Children’s literature has become relevant in a wide variety of subject areas outside of Language Arts; it is especially useful in social justice and multicultural education. Having worked as a classroom teacher and teacher-librarian over the past few years, I have seen how influential multicultural literature can be in creating culturally inclusive and welcoming spaces. Multicultural literature includes any literature “regardless of genre, that have as the main character a person who is a member of a racial, religious or language micro-culture other than the Euro-American one” (Lynch-Brown & Tomlinson, 1999, p.188). Authentic multicultural children’s literature has the power to teach mainstream children about the diversity that exists all around them, and the power to validate the cultures of minority children. Rudine Sims Bishop (1982) first used the metaphor of ‘books as windows and mirrors’ to articulate the role of multicultural literature in the classroom; this metaphor has contributed to reshaping the role of children’s literature today.
Books as Windows
The metaphor, ‘books as windows,’ refers to the ability of books to open up new worlds for the reader. Students can learn what life is like in other parts of the world; they can also learn about other perspectives on life in their own communities. In any case, multicultural books are able to facilitate cross-cultural understanding for students (Thirumurthy, 2011). In today’s globalized world, it is essential that students learn to value diversity. In my own teaching practice, I have organized a Read Around the World project that lasted throughout the entire school year. Students used pins to point out locations on a world map that they read about throughout the school year. This lead to interesting discussions, even with children as young as kindergarten, questioning why we are not able to find books from some regions of the world, and how other regions are represented in literature.
Books as Mirrors
‘Books as mirrors’ is perhaps the more important of the two metaphors describing the role of multicultural literature (Aldana, 2008). This is because it is essential that minority children see themselves reflected in the materials presented to them in the classroom. Children who do not see themselves and their cultures reflected in classroom materials may feel excluded from the learning environment, which can have a significant impact on identity development and feelings of self-efficacy (Gollnick & Chin, 2015). When minority children are given the opportunity to see characters like themselves in multicultural literature, they are able to meaningfully connect the text to their own lived experiences or stories of their families’ lived experiences. This text-to-self connection is a key part of how children engage with reading materials; therefore, books that act as mirrors can lead to greater engagement from the students who see themselves reflected. Additionally, multicultural literature can foster a sense of pride for minority children, and allow them to more confidently express their cultural heritage. Giving students access to a diverse collection of literature is an essential part of creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment where all students feel welcomed and accepted.
Identifying Respectful Multicultural Children’s Literature:
Exposure to multicultural literature is only beneficial to children if it authentically and accurately represents a culture. Inauthentic representations or books that perpetuate stereotypes can be harmful to the development of students’ cultural identities and views of other cultures. Below are some key points to think about when assessing the authenticity of a book for classroom libraries.
- Is the author a member of the culture being depicted? Authors writing about their own cultures tend to depict their cultures in more authentic and holistic ways. Multicultural books written by authors who belong to that culture are also less likely to include stereotypes or generalizations. It is possible for authors to write authentic stories about cultures they are not personally affiliated with; however, these books should be inspected closely to learn where information was gathered.
- Do the illustrations truthfully and respectfully represent the culture? Illustrations, like written language, can also be a medium through which stereotypes and negative meanings are transmitted.
- Assess the plot and characters. It is important that multicultural literature depicts minority characters and cultures as empowered and independent. Avoid books that depict minority characters as helpless, or focus on White characters as the only solution to the problem presented.
- Include a variety of contemporary and historical plots. Does your library collection only include people of colour as victims of historical injustices or are does it highlight diverse people’s involvement in and contributions to modern day society?
- Does the book specify the culture depicted? Many multicultural books fail to acknowledge the diversity that exists within regions around the world. Books that do not distinguish the specific culture or region presented may be making generalizations about an entire region or country. Students should be aware of the diversity that exists within countries, and the numerous identities that exist within a culture. Select books that avoid making generalizations.
Written by Sunjum Jhaj
Social Justice Books: A Teaching for Change Project – Booklists by region and topic. https://socialjusticebooks.org/booklists/
Canadian Children’s Book Centre Theme Guides. http://bookcentre.ca/resources/theme-guides
Canadian K-12 Multicultural Anti-Racist Annotated Bibliography by the Multicultural Anti-Racist Book-Loving EducatorS (MARBLES). https://www.bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/SocialJustice/Issues/Antiracism/MulticulturalAntiracismBibliography.pdf
Aldana, P. (2008). Books that are windows, books that are mirrors: How we can make sure that children see themselves in their books [Speech transcript]. Retrieved from http://www.ibby.org/index.php?id=1008
Bishop, R. S. (1982). Shadow and substance: Afro-American experience in contemporary children’s fiction. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English
Gollnick, D., & Chinn, P. C. (2015). Multicultural education in a pluralistic society (Ninth ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Lynch-Brown, C., & Tomlinson, C.M. (1999). Essentials of children’s literature (3rd. ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Thirumurthy, V. (2011). Building cultural bridges through international children‘s literature. Childhood Education, 87(6), 446–447. Retrieved from https://journals-scholarsportal-info.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/pdf/00094056/v87i0006/446_iiebcbticl.xml