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Monday, July 30th, 2012

Ten Reasons Parents Should Read Multicultural Books to Kids

By
Ten Reasons Parents Should Read Multicultural Books to Kids/ © Renata Osinska - Fotolia.com

I was in the children’s section of a big, chain bookstore last week. I ambled around browsing picture book covers and flipping through the ones that were colorful or artistic. At first, I didn’t notice anything strange—there were many books on vehicles and animals; there were the seasonal ones (spring and summer themed books) and the timeless classics like “Goodnight Moon” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” There were also bestsellers and new releases, which were mostly sequels to hits like the “Ladybug Girl” and “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” series. I love these books.

 

Then I turned around and saw a couple of Indian-Americans browsing books. A woman in a hijab, with a Starbucks in hand, watched her son play at the train table. I heard a distant chatter in, what I thought was, Mandarin. Yet none of the books on display mirrored this heterogeneity around me. I stood there and wished books for children were much more eclectic and flavorful. I wished more books had stories in which I saw someone like the woman at the train table. Most of all, I wished these books were mainstream—powerful, influential and easily accessible. Why? Given recent discussions around the New York Times article, “How to Read Racist Books to Kids,” it became even more important to me to analyze what it is that we’ve come to accept as mainstream in children’s literature today. What should our kids be reading instead? What are the big bookstores really missing?

 

1. It is important that books reflect the diversity that exists in societies today. A book that includes people of different ethnicities presents a more realistic picture to a child. Even board boards can achieve this. “Babies” by Gyo Fujikawa is a great example. Published in the sixties, it was the first children’s book to show infants of different races.

 

2. Understanding cultures enhances the understanding of experiences of those we interact with. This helps children develop empathy towards peers, nurturing meaningful relationships in classrooms and playgrounds. I love the book “My Friend Mei Jing” by Anna McQuinn, which celebrates a cross-cultural friendship between school-going girls, Mei Jing and Monifa.

 

 

3. A language (or linguistic diversity) is a tangible form of realizing cultural differences.  Picture book stories set in a cultural backdrop often scatter words in the affiliated language. This is both fun and fascinating for kids. Bilingual books are also a wonderful way to introduce and experience languages.

 

 

4. Books that take us back to our cultural roots are always valuable. These books open up discussions about family ancestry and heritage. They also help children identify family traditions and find answers to why they eat specific foods or dress a certain way. “The Keeping Quilt” by Patricia Polacco is a heartwarming story spanning several generations and traditions—it dates back to the author’s great-grandmother’s initial immigrant days (from Eastern Europe) in America.

 

 

5. Loaded with cultural nuances, multicultural literature often comes with geographical and historical details as well. Besides being informative, it also heightens a child’s global awareness. I am reminded of Amadi, in the book “Amadi’s Snowman” by Katia Novet-Saint-Lot. The Nigerian village boy is intrigued by the picture of a “strange-looking man” (a snowman!) he chances upon in a book. This actually makes him want (to learn) to read!

 

 

6. Mainstream books, sadly, have a tendency to stereotype. The media is notorious for its clichéd portrayals, like the skewed images of Africa or the Middle East. Children’s literature in no exception. Multicultural books dispel misconceptions and break stereotypes associated with a specific culture.

 

 

7. It is natural for us to try to relate to a character or story as part of the reading experience or to assert our own identities. This becomes particularly important for children of immigrant, biracial and bicultural parents.  Multicultural choices include their unique experiences and address unique challenges they face. Pooja Makhijani’s “Mama’s Saris” has been a favorite at our home for several years now. My daughter and I easily identify with the context—a seven-year-old Indian-American girl delights in her mom’s collection of colorful ethnic wear, a common scenario in our own house!

 

 

8. “Multicultural” often encompasses stories focusing on divergent themes that step outside the dominant social and cultural structure. These include issues like adoption, racism, divorce, war, sexual orientation and gender stereotyping, to name a few. The anti-bias approach of these books better represents the community we are part of, with its differences stretching even beyond cultures and skin colors.

 

 

9. Not all of us can travel wherever we like, whenever we want. But books can take us to faraway place while still in the comfort of our home. Publishers like Hartlyn Kids and Itchee Feet offer books that provide this enriching experience for children.

 

 

10. Ultimately, books that open up the world are essential for a child’s well-balanced reading diet. When children grow up exposed to diverse cultures, people and places, they become much more open to exploring broader possibilities in careers, relationships and decision-making as parents or leaders.  Without ignorance and prejudices inhibiting them, they can be prepared for wherever life takes them and whatever life brings.

 

 

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If you agree that multicultural children’s literature is important, then help us tell Barnes & Noble to improve their selection: http://www.incultureparent.com/2012/07/do-you-want-to-see-more-multicultural-books-at-barnes-noble/

© 2012 – 2013, Meera Sriram. All rights reserved.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Meera Sriram has been reviewing and recommending diverse children’s literature for about ten years now. She loves to pass on a title or an author to a friend (or a stranger, for that matter). Picture books particularly appeal to the inner child in her. She moved to the U.S. at the turn of the millennium from India. After graduate studies and a brief stint as an electrical engineer, she decided to express herself in other creative ways, primarily through writing. She has co-authored four books for children, all published in India. Her writing interests include people and cultures, nature, and life’s everyday moments. She also runs an early literacy program for toddlers and preschoolers in her neighboring communities. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her husband and two kids. Curling up to read a good book with her children is something she looks forward to every day. She constantly fantasizes about a world with no boundaries over hot chai, to help her stay warm in foggy Northern California. More at www.meerasriram.com.

Leave us a comment!

43 Comments
  1. Commentssandhya   |  Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 4:09 am

    Multicultural books are not just scarce in stores in the Western hemisphere, Meera. Even here, in India, we probably see only Indian books other than the ubiquitous western ones. If, for eg., I want something about Africa or Southeast Asia, I would be hard pressed to find something. Unless I know of a certain book and search it out in online stores.

    I think that is very sad.

  2. CommentsMercedes Cecilia   |  Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 5:56 am

    Hi Meera,
    Thank you for your beautiful article, I will share it with my community in Woodstock, NY. and will try to find your books during International Storytelling at our library. It seems we are creating the same dream. Love Chai and a world with no boundaries! Please count us in your Chai table !
    Best wishes Meera !
    Mercedes Cecilia

  3. CommentsCynthia Leitich Smith   |  Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 7:25 am

    Wonderful article! I would also like to add that multicultural stories are often terrific, gorgeously written stories per se. Fun stories. Suspenseful stories. Stories filled with characters who can break and heal your heart in a day. Furthermore, they’re being written and illustrated by some of the most talented creative professionals in the field.

  4. CommentsAdrienne   |  Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 8:36 am

    Great article! I am currently searching for good Latino/Hispanic and Asian American picture books fo rmy little one. She is only 7 mos old now, but we have been reading lots of books about Africa. (She is part West African). I really liked point number four about cultural roots. (Warning: shameless promo ahead.) In 2008 my book, “Isaac and the Bah Family Tree,” was published. It is a fun and playful story geared towards teaching children the concept of family trees. In writing it, I hoped that parents would use the story of Isaac Bah to expose their children to their own ancestors. There isn’t a whole lot of that out there for children. However, multi-cultural books that aren’t necessarily focsed strictly on family trees are wonderful conversation starters as well.

  5. CommentsOpen Letter to Barnes & Noble | InCultureParent   |  Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 12:57 pm

    […] why reading multicultural books is important for our children. We recently published an article on 10 Reasons Parents Should Read Multicultural Books to Kids and wanted to summarize why we feel this is so crucial for all children: 1. It is important that […]

  6. CommentsDo you want to see more multicultural books at Barnes & Noble? | InCultureParent   |  Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 1:15 pm

    […] & Noble? By Stephanie Meade Meera and I got talking after she wrote her fantastic article 10 Reasons Parents Should Read Multicultural Books to Kids. We felt we had a responsibility to let Barnes & Noble know how we felt about their […]

  7. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Thanks everyone!
    @Sandhya: Yes, I agree. India has actually come a long way from when only westernized stories and rhymes formed our staple diet (besides mythology and grandma tales – both good though!). Its really great that the mainstream selection now includes stories set in India and everyday themes that children growing up (in India) can directly relate to. I truly hope the transformation (and hence selection), without losing momentum, grows to include stories from other cultures and continents as well.
    @ Mercedes Cecilia: Thank you for your kind words! Hope you enjoy the books during your Intl. Storytelling sessions! I would also like to read your book sometime…(I just checked it out and it looks wonderful!), and you illustrated it too??
    @Cynthia Smith: Very true! Most stories are powerful and moving. And talented authors and artists from around the world also bring in fresh perspectives to their work.
    @Adrienne: Yes, it is on our to-do list! You can check out the Asian-American list we published in May. And LOVE the idea of a family tree concept in a children’s book!
    I feel blessed to be in the realm of such talented and passionate people!

  8. CommentsIsabel   |  Tuesday, 03 July 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Check out leeandlow.com

  9. CommentsKM   |  Tuesday, 10 July 2012 at 7:04 am

    Thank you for sensitizing people on the need for children’s literature dealing with multiple cultures. I have seen young professionals in trans-national companies getting into embarrassing situations because they can not relate to different cultures. The orientation that the companies give focuses on trivia such as how to hold a wine cup! They don’t treat the underlying mindset issues such as coping with ambiguity, dealing with “time” and attitude toward Nature, It would really be a challenge to author a book that satisfies the needs you have enunciated, without suggesting any value judgement. Multicultural books will develop an inclusive mindset and RESPECT for other cultures (not just tolerance!). This would minimize and ultimately eradicate terrorism than practices such as frisking and fingerprinting!!

    Keep fresh thoughts flowing

  10. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Wednesday, 11 July 2012 at 12:42 pm

    @KM: Thanks for a very valuable and practical perspective! Considering even corporate worlds demand a deep understanding of cultures, it is imperative we learn and respect cultures outside our own, early on. And this respect, as you have rightly pointed out, can go a long way in avoiding conflicts in the world today!

  11. CommentsAnna McQuinn   |  Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 3:41 am

    Thrilled to see a mention of my, My Friend Mei Jing in your wonderful article. I’ve written a number of picture books where I try to tell the stories of children from different backgrounds while not making their race the central focus of the story. I think that while books which celebrate diversity and people’s different cultures are very important, it’s equally important to have books where the ethnicity of the child is not an “issue” – a story where the central character just happens to be African-America, or Chinese or whatever… These are not always easy books to write and they are certainly not easy books to get published or sold – so articles like yours which challenge parents to seek out positive books are tremendously supportive of us writers too. So thanks! Please check out the other ‘friend’ story, My Friend Jamal (also from Annic Press – thanks Annick for your wonderful range of books) and the Lola stories from Charlesbridge – another independent publisher committed to representing all children in the books they publish. Supporting publishers who create inclusive and diverse books is essential if we want to see such books in print.

  12. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Thursday, 12 July 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Hi Anna McQuinn, I’m equally thrilled to hear from you! Yes, we own a copy of “My Friend Jamal” and often read it, and I have recommended it before. You have shared a very beautiful thought here – tricky but very true. All the best!

  13. CommentsJan Durante   |  Monday, 16 July 2012 at 10:29 am

    Thanks for this concise article, Meera. I’ve just emailed B & N with a link to your site and with my request for more multicultural literature. This is an important issue, and I agree we need to push for more variety in our bookstores. I’ve been quite pleased with many books published by Lee & Low and by Peachtree, many of which I’ve featured on my blog. It’s quite frustrating, though, when I don’t even see those books for sale at B & N.

  14. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks Jan Durante! We love Lee and Low! And we’ve read a few great Peachtree books (like Monsoon Afternoon and Where is Catkin?). I also checked out your blog, its wonderful! Thanks again.

  15. CommentsSue   |  Wednesday, 25 July 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Loved reading your article. It is important to learn about different cultures and there needs to be more multicultural books. Thanks for helping others see that.

  16. CommentsUma Krishnaswami   |  Monday, 30 July 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Thanks for fighting the good fight, Meera. This is precisely why I began writing for the children’s market all of 20 years ago! We’re doing better now–we have publishers like Lee & Low in the vanguard, and even the major houses are acquiring more culturally grounded books than they ever did before. So why we’re not seeing them in bookstores is more than a little baffling.

  17. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Tuesday, 31 July 2012 at 11:33 am

    Thanks Uma! I’m sure you feel like you’ve come a long way! The scene has probably improved since you started writing. I too think there are many wonderful publishers today, eager to bring out fresh thoughts and voices. But access to these is still limited, and children are missing out on a lot!

  18. CommentsGita Varadarajan   |  Thursday, 09 August 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Hi Meera,
    This is so important. I am a student of the literacy specialist program at Teacher’s College, Columbia University and my interest is in getting books that are more contextual for kids in India. Sadly, most of the books in Indian classrooms tend to be from the west, and the richness and diversity of the Indian culture has not been really explored. While here in the US, it is important to have multicultural books to tap into the diversity of the various kinds of people who live here, it is the same in India, where I think we need books for kids that bring out the diversity in language, class, caste, region , religion etc.Do email me your thoughts. Would love to connect.

  19. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Sunday, 26 August 2012 at 12:18 pm

    Absolutely, Gita! While it is important for kids to be exposed to books that open up new worlds, it is equally important for them to see their immediate diverse environments in settings, situations, and characters. The past decade or so has seen some very interesting publishers who are excited about making books that celebrate the varied languages, communities, arts, and even foods of India. Tara, Tulika, Pratham Books and Karadi Tales to name a few. I’ve been amused and intrigued by many of their quirky and very colloquial titles in different Indian languages. But the trend needs to continue. Also, other options should include not just books from the U.S or U.K but from around the world. I’d love to connect and discuss this, and possibly be of help in sharing pointers and resources. We could take it offline if you wish. My email is meeratsriram at gmail dot com. Thanks for your comment, Gita. And sorry about the delayed reaction :)

  20. CommentsTPP   |  Thursday, 06 September 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Hi all,

    With the importance of exposing children to those who may be different from them in a variety of ways, and to encourage showings of love to all regardless of our differences, we’ve developed an interactive book app now available in the iTunes App Store. “And So You Were Born” features a number of intercultural and interfaith elements, an explanation of which can be found in the Discussion Guide on http://www.AndSoYouWereBorn.com/press (along with accompanying printable activity sheets).

    Let us know what you and your child think of the app – We hope you enjoy!

    Twin Peacocks Publishing

  21. CommentsGita Varadarajan   |  Friday, 07 September 2012 at 3:37 am

    Hi Meera,
    Tried responding an email, but it bounced back. I would definitely like to talk to you about some work and projects that I have in mind. Is your email, meera@sriram@gmail.com?

  22. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Friday, 07 September 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks TPP, will check it out.
    Gita: My email is meeratsriram dot gmail dot com. There is a “t” between my first and last names. Look forward to hearing from you!
    I

  23. CommentsTPP   |  Friday, 07 September 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Sure thing, Meera. Just our way of contributing to the need of encouraging positive mindedness and conduct in children!

    In fact, the book will be put in print in the coming months, and it will be sure to keep with the personalization theme that is seen in the interactive book app version. Keep up-to-date on http://www.facebook.com/AndSoYouWereBorn for its release!

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  28. CommentsMercedes Olivera   |  Thursday, 18 July 2013 at 3:17 pm

    The author could have been more inclusive herself if she had mentioned even one Latino children’s author in this piece. Latinos have been battling this very oversight for years now…

  29. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Thursday, 18 July 2013 at 4:51 pm

    Hi Mercedes Olivera, I understand your pangs. And while I do understand the issue of Latino authors not receiving the acknowledgment they deserve, the problem is not unique to Latino authors. It is across the board for many ethnic authors and writers of color and that is exactly what the article is driving at indirectly. For that matter, I have also not included any Kenyan or Persian or Pakistani authors. And it is not possible for me to include everyone in this article. The examples are just random samplings to point out the need to nurture diversity in the reading diet for children. And that’s the core message here. I am sorry if it has triggered some disappointment in you. Thanks for your comment.

  30. CommentsRobin   |  Tuesday, 17 September 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful blog. I blog about education and also write for a magazine. Very important topic that I may need to explore more. Love the concept of raising global citizens.

  31. CommentsMeera Sriram   |  Wednesday, 18 September 2013 at 8:38 am

    Thank you, Robin! Glad to note that you liked our blog and the theme here struck a chord with you! Always brings us a smile :)

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  40. CommentsMario Schiavelli   |  Saturday, 30 May 2015 at 7:10 am

    Great point, Meera! Congrats!
    I did it with my daughter with not only books but also with movies on TV. It works! Now she is 26 and she speaks fluently 5 languages and her perception of life and how to analyze it is much richer. Thanks!

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