Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Remote Book Discussion: To Amplify Marginalized Voices

Post by Mari Boyle, Tokyo, Japan

On June 26th, 2020, SCBWI Japan held its second remote meeting. This one was a book discussion to amplify marginalized voices, a highly relevant topic given the current international focus on anti-racism. As the meeting was held via Zoom, we again welcomed SCBWI members from around Japan and the world.

SCBWI Japan members participating in the book discussion on amplifying marginalized voices

Mariko Nagai and Holly Thompson, Co-Regional Advisors; Naomi Kojima, Regional Illustrator Coordinator; and Avery Fischer Udagawa, Translator Coordinator, gave presentations and provided us with much to think about. Certain themes ran through the presentations, such as the importance of including underrepresented voices in children’s stories, the need for authenticity both in writing and in illustration, the question of ownership of stories, and the necessity of creating space for creators from marginalized communities.

Mariko reflected on the importance of finding voices in stories that speak to one’s personal experiences. Having spent much of her youth growing up Japanese in the US, Mariko said she rarely encountered Asian or Asian American characters in the books she read. She turned instead to reading fantasy and connecting to a diverse range of characters. Sadly, many children still do not see themselves included in the stories they encounter. As a writer, Mariko feels it imperative to find connections with her characters through gender, culture, and life experiences. If there is no connection, Mariko noted, she will not be able to write with an authentic voice, and she encouraged us to recognize when a story is someone else’s to tell.

Holly continued to explore authenticity using several picture books. She showed how authenticity comes not only from the writer, but also from the illustrator. Holly commented on how impactful authentic illustrations can be in combatting stereotypes. She additionally emphasized the need for stories that go beyond themes of struggle or cultural identity, to depict the joys, sadnesses and humor of real lives, as in My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña, and Johnny’s Pheasant by Cheryl Minnema, illustrated by Julie Flett. She reminded us too that authenticity goes together with ownership. Paraphrasing Linda Sue Park’s advice, Holly counselled us that no matter how much we may want to tell a story,  if it’s not ours to tell, either give the story to someone who can tell it authentically, or collaborate with a member of the group who owns the story.

Avery showed how translated works provide a great opportunity to create space on the shelves for writers and illustrators from marginalized communities. She noted, paraphrasing Was the Cat in the Hat Black? by Philip Nel, that “books for children are one of the best places to oppose racism”, and that reading translated works increases opportunities to read about a “plethora of experiences”—for example, the experience of a Zainichi Korean teen in Japan, portrayed in Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro, translated by Takami Nieda. Avery noted that underrepresented identities and experiences need ample representation in translations, and she reminded us to join this year’s remote SCBWI Japan Translation Day(s), likely in November, to explore more topics on translation.

Naomi focused on marginalized voices in Japanese picture books. She had visited a major children’s bookstore in Tokyo and asked the bookstore clerks for suggestions of recent Japanese picture books created by #OwnVoices writers and illustrators. The clerks were able to give titles of translated books from other countries right away, but mentioned that there are not many #OwnVoices picture books in Japan, and it took them a few more moments to come up with recent Japanese picture book titles. They provided Naomi with picture books relating to bullying, disability, and discrimination. Some of them were semi-autobiographical, and though originally published in the 1980s, they continue to be popular. It may be that authentic voices help extend a story’s life. An important long-selling title was 『さっちゃんのまほうのて』(Sacchan’s Magic Hand) by Seiichi Tabata, about a girl without fingers on her right hand, published in 1985 with more than 164 printings. Recent titles included 『ランカ にほんにやってきたおんなのこ』 (Ranka, the Girl Who Came to Japan) by Kikue Noro, illustrated by Mariko Matsunari, about the child of a migrant worker. What was difficult to find, Naomi noted, were stories about, or inclusive of, minority ethnic characters or indigenous people. When she asked about this, the bookstore clerks commented that these were considered a complicated and difficult subject for picture books; war is often in the background and Peace becomes the theme rather than the marginalized voices. They told her that marginalized identities are discussed more in books for the high school level.

The lack of recognition of ethnic diversity in Japanese stories sparked a lively discussion amongst our group in addition to the matters the presenters raised. This session was an opportunity to delve deeper into these matters, and I now have a wonderful list of resources and information links, shared by the group throughout the session, to help me further unpack these important issues.

Mari Boyle is a writer and a teacher.