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?

Introducing Linda Covella

Hello, everyone. I’m happy to introduce one of my critique partners, Linda Covella, who inspired several posts on this blog by bringing related information to my attention. When I was sick I turned to Linda for help with the blog, and she accepted to become a contributor.

Linda, thank you for joining Multiculturalism Rocks! Please, tell us a little bit about your background. 🙂

First, Nathalie, I’d like to thank you for inviting me to join MC Rocks! I’ve been following the blog since you first started, and have been impressed with the information you provide your readers, including that killer chicken recipe. 🙂

I’ve always loved to write, but never thought of it as a career until later in life. My first artistic love was drawing and painting. But I did incorporate the two even as a child—writing and illustrating two “award winning” stories in 2nd and 10th grade. 🙂 Hey, you have to grab that praise and encouragement whenever and wherever you can!

Now, while running a small home-based technology business with my husband, I write as much as possible. I’ve published some articles in children’s magazines, my agent is shopping one of my middle-grade novels, and I’m just finishing up a revision of a young-adult novel.

From spending time with you and reading your work, I know that you strongly feel about cultural diversity in kid lit. Where does that stem from?

Well, without getting into a rant 🙂 it stems from a time in the 1980s when there was some very strong anti-immigrant sentiment in our country, and that really bothered me. One of the things I love most about the U.S. is the mix of cultures we have. That diversity strengthens, not weakens, our country. Not to mention making it a fun and interesting place to live. I love learning about other cultures’ traditions, foods, etc. and seeing them incorporated into the U.S. lifestyle.

I thought people needed to be reminded that we’re all immigrants. Since I had started to (semi)seriously pursue children’s writing, I wanted to approach it from that perspective. Naïve about the publishing biz, I wrote what I now laughingly call my 30,000 word picture book based on the history of U.S. immigration. Though an agent took it on (surprise!), it was never published (not surprised). But since then I’ve written other stories pulled from that “PB,” including the YA novel I mentioned.

What are your favorite books so far?

It’s always difficult to pick “favorites,” but some of the books I have on my shelf that I really enjoyed are:

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. This was the 2005 Newberry Medal winner. I really loved this book. Cynthia’s style of writing is deceptively simple. She incorporates many little details that put you fully into Katie the main character’s head and world.

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (all Linda’s books that I’ve read are great). Also a Newberry winner  (2002). I like this book because of Linda’s writing, seeing how the main character Tree-ear changes, for the historical aspects (12th century), and that it takes place in another country (Korea). Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved to read books that let you into another country or culture.

My Loco Life by Lee McClain. This is a fun book for teens with its contemporary setting, romance, and theme of following your dreams. Everyone assumes Alicia Jiminez, who just moved into a new foster home, speaks Spanish, but in reality she’s flunking that class. Her passion is fashion design, and her dream is to win a scholarship to a fashion institute in Madrid. Things heat up when she enlists the help of hunky neighbor Hector to help her with her Spanish.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. Wonderful details of the daily life of Little Frog and her adoptive Ojibwa family on Lake Superior’s Madeline Island in 1847.

China’s Son, Growing Up in the Cultural Revolution by Da Chen. The author’s memoir of his childhood in China from 1966 to 1976 when he was four- to fourteen-years-old—a terrible time in China’s history. I think this is a fascinating book about the changes Da Chen and his family go through during Mao’s reign, and their struggle and determination to put Da through college once Mao—along with his anti-intellectualism laws—dies.

Three Names of Me by Mary Cummings. Disclosure: this book is by my agent, but I really wanted to include it. A picture book about adoption, I love the beautiful realistic pictures, and the text simply and lyrically captures a young Chinese girl’s feelings about her “three names”: from her birth mother, from the orphanage, and from her adoptive U.S. parents.

Thank you, Linda!