In 1991, I began working on illustrations for a book called Talking Walls. Author Margy Burns Knight, publisher-editor (and later co-author) Mark Melnicove, and I formed a collaborative creative team which eventually produced five children's nonfiction picture books, all of which are still in print.
All of our titles explore human difference through the lens of what we have in common: walls, immigration stories, baby welcoming rituals, the daily lives of children. The process of creating the books has provided an intensive laboratory for examining how to approach authentic representation of other peoples, cultures and countries.
Talking Walls tells the stories of fourteen walls around the world, on every continent except Antartica. From the beginning of our work together, Margy, Mark and I were conscious that representing that many cultures of which we were not members was a daunting task, and that the only way to approach it was to acknowledge our own ignorance and get lots of help from people who knew more, especially those who did belong to those cultures.
We told lots of people what we were doing and asked for their suggestions of what walls to include. The conversation got so widespread that sometimes we weren't even present for it. At one point, a friend of Margy's who lived in Washington, D.C., happened to discuss the book project with a woman who was Cherokee. The friend explained that the Native American wall we'd chosen was the Anasazi petroglyphs.
"Tell them that's a stupid idea," the Cherokee woman remarked, explaining that the choice was a perpetuation of one of the most persistent stereotypes of American Indians, that they're all people who lived in ancient times, long dead. Fortunately for us and the book, Margy's friend pursued the conversation further. What wall could represent Native Americans? "Taos Pueblo."
Taos Pueblo, we learned in our research, is the oldest continuously occupied dwelling in the United States. Families have been living in the structure for more than 800 years. It's the representation in our book of the walls of a home.