Be Brave Enough To Be Happy:
The Importance of Imbedding Cultural Beats in Children’s Literature.
Earlier this year I was asked for a written copy of a presentation on the importance of maintaining cultural beats in works by and for people of color. Here it is at long last.
One of the most common concerns among authors and illustrators is that their work is often vetted through a commercial publishing system that is not fluent in the culture of the writer or of the end user – the child reader. Hence some books are inadvertently, scrubbed of the nuances that would allow the work to resonate with the child that was the target of the exercise. When those books fail to connect with an audience, the lack of sales is used to validate a myth that books by people of color have a limited audience.
To illustrate the importance of cultural beats in a work, I used music videos. It’s less controversial and doesn’t step on the toes of a publishing house and frankly, music is fun to work with. But more importantly, if I were to use a book as an example of what works – that book would become the litmus test. That’s just the nature of the beast. People crave a template. Children’s literature, however, is not that simple.
So let’s start:
I want you to take a look at two videos. Both have the same goal – to create a showcase in which people of all ages, races, genders and body types are encouraged to dance their hearts out. Both found audiences that gravitate to the cadences, albeit to differing degrees.
First: Sarah Bareille’s “Brave”:
Bareille’s song is joyful. The people featured are dancing as if no one is looking. The refrain, “I want to see you be brave,” was briefly featured as background music on several television commercials. But the beat and cadence of the song are straight forward and predictable. There’s nothing adventurous about it. The piano serves as the foundation of the music (perhaps represented by the base clef on sheet music) and is composed of eight equal beats per measure. The drumming is also precise and hits on the fourth and eighth beats of each measure. That drumbeat is where most people will clap. A few other instruments come in, but they maintain their own consistent cadence. Note that at about 2:20 Bareille’s sings the “bridge” and one instrument duplicates the cadence and tone of her words without variation.
“…Won’t do you any good. Did you think it would?…”
You’ll notice something else – although the beat throughout the song is repetitive, most of the dancers can’t find it or don’t stay on it for an extended period of time. It’s also very hard to dance between the beats or bring variation to the narrative. Even so, it’s a happy song and means to be encouraging for people of all backgrounds to participate. But in literary terms it is scrubbed of its adverbs as well as identifiable cultural nuances. It’s safe and represents music from a single point of view.
Second: Pharrell William’s “Happy”. You’ve seen it a hundred times, I’m sure – but bear with me.
Same concept. Random diverse people dancing to the same song. Only this time there are ten or more distinct beats imbedded in the music. For instance, there are two different rhythms of claps used simultaneously. Another rhythm is created by an African Djembe (a type of drum) which is introduced at 1:50 and lasts for about 20 seconds. It repeats at 3:00. If your ears aren’t tuned to it, you might miss it. But if you’re a fan of African music, you’ll hear it come in right away using beats 1, 3 and 4 of each 4/4 measure. At 1:45 and 3:31 a woman is dancing identifiable African dance patterns. And yet at 2:20 a young girl is doing a ballet pirouette. And at 2:25 a man who reminds me of Lou Rawls is dancing on and between the beats reminiscent of Motown vibes. At 2:37 (after the three boys execute jazz hands on the street) a young man in a mausoleum uses his body to dance to multiple beats simultaneously – it’s quick, but watch it again if you can. Notice his hands, feet and body are each precisely responding to three different beats. This is also a masterful example of film editing. If you have the energy to “browse” the 24 hour video, many of the dancers take some time to find their groove. But the end result is subliminally joyful. Even the people who I suspect struggle with rhythm found one that fit their individual styles and make it their own.
At 3:25 Pharrell Williams is “feeling” his music – on and between the beats – in a pattern I recognized because it’s how a lot of my family danced when the music was resonating deep down in the gut. So good you had to squint your eyes and speak in tongues with your body. Kind of like the frenzy of a church sermon. In this moment he was sharing his gospel and the world was listening. Similarly, at 0:45 (near the beginning of the video) a young woman in a community room (flag banners in the background) is doing the same thing but her style is more nuanced and syncopated.
So there’s a reason why Happy went viral with people around the world creating their own fan versions and Brave did not.
1. Brave tells the listener: “I want to see you be brave.” It’s a command. And yet the music isn’t particularly brave in its construction. Once you’ve heard it, there’s little else to discover on repeat outings. If you don’t believe me – Google the mashup of Sarah Bareille’s “Brave” and Katy Perry’s “Roar”. They’re close to identical in piano instrumentals and rhythms.
2. Happy tells the listener: “Clap along IF you feel like that’s what you want to do.” It’s an invitation. You don’t have to do anything if you don’t feel it. And yet the rhythms are inclusive. So many cultural rhythms, in fact, that the song became infectious for a lot of people.
So what’s the lesson of all of this?
The Census shows that a widening percentage of children born in the United States are from increasingly diverse backgrounds. A study by the Cooperative Children’s Books Center at University of Wisconsin shows that the majority of books written for those children are written by people who are not of that ethnic background. And while publishers often blame lack of sales on the myth that diverse families don’t buy books or that books about children of various cultural backgrounds don’t sell to a mainstream audience, I beg to differ.
The problem is that many books lack the cultural “call and response” needed to draw the reader in. To reach them books need to be an invitation. Somewhere in the cadence and tone there need to be breadcrumbs for them to follow in order to see themselves between the pages. Hence, in crafting and editing literature, authors and editors need to keep an eye on the target audience and the wide variety of cultural beats in their environment. If you don’t know or recognize those “rhythms” – learn them. If you can’t, then allow those who can to take center stage – both in writing, illustrating and editing. Children can tell when a book doesn’t ring true – so can their parents.
The reality is that the climate for children’s publishing is changing. The new standard must acknowledge a shift towards authentic cultural diversity in a way that children can be drawn to the work. We need to worry less about creating textbook-quality literary prose to please gatekeepers and worry more about resonating with the target audience so they will become lifelong independent readers. We need to be brave enough to let children’s literature be “Happy.”
Christine Taylor-Butler is author of more than 75 books for children including her debut science fiction series The Lost Tribes where Uncle Henry is bass, the family is the drumline, and Ben, the reluctant hero still in need of major “tuning”, is lead guitar.