By Marge Bruchac.
Illustrated by William Maughan. Unpaged. The Vermont Folklife Center. $16.95. (Ages 6 to 10)
CROSSING BOK CHITTO
A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom.
By Tim Tingle.
Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. Unpaged. Cinco Puntos Press. $17.95. (Ages 8 to 12)
THE OLD AFRICAN
By Julius Lester.
Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. 79pp. Dial Books. $19.99. (Ages 9 and up)
IN the elementary classroom, at least, multiculturalism has succeeded. Schoolchildren now learn about the American journey as the coming-together of diverse cultures, with not just Pilgrims but Native Americans and Africans and, more recently, Latinos and Asians walking along the national trail. Even in this updated version, ours is a triumphalist travelogue: from slavery to freedom; from poverty to riches; e pluribus, unum. Sure, the new children’s literature suggests, we have our problems, but eventually we gather everyone with us into the future.
Three new children’s books radically challenge this myth, with alternative narratives and alternative dreams. In each, the journey of escape leads not into a bright American future, but out of an American nightmare. As a slave puts it in “The Old African ” (2005), by Julius Lester, “I don’t know what’s in Africa, but I sho’ know what’s here. . . . I believe I’ll take a chance on what I don’t know rather than to keep on living with what I do.” This is the classic voice of the American immigrant, reversed.
Unlike the multicultural mythos of America, these brilliant books are not feel-good, not melting-pot optimistic. They are as difficult as the real histories they tell, and they insist not only on diversity but on difference. They force parents and teachers to confront just how harsh a truth we can teach our children.