Breaking Down Barriers Multicultural Books for Children

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[DAVID: There are links throughout to the references at the end, as well as a few external links and a link at the end to Ask the Librarian.]
Breaking Down Barriers
Multicultural Books for Children

by Pamela Little

Why Multicultural Children’s Literature Matters

Trends in Multicultural Children’s Literature

Choosing Authentic Multicultural Books

Why Multicultural Children’s Literature Matters

In her book Against Borders, Hazel Rochman (1993), explains the purpose of multicultural literature:

A good book can help to break down [barriers]. Books can make a difference in dispelling prejudice and building community: not with role models and literal recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others. A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person--flawed, complex, striving--then you’ve reached beyond stereotype. (p. 19)

Read Rochman’s 1995 article, also called “Against Borders.” [LINK]

The books afterschool programs select should reflect both the diversity of the program’s students and the diverse reality of our world. Students should be able to see themselves and their lives reflected in the books they read. Negative images and stereotyping of people and cultures is harmful to students whose ethnicity is being portrayed (Aoki, 1992; Slapin & Seale, 1992).

Authentic multicultural literature also helps students develop an understanding of diverse cultures and people (Rochman, 1993; Yokota, 1993). Bernice Pescosolido and colleagues (1997) note that children’s books are intimately tied to societal realities: “The depiction of race relations to the newest members of society via children’s picture books subtly colors children’s understanding of status arrangements, social boundaries, and power” (p. 444).

Multicultural children’s literature also emphasizes the similarities in experiences across cultures. Learning how people from other cultures do similar things in different ways can help children gain a sense of acceptance and appreciation for diverse cultures (Hillard, 1995). As Rosalinda Barrera and colleagues (1992) state in the context of Mexican American literature, “literature about the Mexican American experience is literature about the human experience” (p. 231).

Trends in Multicultural Children’s Literature

Researchers agree that, compared to the number of children’s books published each year, the number of books focusing on minority cultures is extremely low. Of those few, an even smaller percentage can be considered authentic, or culturally conscious, material (Barrera, Liguori, & Salas, 1992; Hill, 1998; Sims Bishop, 1992).

When Pescosolido, Grauerholz, and Milkie (1997) examined the history of African-American children’s literature, they found that, while the number of children’s books portraying at least one Black character has risen since 1937, the number of books that focus exclusively on Black life is still incredibly low. Even fewer books are written by African-American authors, perhaps only one or two percent of all published children’s books (Sims Bishop, 1991).

The truth about other minority cultures represented in children’s books is even more discouraging, since there is probably more literature focusing on African American culture than any other (Hill, 1998). My own research found that Asian Americans also appear to be better represented in children’s books than most other minority groups. Latino and Hispanic cultures are less well represented. Books focusing on Native American themes--especially those with contemporary characters and themes--are also lacking. There is promise, however, in a trend toward more minority authors being published (Sims Bishop, 1991).

Choosing Authentic Multicultural Books

Given that you have a limited selection from which to choose, what books should you pick for your library? First and foremost, any book chosen for use with children should be of high literary quality. Don’t give in to the “tendency to accept poor literary quality just to have something in the classroom or library” (Sims Bishop, 1992, p. 48).

The portrayal of ethnic groups should also be accurate and authentic. For some, the only authentic books about an ethnic group are those written by a member of that group, (Aoki, 1992; Mikkelsen, 1998; Slapin & Seale, 1992). Others believe that authentic portrayals can also come from authors who have lived within the culture they are writing about for most of their lives (Barrera, Liguori & Salas, 1992), those who write based on experience and an awareness of other cultures (Nieto, 1992), or simply those who provide an accurate representation of the culture they portray (Hillard, 1995; Yokota, 1993).

Authenticity includes illustrations as well as the text (Mikkelsen, 1998; Sims Bishop, 1991). If the illustrator does not have an accurate picture of the culture he or she is drawing, the result is an inauthentic portrayal of that culture. Beverly Slapin (1992), in her introduction to Through Indian Eyes, notes the detrimental effects an inaccurate portrayal can have on a Native American child reading supposedly about his or her culture yet seeing illustrations depicting another tribe, or worse yet, seeing a conglomeration of Native American cultures in one picture.

Aoki (1992) believes that we should look for multicultural children’s books that fulfill a purpose. Text and illustrations should reflect reality, attempt to transcend stereotypes, and seek to rectify historical distortions and omissions. They should avoid the syndrome of portraying “model” (well-behaved) or “super” (perfect) members of minority groups and accurately reflect the diversity within cultural groups. They should also be aware of the changing status of women in society.

See this issue’s Ask the Librarian [LINK: Ask] for a checklist you can use in evaluating multicultural books for your program.


Aoki, E. (1992). Turning the page: Asian Pacific American children’s literature. In V. J. Harris (Ed.), Teaching multicultural literature in grades K–8. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Barrera, R. B., Liguori, O., & Salas, L. (1992). Ideas a literature can grow on: Key insights for enriching and expanding children’s literature about the Mexican-American experience. In V. J. Harris (Ed.), Teaching multicultural literature in grades K–8. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Hill, T. J. (1998). Multicultural children’s books: An American fairy tale. Publishing Research Quarterly, 14(1), 36–45.

Hillard, L. L. (1995). Defining the “multi-” in “multicultural” through children’s literature. The Reading Teacher, 48(8), 728.

Mikkelsen, N. (1998). Insiders, outsiders, and the question of authenticity: Who shall write for African American children? African American Review, 32(1), 33–49.

Nieto, S. (1992). We have stories to tell: A case study of Puerto Ricans in children’s books. In V. J. Harris (Ed.), Teaching multicultural literature in grades K–8. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Pescosolido, B. A., Grauerholz, E., & Milkie, M. A. (1997). Culture and conflict: The portrayal of Blacks in U.S. children’s picture books through the mid- and late twentieth century. American Sociological Review, 62(3), 443–464.

Rochman, H. (1993). Against borders: Promoting books for a multicultural world. Chicago: American Library Association.

Sims Bishop, R. (1991). Evaluating books by and about African-Americans. In M. V. Lindgren (Ed.), The multicolored mirror. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith.

Sims Bishop, R. (1992). Multicultural literature for children: Making informed choices. In V. J. Harris (Ed.), Teaching multicultural literature in grades K–8. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Slapin, B., & Seale, D. (Eds.). (1992). Through Indian eyes: The native experience in books for children. Philadelphia: New Society.

Yokota, J. (1993). Issues in selecting multicultural children’s literature. Language Arts, 70, 156–167.

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