Dear Barnes & Noble,
We love the selection of books you offer and how much fun our children have browsing through books and games every time we come in to your store. We frequently purchase books for presents on our way to a birthday party but we always notice something is missing when we browse the children’s section: more multicultural children’s literature.
The U.S. is a multicultural country. Where we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, we frequently hear many languages and see many types of families around us in Barnes & Noble browsing books. However your book selection for children does not reflect the diversity in our country; the selection is very limited.
There are many reasons 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 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.
In honor of Independence Day, we certainly hope you will consider carrying more multicultural books to better reflect all of the children that make up our nation. As you are one of the major book retailers in the U.S., the power to influence families’ reading choices rests largely in your hands. You share in the responsibility to affect positive change in what our younger generation is reading and we hope you can recognize the importance of multicultural children’s literature. We are happy to help give you suggestions but most of all, we will be so pleased when we can find a wider selection of diverse books the next time we go to your store.
Stephanie Meade and Meera Sriram