Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Multicultural literature mirrors readers’ lives

For my class in children’s literature this week, we viewed Reading Rockets interviews with Laurence Yep and Nikki Grimes and were asked to respond to these authors’ views concerning multicultural literature.

Yep and Grimes address address the benefits of multicultural literature by sharing their own experience of being unable to relate to the characters they read about in books.

When Yep grew up, there “literally” weren’t any books about Chinese-Americans. He talks about the disconnect between the stories recommended by librarians, in which the protagonists all have bicycles and leave their front doors unlocked, and his own situation, in which “Nobody I knew had a bicycle. Nobody, certainly, nobody left their door unlocked.”

And Grimes related the turmoil of a difficult and lonely childhood, with a mother who was an alcoholic and had a mental illness and a father who was “in and out of the picture as well.” In the foster-care system, Grimes was separated from her sister and continually moved around. And while she “lived in books,” she rarely saw anyone in them who, she said, “looked like me, or who had my life experience.”

One thing that resonated most strongly with me was Yep’s discovery of science fiction and fantasy among books that were most true to his own life. “In those books you have children from an ordinary world, ordinary place taken to another world, where they have to learn strange, new customs and a strange, new language. So, those books talked about adapting.”

I share Yep’s love for science fiction and fantasy, and his reasons really spoke to me, because I felt for my whole life like an alien from another planet, who didn’t understand the dominant culture and found it difficult to adapt.

While I found characters with whom to relate in realistic fiction (children who were bullied or ostracized and found solace in cats), I related most strongly to characters in science fiction like Star Trek’s Data and Mr. Spock. These characters wrestled with what it meant to be a human living in human society, and I shared a stronger sense of “culture” with them than with a human demographic group.

The library collection that I build will be influenced by a desire to reflect a pluralistic society but it will simultaneously explore what it means to be a member of the human race.

I want to avoid the mistake identified by Grimes, of only showcasing a particular culture during its “History Month” or holiday or only where members of that culture predominate. I agree with Grimes, it’s important to show the ways in which we are alike “under the skin.” And “where is a safer place to learn about another culture than between the pages of a book?”

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