Does this library poster promote storybooks or stereotypes?

Jungle image featuring dark, near-naked children paddling in a canoe ‘lacks cultural sensitivity’

Originally published in the Toronto Star

Fabiola Carletti
Staff Reporter

Some people will look at the picture and simply see curious children exploring a tropical habitat.

But the jungle-themed poster for the 2010 summer reading club is also attracting criticism mere weeks before its distribution to roughly 30,000 young users of the Toronto Public Library.

The debate hinges on whether or not visible minorities are poorly represented in the program’s showpiece, an illustration by award-winning artist Stéphane Jorisch.

“The people with darker skin are shown as in their ‘traditional’ state, with ‘traditional’ garb or little clothing at all,” said former club literacy worker Emily Burns. “The paler characters are dressed like tourists.”

Many noted the only black person, a woman wearing a colourful dress and big earrings, is not wearing a backpack or shoes like the other characters.

Others thought the near-naked children pictured in a canoe, which the artist described as little boys “in their native habitat,” looked like part of the scenery.

“The tapir and frog are especially endearing” said library blogger Catherine Raine, “but the images of the people in the jungle lack cultural sensitivity.”

The Montreal-based artist said the criticism was surprising.

“Everybody is entitled to what they think. I can’t decide for them,” he said. “I was trying to achieve something that the kids would enjoy. It’s as simple as that.”

Jorisch said the children in the canoe, wearing necklaces and loincloths, were meant to be “beautiful” and it would have been “uninteresting” to put the little boys in t-shirts and Adidas.

The black woman was “back where her ancestors came from” and she could have been in “native dress that can or cannot be from there.”

In past years, the reading club posters have featured less contentious themes, including secret agents, pirates, spaceships and superheroes.

“The jungle theme is dangerous,” said Adebe DeRango-Adem, a writer and former club member. “It seems to suggest that reading, as a means of exploration, is not in control of these indigenous and African groups.”

The TD-sponsored program will run in most major Canadian cities, and in every one of Toronto’s 99 library branches.

At the Albion Library in Rexdale, people wondered how the theme will be received in their multicultural neighbourhood.

Staff members declined to comment, but did discuss it with representatives from head office.

“Since this concern was raised, a number of meetings with staff have been convened,” said Anne Marie Aikins, the manager of corporate communications at the library.

Aikins said staff members openly addressed their concerns about the poster and the process of choosing images during the sessions.

Ken Setterington, the library’s advocate for child and youth services, was one of the representatives that met with Albion staff.

“It’s most upsetting that this illustration has upset some people,” said Setterington, who has worked on the annual project for 15 years, “but as soon as an issue is raised, what’s important is how we discuss it.”

But many are happy with the illustration, and think the jungle poster will simply do what past illustrations have done.

“Children will see the picture and be excited to read,” said Daniela Domfeh, a former library club member who has fond memories of the program. She said children won’t find anything but adventure in this year’s theme.

Mark Hughes, the Brampton-raised son of a librarian, was also a fan. He described the poster as “excellent” and “whimsical.”

Gregory Harrison, speaking for corporate sponsor TD Canada, said: “the artwork is consistent with the theme and it targets our key audience of children aged four to 13.”

Individual libraries will highlight relevant books and run jungle-inspired activities.

“I think that library workers need to be careful when planning events surrounding this theme,” said Burns, who is completing a master’s degree in library and information science.

She explained that the setting may be an awkward one, and that kids should be cautioned against “innocent” racism and stereotyping.

The conversation is far from over, as thousands more will see the image after the final bell rings.

“In a crazy way, this thing is thought-provoking,” said Jorisch. “It brings discussion.”


The Urban Aboriginal Community Kitchen Garden Project

A lot of people depend on the garden 52 weeks of the year–because even if we’re not growing anything, they come out to get a piece of nature, see the eagles, listen to the coyotes howl, have lunch, get connected with themselves and go back home–Mary Holmes, Program Coordinator.

I’m currently working on a multi-media package about this half-acre of fertile land at the UBC farm. The project aims to shrink the distance between the garden and the grocery store, placing special emphasis on celebrating aboriginal traditions around food within an urban community.

I thought I’d post up this short overview by Lemongrass media, as I think it does a great (and gorgeous!) job of representing the project.

By the end of the week, Lewis and I will be adding to the conversation with a text story, a slideshow, a video and a special secret menu.

A Cup of Kava: UBC student gains insight on Fijian culture

Wanying Zhao, MA Candidate at UBC Psychology Department

Wanying Zhao’s lips were itchy, and her tongue felt slightly numb.

In a roomful of Fijians, the young researcher was drinking Kava, a mildly intoxicating beverage that comes from a plant of the same name. Kava, she explained, is the foundation of social activity in the village of Teci, Fiji, where she lived as a cultural researcher in the summer of 2009.

“Kava looks like muddy water and it tastes pretty much the same,” laughed Zhao, who explained that the drink becomes more potent over time, creating a body buzz that makes the drinker feel mellow.

To demonstrate one of kava’s effects, Zhao momentarily closed her eyes, smiled and swayed gently.

Not all ethnographers could describe such details first hand, as some don’t believe outsiders should actively participate in the cultures they study. But Zhao’s team consciously chose participant observation as their research strategy, doing ethnography by conducting experiments and interviews, as well as engaging in day-to-day routines.

“I’m used to living in large cities where people mostly leave each other alone,” said Zhao. She described the strong kinship in the small 26-family village, where it was possible to walk anywhere in 15 minutes or less.

Her team’s interest was in understanding how and why people cooperate, and having intimate access was a very important advantage. Teci is one of more than a dozen field sites, where researchers like Zhao are actively examining human cognition through the Culture & the Mind project to see what people around the world have in common and also how they differ.

Little Sione, the mischievous child featured in Zhao’s audio story (see below).

“Fiji was really good in terms of people being very inclusive, warm and inviting,” said Zhao, who didn’t take the Fijian’s openness for granted, “It’s harder to understand a culture from the outside when you’re being treated with suspicion.”

From a solar-powered bure (Fijian hut), Zhao and her team engaged with tremendous questions, such as “what are norms?” and “what solutions have different cultures evolved to maintain social order?”

While engaging with the villagers, including large groups of enthusiastic children, Zhao gained what she calls an “embodied understanding” of her host community.

“You miss a lot when you don’t engage,” Zhao explained. “It’s only by participating and interacting that you begin to understand what it means to live, think and feel in another cultural world.”

Listen to Wanying Zhao tell a story about the Fijian “Denise the Menace”

“He’d wack the dogs and chase the cats…”