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The Importance of Multicultural Children's Books

Literature is a powerful vehicle for helping children understand their homes, communities and the world. Even before young children can read themselves, family members, childcare providers and teachers are reading them stories about other children in far-away places, sometimes from the distant past, or about children whose lives are not unlike their own. The impressions and messages contained in these stories can last a lifetime. Even in this era of "virtual" experience, the reading of children's books remains one of the most personal, in that the literary experience is shaped by the interaction of reader, listener and text.

According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison, of the 4,500 children's books published in the United States in 1997, 88 were by African-American authors and/or illustrators, 88 were by Latino/a authors or about Latino/a themes, 64 books were on Native American themes and 66 were about Asians and Asian Americans. Of the 66 books about Asians, only six were about Asian-American children living in the United States in the 1990s and 14 of the titles were folklores.

Children's books, at their best, invite children to use their imaginations, expand their vocabularies and gain a better understanding of themselves and others. And, if the titles reflect the diverse groups of people in the world around them, children can learn to respect not only their own cultural groups, but also the cultural groups of others. Children's literature serves as both a mirror to children and as a window to the world around them by showing people from diverse groups playing and working together, solving problems and overcoming obstacles. At its best, multicultural children's literature helps children understand that despite our many differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations. Those feelings can include love, sadness, fear and the desire for fairness and justice.

Unfortunately, not all children's literature sends the messages that we want children to learn. Children's books often contain the same stereotypes and biases of other media, and because children are interested in a story's plot and characters, it is unlikely that they will know or consider whether a book includes racist or sexist messages or other stereotypes. However, if young children are repeatedly exposed to biased representations through words and pictures, there is a danger that such distortions will become a part of their thinking. It is, therefore, the responsibility of adults to help children select literature that is both entertaining and that provides children with accurate representations of all people. Additionally, because there is such a relatively small number of children's books about people of color, people who are gay and lesbian or people with physical and mental disabilities, it is extremely important that adults make every effort to see that high-quality children's literature by and about these groups is made available to children.

Selecting good multicultural children's books begins with the same criteria as that for selecting any good children's books - the literary elements of plot, characterization, setting, style, theme and point of view must be interwoven to provide an interesting story. In addition, good multicultural children's books will challenge stereotypes and promote a realistic glimpse into the lives of diverse groups of people. By providing children with accurate and positive representations of the many cultural groups that make up the community, society and the world in which they live, books can help children learn to identify stereotypes and biases when they encounter them.

Connecting to National and State Standards
Children's literature provides numerous opportunities for teachers to meet national, state and local standards for history and language arts. For example, to meet the National History Standard demonstrating an understanding of family life now and in the recent post, teachers can have students compare the cultural similarities and differences in clothes, homes, foods, communication, technology, cultural traditions and other aspects of family between families now and in the post. Possible sources might include information provided by family members, family photographs, artifacts, and books such as The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polocco, The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy, Mirancly and Brother Wind by Patrick C. McKissock, Everybody Bakes Bread by Noah Dooley, Thanksqiving at Oboachcyn's by Janet Misui Brown, Cherokee Summer by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith, The House I Live In: At Home in America by Isadore Seltzer, Two Mrs. Gibsons by Toyomi lgus and Where Fireflies DoncelAhi, donde boilan las luciernogas by Lucha Corpi.

While not every book can possibly meet every standard for what constitutes an "excellent" children's book, oftentimes the value of a particular book will outweigh those areas that might be questionable or problematic. When deciding whether or not to include a particular title in a collection of children's books, it is important to review the content as well as any illustrations or pictures that accompany the text. Children's books should be examined for such things as historical accuracy, realistic life styles, believable characters and authentic language. The books chosen should also represent a variety of settings, problem-solving approaches and themes, and should provide opportunities for children to consider multiple perspectives and values. Most importantly, the books must have universal appeal. Multicultural children's books should not speak to a limited group; they should speak to all children.

A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE(ae) Institute Selected Bibliography of Children's Books
The A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE(ae)Institute Selected Bibliography of Children's Books is a listing of close to 500 children's books carefully selected by A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE(ae)Institute staff. All of these titles have the potential to help children respect their own cultural groups as well as the cultural groups of others, to develop empathy and, in general, to learn about multiple perspectives and experiences. The books are divided into categories common to all people: Customs, Traditions and Lifestyles; Families, Friends and Neighbors; Folktales, Legends and Poems, and Overcoming Obstacles. Many books can fit into more than one category, and teachers and family members reading these books with children can help them explore many themes.

This bibliography includes a short description of each book along with a suggested reading level, K-3, 4-6 or K-6. Many of the titles lend themselves well to being read aloud to children of any age. It is strongly recommended that educators review books carefully before using them to determine age or grade level and content appropriateness.

© 2003 Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund
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