Take a quick tour of the children’s classics in Anglo-Saxon literature and you will see a glaring predominance of Caucasian protagonists. I don’t feel it is wrong to feature white children in books per se, but I do think that the glaring absence of engaging stories featuring other ethnicities reflects quite a bit of our deep cultural prejudice. Think about award-winning classics like The Little Engine That Could that tell our young readers that all the good little girls have blond hair and blue eyes! We find that so archaic and morally wrong. Quite simply, we refuse to read those lines to our own kids.
I am definitely not advocating for the United Colors of Benneton advertisement approach to inserting a token child of Asian descent so that everyone feels valued. In my view, this is the skewed, simplistic, even cringe-worthy interpretation of diversity for overly politically correct societies. I am talking about being open to cultures different from our own, not trying to flavor our white fairy tales with dark skin.
When speaking to my librarian friend about the lack of beautiful multicultural stories, she brought up the fact that there aren’t nearly as many ethnic minorities writing children’s lit. in the first place. Those writing stories for our children usually come from affluent Caucasian families. Indeed, wouldn’t it be worse for them to portray another culture inaccurately? Instead, let’s talk about and promote the few qualitative titles in our knowledge that provide our kids with rich cultural exposure.
In addition to my own research, I asked my local library to help me identify a few high quality multicultural books. Within a week, I had about 30 holds to sort through. I left aside those that fit that Benneton bill of the token ethnic minority mentioned above.
Here, my friends, are some of my favorite English language books I came across. I singled them out for their enticing and atypical plots, for their sumptuous illustrations and for their great educational value.
Mama Panya’s Pancakes – A Village Tale from Kenya
Authors: M. & R. Chamberlin
Age group: Maybe 2.5+ for the story, 3.5-4 – 7 years to really dig into the wealth of the information about Kenya
What makes this book so beautiful: Adika goes to the market with his mother who is planning on making pancakes. It is a heart-warming story of a child inviting more and more people to share a table on their way to the market. This is a story of generosity, provision, even when you have just a little. This book comes with an explanation of village life in Kenya, of some of the East-African fauna and flora Adika saw on his way to the market, a brief introduction to Kiswahili greetings, facts and map of Kenya and even a little pancake recipe. Not ready-made pancakes in a box, guys.
Round is a Mooncake and Red is a Dragon
Age group: 3-5 years
What makes these books so beautiful: The first is a book about shapes, the second a book about colors. Both display in catchy sing-songy prose elements important to so many Asian cultures:
“Round is a mooncake, Round is the moon, Round are the lanterns outside my room”
These books end with a short explanation of some of the items: bottle gourds, peony, jade, name chops…
Feast for 10
Author: C. Falwell
Age Group: 2-4 years
What makes this book so beautiful: In this very simple book about cardinal counting, a large African-American family goes to the grocery store, prepares a meal together and eats together. A story about healthy eating habits, sharing in family chores and in the family table.
Malala, a Brave girl from Pakistan / Iqbal, a Brave boy from Pakistan
Author: J. Winter
Age group: 5-8 years old
What makes this book so beautiful: Two non-fiction stories of Pakistani kids Iqbal Masih and Malala Yousafzai fighting for a better future. Iqbal dares to speak up against child slavery, Malala asks for the right for girls to go to school. Iqbal dies for his bravery while Malala miraculously lives and challenges all of us with her courage.
Emmanuel’s Dream – The true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah
Age group: 4-8 years
What makes this book so beautiful: Taken from a Goodreads review that sums it up perfectly: “Born in Ghana, West Africa, with one deformed leg, he was dismissed by most people—but not by his mother, who taught him to reach for his dreams. As a boy, Emmanuel hopped to school more than two miles each way, learned to play soccer, left home at age thirteen to provide for his family, and, eventually, became a cyclist. He rode an astonishing four hundred miles across Ghana in 2001, spreading his powerful message: disability is not inability. Today, Emmanuel continues to work on behalf of the disabled.”
I See the Sun in China
Author: D. King
Age group: 4-7 years
What makes this book so beautiful: It is written in Chinese (simplified, yeay!) as well as in English and describes the joys of waking up in China, watching grandfather do his morning Tai Chi, traveling from a small town to see an auntie in the big city (Shanghai) and so on. Part illustration, part collage, part cut-out imagery, part photography.
Read these books to your kids, give them some promotional love, surprise your pregnant friends registering for the same old, same old white classics with these gorgeous multicultural books.
Which are your personal favorite books in this category?