books are products of our culture “whose existence straddles various realms, including education, entertainment, illustration, and literature” (Johnson, 1990, p. 1). Literature for young people also serves as an agent of “socialization, politicization, and of formal education” (Johnson, 1990, p. 1; Kelly, 1985). Apple (1986), Christian-Smith (1991), and Luke (1988) argue that changes in trade-book and textbook content and form are best understood when examined in the context of the systems of production, distribution, and consumption that help shape the publishing industry. Johnson (1990) referred to the publishing industry as “part of an entire structure of interrelated institutions in this country which respond to ever-changing political sentiment and to the economic imperatives of making a profit from the sale of a product—in this case books” (p. 9). Christian-Smith (1991) sees the adolescent romance novels that dominate the shelves of shopping center and mall bookstores less as traditional literary creations than as products of marketing research that are written to carefully prescribed formulas and marketed much like any other commodity.4 Another revealing illustration of how political sentiment and economic considerations contribute to important changes in the kinds of books made available to young people is found in the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s provision of money for school and public libraries. This act of Congress effectively created the market for books about black children (Sims, 1982, p. 3), a development that was instrumental in paving the way for the growth of multicultural children’s literature.

Contemporary children’s book publishing in the United States is undergoing the same process of integration, consolidation, and downsizing evident in other sectors of the economy. In recent years, publishing companies that once were independently owned enterprises have been purchased by large multinational corporations such as Viacom/Paramount/Simon & Schuster and Rupert Murdoch’s publishing and media empire (Harris, 1994, p. 17; Nodelman, 1996, p. 95). The increasing importance of the “bottom line” in these conglomerates undermines publishers’ willingness to publish new, novel, or experimental books, and books having a limited market. Nodelman (1996) notes that while old independent publishers were businessmen, they “tended to view their work not only as a way of making money, but as a humane contribution to the quality of life and literature.” In contrast, editors today are under enormous pressure “to produce little beyond the kinds of books that are most likely to achieve wide sales” (p. 95). Some observers fear that these changes in the ownership of publishing houses will result in fewer multicultural books being published (Harris, 1996, p. 117).

Other factors are affecting the business of producing and selling books for young people. Changes in tax laws, for example, now make it unprofitable for publishers to “warehouse” books, and publishers increasingly are finding it necessary to reduce their “backlists.” Titles that had been in print for decades are no longer available. Once again, the bottom line is that only titles that sell widely remain in print (Nodelman, 1996, p. 95). Further exacerbating these trends is the replacement of the independent bookstores that once dominated the industry by bookstore chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton. This concentration of economic power “threatens the diversity of what gets published” and results in the same books appearing in virtually all stores with “only books of national, mainstream interest . . . likely to be available” (Nodelman, 1996, pp. 95–96).

The market for children’s books itself is being divided into ever finer segments to be exploited through the proliferation of mass-market books (e.g., series books, television and movie tie-ins). On the positive side is the fact that coexisting alongside these phenomena is the growth of a small group of powerful editors and writers having considerable freedom and latitude to publish pretty much what they please. These editors and writers produce that segment of the thousands of books published each year that is consistent with the highest standards of literary and artistic excellence. Some of what they publish is new, novel, and experimental. The books of Fransesca Lia Block (1989, 1994) come to mind. It also is important to note that an increasing number of these high-quality books are the creations of African-American artists and illustrators who have become major powers in the field (e.g., Pat Cummings, Virginia Hamilton, James Ransome, Patricia McKissick, Walter Dean Myers, Jerry and Brian Pinkney, Mildred Taylor). While Harris (1996) is confident that major writers like Hamilton and Myers “will not have to worry about finding publishers receptive to their work,” she is concerned that “unknown talents may remain unpublished” (p. 117). Clearly, there is a gap between the kinds of books critics celebrate and the books that sell. British critic Peter Hunt put it this way: “The terrifying and unmanageable idea is that the books that are positively bad from an adult point of view may be the good children’s books” (quoted in Nodelman, 1996, p. 94). There is little doubt that the ability of writers and editors to maintain their independence in the face of the relentless bottom-line imperative will go a long way in determining the future not only of multicultural children’s literature but of “quality” children’s literature itself.

These important developments in the publishing industry, along with the changes in the political landscape outlined previously, provide the context that is critical to our ability to understand the controversies that surround multicultural children’s literature that are the central concern of this article.


Many in our increasingly conservative political culture regard multiculturalism as “a catchall term for a panoply of evils, all bent on undermining Western Culture” (Cope & Kalantzis, 1993, p. 87). McCarthy (1993) argues that “conservative educators and commentators have responded vigorously to the multicultural challenge, and within the past few years there has been a virulent reaffirmation of Eurocentrism and Western culture in debates over school curriculum and educational reform” (p. 290). Attacks on multiculturalism are usefully considered in relation to “political correctness (PC),” which is defined in an article in Time as a movement that seeks “to suppress thought or statements deemed offensive to women, blacks or other groups” (Allis, Bonfante, & Booth, 1991, p. 13). Advocates of political correctness are said to favor banishing unfavorable speech, opinions, and attitudes about women and minority groups from college campuses and from the pages of children’s literature. PC also has been labeled “the enforcement arm of multiculturalism” (Ozersky, 1991, p. 35).

Close examination of the American controversies surrounding political correctness and multiculturalism in literature, art, curriculum, and culture in general reveals that they are concerned with how we define ourselves as individuals and understand our nation’s past, present, and future. The war on multiculturalism expresses increasingly the nation’s unsettled “assumptions about the nature of personal and national identity” (Carton, 1991, p. 40). For Schlesinger (1992), the debate about multiculturalism and the curriculum is a “debate about what it means to be an American” (p. 17).

These critical points are clearly visible in three recent, influential attacks on multiculturalism. Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future (1994) by New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein, In Defense of Elitism (1994) by William Henry, and The Disuniting of America (1992) by Arthur M. Schlesinger have provided important intellectual support for the attack on multiculturalism. Bernstein’s and Henry’s books share the tendency of much of the multicultural/PC–bashing literature to repeat the same or a similar handful of anecdotes that recount the outrages of PC and multiculturalism. Both are well suited to the sound-bite mentality of today’s media in that the anecdotes can be lifted easily and fit into news segments on CNN, or stories in USA Today.

Bernstein, Henry, and Schlesinger all claim to have liberal credentials; Henry (1994), for example, describes himself as a “card carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union” whose boyhood heroes included M. L. King and Hubert Humphrey (p. 11). Schlesinger, the best known of the three and undoubtedly the most sympathetic to and understanding of multiculturalism’s origins and intentions, was a close associate of and advisor to President John F. Kennedy. All have become part of an emerging conservative consensus on important social, cultural, and political issues. Bernstein’s (1994) view of the multicultural movement is one that now is well established in much of the mainstream media. Multiculturalism, he asserts,

is a universe of ambitious good intentions that has veered off the high road of respect for difference and plunged into the foggy chasm of dogmatic assertions, wishful thinking, and pseudoscientific pronouncements about race and sex. . . . It draws on the old Puritan notion of America as the city on the hill, a new moral universe, to impose a certain vision of rectitude. And, in this, the idealistic and good-hearted movement of inclusion and greater justice veers towards a dictatorship of virtue. (p. 8)

“Scholarly multiculturalism,” notes Henry (1994), “with its emphasis on cruelty and oppression in the past, is in effect the propaganda arm of affirmative action and other political quota plans” (p. 66). “The basic aim of much multicultural scholarship” he continues,

is to explain away the lack of success of groups designated . . . as victims. However artful or even diverting the phrasing, the purpose is to blame their failure onto people who have succeeded, turning that success from a legitimate source of pride into proof positive of blame. (pp. 69–70)

Another frequent claim of the conservative opponents of multiculturalism calls to mind Morrison’s (1992) suggestion that “when matters of race are located and called attention to in American literature” they are dismissed as being “political” (p. 12). Bernstein (1994) and Henry (1994) argue that the university and traditional forms of cultural criticism, especially literary criticism, are being politicized—indeed, subordinated to politics. “The historical role of centers of learning,” declares Henry, “has been to preserve standards and protect enduring achievements from the wind and fire of momentary political or populist whim. Now . . . the professors are fanning the flame” (p. 120). Henry concludes that “in every corner of American culture from the august to the obscure, art is busily being subordinated to politics” (p. 171). Schlesinger (1992) also fears for the integrity of traditional forms of scholarship, suggesting that proponents of multiculturalism favor the teaching of history and literature “not as intellectual disciplines but as therapies whose function is to raise minority self-esteem” (p. 17). As a historian, Schlesinger especially is troubled by “the use of history as therapy,” a practice that can only result in “the corruption of history as history” (p. 93).

A detailed examination of these serious charges is beyond the scope of this article. However, even a cursory look at the history of American higher education calls into question the assertion that prior to the recent present, universities were places where disinterested scholars, free of the taint of political and ideological interests, simply and without constraint engaged in the disinterested pursuit of immutable, transcendent truths.5 At the turn of the century, for example, one finds historians at Columbia University writing histories of slavery and Reconstruction that provided important intellectual rationalization and justification for Jim Crow, that particularly American sys tem of apartheid (Banfield, 1985, pp. 30–34). Even Schlesinger (1992) admits that “the cruelty with which white Americans have dealt with black Americans has been compounded by the callousness with which white historians have dealt with black history” (p. 58).6

The term “politically correct” undoubtedly would have meant something quite different on American campuses during the McCarthy era than it does today and, unlike the present, McCarthy’s brand of PC was enforced by the full weight and power of the federal government. It also is the case that until well past the mid-point of this century, significant segments of the American population, including women, Jews, and African Americans, were excluded from many of the nation’s most prestigious and private universities and colleges (Schrag, 1993). My own university, for example, was not integrated until 1962. We also can safely assume that on most, if not all, American campuses power is securely vested in the hands of the business, law, agricultural, or forestry schools (as is true of my campus) and not in the schools of education or departments of sociology or comparative literature, which admittedly may have a few “tenured radicals” on their faculties.


There is widespread acceptance of the claim that proponents of political correctness are exerting an undue influence on children’s literature. A 1993 review of children’s books in Newsweek began with the observation that “kids’ books” have fallen “into the clutches of the politically correct, the multiculturalists and every other do-gooder with an eat your spinach attitude.” While noting that it’s “tough . . . to knock” the emphasis on “being good—respecting others, respecting yourself, allowing for cultural differences,” Jones (1993) wonders “whatever happened to old fashioned fun like gluing your sister’s hair to the bedpost” (p. 54).

Other, more serious charges are raised by Kathryn Lasky (1996a) and Hazel Rochman (1993), both of whom applaud many aspects of the movement to make children’s literature truly multicultural but fear that things may have gone too far. Lasky (1996a) approvingly cites the “pervasive euphoria about our evolution as a sensitive, caring people dedicated to teaching our children about the richness of all heritages and exposing them to the diversity within our American culture” (p. 2). She nevertheless is deeply concerned about the “politically correct elite” who manifest a “fanaticism” that leads them to act as “self-styled militias of cultural diversity [who] are beginning to deliver dictates and guidelines about the creation of literature for a multicultural population of readers” (p. 2).

Lasky (1996a) also worries that the relation between multicultural children’s literature and important issues such as context and setting “have not been explored within the conventions of responsible and enlightened literary criticism” (p. 4). Ignoring these matters suggests that “issues of cultural diversity in education are a passing fancy, a trend that needs only to meet current guidelines to be politically correct and is not subject to the more rigorous standards by which we measure art.” Lasky insists that as an author, she does “not make judgments based on notions of political correctness” (p. 4).

Another important issue raised by Lasky (1996a) is that of authorship: “As writers elect to write about a culture other than their own, the voices of the critics are becoming increasingly strident. We are told with greater frequency that certain stories may only be told by certain people” (p. 4). Lasky then comments on the much-discussed notion that in order to write effectively about a culture, one must be “of” or “inside” that culture:

It has been said that great stories are told from the inside out and therefore a writer from another culture has no chance of capturing the true voice in which the story must be told. . . . Great artists, even those not of a particular culture, can indeed find a real voice. They can go inside out, even if they have not been there before. That is the whole meaning of being a great artist. (p. 5)

Extrapolating from the (supposed) stricture suggesting, for example, that one must be African-American to write about African Americans, Native-American to write about Native Americans, and so forth, Lasky wonders if this requires us to seek only African Americans to edit African-American stories and Jewish Americans to edit Jewish stories until “everything is perfectly aligned in terms of gender, sexual preference, race, creed, or ethnic origin.” These strictures are seen as “not only ridiculous but dangerous,” and are said to constitute “a kind of literary version of ethnic cleansing, with an underlying premise that posits that there is only one story and only one way to tell it” (p. 4). Lasky’s alarming conclusion is that the “insistence on certain rules of authorship and provenance of a story (or who writes what and where)” threatens the “very fabric of literature and literary criticism” (p. 6).

Similar themes are echoed in Rochman’s (1993) Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World, a passionate, compassionate, and wonderfully literate plea for “great books from all cultures” to “break down apartheid” (p. 12). In a chapter entitled “Beyond Political Correctness,” Rochman maintains that

multiculturalism is a trendy word, trumpeted by the politically correct with a stridency that has provoked a sneering backlash. There are PC watchdogs eager to strip from the library shelves anything that presents a group as less than perfect. The ethnic character must always be strong, dignified, courageous, loving, sensitive, and wise. Then there are those who watch for authenticity: how dare a white write about blacks? What is a gentile doing writing about a Jewish old lady and her African American neighbors? The chilling effect of this is a kind of censorship and a reinforcement of apartheid. . . . But the greatest danger from the politically correct bullies is that they create a backlash, and that backlash is often self-righteous support for the way things are. Whether we are weary or indignant, we wish the whiners would just go away. (p. 17)


Because Lasky and Rochman in many respects are advocates of multicultural literature, their criticisms are especially troubling and demand response. I am convinced that they seriously exaggerate the power of those who raise questions about the cultural content of children’s literature and that they (perhaps unwittingly) provide aid, comfort, and ammunition to those who pose the real threat to the future of children’s literature. Their references to “literary ethnic cleansing,” to “politically correct bullies,” and to “self-styled militias of cultural diversity” include few specifics, let alone the names of these people and how they manage to exercise such intimidating power. Lasky’s (1996a) claim that there are those who insist on new rules of authorship and are mandating who can write about whom is, to Harris (1996), “without foundation.” The major journals of criticism and discussion of children’s literature do not have editors who are “people of color,” and the majority of articles they publish “do not relate to multiculturalism or any of its attendant controversies” (Harris, 1996, pp. 114–115). Harris also points out that the book-publishing industry remains “overwhelmingly the province of ‘whites’ ” and wonders, with more than a little facetiousness, if proponents of multiculturalism managed to “take ‘control’ of the production, dissemination, and evaluation of this cultural product without ever knowing it” (p. 115).

Just as disturbing is the virtual absence of discussion of the sociohistorical and political context that has shaped current debates about multicultural children’s literature. There is no recognition, let alone appreciation, of the relation between the vulgar, racist representations of African Americans, Native Americans, and other groups historically found in literature, films, and other cultural artifacts and “the legitimation of authority and inequality in society” (McCarthy, 1993, p. 290) alluded to earlier. A related point is that neither Lasky nor Rochman acknowledges that members of parallel cultures were denied consistent access to publishing until the 1960s and that African-American writers and illustrators of children’s books still do not enjoy equal access to the publishing industry. “This is often the case even after they have already published books which are successful financially and critically” (Harris, 1996, p. 113; Johnson, 1990, pp. 4–5, 12). Sims Bishop (1996), in a letter to The New Advocate written in response to Lasky’s article, got to the heart of the matter when she suggested that

to ignore the historical role of race and racism in American children’s literature is naive at best, and allows one to take the issue out of its rightful context and to redefine it in terms of “political correctness,” an easy put-down for anyone who questions the authority of people used to unquestioned privilege. (p. viii)

Rochman (1993) also engages in a disturbing form of blaming the victim by suggesting that those who have waged the long struggle for openness and diversity in literature are the cause of the backlash against multiculturalism. Clearly, that backlash is a part of a well orchestrated and financed campaign of powerful coalitions of business interests and cultural conservatives that are centered in think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and have the likes of Rush Limbaugh as their front men.

Despite these criticisms, Lasky (1996a) and Rochman (1993) do raise important issues that require our attention. Must an “ethnic character . . . always be strong, dignified, courageous, loving, sensitive, and wise” (Rochman, 1993, p. 17)? Harris (1996) speaks of “our demand that authors of literature we label multicultural create characters who are ‘role models’” and of the need for stories that “either uplift and inspire or correct or usurp stereotypic works. Positive images are preferred and deemed crucial” (p. 111). Sims Bishop suggests that among the primary criteria for selecting multicultural texts is that a book “should contribute in a positive way to an understanding and appreciation of persons of color and their cultures” (quoted in Nodelman, 1996, pp. 132–133).

These questions touch on the very nature and function of children’s literature: its status as art, as entertainment, as a source of role models and ideology for young, impressionable minds, and whether it is proper to deem it “political.” Also begged is the question of whether authors of books for young people have a unique social responsibility and, if so, what the relation is between that responsibility and the freedom of authors to write without guidelines and restrictions. While it is presumptuous for anyone to claim to have definitive answers to these complicated and vexing questions, it is apparent that this frequently emotional debate is often reduced to a case of good guys versus bad guys, of racists and sexists versus those committed to justice and equity. These points are dramatically illustrated by the way these matters have been debated in two important sources of opinion about literature for young people. One is the Horn Book Magazine, among the most highly regarded periodicals about children’s literature in the United States. The other is the “Children’s Literature: Criticism and Theory” bulletin board on the Internet. One particularly revealing “thread” of debate on the “Childlit list” was triggered by the series of articles on multicultural children’s literature that appeared in the March/April 1995 issue of Horn Book.

Author Thelma Seto’s (1995) Horn Book article begins with a response to a previously published article by author, editor, and critic Jane Yolen. In “The Empress of Thieves,” Yolen (1994) makes an earnest plea for the right of storytellers to be free to tell whatever story they choose and warns of “an increasing push toward . . . the Balkanization of children’s literature. We are drawing rigid borders across the world of story, demanding that people tell only their stories” (p. 705).7 In a later post on the Internet, Yolen reiterates her stance and concludes by saying that

we are going through an interesting time of re-examination. But in our eagerness to right historical wrongs, let us not forget that the stories (and storytellers) will report all this years from now. And if any of us are still around to hear or read these stories, we are going to be awfully surprised at what they think we said! (Yolen, March 19, 1995)

Seto (1995) is neither moved nor swayed by Yolen’s concerns about the possible “Balkanization” in children’s literature.

So be it. Non-Euro-Americans need to tell our own stories, as only we can tell them. . . . I feel very strongly that it is morally wrong for Euro-American writers to “steal” from other cultures to jump on the multicultural bandwagon, unless they have direct personal experience in the country where that culture originates—more than simply being a tourist or doing research in the library. . . . Euro-American writers cannot write from the point-of-view of an Asian American child because they have not lived that child’s reality. . . . When Euro-Americans take on one of my cultures, I feel quite violated. It is a form of cultural Imperialism—that euphemism of cultural rape. . . . You cannot separate politics from literature, as most of us from the Third World are well aware. For centuries Euro-Americans have defined us, re-written our histories, our cultures, our religions, even our languages—and profited handsomely from these efforts. For centuries in this country we have found caricatures of ourselves in Euro-American books. These caricatures have translated, in real life, into lynching; race riots against our communities; gross anti-immigrant movements; military aggression in our homelands. (pp. 169–173)

This strong language reflects the anger that Harris (1996) suggests is “recognizable, understandable, and shared by some” (p. 113). Seto’s comments contain an implicit and emphatic rejection of the long-cherished notion that literature and other art forms exist “for their own sake,” the idea that literature or “literary quality . . . transcends the contingencies of race and gender and the like” (Cope & Kalantzis, 1993, p. 104).

Henry Holt senior editor Marc Aronson (1995) points out that when these issues actually get played out in the board rooms of publishing houses, they often do so in complex and contradictory ways that frequently belie good intentions.

The multiculturalism that parades as “authenticity” and pretends that a culture has a view that belongs to a people is now something of a shibboleth in children’s books. Undoubtedly earnest in intention, it has contributed to the most exciting recent development in our industry—the proliferation of authors and illustrators from a wide variety of backgrounds and heritages. But that view of cultural diversity is wrong. In editorial meetings throughout the land, proposals for books about certain groups are greeted with the ritual question: Is he black, is she Latina, are they Cherokee? Supposedly, this is an appeal for authenticity. In reality it is an amalgam of cynicism, marketing strategy, laziness, guilt, and some real interest in new artists and authors. (pp. 163–164)

Aronson concludes with a plea for “cultural crossing,” for black writers to contemplate the Holocaust, for Native Americans to describe the Great Migration, and for Jewish authors to think about the Trail of Tears (p. 167).

Back on the Internet, Kwame Dawes (1995) focuses on the critical issue of cultural appropriation:

What is at stake here is not simply a writer’s freedom to write about whatever he or she chooses, but the silencing of voices that need to be heard if we are to truly create harmony and mutual respect in a culturally diverse society. . . . That recently white writers have been forced to cope with questions of “What gives you the right to write about another culture,” is not a bad thing. It is good because it now forces writers to be more careful, more aware of the implications of what they write. Does it stop us from writing outside our cultures? No. Should it? No. But it does make us more careful, and that is not a bad thing. (March 16, 1995)

Critic Peter Neumeyer (1995) chimes in with a reverential plea for us to honor literature’s special status as art.

In the Internet conversations, I sense that often the discussion begins with moral-political screening. And ends there too. If so, that’s too bad for the children. Yes, Literature is an Example. But it’s not a simple one, even for children; it’s not facile and platitudinous. It’s merely the most true (Keats) rendering available to us of the Life we humans have on this planet, in its wonder and awfulness and indefinableness. Literature aspires to Understanding. Not to preaching. (June 2, 1995)

Kathleen Horning (1995) raises an issue that must be faced if we are ever to get beyond name-calling and good-guy versus bad-guy dichotomizing that so often characterizes discussion of these issues:

The real question seems to be: can we honestly criticize the cultural content of their work without being labeled “politically correct,” “oversensitive,” “bitter,” or told that we “have a chip on our shoulder?” Can we discuss the storyline, characters, language and style of the book itself, instead of hearing endlessly about the noble intentions, careful research, childhood friends and personal life philosophy of the author? (March 15, 1995)

We hear finally from Perry Nodelman (1995):

I’m not suggesting that men shouldn’t write about women, or Christians about Jews. I’m only suggesting that readers need to be conscious of the degree to which ALL fiction holds a distorting mirror up to reality, and to be willing to always distrust writers as well as enjoy them. . . . A key example of voice appropriation, incidentally, is the one all we specialists in children’s literature like to absolutely ignore: Just about ALL children’s literature describes childhood as represented by adults. It’s ALL voice appropriation, and presents childhood as we adults want children to imagine it. It would be very manipulative of us if we didn’t do our best to make children conscious of that fact. (March 16, 1995)


A basic contention made in this article is that there is a substantial gap between the alleged power of multiculturalism’s advocates and their actual ability to influence. This is the case whether we are considering the spurious notion that American universities have been hijacked by “tenured radicals” or the purported ability of a handful of hyperactive zealots to impose an orthodoxy on children’s literature. Asserting that advocates of multiculturalism do not have nearly the power ascribed to them by cultural conservatives does not mean, however, that they are powerless. Indeed it is in the territory between public perception and actual conditions in the editorial rooms of publishing houses, in the review media, in bookstores, in classrooms in our nation’s schools, and on college campuses that the struggle for a curriculum and a literary canon that includes all Americans is being waged.

Our response to assertions that multicultural characters must be role models, or the claim that authorship of multicultural books should be the exclusive province of members of parallel cultural groups themselves, to a significant degree is a function of how we view literature’s place in, and relation to, society. That is, do we see literature existing for its own sake, as an object to be contemplated and revered and therefore considered to be outside of politics, ideology, and even history? Or is literature an artifact of the culture that must be situated in its sociohistorical and political context in order to be understood? Despite considerable discussion over the years (e.g., Taxel, 1986, 1991), and an understanding that not even the “most apparently simple book for children can be innocent of ideological freight” (Hunt, 1992, p. 18), resistance persists to the idea that literature and other forms of creative expression have political and ideological dimensions. The viewpoint that art is inherently and unavoidably political is clearly articulated by noted author Eloise Greenfield (1985).

There is a viewpoint . . . that holds art to be sacrosanct, subject to scrutiny only as to its esthetic value. This viewpoint is in keeping with the popular myth that genuine art is not political. It is true that politics is not art, but art is political. Whether in its interpretation of the political realities, or in its attempt to ignore these realities, or in its distortions, or in its advocacy of a different reality, or in its support of the status quo, all art is political and every book carries its author’s message. (p. 20)

Kelly (1985) makes a similar point when stating that the values critics insist are literary are based on “a correspondence to things as they are” or “the critic’s conception of ‘truth.’ ” Consequently, a purely literary approach to literature is a “chimera” because evaluation based on conventional literary values “may mask what is fundamentally at issue—a critic’s acceptance or rejection of the moral and social implications of an author’s fictive world. . . . So-called literary approaches,” Kelly concludes, “are specific cultural allegiances wrapped in the mantle of art and labeled handle with reverence” (p. 86).

Following this line of thinking, I find it difficult to conceive an argument suggesting that authors of children’s books, whether past or present, operate in a political and ideological vacuum and pursue their artistic vision without constraint or limitation. Like other cultural artifacts, children’s literature is a product of convention that is rooted in, if not determined by, the dominant belief systems and ideologies of the times in which it is created. Literature for children always has had its conventions, boundaries, and taboos. Many were shattered with the advent of the “New Realism” in the sixties when previously taboo subjects and themes (e.g., family discord, violence, sexuality, drug abuse, etc.) began entering the world of children’s literature. While the total elimination of boundaries and conventions in writing for young people would contradict the very idea of children’s literature (i.e., if there are no boundaries, why have children’s literature?), one hopes there always will be writers and editors who challenge convention and extend the boundaries with sense and aesthetic sensitivity. In any event, it undoubtedly is the case that while boundaries and conventions change, they never are eliminated altogether.

A recent example of the breaking of a long-standing convention occurred during the Columbus Quincentennial. While the response of American children’s book publishers to the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s epochal voyage to the Western Hemisphere was quite disappointing (Taxel, 1993), it at least did bring us books like Dorris’s (1993) Morning Girl and Yolen’s (1992) Encounter that, for the first time, broke with convention and presented the often-told story of Columbus’s voyage from the Native American point of view. On the other hand, Overstreet (1994) has shown that despite a growing number of books about the war in Vietnam that focus on its horrifying reality, none departs from the convention that precludes meaningful discussion of the complex and controversial political issues that underlie that tragic conflict.

The point here is that it is impossible to understand the evolution and development of children’s literature without situating the books of a given era in the sociocultural and political milieu of that period. Pressures and forces, both direct and indirect, subtle and not so subtle, influence the writing, publication, and review of books and are part of the social landscape that includes the culture and economics of publishing. Present-day concerns about the way historic victims of oppression are represented in literature simply are the latest manifestations of this phenomena. “Interpretative wars” over these issues are at the heart of controversies about multiculturalism and PC, and are illustrative of efforts of the historically marginalized and powerless to challenge the equation of history and literature with “the narratives of the people in charge” (Cockburn, 1991, p. 691).

Thankfully, the most abhorrent and loathsome of the caricatures and stereotypes of the racist and sexist history of American children’s literature (Harris, 1993a) are absent from most contemporary books. However, newer, more subtle stereotypes and representations still are to be found in books for young people as well as in films, on television, and throughout popular culture. Many of these objectionable representations are found in books of the cross-cultural (i.e., books about a specific cultural group written by individuals not of that group) variety. Cai and Sims Bishop (1994) point to research suggesting that many works of cross-cultural literature “instead of dispelling ignorance and prejudice . . . reinforce them” (p. 68). It is for this reason that some of the most impassioned controversies instigated by proponents of a multicultural children’s literature relate to books about the experiences of African Americans written by European-American authors. Ben’s Trumpet (Isadora, 1979), Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven (Zemach, 1982), Sounder (Armstrong, 1969), The Cay (Taylor, 1969), The Slave Dancer (Fox, 1973), and Words by Heart (Sebestyen, 1979) all were reproved for subtle and not-so-subtle stereotyping, racism, and questionable authenticity (e.g., Banfield & Wilson, 1985; Moore, 1885; Sims, 1980; Taxel, 1986; Trousdale, 1990). Trousdale (1990), for example, suggests that African-American characters in books like Sounder (Armstrong, 1969) and Words by Heart (Sebestyen, 1979) manifest a “submission theology” in which African-American characters are “docile [and] submissive towards whites, and accepting of injustice and oppression.” For the characters in these award-winning novels, growing up “involves acceptance of a submissive attitude along with an inferior position in society” (p. 137).

It is significant to note that while Cai and Sims Bishop (1994) emphasize the difficulty of acquiring the perspective of a group other than one’s own, they do not “deny outsiders the right to portray that cultural group.” They instead underscore “the need for outsiders to fill in the cultural gap themselves before they can close it for others” (p. 67). Cai and Sims Bishop insist that “literature from parallel cultural groups has a unique role to play in multicultural literature programs, because writers from these groups best represent their own cultures” (pp. 66–67). Vandergrift (1993), echoing themes cited earlier, provides an important note of caution to those who assume rigid and dogmatic positions on this critical question:

The belief that only one of a culture can write authentically about that culture . . . would deny the very nature of aesthetic composition and perhaps eliminate children’s literature which is, of course, almost always written by adults. It is true that adults were once children, but, nonetheless, the insider argument, if carried to its logical conclusion, would result in a literary canon composed solely of autobiographies.8 (p. 356)

We live in a time of heightened sensitivity and mounting pressure to move beyond stereotypes and clichés in writing about historically oppressed cultures. Clearly, there is growing, and warranted, impatience with the “willed scholarly indifference” (Morrison, 1992, p. 14) of many to take this criticism seriously and to recognize both the obvious and the less readily apparent manifestations of racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice. Johnson (1990) argues that part of the legacy of the African-American experience in the United States is a “justifiable sensitivity of African American writers, illustrators, critics, educators and reading audiences toward past misrepresentations of themselves.” Johnson contends that this sensitivity “will persist until there exists a balance and range of various African American images available in children’s books” (p. 9).

One consequence of this impatience is that some academics, critics, and writers express anger and occasionally appear didactic and dogmatic in their views of what literature for young people should be like. No doubt there are times when their criticism is simplistic and occasions when material deemed objectionable is not viewed in the context of the work as a whole. A recent post of the “Children’s Literature: Theory and Criticism” bulletin board, for example, contained an objection to the racism voiced by the title character in The Great Gilly Hopkins (Paterson, 1978). What this reader failed to recognize is the dramatic change in Gilly’s character over the course of the novel, that there is a “healing difference” between Gilly’s initial racism and “the loving acceptance” she later shows (Gough, 1995). Even Johnson (1990), whose volume is an unqualified celebration of the “promise of African American literature for youth,” observes that some efforts to “combat or counteract stereotyping” can easily manifest “a tendency to go too far in the other direction and present characterizations which are too ideal, too one-dimensional, too stereotypical toward the other extreme” (p. 52).9

Recognition of the existence of occasional excess, however, is a far cry from the alarmist rhetoric of Lasky and Rochman, or the claim of author/illustrator Diane Stanley that American children’s literature is in the grips of the “doctrine of political correctness.” Stanley’s suggestion, made during a symposium entitled “Is this Book Politically Correct?: Truth and Trends in Historical Fiction for Young People” held during the June 1993 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Convention, is that the current climate limits the ability of authors to tell the stories they choose to tell in the way they see fit. This contention is supported by Lasky’s (1996a) report that because she is white, she was “discouraged” by a publisher from writing a book about Sarah Breedlove “Madame” Walker, one of the first American female millionaires, who was African-American. Lasky also reports, however, that among her new books is True North (Scholastic, 1996b), a historical novel about the underground railroad that is written from the dual perspectives of a fugitive slave girl and a white New England heiress. Author Walter Dean Myers, another panel member at the aforementioned ALA conference, offers an assessment of our current situation that is quite different from the one offered by Stanley and Lasky. Myers contends that the present moment is not one where the freedom of authors and illustrators is being restricted, but rather that writers now (finally) are being asked to show more care and respect when writing about the experiences of minorities and women. Sims Bishop’s (1996) response to Lasky’s article speaks to this very point.

I wish Ms. Lasky well in the publication and reception of her book on the Underground Railroad. I doubt seriously that anyone will criticize her for daring to take on the perspective of a 14-year-old nineteenth century fugitive slave. Someone may, however, criticize the way in which she portrays that fugitive slave and that is something I think any critic has the right to do. (p. viii)

In Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, Henry Louis Gates (1992) suggests that no past exists without “cultural mediation” and that however worthy, the past “does not survive by its own intrinsic power.” A crucial function of literary history, Gates concludes, is to disguise that mediation and “to conceal all connections between institutionalized interests and the literature we remember” (p. 34). Given the historic role of culture, including literature for young people, in providing legitimacy for racial and gender-related injustice and oppression, why are we surprised that there are those who are sensitive, angry, and occasionally dogmatic? How could it be otherwise? Does anyone truly believe that the progress made in the past several decades in opening children’s literature to long-silenced voices would have been possible without the loud protests of those determined to unmask the connections between “institutional interest” and literature? Does change in any deeply rooted institutional pattern or cultural practice occur without the efforts and energies of those willing to offend? A central thesis of this article is that attacks on multiculturalism are a backlash against those who have demanded long overdue changes in children’s literature, on college campuses, and throughout society. It is disturbing that otherwise thoughtful critics choose to focus on occasional excess and lose sight of the enormous contributions of those who simply are asking that their cultures and experiences be treated with sensitivity and accorded the respect they deserve.

If there is a real threat to the future health and vitality of children’s literature, I doubt very seriously that it comes from those concerned with the accuracy and authenticity of representations of women and minorities. Rather, the threat lies in the crass commercialism and the bottom-line mentality that is ubiquitous in our mass culture. This phenomenon has its roots in the profound changes in the publishing industry, alluded to earlier. Harris (1994), for example, suggests that the industry’s “emphasis on profits will lead to uniformity and homogenization of books, limited publication of authors who create multicultural stories, and a lessening of creativity. The fact that nearly 85% of the publishing industry remains European American bolsters these contentions” (p. 17).

While thankful for the growing number of talented authors and illustrators who are encouraged by bold and innovative editors willing to take chances, I am troubled by the remarkable amount of junk published that reflects the desire to play it safe, to appeal to the lowest common denominator, to capitalize on the latest fads, and to publish sequels or copies of somebody else’s best seller, and so forth. These practices have become generic to television and film, and throughout our culture industry. The skyrocketing price of books also threatens to make purchase of the best of children’s literature impossible for an increasingly large portion of the public. If unchecked, this trend will virtually assure the proliferation of the worst of the series and other mass-market books that take up all but a fraction of the space in mall book stores and supermarkets. Again, the threat to children’s literature today lies in these largely ignored developments, not from those who express consternation or outrage over the persistence of stereotypes or hackneyed clichés in writing about minority cultures.


Despite what even the liberal media would have us believe, there is no conspiracy to prescribe an orthodoxy on children’s literature replete with guidelines and a new censorship. This is not to say that changing longstanding conventions in relation to how we write about the cultures and histories of long-oppressed groups is easy. I take very seriously the concerns voiced by Jane Yolen and Marc Aronson, as well as by Kathryn Lasky and Hazel Rochman. Nevertheless, the insistence of peoples from the diverse cultures that comprise the United States that their history and culture be treated with respect, dignity, and sensitivity is hardly unreasonable, and the dividends derived from taking their demands seriously already have begun to accrue. Are we not better off because the protests that commenced during the buildup to the Columbus Quincentennial derailed many of the insensitive, even mindless, celebrations that were being planned? Is there any doubt that the quincentennial resulted in some desperately needed reflection, discussion, and research and writing on a subject that for centuries had been shrouded in arrogance, ignorance, and an almost willful historical amnesia? Does anyone seriously dispute that protest, sometimes loud and strident, played an important role in the demise of the virtually all-white world of children’s books and helped pave the way for the likes of Mildred Taylor, Gary Soto, Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, Sheila Hamanaka, Jerry and Brian Pinkney, and others?

Debates about multiculturalism and political correctness in children’s literature, to a significant degree, are debates about social responsibility (e.g., Little, 1990; Meltzer, 1989; Taxel, 1990). While we must continue to insist that books for young people be literature and not propaganda, I find it impossible to imagine anyone arguing that those who write for young people do not have a special responsibility. Author Michael Rosen (1995) grappled recently with the issues faced by writers who take seriously both their artistic and social responsibilities. He also addresses the widespread denigration of social awareness that goes along with labeling something “PC.” Noting that Publishers Weekly had described his marvelous Elijah’s Angels: A Story for Chanuka and Christmas (Rosen, 1992) as “the politically correct holiday book of the season,” Rosen suggests that the term has come to connote something “obviously arch and artificial.” I share his outrage and sadness “that a persuasive magazine would cavalierly perpetuate an idea that politically correct is passe, as if it were high time we all got back to political incorrectness” (p. 24).

Fortunately, we do not lack authors and illustrators, like Michael Rosen, who demonstrate that there need be no conflict between aesthetic excellence and more honest, inclusive, and culturally authentic portrayals of the diverse peoples that comprise our nation. Raising issues of this sort implies an understanding that what children read is important and plays an important role in shaping their perceptions of our world and the diverse peoples in it. Clearly, authors need to be cautious in creating characters, developing plots, articulating themes, and so forth, that deal with subjects about which certain groups have every right to be sensitive. It also is obvious that there is a precariously thin line between this position and the need for authors to have the freedom to create (Paterson, 1994). Author Kathryn Lasky (1996a) understandably shares this concern and argues that despite the claims of critics writing about “the subject of authorship” that they “would never dream of prescribing what an author or illustrator should or should not write,” they proceed to go “right ahead and do just that while making extravagant allusions to artistic freedom” (p. 5). For critic Violet Harris (1996), however, the critical “question is not the authorial freedom of European authors to write about any group or culture they wish.” Rather, it is the “authorial arrogance of some European American authors who demand freedom to write about whatever they wish without subjecting their work to critical scrutiny” (p. 113). This is precisely the point made by Sims Bishop (1996) that was cited earlier. It is apparent that straddling the line between freedom and responsibility is not now, and never will be, easy. My reading of current criticism is that despite the claims of Lasky and Rochman, most, if not all, critics would prefer to err on the side of giving authors more freedom, rather than less. These critics are equally insistent, however, that writers be willing to accept criticism when warranted.

It also seems clear that all parties in this dispute need to have greater confidence in the ability of young people to deal with the many difficult issues raised by this controversy. My confidence in this position is born of my experiences, and those of teachers around the country, of sharing books with young people. West, Weaver, and Rowland (1992), for example, conclude their account of sharing several controversial books about Columbus with children with a plea that reading should “be regarded as exploration, a voyage of discovery, as invitation, rather than as a tool of didacticism or moralizing” (p. 262). I share their conviction that we need to read and discuss stories that “challenge our expectations, that force us to confront new ideas and to grapple with long held beliefs” (p. 262). Having older, more mature students wrestle with the debates raised by some of the controversial books mentioned earlier is an extremely effective way to begin addressing some of the difficult issues raised in this article. Comparative reading of Sebestyen’s (1979) Words by Heart and Taylor’s (1976) Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, for example, leads to discussion not only of the many striking similarities and differences between these books, but to a host of important literary and political issues as well. Experiences of this sort illustrate that response to literature is never easy to predict. Encounters with literature such as those described by West, Weaver, and Rowland demonstrate that young children are strong and resilient, and with the guidance of caring and skillful teachers, are capable of handling complex and controversial issues when they are presented in a developmentally appropriate fashion.

In view of the alarming increase in the power of the fundamentalist Right that is seeking to eliminate even seemingly innocuous materials from schools, this may not be the best time to raise issues of the sort discussed in this article. However, I am convinced that we must endeavor to open and even widen the dialogue on these important concerns. Above all, we need to understand better how through gross overstatements of fact and outright distortion, debates about multiculturalism have been turned into attacks on the important progress made by the women’s and civil rights movements of the last several decades. We must urge publishers to build on the encouraging progress made in recent years in creating a literature that accurately and honestly reflects the rich cultural mosaic that is our nation, as well as the very highest literary and artistic standards. As teachers, we need to create conditions in our classrooms that encourage students to freely read, discuss, and write about these books. Finally, we must be steadfast in our resistance to those seeking to roll back the progress made in the long and painful struggle for justice and equality.

My sincere thanks to JoBeth Allen, Andrew Gitlin, and Claudia Taxel for their helpful comments and suggestions on early drafts of this article.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 3, 1997, p. 417-448
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9617, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 2:55:18 PM

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