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Adding a New Role : Actor Robert Guillaume is publishing his own books for children that offer a positive reflection of minorities.

September 02, 1994|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Actor Robert Guillaume never planned on playing the part of narrator of children's books.

Nor did Guillaume--best known as TV's "Benson" and for his well-received stint as Michael Crawford's replacement in the title role of the Los Angeles production of "Phantom of the Opera"--ever envision himself as a publisher.

For all Guillaume's success on stage and screen, it was his search for reading material for his 5-year-old daughter that led him to diversify his roles.

Far too few children's stories, the actor concluded, offered a positive reflection of African Americans or other minorities. Moreover, minorities were especially lacking in the roles of heroes and heroines, he said.

For Guillaume, the solution was simple. He would publish his own books.

From his Van Nuys production firm, the Confetti Company, Guillaume has released six learn-to-read books--classic tales including "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Hansel and Gretel"--all with a multicultural approach and with Guillaume providing narration on accompanying audiocassettes.

The books, designed for children from age 3 to 8, feature illustrations of multiracial children in the roles of kings and queens, witches and woodsmen. The tapes also include the voices of children--African Americans, Caucasians, Asians and Latinos--reading dialogue.

Two more titles--"Cinderella" and "A Christmas Carol"--are scheduled for release soon. From there, Guillaume, who also has a 13-year-old daughter, plans to target older readers, beginning with preteens and then adolescents.

"I had been thinking about this kind of problem with children's books for 10 or 15 years," said Guillaume, who lives in Sherman Oaks. "I wanted to put out something that would have a significant effect. The titles are perennial, very popular, so they'll be coming up all the time, one generation after another."

Guillaume, a two-time Emmy winner, is far from the first celebrity to encourage children to read. Notable personalities including Shelley Duvall, Jonathan Winters and Jack Nicholson have lent their talents to similar endeavors, either on television or audiocassette.

"It's sort of the thing to do right now," said Caron Chapman, executive director of the Assn. of Booksellers for Children in Minneapolis.

Nor is Guillaume a pioneer seeking to diversify the children's book market. Stories with multicultural flavor have steadily gained popularity in recent years--including those that tinker with tradition.

"I'd say that in the last three years, we've seen a proliferation of books like these," said Darlene Daniel, owner of Pages Books for Children and Young Adults in Tarzana. "We are seeing a variety of tellings of stories that are similar to the original but not the same."

Also available under the heading of multicultural works, Daniel noted, are original stories faithful to specific cultures and authored by people of that culture. Many of these stories have plots and themes similar to more popular children's titles but set in a different country.

"For example, there are a multitude of variations of 'Cinderella' stories, each in a specific culture," Daniel said.

"Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters" (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1987), an African story authored by African American John Steptoe, is one example. "Lon Po Po" (Philomel, 1989), written and illustrated by Asian American Ed Young, is a Chinese story similar to the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood."

Both books were recipients of Caldecott medals, awarded annually by the American Library Assn. to the most distinguished American picture book. Many similar books are available in more than 25 Southern California bookstores that offer a varying number of multicultural children's works, Chapman said.

"The thing to remember about these folk tales is that they were written to be of that culture," Chapman said. "Really, every book should be about a different culture and be accurate about that culture."

Chapman labeled adaptations with cultural modifications "fractured fairy tales," but still praised them because they very likely will encourage children to read.

"There are two levels of meaning to the word 'multicultural,"' Chapman said. "One is, there are a collection of books about many different cultures. The second meaning is, there are stories with kids of many races or cultures together. Culture may not be an important part of the story, but they are all together and getting along and that's what's important."

Guillaume said his publications simply are "my own spin," designed to give a more accurate reflection of the American public. "And it is by no means a definitive answer to all the problems of the world. But it gives parents a tool to work with. I'm coming from a place that most African Americans share."

SH WHERE TO GO What: Fairy-tale books published by the Confetti Company, owned by Robert Guillaume. Titles: "The Frog Prince," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty," "Hansel and Gretel," "The Shoemaker and the Elves" and "A Different Kind of Christmas." Price: $9.95 each.

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