Kathy Short

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-22 14:00-15:30 Room I

Speaker: Kathy G. Short(USA)


Kathy G. Short

University of Arizona, USA

August 1, 2006

Ethics and Cultural Authenticity in International Children’s Literature

Cultural authenticity in children’s literature is one of those contentious issues that seem to resurface continuously, always eliciting strong emotions and a wide range of perspectives. Authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, educators, librarians, theorists, and researchers all have different points of view that they each feel strongly about based on their sociocultural experiences and philosophical perspectives. The arguments about cultural authenticity in literature for children are not just academic ones; the voices in these debates are passionate and strong, reflecting deeply held beliefs at the heart of each person’s work in creating books or in using these books with children.

Even defining cultural authenticity is difficult, and many authors and educators discuss the complexity of cultural authenticity rather than define it. Rudine Sims Bishop (2003) states that cultural authenticity cannot be defined but “you know it when you see it” as an insider reading a book about your own culture. Elizabeth Howard (1991) says that we have to pay attention to what the book does to the reader in defining cultural authenticity. She argues that we know a book is “true” because we feel it, deep down, saying “Yes, that’s how it is.” The reader’s sense of truth in how a specific cultural experience has been represented within a book, particularly when the reader is an insider to the culture portrayed in that book, is probably the most common understanding of cultural authenticity.

Howard (1991) argues that an authentic book is one in which a universality of experience permeates a story that is set within the particularity of characters and setting. The universal and specific come together to create a book in which “readers from the culture will know that it is true, will identify, and be affirmed, and readers from another culture will feel that it is true, will identify, and learn something of value about both similarities and differences among us” (p. 92). Given that each reading of a book is a unique transaction which results in different interpretations (Rosenblatt, 1938), and given the range of experiences within any cultural group, this definition of cultural authenticity immediately hints at why there are so many debates about the authenticity of a particular book.

Cultural authenticity has often been defined as the accuracy of the details of everyday life as represented in a children’s book. If ethics are the moral principles or values held by a culture, one important way to extend this definition is by evaluating whether or not a book reflects those values, facts, and attitudes that members of a culture as a whole consider worthy of acceptance or belief. Cultural authenticity can be defined as the extent to which a book reflects the world view of a specific cultural group along with the authenticating details of language and everyday life. While there will be no one image of life within a specific cultural context, there are themes, textual features, and underlying ideologies that be used to determine authenticity. Authenticity is thus not just accuracy or the avoidance of stereotyping, but involves the cultural values and practices that are accepted as norms within that social group. Evaluations of accuracy can indicate whether or not the facts in the story believably exist in a culture but not whether those facts actually represent the values held by most of the people. A story can be accurate but not authentic by portraying cultural practices that exist but are not part of the central code of a culture. This central code relates to the range of values acceptable within a social group and so does recognize the conflicts and changes in beliefs within a culture.

The debates about cultural authenticity focus around eight interrelated questions (Short & Fox, 2003).

Can outsiders write authentically about another culture?

The outside/insider distinction is the most frequently debated issue within cultural authenticity. The question is often asked and answered from oppositional positions with both sides vehemently arguing their perspective. Some children’s authors see this question as a form of censorship and an attempt to restrict an author’s freedom to write. From this perspective, cultural authenticity seems to be a personal attack on an author’s ability as a writer. Others argue that the question reflects larger issues of power structures and a history of misrepresentations of particular groups of people and countries. Most see the question as simplistic, setting up a dichotomy that overlooks the broader sociopolitical issues and that can potentially narrow the discussion to pretentious jargon and an emphasis on conformity (Hazel Rochman, 1993).

Does an author have a social responsibility and, if so, how does that responsibility relate to authorial freedom?

Some children’s authors see authenticity as standing in opposition to authorial freedom—the freedom of authors to use their creative imaginations and literary skills to tell a powerful story. Joel Taxel (1997), however, argues that this debate is really about social responsibility and that authors have a social and artistic responsibility to be thoughtful and cautious when they write about characters, plots, and themes related to specific cultural groups, whether they are insiders or outsiders to that culture. Louise Rosenblatt (1938) maintains that social responsibility is not in opposition to freedom because while authors need freedom to determine their own writing, their work has social origins and effects that need to be examined and critiqued.

Violet Harris (1996) and Joel Taxel (1997) argue that the real issue is the contrast of authorial freedom with authorial arrogance, the belief that authors should be able to write without subjecting their work to critical scrutiny. Authorial arrogance connects to white privilege in that whites, specifically whites in Western countries, have been socialized into a racialized society which gives them particular privileges and status that are not available to people of color and to developing countries and which are not acknowledged but simply taken for granted as the way life is for everyone. Without critical scrutiny, white authors are often unable to transcend their positions of privilege when writing books about people from marginalized cultures and so continue subtle forms of racism, even when the more blatant racism and misrepresentations of the past have been eliminated from their writing. This cultural arrogance is based in the unconscious assumption by many members of mainstream society that what they value is universally valued by other cultures (Nodelman, 1988).

Jacqueline Woodson (1998) argues that the issue is not preventing white people from writing certain stories, but the rights of people to tell their own stories and that focusing on the authorial freedom of white writers keeps whites in a position of power instead of focusing on the real issues. The real issue is the desire of members of a particular culture to tell their own stories as a way to pass on their culture and that this desire is not the same as restricting the freedom of authors to choose their own topics.

How do criteria of authenticity relate to literary excellence in evaluating a book?

A question that often arises relates to the criteria used to evaluate children’s books, specifically whether cultural authenticity should be a criterion when the book reflects the experiences of a specific cultural group. While everyone agrees that children’s books should always be evaluated according to standards of literary excellence, most believe that cultural authenticity should also be an essential criterion for evaluating a book. Some see problems with authenticity as a criterion for evaluation and believe that literary excellence should stand alone as the primary criteria for evaluating a book. Many take the stance that literary excellence and cultural authenticity are not in opposition and are both essential. Mingshui Cai (1995) notes that a book is always evaluated for both content and writing style and that cultural authenticity focuses on content while literary criteria focus on writing. He argues that there is no dichotomy between a good and an authentic story. Thus, the debate is not whether or not cultural authenticity should be part of the criteria for evaluating a book, but what kind of criteria and understandings should be used, particularly when the book is created by outsiders.

What kinds of experiences matter for authors in writing culturally authentic books?

The question of determining what counts as experience and the kinds of experiences needed to write with truth as an outsider of a specific culture is raised by many in the professional literature. Mingshui Cai (1995) directly addresses this issue as the relationship between imagination and experience, noting that imagination is needed for a book to have literary excellence but that too much imagination without experience leads to inaccuracies and bias and defeats the purpose of international literature to liberate readers from stereotypes. Others agree that specific authors have successfully crossed cultural gaps to write outside their own experiences; however, crossing cultural gaps is very difficult and requires extreme diligence by authors to gain the experiences necessary to write authentically within another culture. There is disagreement, however, on what counts as experience needed to cross a cultural gap as an outsider, particularly whether direct personal experiences are essential or if that experience can be gained through careful research. Mingshui Cai (1995) states that most authors who successfully write outside their own culture have had significant in-depth experiences within that culture over many years and have engaged in careful and thorough research. Rudine Sims Bishop (2003) argues that authors should be explicit about the difficulties inherent in writing outside their own culture and should indicate how they have worked to gain the “real” experiences needed to write a particular book. Evaluating authenticity could thus involve an author’s note or some other indication of the process by which a book was created.

What are an author’s intentions for writing a particular book?

One question authors need to ask themselves is why they want to write a particular book. Not only does making an author’s intentions and ideology explicit influence the criteria for evaluating a book, but this process also engages an author in the critical self-examination necessary to choosing whether or not to write outside one’s culture and to clarifying what kind of story that author is really seeking to write. Rudine Sims Bishop (2003) points out that authors who write within their own culture usually have the intention of enhancing the self-concept of children from that culture and of challenging existing stereotypes and dominant culture assumptions, as well as of passing on the central values and stories of their culture to children. Authors writing outside their own cultures often write from the intention to build awareness of cultural differences and improve intercultural relationships. These differing intentions result in different stories for different audiences and different evaluations of authenticity.

Authors who write outside their own culture for monetary gain provide an even more problematic critique of intention. Thelma Seto (1995) believes that writers who do not have direct, personal experiences with the culture they are writing about are stealing from other cultures. Laura Smolkin and Joseph Suina (1997) label these intentions as cultural exploitation where property and possessions are taken from the culture for the financial benefit of the author.

What are the criteria beyond accuracy for evaluating the cultural authenticity of the content and images of a book?

The criteria that are typically considered in evaluating the content of a book are the accuracy of the details and the lack of stereotyping and misrepresentation. Many scholars argue that authors cannot ignore cultural facts, and so both the visible facts of external reality and the invisible facts of internal reality must be accurately represented. Laura Smolkin and Joseph Suina (1997) argue that just locating inaccuracies is not enough to determine authenticity. They use the term “cultural sensitivity” to get at whether or not a book is sensitive to the concerns of the culture that is portrayed. Mingshui Cai (1995) refers to this cultural sensitivity as an ethnic perspective, the world view of a specific cultural group which has been shaped by an ideological difference with the majority view. It is the existence of this ethnic perspective that he believes authors who write outside their own culture often do not take on and instead may unconsciously impose their own perspective onto that culture, an attitude of cultural arrogance.

Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen (2003) agree that authenticity is not just accuracy or the avoidance of stereotyping, but involves the cultural values and practices that are accepted as norms within that social group. They argue that accuracy focuses on cultural facts while authenticity focuses on cultural values. Evaluations of accuracy can therefore indicate whether or not the facts in the story believably exist in a culture but not whether those facts actually represent the values held by most of the people in that group. From their perspective, a story can be accurate but not authentic by portraying cultural practices that exist but are not part of the central code of a culture. This central code relates to the range of values acceptable within a social group and so does recognize the conflicts and changes in beliefs within a culture. However, Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen also argue that there are certain values that are appropriate to all cultures and that authenticity does not provide the right to introduce values that are in violation of basic human rights. They further complicate authenticity by discussing issues involved in value conflicts between the culture from which a story is taken and the culture for whom the book is intended and the need to consider both cultures in determining authenticity.

Illustrations provide the basis for additional criteria for authenticity. Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen (2003) indicate that authenticity is based on whether the art form serves its purpose in relation to the story, but argue that an authentic art form does not have to be rigidly interpreted as the typical traditional style. They value the creative process that leads to art that is part of the story to create an authentic whole. Laura Smolkin and Joseph Suina (1997) note, however, that the role of art differs across cultures and that mainstream traditions of graphic experimentation with art elements to enhance meaning can change or confuse meanings for members of particular cultural groups when that experimentation contradicts specific cultural traditions.

Rosalinda Barrera and Ruth Quiroa (2003) argue that the use of particular words and phrases from a specific culture within an English-language book is another factor to consider. The issue is not so much accurate translations as how the words are used, particularly whether the words are added for cultural flavor and result in stereotypes. These elements have to be used strategically and skillfully with cultural sensitivity to create powerful bilingual images of characters, settings and themes. Not only must these phrases and words enhance the literary merits of the book, but they must also make the story comprehensible and engaging to both monolingual and bilingual readers without slighting the language or literary experience of either. The tendency to stay with formulaic and safe uses of Spanish, for example, and to translate literally these words in order to cater to the needs of monolingual readers often results in culturally inauthentic texts for bilingual readers and poor literary quality for all readers.

Vivian Yenika Agbaw (1998) argues that a postcolonial theoretical perspective is essential to deconstructing colonial ideologies of power that privilege Western cultural practices, challenge the history of colonized groups, and give voice to those that have been marginalized by colonization. She extends issues of domination and unequal power distribution to nations, rather than only to specific cultural groups within a nation.

What is an insider perspective on cultural authenticity?

Several educators provide powerful demonstrations that there is no one insider perspective that can be used to evaluate cultural authenticity. Laura Smolkin and Joseph Suina (1997) document the opposing evaluations of the authenticity of a book by different groups of insiders due to variations within that culture. Vivian Yenika-Agbaw (1998) found that insiders can inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes of their own culture. In addition to showing how insiders vary in their views of their own culture, she also examines how outsiders create different types of stereotypes and images, based on their own intentions and ethnic perspectives.

Recognizing the complexity of both insider and outsider perspectives adds another layer to the issues that have been previously raised including cultural facts and values and what is considered “truth” about a particular cultural experience. Rudine Sims Bishop (2003) argues that because variance always exists within a specific culture, no one set of definitive criteria can ever be created to evaluate books about that culture. However, she also points out that scholars can create a set of criteria that show the range of themes and ideologies at the core of a particular culture through a serious scholarly study of the body of books published by insiders.

So why does cultural authenticity matter?

Some educators view the discussions about cultural authenticity in children’s literature as ivory tower debates that do not really matter in the lives of young children, parents, and teachers. Mingshui Cai (1998), however, points out that these definitions determine the actions we take in classrooms and the ways in which children approach the reading of a book. All children have the right to see themselves within a book, to find within a book the truth of their own experiences instead of stereotypes and misrepresentations. Culturally authentic books are more engaging for children from that culture as well as a source of intercultural understandings for children from other cultures. In addition, these books provide children with insights into power and to social and political issues while also serving to challenge the monocultural perspective of dominant society that characterizes most schooling. Jacqueline Woodson (1995) and Rudine Sims Bishop (2003) extend this argument to assert the right of authors to tell the stories that are used within their own particular cultural group to pass on their cultural identity to children. Literature is viewed as one of the significant ways that children learn about themselves and others and therefore those images should not be distorted ones.

Laura Smolkin and Joseph Suina (1997) and Vivian Yenika-Agbaw (1998) argue that evaluations of the cultural authenticity of a book are not designed to lead to censorship. Instead they argue for engaging children in critical readings of these books where they question the meanings embedded in texts from dominant cultural perspectives. Children need to be able to tackle issues of cultural difference, equity, and assumptions about race, class and gender as they read literature. Thus, criteria for evaluating cultural authenticity and raising complex issues are not just issues that those creating or choosing books for children need to consider, but criteria that children themselves need to understand and employ as critical readers.

The dominant cultural code can be reinforced and sustained throughout the entire process of writing and reading a book when there is no attention to the discourses of power and dominance. Zhihui Fang, Danling Fu and Linda Lamme (1999) document the misuse of books about specific cultural groups within classrooms where students are taught to look at culture through categories such as food and holidays that actually reinforce stereotypes and mainstream domination. They argue that children need to learn how to take negotiated and oppositional positions in their interpretations of literature and to analyze the authenticity of a book and the perspective presented to the reader.


Taken as a whole, these discussions about cultural authenticity provide much more complex understandings than simply judging whether or not the author is an insider or outsider to the culture in a book. We must ensure that children have regular engagements with quality children’s books that are culturally authentic and accurate. Because children’s literature has the potential to play such a key role in an education that is international and intercultural, all children should have access to culturally authentic literature.


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