This guest post by René Colato Laínez is part of his blog tour in support of his latest book, From North to South. He offered to write on a topic that I know will be very useful to my readers: the dos and don'ts of writing a multicultural (or Latino-themed) children's book. I hope you find it helpful. Children's Book Press is giving away copies of the book at the end of the blog tour, so make sure you leave a comment for a chance to win your copy!
WRITING AUTHENTIC MULTICULTURAL BOOKS
By Award-Winning Author, René Colato Laínez
From North to South is my seventh book. In this story, José and his father travel from North to South to visit José’s mother in Tijuana, Mexico. Like José and his father, I have also traveled from north to south and east to west within the publishing world. During my journey, I have made many stops to help me learn the craft of writing at conferences, book festivals, critique groups, libraries, and bookstores. I have also met many people who have thanked me for writing multicultural books. Often, some of those same people ask me for tips on writing a multicultural story. This is my attempt at answering some of their questions:
What is a multicultural book?
A multicultural book reflects the experiences of diverse groups of people and promotes a greater understanding among cultures. These books authentically and realistically portray themes, characters, and customs unique to the group about which they are written, and give readers an opportunity to develop an understanding of others, as they affirm the important role that people of diverse backgrounds play in society.
How can I write a multicultural book?
Here are three of the most common mistakes made when attempting to write a multicultural picture book:
1. Relaying solely on a main character that is from the barrio, or who has Latin American roots.
A Latino child named Pedro lives in the barrio. He speaks Spanish and can draw beautiful cats. Pedro’s teacher gives him a sticker for his efforts.
What is multicultural about this story?
Pedro is a Latino child from the barrio and speaks Spanish. There might even be Spanish words in the story. But, ask yourself: What is the reader’s learning about Pedro’s culture?
This writing exercise never fails:
Change Pedro’s name. Maybe his name is now Joshua. Joshua lives in a non-ethnic neighborhood. He speaks English. And of course, he draws beautiful cats.
We have changed the name of the character and eliminated the Spanish words in the text. Does the story still work? Yes, it really has not changed at all! A multicultural story is more than a Hispanic character and a few Spanish words. The story must be unique and authentic. A foreign name, or dark skin color on a page are not enough to make a multicultural story.
2. My character eats beans and wears a sombrero. He also likes to break piñatas. Do I now have a multicultural book?
When writing a multicultural book, avoid stereotypes. Readers want to read stories that represent cultures in positive and respectful ways. Mexicans don’t generally go around wearing sombreros, and Caribbean women generally don’t dance with a bowl of fruit on their heads. On the other hand, Mexico is a country with a very rich history, wonderful traditions, and delicious food. The Caribbean has beautiful beaches, great music, and fantastic folktales. There are so many great things to tell about our cultures, why concentrate on stereotypes? Let’s write wonderful stories!
3. The other extreme: culture, culture, and more culture.
In order to create a multicultural story, authors often describe the cultural aspects of a story so much that they forget to create a plot! The result is a dry, boring story. An editor will definitely reject this type of story because it will not inspire readers to turn the page to read it. A story needs strong characters, a great plot, an extraordinary beginning, a great climax, and a convincing ending, as it exhibits aspects of the culture in question. Readers want an entertaining story first and foremost, regardless of its cultural elements. (Note: For Rene’s tips on writing picture books, see his previous post on VOCES.
Writing from Outside of the Culture
If you are writing outside of your culture, don’t ever write off the top of your head. If you have never lived in Mexico, China, or Morocco and want to write a story about those cultures, you will have to do extensive research in libraries, archives, and museums. But, by far, the best way to do this research is to meet the people you want to write about. Talk to them, participate in their games, visit their country, eat their food, become one of them while you are writing your story. Remember that it is always better to overdo your research. Later, you can choose the elements that will be most important to your story. Once you have finished your manuscript, show it to organizations and the people it is written about, and ask them to look for stereotypes and misconceptions. This will help you to avoid some of the pitfalls described above. Those who are the most passionate and involved with a culture are typically the best ones to write an authentic multicultural tale. With passion, comes the desire to spend hours and hours at the library, and with the people you are writing about. If there is no passion, there will be no truly authentic story to tell.
Good luck, and have fun writing a multicultural story!
René Colato Laínez