Our Children Need Multicultural Literature in Their Lives: Books to Check Out While In Quarantine

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Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

At the time these words were written they only applied to wealthy, white males that owned property. But as time has progressed people have come to take these words as meaning freedom for every American citizen. And furthermore, those citizens have the right to be treated equally and should be afforded the same rights as anyone else. In this way, the notion of equality is thought to be a fundamental right in the US democracy, even though it does not always play out that way in society.

What kind of literature do you recall reading in your K-12 experience? Do you recall characters from a wide variety of cultures or were the protagonists predominantly white characters? Although I can probably count on one hand the number of multicultural books I had access to growing up, the handful I did read sparked an insatiable love for learning that I possess to this day. Primarily because I could identify with the characters in the books. My own experience points to the value of exposing students to a diverse curriculum and multicultural literature. With the United States becoming more culturally diverse and the world becoming smaller and smaller due to the advancement of technology, it behooves teachers to include materials that appeal to a wider range of people groups.

Educational scholar Dr. James Banks offers four approaches to effective multicultural education. In his transformational approach he states that teachers should provide a curriculum whereby students can reflect upon ideas from multiple perspectives as well as looking at their own. One way to do this is by reading literature that offers multicultural perspectives. In this article we have provided a number of examples of multicultural literature from various grade levels that can be used effectively in the classroom to provide resources that will allow students to view the world from multiple perspectives.  

List of Multicultural books and other resources
15 Great Asian Canadian and Asian American YA Books
Best Sellers in Teen & Young Adult Jewish Fiction
Six Native American AYA Themed Books
8 YA Books With Latino Protagonists We Wish We Had As Teenagers
Top Children’s/Y.A. Books Set in Africa
Popular YA Multicultural Books
The 50 Best Multicultural Picture Books of 2018
Fifteen Multicultural Children’s Books
Diversity Book Lists & Activities for Teachers and Parents
Learn About Nigeria Through Children’s Books
The Logonauts: Africa Is Not a Country
China for Kids with Children’s Books, Culture and Design

Multicultural Young Adult Fiction Books
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Paperback)
by Sherman Alexie, Ellen Forney (Illustrator)
Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

American Street (Hardcover)
by Ibi Zoboi (Goodreads Author)
The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun. On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life. But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own. Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Paperback)
by Isabel Quintero (Goodreads Author)
Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

A Moment Comes (Hardcover)
by Jennifer Bradbury
As the partition of India nears in 1947 bringing violence even to Jalandhar, Tariq, a Muslim, finds himself caught between his forbidden interest in Anupreet, a Sikh girl, and Margaret, a British girl whose affection for him might help with his dream of studying at Oxford.

Homegoing (Hardcover)
by Yaa Gyasi
A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

After The Shot Drops (ebook)
by Randy Ribay (Goodreads Author)
A powerful novel about friendship, basketball, and one teen’s mission to create a better life for his family in the tradition of Jason Reynolds, Matt de la Pena, and Walter Dean Myers.    Bunny and Nasir have been best friends forever, but when Bunny accepts an athletic scholarship across town, Nasir feels betrayed. While Bunny tries to fit in with his new, privileged peers, Nasir spends more time with his cousin, Wallace, who is being evicted. Nasir can’t help but wonder why the neighborhood is falling over itself to help Bunny when Wallace is in trouble.

On the Come Up (Audio CD)
by Angie Thomas (Goodreads Author)
Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.

Swing (Hardcover)
by Kwame Alexander, Mary Rand Hess (Goodreads Author)
Things usually do not go as planned for seventeen-year-old Noah. He and his best friend Walt (aka Swing) have been cut from the high school baseball team for the third year in a row, and it looks like Noah’s love interest since third grade, Sam, will never take it past the “best friend” zone. Noah would love to retire his bat and accept the status quo, but Walt has big plans for them both, which include making the best baseball comeback ever, getting the girl, and finally finding cool.

The Astonishing Color of After (Hardcover)
by Emily X.R. Pan (Goodreads Author)
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird. Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life (Hardcover)
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Goodreads Author)
A warmly humane look at universal questions of belonging, infused with humour, from the bestselling author of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
Sal used to know his place with his adoptive gay father, their loving Mexican American family, and his best friend, Samantha. But it’s senior year, and suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and realizing he no longer knows himself. If Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

American Panda (Hardcover)
by Gloria Chao (Goodreads Author)
At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

The Hate U Give (Hardcover)
by Angie Thomas (Goodreads Author)
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

When Dimple Met Rishi (Dimple and Rishi, #1)
by Sandhya Menon (Goodreads Author)
Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Hardcover)
by Erika L. Sánchez
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family. But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role. Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

Love, Hate & Other Filters (Hardcover)
by Samira Ahmed (Goodreads Author)
A searing #OwnVoices coming-of-age debut in which an Indian-American Muslim teen confronts Islamophobia and a reality she can neither explain nor escape—perfect for fans of Angie Thomas, Jacqueline Woodson, and Adam Silvera. American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: attending a college close to their suburban Chicago home, and being paired off with an older Muslim boy her mom deems “suitable.” And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school and living in New York City—and maybe (just maybe) pursuing a boy she’s known from afar since grade school, a boy who’s finally falling into her orbit at school.

The Bitter Side of Sweet (Hardcover)
by Tara Sullivan (Goodreads Author)
Two young boys must escape a life of slavery in modern-day Ivory Coast. Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. This number is very important. The higher the number the safer they are because the bosses won’t beat them. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home to Baba and Auntie. Maybe. The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won’t tell him. The boys only wanted to make some money during the dry season to help their impoverished family. Instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast; they spend day after day living on little food and harvesting beans in the hot sun—dangerous, backbreaking work. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive—until Khadija comes into their lives.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster (Hardcover)
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Goodreads Author)
Zach is eighteen. He is bright and articulate. He’s also an alcoholic and in rehab instead of high school, but he doesn’t remember how he got there. He’s not sure he wants to remember. Something bad must have happened. Something really, really bad. Remembering sucks and being alive – well, what’s up with that?

Mexican Whiteboy (Hardcover)
by Matt de la Pena (Goodreads Author)
Danny’s tall and skinny. Even though he’s not built, his arms are long enough to give his pitch a power so fierce any college scout would sign him on the spot. Ninety-five mile an hour fastball, but the boy’s not even on a team. Every time he gets up on the mound he loses it. But at his private school, they don’t expect much else from him. Danny’ s brown. Half-Mexican brown. And growing up in San Diego that close to the border means everyone else knows exactly who he is before he even opens his mouth. Before they find out he can’t speak Spanish, and before they realize his mom has blond hair and blue eyes, they’ve got him pegged. But it works the other way too. And Danny’s convinced it’s his whiteness that sent his father back to Mexico.

This Side of Home (Hardcover)
by Renée Watson
Identical twins Nikki and Maya have been on the same page for everything—friends, school, boys and starting off their adult lives at a historically African-American college. But as their neighborhood goes from rough-and-tumble to up-and-coming, suddenly filled with pretty coffee shops and boutiques, Nikki is thrilled while Maya feels like their home is slipping away. Suddenly, the sisters who had always shared everything must confront their dissenting feelings on the importance of their ethnic and cultural identities and, in the process, learn to separate themselves from the long shadow of their identity as twins.

Brown Girl Dreaming (Hardcover)
by Jacqueline Woodson (Goodreads Author)
Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse. Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become. 

17 Comments

  1. I was fortunate to grow up in San Diego- home to a diverse Mexican-American culture, LatinX, a huge military presence adding to the wealth of cultures, and average Caucasians. But the best part of CA, besides the beach, were the open-minded individuals that taught me in K-12. San Diego was experiencing a huge growth surge as I came of age, and I was exposed to extraordinarily conservative teachers raised and trained and experienced in the old ways of the three R’s. But to counterbalance that, I also had many younger teachers that pushed bilingual classrooms and programs, GATE projects that tied multicultural themes and investigations into traditional literature and social sciences and science, and the books we read. My standard classroom reading lists were nearly breathtaking in their inclusivity. Looking back, I can honestly say that the only genre we didn’t see authors from was LGBTQIA, and that’s predominantly because there wasn’t a lot of young adult literature appropriate. If there had been, I bet we would have read it.

    We studied Asian authors, we read translations. We read African authors, we read Middle Eastern perspectives. I’m sure it’s no surprise, but we read a ton of Mexican-American authors, Spanish, and South Americans, too. I cannot explain how fortunate I was and am, to be handed the keys to a multi-cultural kingdom so young. The difference in perspectives and the different writing styles (even in translation) was incredible to compare.

  2. Growing up in a suburban area of Cincinnati I was not exposed to many other cultures or people of other races. I remember reading a handful of books about people in far away places that caught my interest but not many. I think that children should be educated on many different cultures as it creates a more rounded, more understanding person. I think that understanding people who are different than yourself and cultures different from your own can help empathy.
    I love this list that you have created here. As a future educator, I look forward to building my classroom library and I am going to bookmark this article. I want my students to be aware of the way other people live and understanding of other people and other cultures. Introducing them to books about people of different backgrounds is a great way to do this.

  3. I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods with my very white family and went to predominately white schools as a child, so I unfortunately did not get access to much multicultural literature until I was older. I regret the lack of diversity in my early childhood, for it would have done wonders for my general worldview and understanding of the globe and the people in it, especially considering how the small amount of multicultural literature I had access to impacted me so greatly. For example, in middle school I read a book called “I am Nujood, Age 10, and Divorced” about a young Yemeni girl named Nujood Ali who became a figure against child marriage and is one of the reasons I am so passionate about ending child marriage to this day. It is so incredibly important for children to be exposed to a wide, diverse array of literary works from a young age in order to understand the many perspectives that exist and to learn more from others and about others.

  4. Growing up I did not have much opportunity to experience multicultural literature. I grew up on the west side of Louisville, so my neighborhood was predominately African American. My elementary school was also on the west side, although my school was a decent school we still did not have access to multicultural literature. I think it is important for children today to have the opportunity of learning multicultural literature. It can give them the open mind of understanding people from different cultures and people come from different walks of life, which can be informational and educational for children.

  5. I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods with my very white family and went to predominately white schools as a child, so I unfortunately did not get access to much multicultural literature until I was older. I regret the lack of diversity in my early childhood, for it would have done wonders for my general worldview and understanding of the globe and the people in it, especially considering how the small amount of multicultural literature I had access to impacted me so greatly. I think it is so incredibly important for children to be exposed to a wide, diverse array of literary works from a young age in order to understand the many perspectives that exist and to learn more from others and about others. Schools in todays society should implement more culture into the classroom and teach children about it from young ages.

  6. I believe this article, the message it sends, and the resources it provides are essential to children of color. I remember when I was growing up I would watch movies and read books and then try to emulate the heroes. I mean, what kid (or adult for that matter) doesn’t want to be a hero? However, when children and people of color read books or watch movies, they tend to find white heroes (and usually male heroes). Are little girls supposed to want to be a heroic boy? Are people of color supposed to want to be a heroic white? It is essential that society offers a diverse array of books with a diverse array of heroes. This allows everyone to feel represented and allows children to choose their role models and who they want to be like. In addition, it encourages children to read and grow as human beings. That’s why representation is so important.

  7. Children of all backgrounds need to see other children of all backgrounds in content they consume: tv series, movies, radio shows, and especially books. As a little girl growing up in a white neighborhood, learning about white history in a mostly white private school, having white friends, and reading books about other white children, I rarely had any experiences with children from other backgrounds. It wasn’t until I went to a big, diverse, public high school that I started to glimpse out of the white bubble I had grown up in. Similar to Dr. Childs experience however, I learned to LOVE reading. The nature of reading itself is an act of empathy. Fiction is a chance to walk into the lives of someone else. This is why white children also need to read books about children from different backgrounds. Regular practice in empathy (just like regular practice in anything) is to invest in the future by ensuring that all children have practiced empathy and can see someone else’s viewpoint more clearly by putting their own thoughts aside. All children deserve to see themselves represented in literature and white children need to read about multicultural children. This ted talk says it all, much better than I ever could. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

  8. Growing up I lived in a small town and went to a school of all white students. I was not exposed to multi-culture and our school did not push for the inclusion of multicultural literature. However, I can remember in 5th grade finding a chapter book at the bottom of book bin called “Esperanza Rising”. This book was about Mexico during the great depression and went through a young girl’s experience through it. I was amazed by the things I read and learned, I knew nothing of the culture. Even to this day as a 22 year old I remember the impact the book had on me. As a future teacher I hope to include multicultural literature in my classroom. It is so important to include this so that it normalizes a diverse world.

  9. Growing up I was not exposed to literature besides what was provided through the school. I wish there would have been more multicultural literature in my K-12 educational years. However i also found that the more multicultural literature that I did get my hands on, the more interested I became on learning the diverse world outside my own white household. I believe there should be more multicultural literature especially to help children understand the many cultures that make up America.

  10. Now that I think about it, most of the book I read in school were white dominated stories. I’m having a hard time remembering books where the protagonist is of other cultures. Perhaps my first issue is that I don’t read enough books! School curriculum definitely does not help, as the main books are the “classic” literatures such as Mark twain. I think I’ll take a look at The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, seems like a fun read!

  11. I grew up in predominately White neighborhoods and our libraries and schools did not offer a lot of diverse reading material. In fact I can’t remember reading one book in elementary school that had any representations of other cultures. I’ve recently thought about this because now I am reading to my own kids and buying books for them to read. Especially right now, educating our white children of the privilege they have is extremely important. And I’ve turned to books to help me navigate through that now with my own kids.

  12. This article is great, growing up a person of color in a predominantly white community my access to multicultural books was limited. All the main characters were white. I always love to read books like magic tree house or junie b jones but I could never relate to them because of the color of my skin. This is one thing that I hope my children can have more access too. Not only my children but my students, I wish to have a multicultural library in my classroom to help educate white children and include my students of color.

  13. As a White person, I never had to think about if there were characters in the books I read that I could relate to. Being a member of the majority/dominant group in society, I never had to worry about who I could look up to, because literature, movies, comics and everything has been and up until recently was widely cultivated to my skin color. I am so excited to see the change in this and for there to be representation of different cultures and sexes in main characters of stories; but we are still at the beginning of these changes. Growing up to realize that I am a part of the LGBT+ community has been interesting, because I never thought to look at characters I could relate to in that aspect, but I wonder how much smoother my life would have been if I had seen gay characters in books and movies. Change and progression are slow, but I pray that we make a step each day that brings us closer to full equality in all aspects of life.

  14. It’s important for children to have access to books of all cultures. As a white kid, I read mostly books where the main character was also white, not intentionally, but that was all I that was readily available. Children and teens do need role models, heroes, and characters that look like them and they can relate to. This doesn’t mean that I think Black, Hispanic and Asian children should only read books with the main characters of the same race as the reader. It is essential for children, and especially those who do not live in a multicultural neighborhood, to read books about other cultures, and the issues they have to deal with. Some are similar and some are so different that you wouldn’t be able to imagine what it was like until you stepped into someone’s shoes literarily through a book.

  15. Growing up in rural Kentucky, I can say that I do not recall reading many picture books or chapter books in which there were characters from a wide variety of cultures in elementary school. Many of the characters were predominately white. I do recall reading a couple of multicultural books in middle school and high school but not many in elementary school. Now as I prepare to be an elementary school teacher, I know that exposing diverse curriculum falls on me. I hope to provide my students with a wide variety of texts that they can relate to and that will make them more aware of the world around them. I am excited to have the websites provided in this blog to help me with my search for multicultural literature to include in my classroom.

  16. As teachers, it should be our responsibility to expose students to different perspectives and cultures. It’s important to include diverse people and experiences within the classroom so all students can relate and feel like they belong. I have noticed from lecture and these articles that you will provide us with some great books to have in our classrooms, which I am looking forward to. It first came to my attention in my Sexism and Racism class that most teachers are white, and their classrooms and textbooks are basically whitewashed. I want to avoid this and try my best to include multicultural literature in my teachings.

  17. Growing up in the rural, almost all white Catholic school system my whole life from kindergarten through high school, the literature, from what I can remember, was not of vast variety. In elementary school specifically, I cannot recall reading many multicultural picture books—most of the characters being white, unless it was a history book talking about someone of color from the past. As I got older though, some of my teachers expanded the variety of text we read, but not as much as I would like to as a future teacher myself. Within my classroom, whether I teach in a predominately white Catholic school like most in the area I am familiar with, or a more diverse school, I will be sure to provide my students with a variety of literature that speaks and represents as many cultures as I can.

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