Picture Books Peek behind Cultural Curtains

Book Links: January 2000 (v.9 no.3)

by Sylvia and Kenneth Marantz

The concept of “culture” is complex, and too often written about in a glib or patronizing fashion. Indeed, among those who study behaviors, values, and artifacts of the world’s populations, now and in the past, there is no agreed-upon definition. Thus, in discussing picture books, it is crucial that we understand their necessarily limited focus, as well as the biases of author and illustrator.

There are at least three general categories: legends and/or histories; current life in particular areas; and the immigrant experience. In the first instance, one needs to check the author’s and illustrator’s notes to determine how the information was obtained and verified, and students need to understand that the picture created is one of another time, not of today. Books about current life need to be up-to-date, as well as accurate. Careful selection is important when choosing among the many titles about the immigrant experiences of those who have come to the United States from elsewhere, either by choice or compulsion, in order not to imply that all such journeys are alike.

The question of authenticity is one constantly raised when discussing books purporting to describe facts about groups of people. Beyond the avoidance of offensive or stereotypical images, we can only speculate about whether an author writing in another language translated into English can give a more “authentic” account than an American writer who has done careful research. But moving beyond the verbal to the visual, we want to look at how the art in picture books may expand children’s understanding of others.

Visual Translation

The notion of “visual literacy” appears frequently in professional books and journals, but there is little discussed about the translations of visual images; that is, the illustrations and design of picture books. Authors and illustrators have latitude in how they tell their stories. At times, they must produce a book that tells a tale of a people who have an oral tradition. Baba Wague Diakite, a native of Mali, has created a picture book from a story he heard as a child, a tale with a long history: The Hatseller and the Monkeys (Scholastic, 1999). The traditional storyteller uses devices such as vocal variety and body and facial gestures to amplify the story’s narrative line and to evoke ranges of emotion in the listeners. Each telling is a bit different, depending on the audience and setting. Thus, an author/illustrator like Diakite is faced with the need to compromise “authenticity” if he is to write his story as a picture book. As he has described his dilemma, it first means putting down in some fixed written form, and in an alien language, that which traditionally should be spoken. Then, he must create pictures that substitute for his dramatic vocal effects—the pitch, volume, and pauses—and also for the physical gestures that transform the telling into a theatrical performance. In this case, he chooses a picture style adopted from decorations on ceramic tiles. The conventionalized scenes provide simple suggestions of the hatseller’s environment, with many hats replete with the geometric patterns of the region. In effect, he has made a visual translation, perhaps a transliteration, from a traditional oral form to a picture-book form that offers at least some qualities the people in his part of Mali experience from the story.

Other cultures use scrolls for recording their stories. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used this form, as did the Chinese and Japanese, who integrated calligraphy and pictures. The reader is intended to sit and gradually expose the ongoing scenes that were designed for studied contemplation. Pages in a book cannot replicate this seamless experience; each page-turning exposes a fresh tableau with hints of things past and perhaps those in the coming pages. This is a more static reading that tends to create episodic illustrations. David Wiesner’s Free Fall (Lothrop, 1988) is a modern example of a picture book, wordless in this case, created as a long, unbroken painting cut to fit a 32-page format. Compromises had to be made in adapting one mode of graphic imagery to another.

Other compromises and choices are made by illustrators. Chief Lelooska, in his Echoes of the Elders (DK Ink, 1997) and Spirit of the Cedar People (DK Ink, 1998), has also had to write down tales previously only available in oral form, although the CD included with each book brings us a closer appreciation of the traditional telling. For his illustrations, the author has adopted a style of representing animals developed by several Northwest Coast peoples over the centuries. The picture-book format is not traditional, of course, but the images drawn from totem poles, carved doors, and painted boxes are part of ongoing traditions. By comparison, Gerald McDermott in Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest (Harcourt, 1993) has played with and modified the same sorts of shapes and patterns to further his narrative. Questions can be raised about his facts, and about his right to create a picture book from a culture not his own. Indeed, the question of whether there exists a “cultural copyright” is an ongoing one, which tends to be more political than aesthetic. William Miller has offered some thoughts on this question in his “One Author’s Perspective on Writing across Cultures” in the January 1999 Book Links.

Authentic Interpretations

So, the sticky problem of authenticity remains. While, as teachers and librarians, we might want authors and artists to provide extensive notes on their sources, as many now do, we must also value the mythic qualities of literature and art that can’t be so easily pinned down. Two titles set in historic Japan, all illustrated and retold or translated by non-Japanese, adopt artistic styles derived from previous centuries of Japanese art. In The Tale of the Mandarin Duck (Lodestar, 1990), retold by Katherine Paterson, the illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon closely reflect the look and feel of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese woodcuts. Of course the illustrators have “translated” these images into scenes that have Western perspective and more sharply defined contours. But, costume, furniture, hairstyles, etc., all appear to be researched and handsomely orchestrated to provide a convincing sense of period and place recognizable to those familiar with the original woodcuts. Demi, in Grass Sandals: The Travels of Basho (Atheneum, 1997) by Dawn Spivak, manages to adapt figures and landscapes from scroll paintings with almost infinite delicacy. From the endpapers with a calligraphed poem on rice paper, through flights of birds, tiny, distant villages, and exquisitely costumed people, her visual settings help put the simple, anecdotal text and the translated poetry into a picture-book format that transports us to this distant place and time.

Even more distant in lifestyle than the Japanese of the seventeenth century are the Australian Aborigines. Very few books about them have come to this country. Paul Morin, in Animal Dreaming: An Aboriginal Dreamtime Story (Harcourt/Silver Whistle, 1998), creates paintings that sometimes depict landscapes, people, and local animals in standard Western style. Then, he gives us double-page paintings of the Dreamtime using the indigenous patterning art technique and X-ray images that characterize Aboriginal art works. These designs stimulate our imaginations while evoking feelings of mystery that the usual photographs in social studies texts cannot.

Closer to home are many of the picture books coming from Europe in translation. Even a glance at Sergei Goloshapov’s cover illustration for the Grimm Brothers’ The Six Servants (North-South, 1996) tells us that it comes from a different set of picture-book sensibilities than those we are used to from England or America. Artists such as Albrecht Dürer or George Grosz, who have made pictures about human foibles for adults, or the surreal paintings of René Magritte, are perhaps the models for some of the more unusual picture books that have been translated and printed here. Perhaps Kveta Pacovska’s The Little Flower King (North-South, 1996) is even more distinctive with its bright whiteness and very large, very brief text, along with the cutout illustrations. But the colored drawings are more like those of Paul Klee than those our children are accustomed to. Once again, these strange figures seem “foreign.” Picture books are created to tell stories that provoke our emotions. When dealing with historically or geographically distant events and peoples, they are conveyors of mythic qualities. Because each book comes from a single point of view, it is particularly important that we include many different picture books for our students. The following recent titles allow very young readers and listeners to explore many lands and ways of life. With careful attention to the materials used and the age of the children, we can at least lift a corner of the curtain of the world beyond their windows.

Cultural Diversity in New Picture Books


Daly, Niki. Jamela’s Dress. 1999. 32p. Farrar, $16 (0-374-33667-9).
Preschool–Gr. 4. Daly gives us a picture of a young girl in South Africa today in Jamela, who is so excited over the beautiful and expensive fabric her mother has bought to make a dress for a wedding that she ends up parading it through town, getting it torn and dirty. She is in tears, and Mama is understandably upset. But a photo taken by a photographer friend of “Kwela Jamela African Queen” saves the day. We see the people and streets of Jamela’s town in Daly’s realistic paintings filled with action and emotion—including humor.

Mollel, Tololwa M.. My Rows and Piles of Coins. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 1999. 32p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-75186-1).
K–Gr. 3. In this story of a young boy in 1960s Tanzania, the narrator decides to save his money for a bicycle, to help his mother bring her produce to market. Meanwhile, his father tries to teach him to ride the father’s larger bike. The carefully counted coins mount up as the boy works, but he finds that his savings are not enough. His disappointment is gone, however, when his father comes home with a motorcycle and gives him the bicycle for his own. Both the text and Lewis’ realistic watercolors are rich with details of life and work, especially scenes of the market. Notes on the currency used in Tanzania and a glossary of the Masaai and Swahili words sprinkled through the story are included.


Demi. The Donkey and the Rock. 1999. 32p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-5959-8).
Preschool–Gr. 2. Demi, whose retellings of Asian tales are illustrated with delicately detailed interpretations of the art of each area, here relates a humorous, simply told story that “is said to have originated in India” and is often heard in Tibet today. A wise king in the Tibet mountains of long ago must judge a dispute between two poor men. The donkey of one has knocked the other man’s precious jar of oil from a rock. Both men disclaim responsibility. The clever king arrests both the donkey and the rock, and discovers an equitable resolution for the two men—as well as the rock and the donkey. The gouache, watercolor, and ink illustrations are full of action and suggest the dress and setting of the period.

Lee, Jeanne M. I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told. 1999. 40p. Farrar, $16 (0-374-33548-6).
K–up. In retelling six Jatakas, or birth stories, Lee demonstrates some of the teachings of Buddha in action. She also adds informational notes for these somewhat unusual stories that concern the need for tolerance, for truthfulness, for forethought, and for generosity. Some include admonitions not to believe everything one hears, and to be truthful and kind. Although the text is lengthy, each parable is simply written, comparable to Aesop’s fables. Lee has used strongly drawn woodcuts or linoleum cuts in both black-and-white and color for depictions of animals that are lively and realistic, while Buddha resembles many of the statues of him we see, smiling and peaceful.

Say, Allen. Tea with Milk. 1999. 32p. Houghton, $17 (0-395-90495-1).
Preschool–Gr. 3. Say’s story about his mother’s early life both crosses cultures and serves as an example of a typical immigrant experience. Having grown up with Japanese parents in San Francisco, she is dismayed when the family decides to move back to Japan. Masako is dismayed at being called a foreigner, being expected to learn unfamiliar (to her) Japanese ways, and, above all, being expected to agree to an arranged marriage. She meets another displaced person, who later becomes Say’s father, which makes for a satisfying conclusion. Although the design of the book is static—picture on one side, text on the other—the watercolor illustrations are rich with detail and with the contrast of cultures in which Masako is caught.

Sierra, Judy. The Dancing Pig. Illus. by Jesse Sweetwater. 1999. 32p. Harcourt/Gulliver, $16 (0-15-201594-9).
K–Gr. 3. This picture book based on the art-rich traditions of Bali offers interesting comparisons with many other versions of stories about children who are menaced but triumph. Two young sisters promise to stay inside and let no one in while their mother goes to market. But the wicked ogress Rangsasa tricks them and plans to cook and eat them. The animals that the sisters have always treated with compassion work with the girls’ mother to save the children and win Rangsasa’s treasure. The scheme involves the traditional gamelan orchestra and Legong dance of Bali, while the face of the ogress reflects typical Balinese carved masks. The intensely colored gouache, watercolor, and acrylic paintings are framed or spread across two pages in a riot of action. Sierra tells the tale in a lively fashion, with Balinese story-words that make for read-aloud fun, and she includes helpful notes and a glossary.

Tsubakiyama, Margaret Holloway. Mei-Mei Loves the Morning. Illus. by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. 1999. 32p. Albert Whitman, $15.95 (0-8075-5039-6).
Preschool–Gr. 3. In this very simple story for younger readers and listeners, a young girl in Shanghai wakes up early with her grandfather. They eat breakfast and set off with his caged bird on his bicycle. We see the city traffic as they ride to meet with their friends in the park and practice their tai-chi. Later, they ride home, stopping for pancakes on their way from their happy morning adventure. The very realistic watercolor-and-pencil illustrations depict the lively pair enjoying each other’s company. Young readers can see both similarities to and differences from their lives in the images of modern Shanghai and its people.


Estes, Kristyn Rehling. Manuela’s Gift. Illus. by Claire B. Cotts. 1999. 32p. Chronicle, $15.95 (0-8118-2085-8).
Preschool–Gr. 3. Manuela, a young Mexican girl, dreams of a new dress for her birthday party, and is disappointed at first to receive only a hand-me-down. But as she goes through the tasks of the day with her loving family, she finally looks forward to the celebration. Cotts’ brightly colored acrylic paintings, with typically patterned borders and a stylized look similar to that of some Mexican painters, are filled with family portraits and with rich impressions of family activities, and of life in the house and fields, as well as with the pinãtas and cut-paper decorations of a lively Mexican celebration.

Middle Eastern

Heide, Florence Parry, and Judith Heide Gilliland. The House of Wisdom. Illus. by Mary GrandPré. 1999. 44p. DK Ink, $16.95 (0-7894-2562-9).
Gr. 1–5. This true story from ninth-century Baghdad concerns Ishaq, a young explorer and the son of a scholar of the House of Wisdom, the great library of the city and a center of culture and ideas at that time. Ishaq travels from Spain to India to China, gathering books for scholars in the library. He finally understands that “we are like leaves of the same tree” and hopes that he will light the way for future searchers of truth. Though the text and concept are not for younger readers, the story is an inspirational one, as well as a reminder of the highly developed civilization of the Middle East during Europe’s Dark Ages. GrandPré’s illustrations detail some costume and architecture and include frames and borders inspired by richly patterned Islamic art. Historical notes provide contextual information.

Shepard, Aaron. Forty Fortunes: A Tale of Iran. Illus. by Alisher Dianov. 1999. 32p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-81133-3).
K–Gr. 2. From Iranian folklore comes the story of poor Ahmed, whose nagging wife persuades him to declare himself a fortuneteller. Ahmed, by dumb luck, solves the mystery of the missing royal treasure within his allotted 40 days, avoiding prison and gaining rewards. Dianov includes details of costume and architecture in his active, brightly colored watercolors, and places text on simulated scrolls, but he has not included the details and borders that would make his work more closely resemble classic Persian miniatures. His distinctive style has an appealing humor. Notes and a pronunciation guide are included.

Native American

Nelson, S. D. Gift Horse: A Lakota Story. 1999. 32p. Abrams, $14.95 (0-8109-4127-9).
Preschool–Gr. 3. Nelson, a member of the Lakota tribe, tells this traditional story of how a boy became a man and warrior in the voice of the young man, Flying Cloud. After his father brings him his horse, he must go through certain steps: the Sweat Lodge, the Vision Quest, the Buffalo Hunt, and finally the triumphant raid on the enemy Crow. Nelson’s acrylic-paint-on-wood panels vibrate with color and life across the pages. They are not realistic, but done in a style reminiscent of the art painted by Plains Indians on their tepees and in their ledger books. The text is rich with excitement and description of life as the narrator recalls it, and there are extensive author notes as well.

Adult Resources

Marantz, Sylvia, and Kenneth Marantz. Multicultural Picture Books: Art for Understanding Others. 1994. 150p. Linworth, $28.95 (0-938865-22-6).

Marantz, Sylvia, and Kenneth Marantz. Multicultural Picture Books: Art for Understanding Others, v.2. 1997. 200p. Linworth, $28.95 (0-938865-63-3).

Sylvia Marantz is a retired children’s librarian, and Kenneth Marantz is professor emeritus of art education, the Ohio State University. Together, they have written eight books on the art of the picture book, and review for many professional journals. Their last article for Book Links, “Sixty Years of Caldecott Medal Winners,” appeared in the March 1999 issue.