I recall attending a workshop on multicultural children’s literature. The presenters had a table displaying a large number of books. I instantly recognized a couple of them from a distance, but it wasn’t until I got closer that I realized that every single book was depicting African Americans in the illustrations. I recall wondering at the outset of the workshop why they were depicting only one culture in a workshop about multiculturalism.
Mem Fox indicates that “The more we read aloud to our kids and the more they read by themselves, the more experience they’ll have of the world through the things they encounter in books. And the more experience they have of the world, the easier it will be to read” (2008, p. 104). If we are only exposing children to books of their own culture, how are we going to help children to get that greater experience of the world?
The workshop presenters teach in a classroom with all African American children. They discussed the metaphor of books as both a mirror and a window, allowing children to see themselves as well as to open their eyes to new experiences. They presented these two images as side-by-side, with one graphic showing a full-length mirror and the other graphic showing an open window. As I considered this, I wondered if it might be more appropriate to consider books as a closed window, where one can see one’s own reflection in the glass imposed on a new landscape.
The challenge of finding appropriate multicultural books, then, is one of finding books which both speak to the experiences of a child while at the same time introducing them to new worlds they have not yet seen. A closer examination of the books in the workshop revealed that they all accomplished this. Fox states, “Entertainment is the teacher. Subtlety is the key” (2008, p. 53). Though the themes represented a wide variety of subtle concepts, they were all entertaining to the presenters’ students partly because they all depicted characters that the students could connect with.
This is where I have a dilemma. While books depicting African American characters are not as common as those depicting white characters, it has become possible to find a significant number of them. But in my classroom, the majority of my students are Vietnamese. Very few books depict the experiences of a Vietnamese child growing up in the United States in a way that allows children to connect with them. On top of the cultural disconnect, there is also the issue of language.
Having books in the languages that children speak are immensely valuable as well, not only for the ability of children to connect to the text, but also for children to build a foundation of understanding of the written word. As Fox reveals, “The more we know about a language… and the more of that language we know, the easier it is to read it” (2008, p. 87). Books that are not only bilingual but also bicultural are very valuable, but also very rare. I have in my classroom books that were written in English, and later translated into another language due to the popularity of the book. Much fewer are the books originally written in both languages by authors who represent the cultures. Most of the books that I have in my personal children’s library that meet these conditions tend to be very text-heavy and written for older children.
Fox tells us that “if every parent—and every adult caring for a child—read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in their lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one generation” (2008, p. 12). But this entails there being books available to read to the children. Not just three token books, but three genuinely engaging books because “It will do more for a child’s literacy to own one much-loved, beautifully written, trouble-filled book than to own lots of tacky, unappealing books in which the child shows no interest” (2008, p. 135).
My challenge, then, as a teacher, is locating such books. Given the scarcity of these books, I decided that I needed to remedy this. I approached a Vietnamese friend of mine with a proposal to create a children’s book together. With his expertise in Vietnamese culture and my understanding of what is appealing to children, we have drafted a book together that my students could connect with. But then we were faced with the problem of illustrations. Neither of us is very skilled at drawing.
This presented a major dilemma, as Fox reveals that “The pictures tell a thousand words and help unlock the action of the story” (2008, p. 58). I know that many publishers provide beginning authors with established illustrators to help increase the visibility of the book, but I worried about the lack of Vietnamese illustrators. How would someone unfamiliar with the culture depict a Vietnamese household? And what would we do if we are not able to find a publisher?
With the help of another one of my Vietnamese friends, I located a couple of artists in Vietnam who seemed interested in the project, but they quickly removed themselves from the project when they realized the intensity of work involved in illustrating an entire picture book. I decided to take my cue from one of my favorite children’s authors, Nina Crews, and utilize photographs to depict the backgrounds. At the time of this post I have currently completed illustrations on about 15% of the book using computer-generated character illustrations imposed on photographic backgrounds.
The text has already been translated into Vietnamese by my co-author, and I once asked the mother of one of my Vietnamese students, Danny, to read it to him. As she began to look at the text, she started to tell me that it would be too difficult for him. I found that interesting because the very same text had raised concerns from my co-author about possibly being too simple. As Danny’s mother began reading, I saw the excitement of recognition in his eyes as she read words to him that were unintelligible to me, but occasionally elicited excited exclamations from him in English that demonstrated understanding of the story. Fox tells us, “there’s no doubt that little kids—and big ones—love being read aloud to” (2008, p. 26). If this story, unillustrated, can provoke such enjoyment in Danny, I can only imagine what his response will be when the illustrations are added.
I have mentioned in a previous post my attempts at reading to the children in Vietnamese. Without my understanding of the language, my attempts met with humorous excitement from the students, but I am now fairly certain that they were just humoring me when they told me my pronunciation was right. Even if I was pronouncing it accurately, Fox makes it clear that “Reading isn’t merely being able to pronounce the words correctly, a fact that surprises most people. Reading is being able to make sense from the marks on the page” (2008, p. 79).
I have taken multiple steps to help remedy this. On one account, I recently began learning Vietnamese after assisting my co-author in developing a free online course for Vietnamese speakers to learn English. My fieldwork getting translations in various dialects helped build my awareness of resources available in my neighborhood to learn Vietnamese. But not all of my students speak Vietnamese, and after Micah, an Amharic-speaking student, raised his objections to my offering to read a book in either Spanish, English, or Vietnamese, I invited his mother to come read the book to the class in Amharic. Ever since then, our weekly trip to the library has usually been accompanied by a different parent come to read to the children. At times other children in the library have sat down to listen to the reading as well.
It’s wonderful to see such engagement from the children in the reading process. As Fox makes clear, “if we’re able to raise happier, brighter children by reading aloud to them, the well-being of the entire country will ramp up a notch” (2008, p. xii).
Next month I will most likely be discussing the book Learning and Not Learning English by Guadalupe Valdés (2001). If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss in this blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.
Fox, M. (2008). Reading magic: Why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever, updated and revised edition. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Publishing.
Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.