Drawing circles around subject matter: Are writers free to tackle any perspective?


April 22, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

The debate sparks fiery arguments among children's literature fans: Should multicultural books be written only by people from the ethnic group depicted in the book?

One side argues that novels about African-Americans should be written by African-American authors, who can draw on the experiences and emotions of their lives to create fiction that rings true.

The other side counters gifted writers of any race can draw on their imagination to create authentic, valuable books about other cultures.

The topic will make for a lively discussion April 30 at Montgomery College's Rockville campus, where the theme of the fifth annual Celebration of Children's Literature will be "Transcending Our World: A Diverse Perspective."

The morning session will feature several folks who stand on opposite sides of the debate. One will be Anita Silvey, editor in chief of The Horn Book Magazine, which reviews and recommends children's books. In the last year's March/April edition, Ms. Silvey wrote an editorial in favor of the first view.

"A Gary Soto, who remembers the sounds and smells and cadences of Fresno, California, is more likely to write authentically for Latino children than an Anita Silvey, who remembers the smell of good Midwestern soil," she wrote. "Our task is not to encourage creators to write stories that are not really their own; our task is, as it has been for many years, to find those who can create from the inside out."

Ms. Silvey's editorial raised the ire of many people, including Marc Aronson, an editor with the publisher Henry Holt. He will be at Montgomery College to argue that good writing transcends the author's background. He used the example of historical fiction in a letter responding to Ms. Silvey's essay:

"None of us have been antebellum slaves; none of us lived in medieval Japan; none of us met Columbus; none of us wove dresses out of cormorant feathers. Authors have re-created those experiences for us. They did so through a blend of research and imagination."

Also on the panel will be Dr. Carla D. Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and editor of "Ventures into Cultures: A Resource Book of Multicultural Materials and Programs," as well as author Jane Yolen and Dorothy Briley, editor-in-chief and publisher of Clarion Books.

"We've been going around on this for several years," Dr. Hayden said. "I think there have been some significant changes. It's not as absolute as it would appear. . . . Now we're saying, if you're going to write about a different culture, do your research, and make sure someone from the culture reads it.

"The more important issue is that we have so few people from different cultures writing," she said. "It starts in the schools. . . . We need to take the time to cultivate writers from different cultures."

The conference's afternoon session is crammed with seminars by noted authors and illustrators, including several from the Baltimore area: Colby Rodowsky, Susan L. Roth, M. C. Helldorfer and Priscilla Cummings.

The conference, which will run from 8:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., is open to the public. Registration ($60 for Maryland residents, $80 for others) includes materials and a box lunch. For more information, call Montgomery College at (301) 251-7914.

* Signing sightings: Patricia MacLachlan, who won the Newbery Medal for "Sarah, Plain and Tall," rarely does book tours. In conjunction with the release of "Skylark," her sequel to "Sarah," she is visiting a handful of cities, and one of them is Baltimore.

She will be at the Children's Bookstore, on Deepdene Road in Roland Park, from 4-5:30 p.m. May 9. In addition to "Skylark," her other new books include "Baby," "Journey" and "All the Places to Love."

In "Skylark" (HarperCollins, $12, 87 pages, ages 8-10) Sarah has settled in with her new family -- Anna, Caleb and their father, Jacob. But when a horrible drought chokes the prairie, Jacob and Sarah decide she must retreat to her aunt's home in Maine, taking the children with her.

Anna and Caleb wonder if they will ever see Papa, and their prairie home, again. But there is a reunion, and the happy ending includes a lovely surprise.

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