Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Thank You, Grace Lin (or Why Multicultural Books Matter)

I taught a class last summer called Choosing and Using Children’s Literature Across the Curriculum. While we focused most of our efforts on choosing books to augment the teaching of math, science and social studies, we spent a fair amount of time discussing and reflecting on the need to include books in the curriculum that help students develop understanding of other cultures. I know, this is where I lose people. In fact, there are those who have argued vehemently that this should absolutely not be a criterion by which we select and evaluate books. But alas, for me, this is so important. Classrooms today just don't look the way they did 30 years ago (or 10 years ago), so the books we select shouldn't look the same either.

Let's look at some figures from Virginia. The most recent LEP (Limited English Proficient) data includes this information:
  • Since 1996, the number of LEP students in Fairfax County alone (outside D.C.) has TRIPLED from 10,000 to 30,000 students.
  • In the 05-06 academic year, the number of LEP students enrolled in Virginia public schools was 78,216. This year (06-07), the number of enrolled LEP students is 86,392.
Our schools are changing, and to meet the needs of all students, shouldn't we use materials that reflect the experiences of ALL students? Imagine what school would be like if you never found yourself reflected in the curriculum in any way? What must that be like?

When I graduated from high school there were fewer than 10 African-American students in my class of 375, and probably fewer Asian-American. Were it not for my 9th grade social studies instructor, I never would have studied the countries of Asia and Africa. I exchanged letters with a Japanese penpal (the old fashioned kind you know, on very thin paper with cool air-mail stamps and envelopes), learned about making and flying kites, counted in Swahili, and did so many other cool things that I can attribute my love of learning about other countries, cultures and people to Mr. Lind and this class. All positive notes aside, I had to wait until high school to learn these things, and if I were from another race or culture, I would have spent my entire school career until this point reading and learning only about white Americans. How do we ever teach children to develop cross-cultural understanding if we don't start when they are very young? As I said, I grew up in different times, and boy, have times changed.

One of my favorite books to use for studying topics in science and social studies related to the world population is If the World Were a Village by David Smith. Since 6.3 billion is a difficult number to understand, the author scales important world statistics down to a village of 100. Using this smaller number allows us to see how the world's peoples, religions, and resources are then distributed. Here are some things students learn:
  • If the whole world were a village of 100 people, 61 would come from Asia, 13 from Africa, 12 from Europe, 8 from South America, Central America (including Mexico) and the Caribbean, 5 from Canada and the United States, and 1 from Oceania (an area that includes Australia, New Zealand and the islands in the south, west, and central Pacific.
  • In the global village there are almost 6000 languages, but more than half of the people speak these 8 languages - 22 speak a Chinese dialect (of these people, 18 speak the Mandarin dialect), 9 speak English, 8 speak Hindi, 7 speak Spanish, 4 speak Arabic, 4 speak Bengali, 3 speak Portuguese, and 3 speak Russian.
  • In the village of 100 people, 32 are Christians, 19 are Muslims, 13 are Hindus, 12 practice shamanism, animism and other folk religions, 6 are Buddhists, 2 belong to other global religions (such as Baha’i faith, Confucianism, Shintoism, Sikhism or Jainism, 1 is Jewish, and 15 are non-religious.
I could go on here, but these figures stand for themselves. Do we really need any other reasons to think about our teaching in a more global context? This is why multicultural children's books matter.

I am inarticulate when it comes to discussing these matters, so I'll let someone far more talented explain why this is so important. Thank you, Grace Lin, for saying this so eloquently. Please read Why Couldn't Snow White Be Chinese? for a strong argument for helping children from all walks of life find themselves in books.


  1. I think multicultural books matter, too. I teach a children's literature course at a large university in Massachusetts. I have had the great fortune to have Grace come speak to my students on a couple of occasions. I had my students read her article beforehand.

    Two others articles I often assign as required reading can be found at the Horn Book website:
    "Tolerance Is Not Enough" by Suzanne Fisher Staples and "Against Borders" by Hazel Rochman.

  2. Hi Elaine,

    Thanks for writing! I will look into these articles. I also have students read the Aronoson article, "Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes" with the letters of response. It certainly makes for lively discussions. You can find it at:


  3. Thank YOU, Tricia, for such a nice post. I'm so honored and glad my work has touched you in a way I hoped.

  4. Thanks, Heather. As you can see, I am dreaming of China!