Everyone is an artist. This is the first “rule” of my Claiming Face curriculum that I teach when I go into schools to share about being a children’s book artist and author. We know that everyone is unique. It goes without saying. But did you know that this includes how we mark the page? I call it the Polka Dot Theory.
I have noticed over the years that even if someone is only making a polka dot, it is visibly theirs and no one else’s. How we hold a pencil is uniquely our own. No one can make a polka dot the same way. Somehow, some way our body, our stories, our thoughts, our selves make a basic mark that is uniquely our own, however subtle, however small, this mark shows something about us. To me, this is the beginning of art. This is the beginning of expressing something that is ours and ours alone.
The power of the polka dot is amplified when we go beyond that initial mark and express ourselves more fully, through self-portraiture or words. I like beginning with acknowledging the polka dot, because it hints at the vast and multidimensional levels available to us when we engage in creation/expression. This includes not only our own exceedingly unique and individual experience, but also all of our cultural, social and historical influences as well.
My hands, my polka dot, my art, my words convey my life as Maya, but also my life as a bi-cultural, Chicana, working class, queer person born with a girl body. The colors that speak to me, the way I layer and collage, the images that are familiar and make up a cohesive visual vocabulary for me are telling. Growing up with half of my family speaking Spanish while I did not, the inflection, song, tone, the way of putting words together, the white teachers who spoke at the front of my class, the children of color and the way we whispered in the back of class, all of this informed how I write and what I write. My father taught me through actions, through beliefs, through our shared culture, the importance of the wind, the sound of birds, the tale a tree tells as it grows, the dance between life and death, the spirit within all things. This is in my hands, my eyes, my heart when I take up a pencil or a paint brush. I am what and how I express. What’s fascinating is that some of it can be tracked, while some of it cannot. It is the deep, abiding legacy of generations and generations of Mexicans and Germans. It goes beyond color and image relevance and hints at something at once mysterious and completely true.
When I began making art for children’s books it was for amazing authors like Gloria Anzuldúa, Francisco Alarcón and Amada Irma Peréz whose stories felt familiar either to me, or relevant to my community. They included stories about immigration, curanderas, Mexico, tamales, piñatas, familia, Los Angeles, and more. These First Voice books focused on specific Latino/Chicano experiences. But it is not a requirement that First Voice books solely focus on things specific only to our communities and culture. The two children’s books I have written and made art for are also First Voice books. I write about my relationship with nature and the world around me. My experience of these things cannot be separated from who I am and the influence my history and culture has upon them. My Colors, My World/Mis Colores, Mi Mundo and I Know the River Loves Me/Yo Sé Que El Río Me Ama are equally First Voice books. Growing up as I did informed what and how I both wrote and made art for these stories. Beyond fiestas and chili peppers, it is important for children to also see a young Chicana girl share her experience of her world in the way only she can. This communicates volumes about our Chicana/Latina experience and sensibility.
When children come into contact with Multicultural First Voice Children’s books, it is like a chord being struck, a sound that resonates with their own body, their own knowing and experience. It vibrates in a familiar way and strengthens the song of their self. If we are intimately familiar with a community, either through deep affinity or origin, we can literally sense when this resonance is present and when it misses the mark. At a conference I looked at a large collection of Multicultural children’s books. With each book I picked up I could sense if something felt original and authentic and when something felt somewhat discordant.
Each time I sensed a lack of resonance, I looked more closely at the author and artist and each time I found that they did not originate from the community they were representing. It is not that their books lacked merit, by no means. But it did feel different. And each time, I got this funny feeling in my gut, it reminded me of educators, professors, experts, ethnographers, authors and artists who were telling me about me or my people or my culture. I did not feel felt. I felt studied, categorized, defined and documented by outsiders. I did not feel that I belonged. I felt separate.
This is what First Voice Multicultural children’s books give to our children. It is not just familiar or relevant imagery or story, it is much deeper than that. It is something at once substantial and very humanly ethereal. It is an osmotic communication of self-knowledge, self-definition, a celebration of belonging to yourself and to the individual culture that informs who you are. This is important for all of us, ALL of us, but especially for our children and extra especially for our children of color. We need to sense that we all belong here, now. This makes all of us strong. And for children of color, this inspires us to contribute to our society and our world, because it is ours, it is where we belong.I speak to First Voice Multicultural books for children of color because of the statistics. While 2012 statistics show that almost 50% of our children under age 5 are children of color, less than 10% of children’s books published each year are about children of color and the statistics are even lower (with only 4½ % of the 5000 children’s books published in 2012) when it comes to First Voice children’s books, those books that are both about AND by people of color. For our published children’s books to be reflective of the reality of the children in our country, our schools, our libraries, our communities, we would need to replace 2000 of those 5000 books with First Voice Multicultural books. (Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, the 2013 statistics still show very little, if any, improvement!) Wow, every time I do the math for these kind of statistics, I have to double check myself because I am stunned. The math makes our lack of reflection so conspicuous. I know that I felt this growing up. And I know that our children today feel it. Amazingly, the last 18 years show an absolute freeze when it comes to multicultural children’s books that are published.
I was undaunted as a child. Now as an adult, I teach what helped me through the long-lived scarce times: I teach self-portraiture. Just because we do not see ourselves in our books, we must still see ourselves. We must know our selves, feel that belonging by our own hands if not by the hands of the world around us. Until we have those 2000 more First Voice Multicultural children’s books per year, we can empower our children to claim their own face, tell their own tales, so that when they grow up, they are prepared to balance the way things are.
We begin with a polka dot.