Around the World in 80 Books:
A Multicultural Guide for Grades 1-5
by Rosemary B. Stimola, Ph.D.
Multiculturalism is certainly not a new concept. For decades, many children throughout America have grown up in mixed neighborhoods, where at least four or five different languages were spoken, where almost everyone who spoke English spoke it with an accent, where proximity to the traditions, customs, and the riveting stories that each group of people brought with them from somewhere else was the norm. Multiculturalism has long been alive and well in homes and in the streets of America's ethnically diverse neighborhoods, where children are shaped and influenced by one another's cultures.
Ironically, however, no matter how enriching the experience of growing up in such social contexts, multiculturalism held no currency in schools where a dominant language and a dominant cultural perspective echoed in classrooms, filled the pages of books, and ultimately filled young heads and altered their sense of selves. When culturally or ethnically different "others" were portrayed, in these and other books, they were generally depicted in an oversimplified, biased way. Books misrepresenting individuals and fostering a mistrust and denigration of people from other cultural and ethnic groups were part of the very fabric of America's literature. The few books that presented less stereotypic images of minority cultures, published in the latter half of the twentieth century, were rarely found on school and library shelves and many youngsters never had the pleasure and opportunity to read such titles as Leo Politi's Song of the Swallows, a 1950 Caldecott winner with a Hispanic-American protagonist; or Elizabeth Yates' 1950 Amos Fortune, Free Man.
The concept of multiculturalism is not new; what is new is that it is no longer confined to culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhoods and homes. With the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the landmark publication of a 1965 article in the Saturday Review by author Nancy Larrick, "The All White World of Children's Books," expressing concern about the absence of non-Anglo and non-white role models, and the Council on Interracial Books for Children established in 1966, the literary world began to take notice. Efforts to include accurate depictions of more racial minorities eventually blossomed and grew to include non-stereotypic portrayals of many cultural groups, women and others. The last decades of the twentieth century saw the creation of awards like the Pura Belpre and the Coretta Scott King Awards, recognizing the distinguished work of Latino and African-American writers and illustrators. Stories that accurately portray and validate, through character, time and place, the identities, experiences and social realities of all children everywhere have begun to fill school and library shelves. Finally, "multicultural" has found its long overdue place in our consciousness, in our literature, and in our schools, where teachers now actively seek to integrate literature from many different cultures in their classrooms, sending a message that diversity is valued in the learning environment. The journeys to "elsewheres" and the experiences with "others" charted in the pages of multicultural books are a means of enrichment, allowing young readers to appreciate the beautiful diversity of our world and its peoples, and to develop a sense that they belong to a community larger than that defined by geographic, ethnic, religious or cultural borders. They are a source of empowerment, leading to self-discovery, validation and a sense of self-worth essential in the development of children everywhere. But, beyond these humanistic concerns, educators have found that using multicultural literature across the curriculum has academic payoffs as well, in the form of improved reading and writing among children from diverse backgrounds, broadened viewpoints based on different perspectives, and higher order forms of critical thought, enabling students to better meet performance standards in schools.
The stories highlighted in this guide represent countries in every hemisphere and on many continents around the globe. Children may enjoy and better comprehend these tales when they are provided with a knowledge base about the time, place, and peoples depicted in them. Before reading each story, identify the country or locale being featured, and locate it on a world map or globe, noting its geographic location relative to the United States. Highlight important geographic features such as mountains, rivers, deserts, and cities of interest. Ask children what they might already know about each country - languages(s), customs/traditions, etc. - and how children's lives there might be different from their own. Add or extend information as appropriate. Familiarize students with vocabulary, phrases, and/or foreign language expressions that are specific to the culture and key to the comprehension and interpretation of each story.