>Stick to Your Own Kind?

>I’m intrigued by Arthur Laurents’s plans to bring West Side Story to Broadway next winter in a “bilingual revival,” having the Puerto Rican characters speaking Spanish and otherwise making the show “more realistic.” (Here’s hoping he doesn’t try to set it in the present, though, because that gorgeous, swanky 1950s brass would sound as corny as Kansas in August.)

That theme of bridging cultures (I know WSS is based on R&J, but making the Montagues and Capulets into Jets and Sharks throws us into contemporary contexts) came to me yesterday when I was editing a Guide review of The Umbrella Queen, a picture book by Shirin Yim Bridges and Taeeun Yoo. Apparently based on the “umbrella village” of Bo Sang in northern Thailand, the story is about a little girl, Noot, who longs to paint umbrellas the way all the women in the village do, but instead of painting the traditional patterns of flowers and butterflies, she paints elephants. The Thai king comes to judge the umbrellas in the annual contest and names Noot the winner, “because she paints from her heart.” It’s a nice enough little story, but has an unacknowledged dynamic that shows up time and again in American books for children about “other cultures,” allegedly honoring different cultural norms but in fact contravening them to celebrate the spirit of individual expression. (Historical fiction does this too, as Anne Scott MacLeod wrote in a brilliant essay for us.) It’s a case where the story’s need for conflict subverts its simultaneous claim on cultural authenticity. There’s no story if Noot happily paints flowers and butterflies, but the fact that she triumphs by painting elephants says, in effect, that the tradition that inspired the story isn’t worth holding on to. Can you have it both ways?

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. M.F. Atkins says:

    >Thanks for bringing this up. I grew up a few minutes from this umbrella village. I am anxious to read this book, and then maybe I can comment on your question.

    Marcie
    World of Words
    http://marcieaf.blogspot.com

  2. Anonymous says:

    >GREAT MacLeod essay. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >Roger,

    Thank you for the link to the MacLeod essay. Brilliant indeed.

    MacLeod points out the weaknesses in Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy–

    “They evade the common realities of the societies they write about. In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered. To do that, they set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy — and painless — for an independent mind to overcome.”

    These books do get the period details correct and the historical events and so I think offer value to the reader–at a certain stage of development. I like to contrast Catherine Called Birdy with A True and Faithful Narrative by Katherine Sturtevant.

    Sturtevant’s Meg is a product of her time. She has all the sense of filial responsibility the Birdy does not. She struggles with her desire to do something she believes her father will not approve of and her prejudices are overcome slowly; they don’t evaporate in a blaze of Enlightenment. She thinks very differently from a modern girl of her age.

    But I am not sure that the reader who loves Birdy would understand Meg. “Why doesn’t she just write if she wants to?” they might ask. The reader has to be able to understand that people in the past really were different and I think that is a developmental stage we need to move children towards. You can be able to read all the words in ATAFN and still not able to understand the story.

    I wish every child who read Catherine Called Birdy at eleven, could be offered A True and Faithful Narrative at thirteen. I think Sturtevant proved that you can have a great story and historical integrity. I only wish it had gotten the Newbery recognition it deserved.

  4. Monica Edinger says:

    >I’m with you, anonymous, on the Sturtevant book. And with you, Roger, about Macleod’s excellent essay.
    I’ve noticed too the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) ways some American stories about other cultures and/or people of other cultures emphasize particular American cultural attributes, say the individual over the group, that aren’t part of the other cultures at all. In Sierra Leone I taught art for a year in a primary school. (Not my idea, but the head teacher thought it would make her school look more impressive.) I had one particularly talented 5th grader. However, when his parents came to see the teachers, they had absolutely no interest in seeing me. They cared about academics for their son. Talent in drawing and painting (what the head teacher insisted I teach) meant nothing to them. That he did well reading, writing, history, maths, etc did. There were no artists there as we think of them. Plenty of art being done among crafts folk, but the parents did not want that for their son. The whole concept of artist was very different there. Art functioned differently. This was thirty years ago, but I had a number of experiences to reinforced this impression.

  5. >And even in True and Faithful Narrative, we’re meant to root for the heroine’s liberation; we’re there, really, in order to critique the contemporary values, not inhabit them for a while.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >lelac,

    I was the first anonymous, and I’ve already been waay to pedantic on Roger’s blog, but I have to say I disagree. Meg struggles to find happiness entirely within the limits of the choices available to a woman of her time. Yes, she’s a woman writing, but historically, that’s unusual, not preposterous. She’s not throwing off the chains of her sex. On the contrary, she is soberly deciding who she will marry for the best advantage. She might be pushing the envelope by writing without her father’s knowledge, but she always means to show her work to him. She sees him as the ultimate judge of the rightness or wrongness of her actions. Meg’s father recognizes her talent and approves her writing because he’s a good man and because Sturtevant *doesn’t* take the line that anyone who actually believes in those old patriarchal principles must be either weak, as is Birdy’s mother, or like a her father, a bastard.

  7. swarmofbeasts says:

    >One wishes that the writers of these books would go back to the literature of Thailand, or medieval England, or wherever, where the stories aren’t about ‘Oh, my society, it’s so repressive!” – and find other sources for conflict.

  8. Anonymous says:

    >good to be reminded of that excellent McLeod article! it should be reprinted every couple of years!

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