Ask the Librarian How Do I select Multicultural Children’s Literature?

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Ask the Librarian

How Do I Select Multicultural Children’s Literature?

by Pamela Little

In today's ethnically diverse communities, it's essential that children have access to books that reflect their own and others’ cultural backgrounds. Yet it’s also important that books about people from different cultures be of high quality and contain authentic, respectful portrayals of these people and their lives. Why? Read this issue’s The Wire. [LINK to Wire]

When working with afterschool program staff, I often suggest they choose books based on guidelines from Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism, from the Council on Interracial Books for Children, and How to Tell the Difference, by Beverly Slapin and Doris Searle. Important points include:

General accuracy. Books should contain current, correct information. Consider how old the photos and pictures are. Modern stories should acknowledge recent events. For example, a book about South Africa should reflect changes in the apartheid system.

Appealing stories. Universal themes such as friendship, family, and school appeal to children within and outside of a given culture. You might lend books to parents and ask for their reactions.

Stereotypes. Books should reflect individual people's lives, rather than assigning general personality traits or behaviors to entire groups of people. A misleading book might discuss “the African American experience” without considering the variety of experiences within a group. Writers should weave information about a culture into the flow of a story.

Setting. Books should include accurate settings. A book that shows all Native American people living in tepees doesn’t take into account the variety of types of homes various Native Americans groups historically have used or the fact that Native Americans are part of present society.

Language. Be careful of books that separate characters into two groups: those who speak standard English and those who don’t. If a book includes the language of a specific culture, the actual language should appear, not nonsense words or an invented language.

Epithets: Some books may contain epithets insulting to people of a particular race or ethnicity. There’s a thin line between censorship and protecting children from what is really going to hurt them. I would err on the side of protecting young children.

Illustrations. Illustrations should convey the reality that members of any ethnic group look different from one another. The pictures in a common version of The Five Chinese Brothers, for instance, depict caricatures of Chinese people who all look alike. Photograph captions should indicate a specific location and situation, not a general one like, “In Africa. . . .”

Author’s perspective. Whether or not the writer belongs to the culture he or she describes, the text must never treat any cultural practice as exotic or strange.

Tough issues. In handling difficult topics, authors should present the complexity of issues and offer multiple perspectives. For example, Michael Lecapa’s picture book Less Than Half, More Than Whole does a good job of portraying biracial issues as it deals with a child's real confusion about being neither all white nor all Native American.

Standards of success. The characters should be strong and independent, not helpless or in need of the assistance of a white (male) authority figure. They should not have to exhibit extraordinary qualities or do more than a white character has to do in order to gain acceptance and approval.
The role of females, elders, and family. Look for books that portray women and the elderly accurately within their culture and that accurately depict the significance of family in that culture.
The United States has been a multicultural society since it was founded, and ethnic and linguistic minorities have contributed significantly to its development. Their contribution should be appreciated, regarded as an integral part of American culture, and authentically represented in our libraries.

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