Crayons take 'multicultural' hues

November 06, 1991|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

Color these crayons current.

They are mahogany and peach, tan and sepia, burnt sienna and apricot, black and white. They are, the label proclaims, the "skin tones of the world."

With these crayons, children can draw people like themselves and others they meet each day -- people who are not just black, white or brown.

The crayons are coming to classrooms near you, thanks to a Columbia school supply company that persuaded the makers of Crayola crayons to package these colors, already available in its box of 64, as an assortment of eight "multicultural crayons."

"Multicultural is probably the hottest buzz word in education," says Margaret Blumenauer, educational products manager at Chaselle Inc., the Columbia company that persuaded Binney & Smith to let it sell the special assortment. "Multicultural is very important in education; it makes children appreciate differences."

Chaselle, the sole distributor of multicultural crayons, will introduce the crayons tomorrow in Denver at a meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. They will be sold through the company's catalog and in its Columbia store, but not in other stores.

"We heard from teachers who said they were so tired of Martin Luther King being drawn in all black with bright red lips," said Robert Chaisson Jr., vice president of marketing for Chaselle, which sells supplies and equipment to school systems throughout the country.

The eight colors will also be made in jumbo crayons for young children, said Chaisson. Making these colors in this larger size "is a unique situation" for Binney & Smith, said Brad Drexler, company spokesman for the Easton, Pa., firm.

The idea was sparked by a Montgomery County school administrator, who talked with a Chaselle sales representative about buying crayons to fit with that school system's multicultural curriculum, which will be introduced this spring.

At that time, Chaselle had nothing to offer, Blumenauer says. But Chaselle went to Binney & Smith, which eventually agreed to make and package the crayons for the Columbia firm.

"We certainly did not invent the idea," she says.

"We had gotten feedback from many teachers who asked for this," says Drexler. "They were focusing on multicultural themes in their lesson plans."

Drexler said Crayola considers the introduction of this assortment as "a market test." If the crayons are successful among Chaselle's customers, the company might put them into other markets.

This is not the first time Crayola has adapted to social change. In 1962, it changed its "flesh" crayon to "peach" in recognition that "everyone's flesh was not the same shade," Drexler said.

Color selection for this assortment began with the box of 64 crayons. "We picked out a dozen possibilities," says Chaisson. Then, the company contacted Karen Worth, a faculty member at Wheelock College in Boston, who has studied appropriate colors for skin tones.

"She confirmed what we had found. It certainly made us feel good," says Blumenauer. The dozen colors were culled to six, so as not to overwhelm children with the possibilities. The black and white are included for shading and blending.

"It's so unique. It really turns me on," says Maurice "Mo" Howard, when he heard of the multicultural crayons. Chief of arts and sciencesfor the State Department of Education, Howard says, "there's a tremendous advantage to giving students crayons for their artwork that would be more realistic in representing the people of the world."

He says the crayons could also draw students into other subjects, such as geography and cultures. "I would know of middle-school youngsters who would benefit from this tool."

A trend tracker for a New York consulting firm says the crayons fit well with the growth of "global teen-agers," who increasingly enjoy music, clothes and food from many cultures and respect different ethnic backgrounds. "A crayon that helps join kids . . . it could be more important than it seems," says Ash DeLorenzo, trend director for BrainReserve, which helps Fortune 500 companies develop new products and reposition old ones.

There may be people outside of education markets who say, "we do not need this," says Chaisson. "But at the simplest level this gives children acceptance and some awareness that there's a difference."

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