- Flying to Pick Blueberries: Two Preschoolers’ Literary Encounters with Other Cultures
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Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal (1948) can be read as an idealized fable on the subject of ethnicity. In this classic American picture book, Little Bear’s mother is “old enough to be shy of people, even a very small person like Little Sal,” and similarly Little Sal’s mother is “old enough to be shy of bears, even very small bears like Little Bear,” when they are mixed up together on Blueberry Hill. Little Sal and Little Bear, unlike their elders, are not shy at all, and happily accept the different versions of motherhood they encounter. Like Little Sal with Mother Bear, very young children are either unaware of, or uninterested in, the differences in ethnicity and culture which they encounter every day. In their experience, each family has its own culture. Differences in food and in childrearing for instance, are accepted by young children as just that family’s difference, regardless of their cultural background. My children, Rebecca and Ralph, played with Johnny, Andrew and Minos across the road, but were scarcely aware of, and certainly uninterested in, the fact that their mother spoke Greek. The cultural differences that they discovered in books, both fantasy and the simple domestic tale, were far more significant to them.
Between the years 1972 and 1988, I kept a record of my two children’s responses to books, from the birth of the elder until the younger reached adolescence (Lowe 2007). In the largely mono-cultural society of Australia almost forty years ago, books were one way, perhaps the major way, for young children to discover different ways of life to compare with their own: different countries, different customs, different languages. However, very few books were sources of information about their own national identity. Despite the flowering of Australian children’s literature which was taking place in the 1970s, only 6% of Rebecca’s books had Australian authors (7% of Ralph’s). The approximately 2000 books they met were mainly [End Page 60] American (46% for Rebecca and 41% for Ralph) and English (32% and 33%). These hardly count as other cultures in our minds, but their very differences from their own lives were significant to the children. Of the remainder, 7% were German or Dutch, 4% (6%) French, 3% Swedish and 3% authors from other countries (Japanese, Chinese, Danish, Finnish, Russian, Italian, New Zealand). Their view of other cultures, other lives, other peoples, was received from their extensive contact with the books we introduced them to, some of which foregrounded these differences; some showed everyday lives in other cultures, and some were set in the universal world of fantasy. I have detailed here some of the ways in which Rebecca and Ralph came to understand their national identity through the books they encountered.
Encounters with Other Cultures
It was America which became for Rebecca at 2–10 (two years and ten months) the symbol for the exotic, for all that was wonderful and out of reach, and it happened through Blueberries for Sal. Sal is a little girl in many ways similar to Rebecca herself: she has a cat; she “helps” her mother in the kitchen; they go for trips in the car. Best of all, as Rebecca discovered with the onset of winter, her own overalls had straps “like Sal’s!” as she exclaimed, straining around at the mirror to admire them crossing on her back. Apart from her adventure with the bear, Sal leads a similar life to Rebecca’s. One of Rebecca’s regular games became “picking blueberries to bottle”: picking clover leaves into a yogurt carton in the yard. She asked “When can we pick blueberries?” The only reply possible to this was that blueberries grow in America (we had never eaten them) and that America is such a long way that you have to go by plane. Next time we saw a plane flying overhead: “Perhaps it’s going to America, to pick blueberries.” Interestingly, despite her fascination with animals, it was never the encounter with the bear that she talked about in relation...