Tuesday, January 6, 2009

3. Welcoming Critique

In 1999, more than two years into the creation of Africa is Not a Country, we - authors Margy Burns Knight and Mark Melnicove, and I, the illustrator -  realized we needed more help. 

The task of representing the immense diversity of the African continent in a picture book for U.S. children was a daunting one, especially for three white Americans from Maine. Each of us had lived and/or traveled in a region of Africa. We'd gathered and incorporated stories of daily life in various African countries from individuals who'd grown up in those countries, consulted experts in African Studies, and done gobs of research. We expected to complete the book by the publisher's deadline.

Then, at an ESL workshop she was presenting, Margy shared the concept for the book and our plan for listing the languages spoken in each country. A Somali woman challenged her: "Which language will you list first? The colonial one or a traditional one? How will you define a language?" Margy brought the questions back to our team and we decided to get more input on the book as a whole, especially concerning issues we hadn't even considered.

We asked Grace Valenzuela of Portland Public School's Multilingual Program if she could gather a group of Africans living in Maine to critique our work in progress. She agreed - if we'd be willing to have the discussion in public and open it to educators. We were excited about the prospect, but a little nervous as well, aware that the panelists might have serious criticisms or even tell us to abandon the project altogether.

Six generous people, from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Nigeria, and the Congo, agreed to serve on our panel. They each received copies of the working text and sketches to peruse in advance. Before an audience of about fifty classroom teachers and ELL specialists, we presented an overview of the book including a number of finished paintings. Then we sat down to listen to the panel's responses.

They had a lot of strong suggestions, including some pointed criticisms. They showed us things we couldn't possibly have seen on our own. Overall, they recommended that we strive for balance between contrasts to represent the complexity of the African continent. Some of these contrasts included the traditional and the contemporary; national identity and tribal identity; poverty and abundance; and the urban and the rural. 

For example, the story we'd chosen from Mali described the journey of salt from the desert by camel to the city of Timbuktu, by cab to the docks on the Niger River, by boat to the city of Mopti, and by truck to markets in neighboring countries. "Why are you continuing to stereotype?" one panelist asked. In my sketch I'd only shown the camels, conveying the impression of a culture with no modern forms of transportation. 

The critique by the panelists was invaluable to our efforts to authentically depict the daily lives of children in African countries. Some of their advice required major reworking, but to our relief they encouraged us to continue with the project. All of their input contributed to making a stronger book. 

(For terrifc advice on what not to do, see this satirical essay, "How To Write About Africa," by Binyavanga Wainaina.)


Nina Crittenden said...

This is my first time visiting your blog- it is great! I love reading your articles in the SCBWI Bulletin, too!

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks so much, Nina. It's great to have responses.
I'm still figuring out this blogging thing, and despite my expectations as put forth in the latest Bulletin column, I'm not a player on-line at all - yet.
But all in good time.

Nina Crittenden said...

Keep up the great work! I admire that your blogging is so meaningful! My blog is pretty random yet, but it keeps me moving forward...