What Does Multicultural Literature Mean to You?

When Nathalie invited me to be an occasional guest blogger on MC Rocks, I asked myself this question and realized I didn’t have a concrete answer. So I set out to find out how other people involved in multicultural literature defined it.

My first stop was with Nathalie who knows more about multicultural children’s literature than anyone I personally know. Her background in Sociocultural Anthropolgy helps. J This is what she told me:

“If you only consider the etymology, the term refers to all types of cultures, including European, American (though be careful here, my theory is that THE American culture doesn’t exist per se, but is made of a vast arrays of, not sub-cultures, but other cultures such as Russian, German, Italian, Cuban, Mexican etc…)

”The context plays an important role, and generally, when the term is used in a particular country, it means all the other cultures except the hegemonic one. So in the USA, when most people, publishers refer to it, they mean “underrepresented” cultures, more specifically, they make it about people of color (which sparks another debate, with some saying that that term does not apply to Caucasians)…

”Initially the text on the blog included European children’s books. After a while I decided to strongly focus on books about ethnicity considered minorities, but I am not excluding European, and actually not excluding Caucasian/American either. I simply mention it less, because culturally speaking, books with that content already have a plethora of bloggers and websites dedicated to their promotion. I confess that I however have a strong interest in books that tackle controversial topics such as homosexuality, disability or else (regardless of the cultural background), because they also happen to be under-represented and because I personally believe teens also want to read about such topics, in order to discuss them…”

Okay, that’s all super interesting and stirs up even more thoughts on the subject. Should we include “white” cultures under the umbrella of multicultural literature? What about lesbian, bi-sexual, gay and transgender persons? They’re certainly under-represented in children’s literature.

Dr. Robert F. Smith of Towson University in Maryland, on his website Celebrating Cultural Diversity

Through Children’s Literature, quotes J. Yokota’s definition of MC literature as “literature that represents any distinct cultural group through accurate portrayal and rich detail.” Dr. Smith lists Jewish Americans as one of his book categories.

In a paper posted on the New Horizons for Learning website, Jennifer Johnson Higgins states MC lit “is variably used to describe groups of people from a nonwhite background, people of color, or people of all cultures regardless of race.” So…not a concrete definition, either.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) says there’s no single definition for MC children’s lit, but for their use it means “books by and about people of color.”

On Cynthia Leitich Smith’s fabulous website, she has lists for “multicultural” books and “multiracial” books. Is this a better way to look at books that deal with diversity?

And on the Tu Books website, Stacy Whitman writes (referring to comments on a Through the Tollbooth blog thread) that she finds “interesting the idea of the word “multicultural” being taken off the table.” Hopefully some day we can just have novels for kids—realistic, fantasy, mystery, etc.—that have characters who are of other cultures or races without that being the main focus of the book.

There are probably lots more definitions out there, but I’ll stop here. Me? I’m still looking for a definitive answer, although one may not exist.

On a side—but related—note, while I was, um, listening to graduation speeches recently, I was thinking about this blog post and diversity in general. I went to two graduations that weekend (yikes) and as a white person, I can say I was not in the majority. Almost every culture and race was about equally represented. This made me feel really…proud and happy and excited that I lived in a (at least local) society where this is the norm. And it made me hopeful about the future—that we will not only accept diversity but take joy in it as well.

So…what does multicultural literature mean to you?