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Kennedy Center Book Festival Features Diversity in Literature - 2002-11-25

As America becomes more ethnically diverse, there's a new diversity in its literature as well, and the trend is affecting everything from best selling adult fiction to children's bedtime stories. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., recently celebrated that trend with its seventh annual Children's Multicultural Book Festival. VOA's Nancy Beardsley was there and prepared this report.

When Hollywood film director Spike Lee speaks out in public he's usually talking about his latest movie. But young readers got to see a different side of the famous director when he came to the Kennedy Center for the Children's Multicultural Book Festival. He was there with his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, to read Please, Baby, Please, a children's book they wrote together.

Spike Lee may have been the best known attraction at this year's festival, but over 500 other book titles were also on display, written by African, African-American, Native-American, Asian-American and Latino authors. Many of the writers and illustrators were there as well, to read from their books, sell autographed copies and conduct workshops that brought their stories to life. A young Washington reader named Cameka, and her mother Renee, describe what they found. "It's fantastic, because there's a lot of books that children get to read, and Spike Lee was there so we got to meet him. I like this book too, 'Being Me.' It's about an African American girl," she said.

Her mother adds, "We brought our youth over so they can make choices for books for themselves. And of course to meet Spike Lee and talk to him. They were able to sit on the stage and hear him. They've been here for other things like symphonies, but this is a nice literary event."

The event was like a snapshot of America's changing culture for Edwin Fontanez, who publishes books and videos about Puerto Rico. He says he's taken part in the festival since it began seven years ago and watched it grow bigger over time.

"It is such a much-needed activity, to bring into one single room so many artists, talents, and writers. It gives you an opportunity to interact. From each book you see a totally different point of view and a totally different way of life," Mr. Fontanez said.

To help children understand her Piscataway Indian heritage, first time author Gabrielle Tayac demonstrated the sound of an authentic Indian drumbeat. "This is the way it sounds," he said, "and I'm going to show you what the usual sound of an American Indian drum is. It's a heart beat, (beating sound) and so you can always hear the sound of a drum in your own heart, and that is not the way it sounds in the movies, (beating sound) and you know that if you hear that you're going to have a serious heart problem."

Gabrielle Tayac was also displaying her new book, called Meet Naiche A Native Boy from the Chesapeake Bay Area. The main character is part Piscataway and part Apache Indian.

"I wrote it about a real child who's alive today, who's my cousin, named Naiche, and I wrote it to try to get past stereotypes of American Indians. He goes to school like most children do. He lives in a house. He has a dog. He loves pizza. He plays video games. But he is also very involved with his own culture, with American Indian culture. We're at the point where can start to tell people about ourselves in our own voices, and let children like Naiche speak for themselves," Ms. Tayac said.

Author and illustrator Daniel Minter led an African woodrubbing workshop to teach children about some of the traditions that shape his art. "Press down. You don't have to go so fast. The same thing will happen if you take your time and you'll get better results. I like to use different colors," Mr. Minter said.

The children were placing paper over carved blocks, then coloring the paper until designs showed through. Daniel Minter uses a similar process to illustrate his stories. He carves relief designs into wood, which are eventually transferred onto the printed page. He says his art reflects his experience growing up in rural Georgia.

"In this art work I'm doing, the process came from my relief carving onto wood, and that is a southern kind of art form that is more akin to folk art. And the kids could do this all day long. They get paper and they just rub and rub and rub, because they love to see the image come out and they feel as though they've drawn the picture themselves. And when they see they can get good results with this they're inspired to try harder on their own art work," he said.

Festival authors said children of many ethnic backgrounds were visiting their displays. That's an important goal for Ginger and Frances Park, whose parents were born in Korea. Ginger Park said she and her sister write stories inspired by their family heritage, but they want to reach all kinds of readers.

"Even though our books are Korean, the themes are universal, about family, love, education. The Korean part is almost secondary," she said.

The universal nature of many multicultural stories may help account for their growing popularity in the United States in recent years. And Ginger Park said the publishing industry is encouraging the trend. "The publishers are the ones who look for multicultural books. Fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, had we written our books, they probably wouldn't have been published. But today it's a different world," Ms. Park said.

Korean American writer Ginger Park was one of the featured authors at the seventh Children's Multicultural Book Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The festival is sponsored by the Kennedy Center's Education Department, together with a non-profit organization called Kids Cultural Books.