No TV. No radio. Spotty cell phone coverage. Weak Wi-Fi. Eight children’s book writers staying in knotty pine cabins and attending workshops in a barn. Peaceful. Reflective. Rural. This is The Highlights Foundation.
When I saw the cabins, I knew I was in the right place. I turned the key in the door and walked into a rustic space. Two twin beds took up residence in front of the cabin. A small table at the door had two flashlights and four batteries. A small refrigerator housed a few sodas. An exposed closet sat at the ready. On the back wall, there was a writing desk and a mirror. A small bathroom, complete with a tub, was tucked in the far corner. I turned on the heat and waited. Tick, tick, tick. The heater worked. I was in business.
I didn’t miss the television or the radio. I needed the quiet after talking about Creating an Authentic Cultural Voice in children’s books with all those creative types. I needed time to reflect, gather my thoughts, to get a few winks of sleep.
Before I left for Honesdale, Pa., I checked my feelings. I knew there would be writers there who would write about races other than their own. How did I feel about that? I knew I had read books written by whites about black characters. Did it matter? I wasn’t sure. All that mattered was that someone told the story in an authentic voice, right?
I don’t think I’ve had a problem with writers crossing cultural boundaries. As a newspaper journalist, I watched journalists cover the black community. Some black writers flourished while covering the community they knew so well, while others resented the assignment. I also watched white writers cover the black community. Many of them had trouble cultivating sources, but there were those — more than a few — who transcended race, reporting and writing stories no one else could find.
Authors Donna Jo Napoli and Mitali Perkins lead workshops with titles about who owns a story and who decides what is an authentic voice. Mitali said that writers who cross cultural borders must possess three qualities: imagination, research, and empathy. Donna Jo says: “Don’t make it up when it comes to culture. If you do that to children, you’re lying to them.” The bottom line for me is research. Those who do their research and find authentic people to help them produce beautiful work.
The trip was part of my journey to publication. If the inscriptions in the journal in my cabin are any guide, there were many writers and illustrators who came before me and many more will come after me. The best parts: seeing a short snow flurry in April, meeting a gate keeper and receiving feedback on my work, eating good food with excellent company, coming home with ideas, and bringing children’s books and magazines to Simone and Nadia.