How did you come to devote your professional life to literature for young readers?
I attended graduate school in the late 1970s to become an academic historian, but I quickly realized I didn’t enjoy academic writing, and I spent more time in the library talking to friends than conducting research.
So I quit and became a high school history teacher in the New York City public schools. I loved teaching at the high school level and getting to know the kids and their stories, discussing books and movies with them, and thinking up creative ways of teaching history.
History, taught well, can feel like living inside a novel. And listening to my students gave me ideas for my own writing.
My first young adult novel, Hiding Places (Square One Publishers, 1987), about a teenage runaway in New York came from one of my students who told me how he was going to run away to live with his sister. But the sister didn’t know about his plans, and I suspected that she wasn’t in a position to take him in, which became the premise of the novel.
Hiding Places was published after I left New York City to live in Wisconsin, where my husband had found a job. But I returned often to the city to conduct writing workshops.
My interest in multicultural children’s literature grew out of my original teaching in New York and the successful workshops I led after the publication of Hiding Places.
As I moved from writing young adult books to becoming a critic of both young adult and children’s books, I had the support and guidance of Ginny Moore Kruse and K.T. Horning from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I received my master’s degree in library and information studies.
Ellen LiBretto, then the YA Coordinator at the Queens Library and the sponsor of many of my workshops, asked me to write a chapter for the third edition of her reference book The Hi/Lo Handbook (R.R. Bowker, 1990).
When R.R. Bowker, the publisher of the Hi/Lo Handbook, wanted a reference book on multicultural children’s and YA literature, she recommended me as its editor, and that led to my compiling the award-winning multicultural bibliography Our Family, Our Friends, Our World: A Annotated Guide to Significant Multicultural Books for Children and Teenagers (R.R. Bowker, 1992).
Could you tell us a bit about the history of the journal? Its mission?
Brenda Mitchell-Powell, the onetime editor of Small Press magazine and Multicultural Librarian, founded MultiCultural Review in 1991 to publish articles and reviews on aspects of diversity in the United States and around the world.
The first issue debuted in spring 1992. Originally, the quarterly journal was published by the Greenwood Publishing Group–a publisher, primarily, of reference books. In 2002, Greenwood decided to concentrate on its core mission and sold MCR to the Goldman Group in Tampa, which publishes both consumer magazines and professional journals.
The mission of MCR, which is on all our letterhead, is “dedicated to a better understanding of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity.” Over the years, we’ve expanded that mission to include sexual orientation and persons with disabilities/differently-abled to the extent that there is a culture surrounding different abilities, such as Deaf culture.
Who is the intended audience?
MCR is a professional journal for educators and librarians from early childhood to college. Our articles are written to be accessible to practitioners as well as scholars.
What led to your becoming Editor-in-Chief of MultiCultural Review?
After finishing Our Family, Our Friends, Our World, I became a reviewer of children’s and young adult books for MultiCultural Review under Brenda Mitchell-Powell. When she stepped down as Editor-in-Chief at the end of 1994, the folks at Greenwood asked me if I was interested in taking over the editorial position.
What do you love about it and why?
I love working with all of the journal’s feature writers and reviewers. I learn so much from them. I also enjoy shaping each issue, finding common themes, and working with authors to make their articles the best that they can be.
Rather than waiting for articles to come to me, I go out and find interesting things that are happening. I attend conferences, read blogs, and am always on the lookout for new perspectives on current and controversial issues.
What do you wish you could change about it and why?
I wish I could have more staff. I’m constantly behind in my work, and my office is a nightmare with piles of books I have to send out and papers I have to process and file.
Also, I work alone, and it would be fun to have someone else in the office, though it may mean both of us get less work done.
Why is there a need for a journal specifically focused on multicultural books?
Librarians and educators need a source devoted exclusively to diversity issues, with expert reviews and articles that cover books and other materials from mainstream publishers, independent publishers, and even those who have self-published.
Due to the historical marginalization of diverse cultures, major publishers were slow to present their stories and too often published inaccurate and stereotyped books written by outsiders.
Until the 1990s few authors of color were able to find mainstream publishers, and many broke into the industry by self-publishing–the late E. Lynn Harris being the best-known example.
MultiCultural Review considers all titles submitted for review on an equal footing, whether they’re published by a large house, a small house, a university press, or self-published.
We’re one of the few trade journals that will consider self-published books, and while we only review self-published books that we recommend, we review more than a dozen each year. It’s part of our mission to cover diverse groups and all perspectives within them.
How do you select the books to be reviewed in the magazine?
First, publishers have to send me review copies of the books. And the books have to fit into the scope of the journal. They have to address some aspect of ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural diversity. In the case of religious books, they can’t have an exclusively theological focus but rather should address life as a member of that faith tradition, or the interaction of multiple faith traditions.
MultiCultural Review reviews both adult and children’s books. About a third of our reviews are of children’s and young adult books, though more than half of our feature articles address some aspect of children’s/young adult literature and/or teaching at the K-12 level.
With the adult books, we look for books that appeal to a general readership rather than those that address a narrow specialty–the exception being theoretical and practical guides to multicultural education and multicultural librarianship.
All of the review copies come to the editorial office, and I assign them to reviewers.
Occasionally, a reviewer will contact me to review a given book, and if I haven’t already assigned the book, I usually let him or her do it. Some publishers don’t send me review copies, which is very frustrating and unfair, especially to authors of color, who still have a tough time finding acceptance in the marketplace and risk getting dropped if their books don’t sell well.
How do you select your reviewers? What credentials are necessary, preferred?
Most of our reviewers are educators-K-12 teachers, college professors, and graduate students–and librarians who specialize in the grade level and subject area. We also have many authors. In all, about 200 people have volunteered to review for MultiCultural Review.
We prefer that our reviewers are members of the group themselves or have a strong academic background in the history and culture of the group they cover. Many of our reviewers serve on awards committees related to the group or subject area, such as the ALA Coretta Scott King Book Awards committee.
What opportunities exist for writers to contribute to MultiCultural Review? Could you offer examples of articles for study?
We publish three-to-five feature articles per issue, and about half the issues focus on specific themes. Many of our articles are regular features, such as Isabel Schon‘s roundup of recommended books in Spanish for children and teenagers, or commissioned pieces.
However, about half of our articles are unsolicited or developed from queries. Recent articles that illustrate the variety of what we publish are Jane Mahar’s interview with Tonya Bolden in the fall 2009 issue, Sandhya Nankani‘s excellent bibliographic essay on historical YA novels about India and the Indian Diaspora in the summer 2009 issue, and an annotated bibliography on picture books depicting biracial/multiracial heritage, forthcoming in our winter 2009 issue.
More globally, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in multicultural children’s-YA book publishing over the course of your career, and why do they matter?
There are many more opportunities for writers of color and writers of all backgrounds depicting diverse experiences. Although the situation isn’t perfect, it’s far better than in 1965, when Nancy Larrick published her groundbreaking essay “The All-White World of Children’s Books.”
Awards like the Coretta Scott King and the Pura Belpré have launched the careers of African-American and Latino authors respectively. It’s important to have these awards, which recognize outstanding books by authors of color, because it provides important name recognition that can move an author from the margins to the center.
In fact, when the Pura Belpré Award debuted in 1996, many of the winners were published by small ethnic publishers; since then, those and other winners have received the support of mainstream houses.
These changes matter because for young people of color multicultural literature serves as a mirror, reflecting their heritage, experiences, and achievements. Books honor their struggles–past and present, present role models, and encourage the development of new voices.
For those who have grown up with a sense of privilege, multicultural books offer crucial perspectives–essential for the development of empathy and critical thinking, as well as the capacity to live in a global world where white, English-speaking people are the minority.
Although there have been many gains over the years, the struggle continues. Today publishers and booksellers are fighting over a market that seems to be shrinking and changing in unpredictable ways (the rise of e-books being the most notable example), and thus sales to the largest possible audience and name recognition are increasingly crucial.
If multicultural books are seen as a niche market, many of the authors and titles will once again be relegated to smaller ethnic publishers and even university presses, which are starting to move into children’s books.
If that is the case, activism on behalf of multicultural literature may move to the level of reviewers and book buyers (both individual and institutional) to give equal consideration to independently published books in what will become–as it already has in the recording industry–a highly fragmented marketplace.
Since its inception, MultiCultural Review has taken this approach, and I’ve been heartened by the critical reception my own novel, Gringolandia (Curbstone Press, 2009), has received, as well as the reception of Benjamin Alire Sáenz‘s Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood (Cinco Puntos Press, 2004; HarperCollins, 2006) and Marge Pellegrino‘s new middle grade novel about a family of Mayan refugees in 1980s Guatemala, Journey of Dreams (Frances Lincoln, 2009).
In addition to editing the journal, you’re also a writer in your own right. What advice do you have for fellow writers who’re trying to craft a cross-cultural topic/character/story?
Immerse yourself in the culture about which you write. Along with researching the culture through works of nonfiction and fiction, you should spend time with people from that culture. They should be your friends, and you should listen to their stories and observe carefully the details of their lives.
Then, before you send your cross-cultural writing out into the world, people from that culture should read it, and if they make suggestions-including “don’t!”-you need to listen to those suggestions. This is even more critical if the experiences you seek to depict are painful ones.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about MultiCultural Review and to let your readers know about this important journal. I’m fortunate to have a job I love and where I feel I can make an impact.
Last year I wrote an essay on my website/blog about the role of thirty years of multicultural education in making possible the election of the first biracial President of the United States. Even so, there’s much more work to be done to guarantee every person in this country the same opportunity while embracing our diverse backgrounds and all that makes us unique.