Cultural Authenticity in the Emerging Caribbean Picturebook Aesthetic

August 2013

Issues of cultural representation and authenticity in children’s literature have been the subject of much discussion and scholarly research.1 Cultural authenticity in children’s books matters because literary transmission is one of the key ways that children acquire knowledge of other cultures, and by extension, form attitudes toward those cultures.2 Another reason culturally authentic children’s literature is important is because young readers have a right to see themselves and their own experiences accurately and sensitively represented in books. Moreover, reading culturally authentic literature provides children with a framework for questioning dominant ideologies in society, which is to say, culturally authentic literature can empower young people to envision and create more just, tolerant, humane societies.

Concern for the cultural authenticity of Caribbean picturebooks has grown as the Caribbean picturebook aesthetic has emerged. Since the 1980s―when Caribbean children’s literature that fit standard picturebook definitions first began to be published3―Caribbean children’s literature has gained a wider readership outside of the Caribbean, particularly in the United States and in the United Kingdom. This recent wave of picturebooks set in or “about” the Caribbean provides American and UK children, who often have little prior knowledge of the Caribbean, with “windows” into the nature of the Caribbean―its people, customs, traditions, languages―and has the power to influence the knowledge and perceptions of the Caribbean that will take root in the next generation. These picturebooks are also “mirrors” for Caribbean children,4 allowing them to see their personal and cultural realities reflected in books. In doing so, Caribbean picturebooks have the potential to help Caribbean children forge rich and healthy self-definitions, understand and appreciate their cultural legacy, fill in gaps in their histories, counter and question stereotypes, and challenge the societal status quo. This propensity of picturebooks is greatly increased when the stories and pictures are authentic ones; indeed, the usefulness of a Caribbean picturebook may be said to stand in direct relation to the book’s cultural authenticity.

Elizabeth Howard has suggested that appraisals of cultural authenticity in literature can be reduced to gut reactions―in other words, you instinctively recognize or sense cultural inauthenticity when you see it; deep down inside the reader instinctively knows what is “true” or “not true.”5 Yet younger children in particular, who are in the early stages of enculturation and cross-cultural awareness acquisition, do not have this discriminating ability and are therefore susceptible to accepting demeaning or misguided misrepresentations they may encounter in books. Clearly, as Caribbean picturebooks gain a wider readership both in and outside of the Caribbean, care must be taken that both the textual and visual dimensions of picturebooks are reflecting authentic realities and contextualizations rather than inauthentic distortions. As with all underrepresented literature, a major concern is that Caribbean picturebooks might be perpetuating myths or negative stereotypes about the Caribbean and its people.

In general, Caribbean literature has often come up against troubling issues of underrepresentation, misrepresentation, and suppression.6 Caribbean writers have had to struggle to claim ownership of their artistic and literary traditions, to make their voices heard, and to wrest literary production from the hands of foreign gatekeepers. The Caribbean picturebook aesthetic, still in the process of being defined, has been particularly susceptible to ideological control due to publishing constraints and commercial influences.

Authenticity in the emerging Caribbean picturebook aesthetic must be examined in light of issues of authorship and publication. The “insider versus outsider” debate is relevant, given that many Caribbean picturebooks are written and illustrated by cultural outsiders and are produced by foreign publishing houses.7 Indeed, the Caribbean picturebook aesthetic has developed to a large degree outside of the Caribbean. As more Caribbean picturebooks are published, the question of who should write (and illustrate) for Caribbean children becomes paramount.

Many views have been offered on this question of cultural authority in children’s writing. Martha Kruse has argued that only members of a specific cultural group can effectively and validly present the experiences of that group. Thelma Seto believes that individuals who do not have direct, personal experiences with the culture they are writing about are stealing from that culture, and Laura Smolkin and Joseph Suina use the term “cultural exploitation” to describe the process whereby writers and illustrators make financial gain from cultural and intellectual property taken from other cultures.8

Other scholars have challenged “insider only” views by suggesting that stories written and illustrated by cultural outsiders have the potential to be valuable contributions if they are (a) carefully selected or adapted; (b) “properly researched and genuine and authentic in intent and presentation,”9 and (c) written or illustrated in a spirit of empathy for the people being depicted. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. states, “No human culture is inaccessible to someone who makes an effort to understand, learn, to inhabit another world,” and Betsy Hearne also suggests that it may be more valuable to underscore “the importance of knowing a cultural tradition, from the standpoint of both experience and study, over the formal qualification of being a card-carrying member of the culture.”10

I tend to agree with Mikkelsen, who suggests that instead of fixating on outsider/inauthentic versus insider/authentic binaries, it may be more useful to push for “diversity within authenticity,” but who also adds, “We are more likely to have such nuances, such distinctions, such subtleties, such realism, whatever the genre, if insiders tell their own stories.”11 So although cultural outsiders may effectively depict Caribbean cultures in picturebooks, being a cultural insider may give an author or illustrator unique insight into the lived experiences of Caribbean people. Caribbean picturebooks written by cultural outsiders should not, as a rule, be censored or disregarded, but they must be put into perspective in terms of the possibilities for self-representation. At the same time, it must be recognized that even cultural insiders are in danger of stereotyping themselves and their own cultures.12 Moreover, cultural insiders make differing assessments of the authenticity of books depicting their culture. It is worthwhile to remember that no one book can ever fully represent an entire culture and that variations within Caribbean cultures and subcultures mean that no one definitive set of criteria for authenticity can be created to evaluate the authenticity of Caribbean picturebooks.

Nevertheless, I would like to suggest a few textual features that can be useful “markers” for creating or identifying an authentic Caribbean picturebook. Such a picturebook accomplishes the following:

  1. It effectively engages or exhibits a Caribbean aesthetics of hybridity, cultural hybridity being a powerful proxy for authentic “Caribbeaness.” Several authorities in the field of postcolonial theory have highlighted the centrality of cultural hybridity to the Caribbean aesthetic consciousness.13

  2. It avoids stereotypes (good and bad), exoticization, and monolithic representations. Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen, prominent thinkers on cultural authenticity in children’s books, describe how a groundbreaking study by Violet Harada equated cultural authenticity with “nonstereotyped portrayals, positive images, lack of derogatory language, accurate historical information and cultural details, and realistic illustrations all put together.”14

  3. It accurately portrays the cultural facts and artifacts of daily life in a specific, identified Caribbean culture or country. Junko Yokota has proposed elements of “cultural accuracy” that include “richness of details, authentic handling of dialogues and relationships, and sensitive treatment of issues.”15

  4. It contains textual and artistic elements that authentically reflect the cultural values embedded in a Caribbean culture or cultures, that is, the range of values and attitudes that most members of the culture hold or consider worthy of acceptance or belief.16

  5. The authentic, accurate, and appropriate use of West Indian Creole languages, the inclusion of creolized or “douglarized” characters, the exploration of identity, the fusion of European and West Indian literary and artistic traditions, and the effective representation of the relationship between the past and the present may all be features of authentic Caribbean picturebooks.

An engagement with language, religion, history, issues of ownership, landscape, and ethnicity may also be an identifying feature of an authentic, unified Caribbean picturebook aesthetic.17 Caribbean picturebooks that treat these concepts as the cultural facts of daily life, embedded in the fabric of Caribbean’s people everyday experiences and in their cultural values, may be less likely to succumb to the exoticized, essentialist presentations of Caribbean cultures so ubiquitous in high and low culture.

In particular, representations of landscape in the Caribbean picturebook aesthetic merit close attention. Setting, perhaps more than any other signifier, plays a key role in the establishing the “Caribbeaness” of a Caribbean picturebook. On a basic level, a Caribbean picturebook is one which is set in the Caribbean, or which bears direct relationship to a Caribbean setting in a literal, symbolic, or dialogic way. Setting may be conveyed nominally by referencing a Caribbean island, as in Lynn Joseph’s picturebook Jump Up Time: A Trinidad Carnival Story;18 however, some Caribbean picturebooks use description, illustrations, and peritext to construct a physical, social, or historical Caribbean landscape within the story world. Often these constructed Caribbean landscapes are mythical and exotic in nature: uncharted and pastoral picturebook topographies that equate the Caribbean landscape with timelessness and namelessness.

Critiquing textual and illustrated representations of landscape in Caribbean picturebooks is particularly important given that the Caribbean landscape has historically been subject to mythologizing discourses and aesthetics. Mythologized Caribbean landscapes in picturebooks are an example of the exoticization of parallel cultures often seen in so-called multicultural children’s literature. Most Caribbean picturebooks that mythologize the Caribbean landscape are folktales or stories with fantastical elements, and mythologized landscapes may seem appropriate within the conventions of these genres. This, however, becomes problematic when the Caribbean picturebook market is overwhelmingly folkloric in nature. If child readers are only exposed to the Caribbean through formulaic folk tales, the timelessness and namelessness embedded in the folktale genre may work to perpetuate notions of the Caribbean’s physical and sociocultural landscapes as “backward,” static, and underdeveloped.

The overuse of the folktale genre to depict parallel or minority cultures has been discussed by Sudeshna Roy, who believes that writers and illustrators who depict other cultures should use genres like prisms, offering a variety of perspectives and colors, as when one looks at a prism from different angles.19 Thus, the mythologized, exoticized landscapes so common in Caribbean picturebooks might be less problematic if there were more differentiation of genres within the Caribbean picturebook market.

Postcolonial literatures scholar Lorna Burns has suggested that challenging mythologized Caribbean landscapes involves “recogni[zing] the ways in which land and people are defined in relation to historical circumstances.”20 Melanie Murray has argued that the myth of the Caribbean as paradise can only be exposed by destabilizing colonial literary narratives. Among other things, such a process would entail interrogating assumptions of insularity; avoiding “pastoral blindness to the workday world”; individualizing characters’ experiences of the landscape; emphasizing temporality; disrupting colonial dichotomies of island space; and recognizing hybridity in the tropical landscape.21 Discourses of the demythologization of the Caribbean landscape are beyond the scope of this discussion, but suffice it say that Caribbean picturebooks, if they are to be authentic, need to provide more complex, variegated and contextualized representations of the Caribbean’s physical and social topographies.

In sum, the authenticity of Caribbean picturebooks is modulated by a matrix of factors including issues of language, audience, authorial aptitude, commercial influences, and publication patterns. The ways different authors and illustrators view and interpret Caribbean cultures, and the degree to which authors, illustrators, and publishers are committed to cultural authenticity are also important factors. Increased collaboration between children’s writers, illustrators, and publishers in the Caribbean as well as those located abroad is necessary to boost the authenticity of the Caribbean picturebook aesthetic and to bridge the gap between the currently disconnected local and international audiences that read Caribbean picturebooks. Creators of Caribbean picturebooks also need to become more aware of the dilemmas that creating a truly authentic Caribbean picturebook pose and the authorial practices and textual devices that can be employed to successfully navigate these dilemmas. As the Caribbean continues to evolve and be redefined, ideas of what counts as an authentic Caribbean picturebook will also evolve and become more or less complicated.


Summer Edward is a Philadelphia-based writer, poet, and children’s literature specialist. She holds an MSEd degree in reading, writing, literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and is the founder, managing editor, and kids editor of Anansesem, a Caribbean children’s literature e-zine. Her poetry, short stories, and art have been published in tongues of the ocean, St. Somewhere Journal, sx salon, BIM: Arts for the Twenty-First Century, the Columbia Review, the Caribbean Writer, Philadelphia Stories, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, and more. She was a writer-in-residence with the Cropper Foundation Caribbean Creative Writers Residential Workshop, is the recipient of a Highlights Foundation Scholarship for promising children’s writers, and was shortlisted for the 2012 Small Axe Literary Prize in the fiction category. She is currently at work on several picturebooks, including a picturebook biography of Uriah “Buz” Butler.


1 Scholars who have examined the issue of cultural authenticity in multicultural children's literature include Debbie A. Reese and Naomi Caldwell-Wood, Jan Susina, Mingshui Cai, M. K. Thompson, Violet Harada, W. Nikola-Lisa, and Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen. The Council on Interracial Books for Children has also published articles on the topic in its Interracial Books for Children Bulletin.

2 For a good discussion of this, see Nancy Hadaway and Viola Florez, “Bridging Linguistic and Cultural Differences through Reading: Multiethnic Literature in the Classroom” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwest Regional Conference of the International Reading Association, San Antonio, Texas, 30 January–1 February 1986).

3 Zena Sutherland and Betsy Hearne, “In Search of the Perfect Picture Book Definition,” Wilson Library Bulletin, October 1977, 158–60.

4 Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor of “mirrors and windows.” Books may be mirrors, providing children with opportunities to reflect on their own cultures and experiences, or they may be windows through which children examine other cultures and ways of perceiving the world.

5 See Elizabeth F. Howard, “Authentic Multicultural Literature for Children: An Author’s Perspective,” in Merri V. Lindgren, ed., Cultural Substance in Literature for Children and Young Adults (Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith, 1991), 91–99.

6 See Valerie Bloomfield, “Caribbean Acquisitions,” Caribbean Studies 13, no. 4 (1974): 86–110.

7 For a good overview of the outsider/insider debate, see Karen Smith, “The Multicultural Ethic and Connections to Literature for Children and Young Adults,” Library Trends 41, no. 3 (1993): 340–53; and Nina Mikkelsen, “Insiders, Outsiders, and the Question of Authenticity: Who Shall Write for African American Children?,” African American Review 32, no. 1 (1998): 33–49.

8 See Martha Kruse, “Escaping Ethnic Encapsulation: The Role of Multicultural Children’s Literature,” Delta Gamma Bulletin 67, no. 2 (2001): 26–32; Thelma Seto, “Multiculturalism Is Not Halloween,” Horn Book 71, no. 2 (1995): 169–74; and Laura Smolkin and Joseph Suina, “Artistic Triumph or Multicultural Failure? Multiple Perspectives on a ‘Multicultural’ Award-Winning Book,” New Advocate 10, no. 4 (1997): 307–22.

9 Smith, “The Multicultural Ethic,” 345-46.

10 Henry Louis Gates Jr., “‘Authenticity’; or, The Lesson of Little Tree,” New York Times Book Review, 24 November 1991, 26–30; Betsy Hearne, “Respect the Source: Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, Part Two,” School Library Journal, August 1993, 34.

11 Mikkelsen, “Insiders, Outsiders,” 48.

12 See Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, “Images of West Africa in Children’s Books: Replacing Old Stereotypes with New Ones?,” New Advocate 11, no. 3 (1998): 203–18; and Michelle Pagni Stewart, “Judging Authors by the Color of Their Skin? Quality Native American Children’s Literature,” MELUS 27, no. 2 (2002): 179–96.

13 In particular, Shalini Puri in The Caribbean Postcolonial: Social Equality, Post-nationalism, Cultural Hybridity (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

14 Violet Harada, “Issues of Ethnicity, Authenticity, and Quality in Asian-American Picture Books,” Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 2 (1995): 135–49; and Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen, “Reexamining the Issue of Authenticity in Picture Books,” Children’s Literature in Education 28, no. 2 (1997): 86.

15 Junko Yokota, “Issues in Selecting Multicultural Literature,” Language Arts 3 (1993): 137.

16 Mo and Shen, “Reexamining the Issue,” 85–93. See also Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen, “Accuracy Is Not Enough: The Role of Cultural Values in the Authenticity of Picture Books,” in Dana L. Fox and Kathy G. Short, eds., Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children’s Literature (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003), 202–3; and Kathy Short, “Ethics and Cultural Authenticity in International Children’s Literature” (paper presented at the Thirtieth International Board on Books for Young People World Conference, Tucson, Arizona, August 2006).

17 For an in-depth discussion of how these factors contribute to a unified Caribbean aesthetic, see Silvio Torres-Saillant, Caribbean Poetics: Towards an Aesthetic of West Indian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

18 Lynn Joseph, Jump Up Time: A Trinidad Carnival Story, illus. Linda Saport (New York: Clarion Books, 1998).

19 Sudeshna Roy, “A Critical Discourse Analysis of Representation of Asian Indian Folk Tales in US-American Children’s Literature,” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 10, no. 2 (2008): 1–9.

20 Lorna Burns, “Landscape and Genre in the Caribbean Canon: Creolizing the Poetics of Place and Paradise,” Journal of West Indian Literature 17, no. 1 (2008): 29.

21 Melanie Murray, Island Paradise: The Myth: An Examination of Contemporary Caribbean and Sri Lankan Writing (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009).


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