Who are Multicultural Children’s Books For?

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As a child in Iowa, there were no people of color living in my neighborhood, and the values and family practices discussed in school books were utterly middle of the road White American. That didn’t mean that I was the middle of anything, however.

For perspective, I hadn’t even seen a TV until I was 7. The school I attended was exclusively for Catholic kids. Books at my school, featuring Dick and Jane, were provided by nuns in Burka-like, long black dresses with white head coverings revealing only their hands and faces. Hearing the nuns’ long rosary-like belts clatter as they walked down the hall was totally normal, and the cross never appeared without Jesus.

The first sense I had about other cultures and families came when we moved to Des Moines. The children there included Latinxs (always referred to as Mexicans) and African-American kids (NOT always referred to as Negroes).

Only then did it begin to dawn on me that there were important cultural differences between me and many of my classmates. However, there was no discussion about it. There were no books about it. It was barely noteworthy that we were each somehow different from one another.

For my family’s eighth move in as many years I was placed mid-year into a 5th-grade public school class in the suburbs of Kansas City. Again, all of my classmates he were white, but we never went to mass or knelt in class to pray. There were no nuns who celebrated Holy Days with focused lessons on how to live a good life. By then, my older brother and I had lost an alcoholic father, and thankfully added my grandmother and granduncle and two of my mother’s unmarried sisters to our immediate family. My family went to mass, but not until half way through the second half of that 5th-grade year had I met children of other faiths who attended other churches, synagogues and temples–or who didn’t attend any religious services at all. So by the age of 10 I had actually experienced at least nine waves of cultural and family changes.

Wherever my family lived we visited the library regularly, but there were never any books that presented life as I had led it. Had I been born 74 years later, there would have been available hundreds of books that could have helped me make sense of my differences from those of my classmates.

Here’s the crux: Unless children are provided with books or other ways to showcase all races and cultures and life histories, they run the risk of growing up with a strange sense of normal–thinking that wearing masks is what everyone always did to be safe, that there was always a climate crisis, and that everyone’s TVs were always the size of entire walls.

So, go forth and ask any children’s librarian or bookstore clerk about multicultural books for kids. In each one children will find that every kid is both like and unlike them. Reading those books with an adult will provide children the opportunity to discuss and reflect on their own uniquenesses. It will allow them to expand upon their individual experiences and qualities that will allow them to build strong connections with others from every possible background.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore…*

*Dorothy, dazzled by life in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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