December 15, 2014

The Importance of Multicultural Literature for Children: 9 Book Recommendations.

reading kids outside

It’s never too early to begin reading with children.

When I was growing up, reading was always encouraged. Before bed, it was story time! Every night I would choose a book and my dad would read it with me—I didn’t know it then, but this small evening ritual was paramount in my development and a primary reason for my love of reading today.

Most of us have likely heard how important it is to read with children. It helps them to develop cognitively, improves their literacy, encourages creativity and so much more. But it’s not only the act of reading, but what children read that affects their development.

When we give children literature, essentially we are giving them the world.

By introducing children to multicultural literature at a young age, they are given an opportunity to see what life is like through the eyes of others. While certain topics encompassed in the realm of multicultural literature may be too complicated for very young children—issues like racism, religion, prejudice—it’s never too early to encourage open mindedness.

When we take the time to introduce children to other cultures early on, we are showing them the incredible diversity of the world, and they are able to see and appreciate that everyone is unique. This promotes tolerance and creates the basis for well-rounded individuals.

Additionally, no matter what the culture, children can often relate to the experiences in the stories we share with them; letting them know they are not alone. Conversely, literature can also create a window into something totally new and different. In either scenario, the importance of including literature from a variety of cultures and perspectives is immeasurable.

With so much out there, how can we know which books to recommend and to read with children?

More often than not, choosing literature written by native authors makes for a more authentic experience. Also, including works representative of different time periods can offer children historical perspectives from a different era.

Children can learn about different cultures, religions, experiences and global issues (at age appropriate levels) in a variety of genres. From folktales, to historical fiction, to poetry; every genre has something to offer at every age and reading level.

For those of you who may be wondering, where do I start?—I have a few recommendations. These are all books which I have studied myself and have read with children. I find them to be enlightening, interesting and absolutely worth reading (at any age!).

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Semi-autobiographical. Contemporary; recommended for ages 12 and up)

This short novel is endlessly entertaining and wonderfully approachable to children, especially those entering adolescence. Written in diary form, it tells the story of a young boy living on an Indian reservation. This story is honest, humorous and relatable.

Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side by Rose Cohen (Autobiography. Written in 1918; recommended for ages 15 and up)

This story takes place in a time when Russia was in the midst of a revolution and much of America was made up of immigrants looking for a new life. It tells the story of a young girl as she and her father begin their lives as Jewish immigrants in America. This novel does an excellent job of honestly portraying what life was like for immigrants at this time; it’s an enlightening, worthwhile read.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (Fiction. Depression era; recommended for ages 10 and up)

This novel uses vivid imagery to tell the story of a young girl and her privileged life on a vineyard in the Mexican countryside. After a death in the family, they are forced to immigrate to America at a time when life was hard for everyone; the Great Depression. This story shows the hardships of life not only for immigrants, but for anyone working to make their way during this period in history.

Mammalabilia by Douglas Florian (Poetry Picture book. Contemporary; recommended for ages 4 and up)

An excellent choice for younger readers, this book accompanies short poems with colorful paintings to teach readers about animals from all over the world. Many of the poems are humorous yet factual, making for a book that is both entertaining and educational.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Historical Fiction. Post-Vietnam War in 1975; recommended for ages 10 and up)

Written in poetry stanzas, this novel is effortlessly readable. It tells the story of a Vietnamese family as they immigrate to America just after the Vietnam War. It’s written from the perspective of the youngest daughter, and as such is easy for children as young as 10 to read. Including both humor and hardship, this novel is a heartwarming testament to the power of family and perseverance.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (Historical Fiction. Depression Era; recommended for ages 11 and up)

This novel has become a classic and a staple in many elementary schools. It tells the story of an African American family and their struggle to maintain control of their land and their independence in the rural south during the 1930s. Although this novel touches on serious issues like racism and prejudice, it’s written in a way which is easily readable and approachable to elementary grade children.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (Fiction. Fluctuates between contemporary and 1940s; recommended for ages 15 and up)

This novel chronicles the lives of 4 Chinese American daughters, and their immigrant mothers. This book shows readers what life was like in China during the 1930s and 1940s from the mothers’ perspectives. It then shows life from the daughters’ point of view, living in modern times as Chinese Americans. Another heartwarming testament to family, this novel shows the unshakable bond between mothers and daughters as they struggle to balance personal needs with familial obligation.

Abuela by Arthur Dorros (Fiction. Contemporary; recommended for ages 6 and up)

This short book includes colorful photos with the story, making it a favorite choice for younger children. It tells the story of the imaginary adventures of a young girl and her grandmother as they explore the city. Including both English and Spanish in the dialogue, it’s an excellent choice to read with bilingual children.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (Historical Fiction. Set in the mid-1800s; recommended for ages 9 and up)

Written from the perspective of a young Native American girl of the Ojibwa tribe, this novel tells the story of her life. Authentic in its representation of Ojibwa culture, the novel emphasizes seasonal changes and a deep connection to the land and nature. This story highlights the importance of self-discovery and living as a community.

This brief list includes just a handful of the many amazing children’s books available. Although reading with children may seem like a small thing, it can make a world of difference.

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Author: Elizabeth Jeter

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Paul/Flickr


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