I've been a bilingual elementary school teacher, public librarian, traveler, writer, and a parent. Within all of these personas, I've discovered the value of promoting multicultural children's books. Children are sponges, absorbing the world around them. What a wonderful opportunity to share the diverse experiences of cultures nearby and far away. Good multicultural literature illuminates a culture's traditions, beliefs, values, or ways of daily life. It can celebrate differences while, at the same time, demonstrating the things that transcend physical place or background, such as shared emotions. High quality books also benefit children who are not in the majority culture, because the stories give children the opportunity to identify with the characters and their situations. This tutorial is a primer for parents and educators who seek to diversify their reading material for children.
Examine what currently fills your bookshelves. You may be pleasantly surprised to find books by authors from various backgrounds, stories featuring children of diverse cultures, text that incorporates words from other languages, or pictures that show places from around the world. Collections of folktales, traditional rhymes, schoolyard games, folksongs, and travel stories are also filled with first-rate material for sharing with children. As you're taking stock, mind the gaps. What subject areas, languages, cultures, and authors would most enrich your collection?
Looking to your child, his/her teacher, a school librarian, a public librarian and yourself for guidance are excellent ideas. Author Mei-Yu Lu provides some great introductory guidelines for finding top quality multicultural children's books. She recommends choosing works that have authentic, non-stereotypical characters; well-done illustrations that capture the essence of the text; pluralistic themes; some historical and some contemporary settings; compelling plots; historical accuracy; and well-developed characters who have cultural values.
Doing the Research
If you enjoy the process of researching a collection (as I must admit I do), there are print and online resources you can consult. Stanley F. Steiner's book, "Promoting a Global Community Through Multicultural Children's Literature" includes sections on celebrating life around the world, studying refugees and homeless people, navigating the road to literacy, books the unify people, and multicultural books in a series. The references are filled with valuable book lists. For a wealth of free online information, consult the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. The page devoted to multicultural children's literature features websites of listings and reviews, such as "How to Choose the Best Multicultural Books", "Walk a Mile in My Shoes: Multicultural Curriculum Resources", and "Tales of Wonder: Folk and Fairy Tales Around the World". Another fabulous spot is the Internet Public Library's page entitled "Multicultural Literature for Children". Here's the place to find that perfect book about Chinese New Year, cool collections of Cinderella stories from around the world, award-winning stories, and picture books about interracial families.
If You Build It...
Having a gorgeous, diverse collection of books can be about as meaningful to children as that group of glass figurines kept out of reach on a high shelf, unless you make the books accessible. In other words, having the books doesn't guarantee that they will be read. When I was teaching, inspiring interest in a book could be as simple as displaying it face out on a shelf, or introducing it to the class by reading a first page and providing a cliffhanger. It can be fun to take out the globe or a world map and locate the story or characters' origins. If you have artifacts or complementary literature or photographs about the place or culture, these can make the reading experience deeper and more meaningful. If you choose to read the story to your child, pausing to ask and answer questions, make predictions, and observe the illustrations can transform a new book into a favorite book.
Books, Books, Everywhere!
The most wonderful way to diversify your child's reading is to make material accessible and available. Keep a basket of international cookbooks for children in the kitchen, ready for perusal while dinner's cooking. Put some art books by the crayons and stacks of paper, so that your child can be inspired by images of Huichol yarn paintings, Southwestern pictographs, or Japanese ink drawings. Pop some multiculti board books in the stroller while you're out for that walk. When given the opportunity, children will read anywhere and everywhere.