The World in Multicolour

Trends and Patterns in Culturally Diverse Books: Part 1

in: Children's books

Asian boy reading

In our post What does ‘cultural diversity’ mean when it comes to children’s books? we explored various definitions of cultural diversity. Here we thought we would take a look at the kinds of books we might classify as culturally diverse and any generic trends and patterns that emerge.

We have settled on four broad headings for our findings, and have attempted to look at the various pros and cons of some of the different approaches to cultural diversity taken by authors and illustrators writing today.

Let us know your thoughts!

Issues-driven books exploring racism and prejudice

Books that deal with racism head-on can be incredibly helpful for children who are affected by prejudice, allowing readers to understand that they are not alone and that there are people who can help. It is also to be hoped that books of this genre allow readers who are – perhaps inadvertently – acting in a racist manner towards other children to understand the impulses behind, and consequences of, their actions.

The pros of such books far outweigh the cons, but these books are not without their dangers. One concern is that issues-heavy books may unwittingly position protagonists from minority backgrounds as victims – their race marking them out as ‘different’ from the rest and a ‘problem’ to be overcome.

They are also, as you would expect, not the kinds of books you might first reach for if you are looking for a fun and entertaining read – a choice that children of majority backgrounds always get to make.

The wonderful Walter Dean Myers, who sadly passed away last year, had this to say on the subject:

‘Joe Morton, the actor who starred in “The Brother From Another Planet,” has said that all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.’

While his focus here is on American publishing, his words hit home in the UK too. The weight of historical legacy is often hard to bear for today’s children who wish for nothing more than a chance to play computer games and message their friends on Snapchat.

Non-fiction and non-fiction inspired

The importance of introducing young readers to positive cultural role models at an early age has long been recognised, yet the opportunities for non-Caucasian children to recognise themselves in the books they read are few and far between.

This is why a significant proportion of culturally diverse books for children come in the form of biographies, autobiographies and fictionalised accounts of the lives of historical figures such as pioneering black leaders, scientists and thinkers and their (often under-recognised) achievements.

A sub-set of this genre imagines a fictional scenario arising from a real life historical event. An example might be a young girl’s imagined experience of slavery in a historically accurate time and place, or events in the life of a fictional African American family living in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Again, there are more pros to these types of books than cons, since any opportunity to learn more about those unsung heroes who have made our countries what they are today should not be missed.

However, the ‘problem’, if it is to be called a problem, is in the proportion of books of this genre – vastly more, per book published, than in mainstream publishing. Where children of majority cultures can choose any number of fictional books to balance out their non-fiction texts, children of minority backgrounds lack anywhere near the breadth of choice in their fictional reading material.

As with the books above, minority protagonists who struggle against harrowing circumstances to achieve extraordinary outcomes can be incredibly inspiring for young readers. However, race here, as above, is still a category of difference and remains in the foreground.

To read Part II of this blog post, please click here.

Image by Susana Fernandez shared under Creative Commons License via Flickr

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