Following my speech and workshop, I sat on a Q & A panel where conference attendees had the opportunity to toss questions at the various speakers.
I don't do well in panel situations because I can't think clearly when I’m live on stage, in front of a zillion people. I’d have preferred my questions by email, then answered sometime in the next 24 hours.
The first few questions were directed at the editors, so I was able to doodle on my note pad uninterrupted. Finally one person, an African American, stood up and lobbed the question, and I'm paraphrasing: What is multicultural, and what makes a manuscript considered to be multicultural? Gulp. Anyone one of us panelists were qualified to answer that question, and, though the question seemed better suited for an author or editor, I felt pressured to say something. I mean, I was the black guy, Mr. Colorful sporting a mohawk, representin' for the multicultural masses. Surly, all eyes were on me; I had to say something, anything. And something profound would be nice.
But my mind went blank. Heck, what is multicultural as it relates to this industry anyway? Nancy Mercado (Dial Books for Young Readers) offered an explanation, but I don't know what she said. My mind was too busy cooking up an answer and hoping she would speak for a long time. Maybe she’d speak so long, the moderator would have to ask us to move on to the next question. No luck, someone shoved the microphone in my face. My mind wasn’t finished cooking.
"Um," I said, in controlled panic. "Most of the books I've illustrated would be considered multicultural. They were offered to me by editors who preferred an African American illustrate that particular story." OK, had nothing to do with the question asked, but it was the best I could come up with. "I don't consider myself a multicultural artist." I continued. "I'm an artist, just happen to be a black artist." I went on to explain that good writers should be able to write for any racial or ethnic group if they take the time to research their subject. Again, I didn’t really address the question, but without time to think, it was the best I could offer.
I breathed a sigh of relief having answered what I hoped would be my last question. But this person wasn’t finished with me yet; she posed another question, this time directly to me. Earlier that day, in my speech, I had made the statement that good picture book writers are those who can write visually, offering illustrators many opportunities to bring the story to life. She wanted to know how one would write visually. Hmm. And I’m supposed to offer an answer on the spot? I didn’t answer that question any better than the first, but I did ponder it more, and pulled the person aside following the panel discussion to offer some examples.
While I drove home from the conference, I gave the multicultural question some more thought.
In my opinion, multicultural children’s books are those that offer diversity. And diversity can mean many things, depending upon who you ask. Most often, I think, multicultural includes issues of race, ethnicity (and alternative lifestyles, if you want to go there).
Multicultural shouldn't be a separate label. Ideally, multicultural should be an adjective, describing any collection of children's books. A publisher's recent list should be multicultural; book stores and libraries should be multicultural, a child’s at-home collection should be multicultural. Multicultural shouldn't be an optional flavor.
And, speaking of multicultural, I finished reading ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY NOT. The mc is gay. Would that be considered a multicultural book? I don’t know, I’m asking, not saying.
I loved the writing in this book. I wish I could write like David LaRochelle. I chuckled my way through each and every page, laughing out loud at practically every other sentence. But, I had guessed the ending all wrong. I thought that Steven, the mc, had fallen in love with his best friend, Rachel, and would soon discover he wasn’t gay after all. Boy! I guessed it wrong.