Multicultural literature confirming my beliefs.

A very positive experience. writing the assignment about multicultural literature has confirmed my beliefs and made me think that I am doing the right thing. The assignment made me think carefully about the collection and my role within that. Working in a school with an international body makes it easier in some way. No one turns a hair if we buy literature in many different languages and everyone expects that our collection reflects our community and the wider world. If it didn’t it would be doing a disservice to our learners who would not be prepared for our ever increasing diverse world.
I’ve posted some of my essay because I think it sums up my beliefs and thinking. I’d appreciate comments.

The world in which we live is dynamic and rapidly changing. These changes are seen throughout our schools and are reflected in the composition of the families we serve, the roles within those families and an ever increasing, culturally diverse, student body. (Salvadore 1995, p. 1.) Cultural diversity is now the norm and ‘an integral part of our schools’ (Evans, 2010, p. 92.) As our awareness of this richness increases so does our need for literature that reflects, and resonates with all. (Cox & Galda, 1990. p. 582.) By incorporating multicultural literature into our classrooms and school libraries we increase the opportunities for our students to develop confidence, self-worth, empathy and open-mindedness; all necessary traits to allow them to engage positively with the growing intricacies and diversity of social values and differing ways of life. (Lambert, 2001, p. 8.)

Debate surrounds the definition of multicultural literature (Cai, 2002, p. 3.) but for the purposes of this paper multicultural literature is viewed as a pedagogical term focusing on a whole body of work rather than singular titles. This body of work encompasses texts that may individually focus on a particular culture but when combined ‘break the monopoly of the mainstream culture and make the curriculum pluralistic.’ (Cai, 2002, p. 4.) The definition of multicultural literature adopted here is those writings ‘that represent voices typically omitted from the traditional canon’ (Glazier & Seo, 2005, p. 686.)

As our world continues to change it becomes increasingly important that all our learners are valued and represented regardless of culture. The materials and experiences offered within schools and their libraries should be culturally diverse. One-way of ensuring this is to provide literature that reflects our diverse student body and the communities in which they live. This is vital if every child is to have a ‘voice’, to feel valued and included. Bishop maintains (as cited in Hinton-Johnson & Dickinson. 2005, p. 42) that those that do not see themselves reflected in literature may believe they have little or no value in society. Multicultural literature is an important tool to enable those students of minority groups to be heard within school (Glazier & Seo, 2005. p. 687.) and to demonstrate that the community values their contributions and those of their culture. Using multicultural literature provides a mirror to reflect familiar experiences, values and beliefs. (Cox & Galda, 1990, p. 582.) It reaffirms the student’s perspectives and can be inclusive by confirming that everyone has a role to play. Steiner notes (as cited in Steiner, Peralta Nash & Chase, 2008. p. 88.) that it fosters the development of positive self-esteem and prevents feelings of isolation.

Something Beautiful, (Wyeth, 1998.) although not a particularly recent publication, is a book that perfectly illustrates how multicultural literature can promote positive self-esteem whilst also reflecting the everyday experiences of some students. In Something Beautiful a small girl is disheartened by her surroundings and sets off to find something beautiful in her neighbourhood. Through authentic interactions with others she discovers that beauty is found in families, friendship and within herself, thus demonstrating a growth in self-esteem.
Multicultural literature does not only benefit the minority though. Multicultural texts also provide examples of differences among people, supplying an opportunity to glimpse another culture from the perspective of the author. (Louie, 2005, p. 566.) Louie (2005. p. 577.) demonstrated that engagement with multicultural texts increased the awareness of different perspectives and that due to this students placed higher values on human rights.

Rukhsana Khan, award winning Pakistani/Canadian author provides a ‘voice’ for many Muslim students whilst also opening a gateway for non-Muslims to begin to understand the cultural differences. Her latest book, The Big Red Lollipop, (Khan, 2011.) is culturally rich, written from the perspective of a Muslim immigrant and provides a springboard for discussion with all students surrounding various birthday celebrations and the need for acceptance. In A New Life (Khan, 2009.) the author focuses upon the challenges faced by an immigrant child arriving in a new country. Based upon Khan’s own experiences the book was commissioned by the Canadian Government and is now supplied to every child immigrant on entering Canada. Khan’s books reflect the experiences of a certain culture whilst also offering insight and opportunities to explore multiple cultural experiences. (Glazier & Seto, 2005, p. 687.) These texts allow a range of perspectives to be included within the classroom and highlight that each and every one of us has a something significant to offer our culturally diverse world. Louie (2005. p.12.) demonstrated that engagement with multicultural texts increased the awareness of different perspectives and that due to this students placed higher values on human rights.

Although Khan’s work is clearly written from the perspective of a Muslim immigrant, it is much more than that. Like all quality multicultural literature the books not only offer a mirror that reflects personal experiences and a gateway to enhance understanding, but they also identify universal human traits and enable learners to realize that there are commonalities between cultures. It is the focusing on those universal commonalities that may help develop respectful and open-minded learners who have empathy with others.
A text that focuses on commonalities is Mirror, written by the Australian based author and illustrator, Jeannie Baker (2010.) Through Mirror Baker demonstrates that regardless of our differences commonalities abound. The book is comprised of two parts, designed to be read simultaneously. Each part reflects the day in the life of a boy, one living in Sydney, Australia, whilst the other lives in a rural village in Morocco. Both life styles reveal how life in these two nations differs. Many things vary but fundamentally the families are similar. The images demonstrate parallels between the families, their experiences and ideals. Both families are concerned about their members, they love one another and are part of an extended community, highlighting that regardless of any differences they are the same. The commonalities here bind us and make obvious those similarities in our own lives, regardless of culture or country and thus could decrease negative stereotyping.

At present multicultural texts that focus on similarities appear to be in ascendancy. Dear Primo: A Letter to my Cousin. (Tonatiuh, 2010.), is another picture book, that this time uses letters between cousins, to draw parallels between children’s lives. In this text parallels are drawn between Mexico and America. Art based on the Mixtecs, is used to help highlight the differences between the children and their cultures but once again it is the similarities and commonalities that ensure that all readers are involved in this multicultural text. Time spent recognizing and focusing on similarities enables children to break out of the prison of egocentrism and allows them to recognize themselves within text, that on the surface appears to have little to do with their own lives. (Horning, 2010, p. 15.) By focusing on similarities multicultural literature becomes relevant to all children, not just those who can see themselves reflected obviously. (Horning, 2010, p. 15.) It highlights connections, racially, culturally and globally, the universalities within all of our lives.

Immi’s Gift, (Littlewood, 2010.) demonstrates this interconnectedness and universality beautifully. Children across the globe, from the Artic to the tropics are connected through a story built around the discovery of simple treasures. Whilst fishing Immi ‘catches’ several colourful objects which bring joy to her barren Artic environment. As spring approaches she needs to move but before leaving, places a small wooden bear in her fishing hole. This is then washed up upon a tropical shoreline where a boy discovers it. Given the opportunity to engage with Immi’s Gift, and other text that demonstrate global connections, gives learners the opportunity to identify links between themselves and others whilst simultaneously stressing how we already enrich each other’s lives.

Care must be taken however when using multicultural literature. It must portray accurate representations whilst also offering opportunities to explore perspective and attitudes. (Hall, 1993. p. 4.). Ruth and the Green Book (Ramsey, 2010.) is an excellent book upon which to explore feelings and perceptions, in this case related to racism. The excitement of a trip to see her family is marred when Ruth realizes that because her family is African-American they are not welcome in any establishments. Given The Green Book by a petrol attendant Ruth and her family are able to make the journey safely across America. This book provides opportunities to build understanding (Horning, 2010, p. 16.) and empathy. It presents an opening for teachers and teacher librarians to discuss race openly with students and enables us to acknowledge differences in an authentic way whilst demonstrating that the attitudes and perspectives we portray are important.

To make the deepest impact possible with this literature a cultural sensitive teacher librarian is needed. In the first instance the teacher librarian must ensure that the collection values diversity and that it reflects the ethnic groups, cultures and languages (Hinton-Johnson & Dickinson, 2005, p. 43.) reflected within the school community. They must ensure that these materials are always available and woven through units of both literature and inquiry. Festivals, food and fashion are important aspects of culture and our students’ experiences, but multicultural literature should not be kept in the cupboard until Black History Month or Chinese New Year. Every display and every unit of inquiry should contain multicultural literature. A deep knowledge of available texts is necessary to enable authentic, genuine integration of multicultural texts that support learning. This means having a deep knowledge of settings, eras and characters not just the cultures represented within the story.

Through a constructivist approach to learning the teacher librarian can utilize multicultural literature to develop background knowledge and opportunities to engage all students. For example, during the task definition stage introducing historical accurate fiction such as Home of the Brave (Say, 2002.) would enable students to make personal connections, (Hinton & Dickinson, 2005, pp. 17-19.). This could possibly lead to higher levels of engagement whilst offering multiple perspectives upon which to build changes in attitudes and understandings. (Glazier & Seto, 2005, p. 688.) Cultural awareness and sensitivity must be apparent at all times within the school library and throughout its online presence if these personal connections are to be made. It should not be viewed as an appendage but should be a fully integrated part of the planning process. (Hinton-Johnson & Dickinson, 2005, p. 43.)

With limited budgets teacher librarians may argue that provision for this level of engagement is a challenge, but with internet access The International Children’s Digital Library, can expand a small multicultural collection immensely and at no cost. ( Through its outstanding collection of thousands of free multicultural, and multilingual texts, the inclusion of quality multicultural literature in every wired school or classroom is possible. The International Children’s Digital Library aspires to represent every culture in order that each child is able to become a global citizen who is respectful and tolerant of diverse cultures and languages. Schools that actively use this and make it available to their community through their library website begin to demonstrate that they value the diversity of the school community and the global population. The recently launched application for the iPad (2010) by the International Children’s Digital Library enables those schools with portable devices to use these text in literature circles, guided reading lessons and whole class shared reading, widening their accessibility and impact considerably.
Any program offered by the school library must be assessed to guarantee the inclusion of multicultural themes and how these not only mirror student’s experiences but also expand students, and the community’s, horizons and understanding. It is not about adding an odd talk about Chinese culture here or sharing a book published by National Geographic there. It is about ensuring that multicultural literature permeates the curriculum and accurately represents the cultures within our schools and our communities. This is best achieved through collaboration with the community where the teacher librarian shows a willingness to listen and to learn in order that they are depicting cultures accurately, without stereotyping or a lack of respect. It means making that extra effort to ensure that author’s names and culturally specific words are pronounced accurately using either an online tool such as or asking members of the community. This not only demonstrates respect but interest and enthusiasm too, which is prized by our students and their families.

Forward-looking schools aspire to develop internationally minded learners who avoid stereotyping, violence and prejudice whilst welcoming the perspectives of others. Through multicultural literature our students learn to appreciate the differences and commonalities between cultures whilst identifying with, and valuing, their own. (Kovarik, 2004, p. 10.) To disregard multicultural literature would demonstrate poor judgment as it provides us with the tools to develop the necessary attitudes and beliefs we need to create a truly multicultural society, as demonstrated by Evans. (2010, p.92.) It is not enough though to have these books on our shelves or offered electronically. We must engage our students, regardless of age, in appropriate debates that will push their understanding and thinking further. By doing this we transmit open-mindedness and the universality of the human experience, and may help our students make sense of a sometimes puzzling and complex world. (Salvadore, 1995, p. 229.)

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Wyeth, S. D. (1998). Something beautiful. New York: Doubleday Books for Young Readers