A Guide to Selecting Multicultural Literature

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff


The language arts curriculum presents an extraordinary opportunity for sharing powerful multicultural perspectives. Multicultural literature opens up the world, allowing all students to hear voices both different from and similar to their own, both from within their own community and beyond. Powerful literature can transport students into a world where they can feel the joys and struggles of others and where they can inhabit the cultural landscape the characters live in. Our ability to take students on these journeys has been greatly enhanced in recent years by an explosion of multicultural literature for children and young adults.

Our challenge today is to prepare ourselves for this journey and, especially, to know what to pack for it. Too often, we pack the old classics without making room for the new. Research suggests that at the secondary level, the choice of authors has remained “remarkably resilient since English coalesced as a school subject at the end of the nineteenth century.” (Appleby, NCTE, 1993). While the elementary level has seen some broadening of selection, standard book lists for selecting literature continue to recommend few multicultural texts.

This guide to selecting multicultural literature is intended to encourage broader use of this literature by offering guidelines for selecting titles. Guidelines are unfortunately still necessary, because culturally biased books continue to be published and even to to receive awards. Moreover, it is difficult for any one teacher to evaluate books from so many different cultures both within the United States and around the globe. In addition to the selection guidelines, this essay will recommend ways to become self-reliant in evaluating titles, so that long after the bibliography becomes dated, educators can continue to make their own assessments.

What do we mean by multicultural literature? The general meaning refers to literature which embraces many cultures and where culture itself is an integral part of the story. Such a definition has implications beyond its dictionary-type appearance. For example, if we use “multicultural” as a shorthand for works about people of color, then we continue, even if only unconsciously, to place this community into the category of “other.” Thus, we continue with the old paradigm of “literature” (white/European) and “multicultural literature.” Such usage assumes that white/European is the universal culture, because it is simply “literature,” while all other literature come with a special cultural designation. Multicultural literature should embrace all literature–the Greek epic, The Iliad, as well as Sundiata, the great epic from ancient Mali. At the elementary level, multicultural literature includes both Cinderella and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. However, our challenge today lies in insuring the inclusion of cultures which have been historically marginalized. Thus, for the purposes of theses guidelines, we will focus on the literature about people of color in the U.S. and abroad. However, we should also keep in mind the need for works about other underrepresented groups, such as the working class.

General Considerations

Three general comments are in order before turning to the main criteria for evaluating multicultural literature. First, any literature selection should be able to stand on its own in terms of quality of characterization, language, illustration and the other standards of good writing. Secondly, accurate and perceptive writing on a culture is a key element in choosing a work. While authors who are members of a given culture generally offer this, non-members also can. Writers such as Vera Williams, Katherine Paterson, and Rush Jhabvala have all succeeded at this leap of imagination. Thirdly, while copyright dates can sometimes aid in reviewing a book, they are not a sure indicator. Some new titles do still contain stereotypes. Moreover, some old titles are and should remain classics, such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Langston Hughes’ Dream Keeper. Finally, while there are still some publishing gaps in multicultural titles at the elementary reading level, students at the adult level can choose from the enormous treasury of U.S. and world literature.

Criteria for Selecting Culturally Inclusive Works

Works chosen must meet two broad, overlapping criteria: the works must have cultural integrity and must avoid exoticising the culture.

Cultural Integrity
Literary works should be specific to a culture, both in the written work and in our use of it. Aspects of the culture should be embedded in the text and the illustrations. In picture books, the illustrations should enhance our understanding of the locale and the characters. We need to keep the “cultural” in multicultural. If there is no cultural context, the work may represent only a token effort at diversity. Thus, a folktale described in the text or preface as “African” is dubious, as all folktales are indigenous to a country or area. A reading of a folktale such as Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain gives us the opportunity to explore the cultural landscape of Kenya which bears little resemblance to, say, Ghana’s. Similarly, readings from Puerto Rico cannot represent the “Latin American experience,” as this enormous region is too diverse for such an effort.

Illustrations should be evaluated not only for their general cultural embedding, but specifically for their accuracy in portrayal of people. Caricatures of Arabs and Blacks continue to surface. For example, Arabs may be portrayed as dark-skinned, menacing men. Drawings of African-Americans should show individuality of character and should neither exaggerate nor minimize physical characteristics. Likewise, the diversity of color among Latin Americans should be reflected in the illustrations.

U.S. ethnic groups should not be confused with their overseas counterparts. Thus, Asian-American life and literature differ substantially from Asian life. Further, the Asian-American experience differs significantly along both national and generational lines. In addition, the experience of recent immigrants differs from those who arrived much earlier, even from the same countries. A novel such as The Joy Luck Club, with its theme of inter-generational differences, illuminates this point well.

Dialect should be appropriate to the situation and the time period. For example, African-American dialect differs across time and place. Moreover, its usage varies according to circumstance and person. Thus, choosing only books on African-American life written in dialect (or written with no dialect at all) misrepresents African-American life.

Avoidance of Exoticism

Literary selections should be chosen for their representative character, especially as our students often are not able to distinguish between the typical and the unrepresentative. Stereotyping comes in two main forms: 1) focusing on atypical cultures and situations and 2) allowing a typical situation represent all situations of a given culture. Careful selection is especially important, given that our students are not generally familiar with a wide range of cultural groups and may take a single work of literature to be representative of a whole group.

The first form of stereotyping comes from stories focusing on an atypical cultural group, such as the tiny Maasai population in Kenya. The second form of stereotyping can occur when only a single piece of literature is used to represent a whole culture, especially a culture with which students are unfamiliar. For example, literary selections which focus exclusively on traditional Native American tales can reinforce preexisting student notions of Native Americans as a people living in the past and without a presence today. Again, stories which place Chinese-Americans only in Chinatown can be misleading.

No single piece of literature can represent a culture. Because of this reality, we face a conundrum: our students need a variety of texts, yet we have time for only a limited number. There are a number of ways to resolve this problem, among them:

  • choosing additional works, perhaps short ones, to give variety in viewpoints;
  • looking for variety in what students read over a period of years rather than focusing just on what they read in a single year;
  • supplementing the reading of the work with a study of that culture, thus offering an opportunity for interdisciplinary learning.

Fundamental to any literature program is the goal of creating lifelong readers. Our sharing of multicultural literature can open new vistas for students, making way for new explorations not possible within the time constraints of the school calendar.

We need to be mindful of our audience and the preconceptions they bring to a reading. Thus, a novel of horrors set in Africa, such as Heart of Darkness, reinforces student notions about Africa being mysterious and dangerous. Similarly, stories focusing on violence in African-American characters may reinforce notions about violence in this community.

Folktales can be a powerful entry point to a culture unfamiliar to our students and to its values. Folktales also offer a wonderful entree to oral literature. (We are facing an publishers’ explosion in folktales, because they promise cultural accuracy and they are inexpensive to produce, as the tales have already been told and are in the public domain.) However, there are certain pitfalls we need to avoid to use this literature well. The main one is balance. In particular, folktales abound from Asia and Africa, yet our students need exposure to other cultural experiences and genres of these peoples. Young students (and often older ones), unfamiliar with a culture, may not be able to differentiate between the world of the folktale and the world of today. Thus, students may hold on to the impression that Chinese life has not changed for two hundred years or that wild animals are found everywhere in Africa. (Most Africans today have today have never seen any wildlife.) Such misrepresentations are often reinforced by T.V. and movies.

Offensive and inappropriate language is not the problem it once was. We should remain alert, however, to two problems. The first is where language encodes stereotypical views such as a “noble people,” or “a typically meek Chinese girl.” Illustrations can also encode stereotypes, such as an overabundance of Asian-Americans wearing eyeglasses. The second problem arises when authors use non-parallel language. Non-parallel language occurs when an author uses different words for another culture to describe the same things which exist in mainstream U.S. life. Thus, works like “hut” for house or home, “a native” for a person, and “superstition” for a religious belief are offensive.

Racially charged remarks are acceptable if they are for the purpose of exposing a character and if they are used in a context which will easily be understood by the readers as defining that character.

Becoming Self-Reliant Reviewers of Multicultural Literature: READ, READ, READ

Any bibliography quickly becomes dated. Thus, we need to develop habits of mind for finding, evaluating and enjoying quality multicultural literature.

Of first importance is the need to model engagement with literature from a variety of cultures. Reading such literature brings joy and power form new perspectives and powerful language. For example, a short Senegalese novel, So Long a Letter, struck such a cord among teachers that it spread out from a Boston summer institute to a number of reading groups. It has been quoted at an award ceremony for an outstanding teacher and has given one woman a fresh perspective on her impending divorce. As we know, reading one amazing book often whets our appetite to explore further. Establishing a teacher reading group is one effective way to foster such engagement with new works. Choosing writings by recent recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature gives us an opportunity to read from a wide range of writers: playwrights from Nigeria and the West Indies, or novelists from Japan, Britain or the United States.

The more we read, the more we learn about cultures and become attuned to cultural accuracy. We can in turn engage our students in developing criteria for quality multicultural literature, guiding them to be critical readers. As we read critically, we should also evaluate what is currently on our shelves and consider moving some books, such as Travels with Babar, to a special section for the study of stereotypes.

We all rely on outside resources in selecting good books. There are several such resources focusing on literature about peoples of color. The periodical, Multicultural Review, and publications from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, including Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults, v.1 and v. 2 are terrific resources.

For highly recommended books on Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia, visit these websites, which list award-winning books published in the United States on these regions:

Finally, we must continue to look for new titles to read, particularly in areas currently underrepresented. While there has been an explosion in children’s literature in recent years, large gaps remain. Some of the most critical gaps are: literature on Hispanic and Latin American life, Asian-American children’s literature which is culturally embedded, Arab literature for children, and African literature beyond picture books and rural environments.

Barbara B. Brown, Ph.D.
Director, Outreach Program
African Studies Center, Boston University
Email: africa@bu.edu
Phone: 617-353-7303