What to do when you can’t find you:
Exposing children to culturally reflective literature
It’s a typical Friday morning. The students are excited
because it’s their day to visit Ms. Farmer, the school
librarian. We walk into the library, placing our books in the
overflowing drop box, and follow Ms. Farmer to the designated
As she begins her story of the trials and tribulations of three home-building
pigs, I peer into the children’s animated faces. Are they really connecting
with the story? Is the theme of the book something that goes on in their lives?
Have they held straw, twigs, and bricks in their hands? Do they know how to
use a hammer? Do they encounter wolves trying to blow them out of their homes?
I recall the books of my childhood and wonder how much of that literature included
the images and events of my day-to-day life. Where were the characters that
looked like me? Where were the challenges that mirrored those in my family
As an African-American teacher of young children, I’m committed to holding
the mirror that reflects the diversity of our class, school, and community.
I want all children to find themselves in the stories and books I share.
Understanding culturally reflective literature
I watch my 11-month-old niece sitting on her mother’s lap
and gazing at the pictures of Spike Lee’s . She’s not able to read the words, but seeing the
African-American child in the book provides her an image of a
child that looks like her.
I share Angela Johnson’s with my kindergarten
class. The group responds not only to the story of a child’s relationship
with an aging grandparent but also to the universality of the experience. The
African-American child and her granddaddy are distinct individuals. They are
also universal figures, recognizable to everyone who has shared the bond of
family love across generations.
A rich literature diet provides variety—traditions and experiences that
are both familiar and strange, characters that look like ourselves and others,
and ideas that challenge and comfort. The best books allow us to imagine beyond
the boundaries of our day-to-day experiences, to explore realities that are
different from our own. A classroom of children of different nationalities,
races, abilities, and genders has forced me to find (and develop) literature
and curriculum that suits this mix—and instills a sense of pride and
value in each child.
But what if every book we share is inhabited by characters that are unfamiliar
and dissimilar? What if every fictional adventure is not connected to a child’s
reality? How would it feel to always be on the outside, looking at cultures
and traditions you don’t share? Too often children are not given the
opportunity to make “powerful connections to works that draw on what
they already know and…validate the importance of that knowledge” (Romero
and Zancanella 1990).
When young readers frequently encounter characters with whom they can connect,
they will engage in and share experiences—and begin to appreciate the
ways literature impacts their lives (Hefflin and Barksdale-Ladd 2001). While
I would not support a diet of books featuring only one culture or race, I’m
sure every child needs regular experiences with characters that promote identification,
personal value, and pride.
Four goals of multicultural literature
In , Jacobs and Tunnell (2004)
point to four important goals of multicultural literature:
presenting a positive and reassuring representation of the
reader’s own cultural group,
instilling appreciation of diverse lifestyles influenced by
environment and tradition,
encouraging children to recognize that members of the human
family have more similarities than differences, and
fostering awareness, understanding, and appreciation of people
who seem different from the reader.
As I try to meet these goals, I know I must actively choose good books and
authentically address the images presented. Through literature, I work to offer
every child an understanding of their peers’ struggles, triumphs, and
contributions to culture and society. If a child’s upbringing does not
include being around people of a different race, then diverse literature will “help
children of all ethnic groups understand and relate” (Walker 2002).
Choosing positive African-American literature
In addition to the literary criteria applied to any book, I rely
on Norton’s (1995) criteria for evaluating African- American
literature. Of course, these criteria apply to literature that
portrays any ethnic or racial group.
Are the characters portrayed as individuals—with their
own thoughts, emotions, and ideas—instead of as representatives
of a group?
Does the book exclude stereotypes of appearance, behavior,
and character traits?
Does the book authentically portray physical diversity in both
text and illustration?
Will children be able to recognize the characters in the text
and illustrations? Are people of color shown as simply darker
versions of Anglo characters?
Are the ethnic or racial cultures, customs, and values accurately
Are social issues and problems depicted frankly, accurately,
and without oversimplification?
Do non-white characters solve their problems individually or
with the assistance of family and friends, and without the intervention
of white authorities?
Are non-white characters shown as equals of white characters?
Does the author avoid glamorizing or glorifying non-white characters—especially
Is the setting authentic, whether past, present, or future?
Will children be able to recognize the setting as urban, rural,
Are the factual and historical details accurate?
Does the author accurately describe contemporary settings?
Does the book rectify historical distortions or omissions?
Does dialect have a legitimate purpose and does it ring true,
as opposed to being used as an example of substandard English?
Are non-English words spelled and used correctly?
Does the author avoid offensive or degrading vocabulary to
describe characters, activities, traditions, and lifestyles?
Are the illustrations authentic and free of stereotypes?
Does the book provide positive role models for girls and avoid
subservient female characters?
The books that reach children authentically depict and interpret their lives
and their history, build self-respect, encourage the development of positive
values, make children aware of their strengths, and leave them with a sense
of hope and direction (Greenfield 1995).
Finding good books
The importance of unmasking children to positive African-American
images is clear. Unfortunately, the vast majority of children’s
literature focuses on the experiences of white males. Equally
disappointing is the small number of African-American authors
and illustrators. “Though lack of self-esteem and lack
of self-image have long been identified as key proponents in
the dearth of African-American academic performance, only an
alarming 51 published children’s books out of over 5,000
were written or illustrated by African-American artists in
1990” (Lane 1998).
Researchers have documented that children’s books are bereft of Asian,
Hispanic, African-American, disabled, and female characters (Pirofski). Of
African-American children’s literature particularly, the selection is
small—less than 2 percent—compared to the total number of children’s
books published every year (Rand and Parker 2001).
Where do I look for good books? My first stop is the library. A children’s
librarian has access to book lists, catalogs, reference books, and annotated
bibliographies. I schedule library trips with enough time to peruse new books
and review old favorites. If your local library’s multicultural resources
are scarce, make noise. Let the library system know that you expect to see
materials that look like you!
Another source for books and materials is the Internet. The information highway
has many wonderful Web sites that feature children’s literature. If you’re
not sure where to start, go to www.google.com and type in “African-American
A favorite Web site is www.blackbooksgalore.com, a quality site of African-American
literature. Look for Black Books Galore! A Guide to Great African-American
Children’s Books, a series of almost a thousand books for African-American
children. Other Web sites include www.blackexpressions.com, www.aalbc.com,
The rewards of reflective literature
As a teacher, I’m aware that all children’s images
and self-pride should be fostered. This article focuses on African-American
literature because it’s what I’m familiar with, and
what I love, but I believe everything in this article can be
adapted to any child from any background.
In the classroom, I offer boxes of books that the students can pull from and
read. Nurturing the minds of young children through reading is a vital and
essential tool for self-enhancement. It enables them to see themselves and
others in a realistic environment and perhaps helps them develop tolerance
toward others from different backgrounds.
Dowd (1992) says “...from reading, hearing, and using culturally diverse
materials, young people learn that beneath surface differences of color, culture,
or ethnicity, all people experience universal feelings of love, sadness, self-worth,
justice, and kindness.”
Barksdale-Ladd, M.A. and B. Hefflin. 2001. African-American children’s
literature that helps students find themselves: Selection guidelines
for grades K-3. 54 (8): 810-819.
Dowd, F.S. 1992. Evaluating children’s books portraying
Native Americans and Asian cultures. 68 (4):
Greenfield, E. 1985. Writing for children: A joy and a responsibility.
In D. McCann and G. Woodard (Eds.), (2nd ed.). Methuchen, N.J.:
Jacobs, J. S. and M. O. Tunnell. 2004. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education,
Lane, R.D. 1998. “Keepin’ it real”: Walter
Dean Myers and the promise of African-American children’s
literature. (Spring 1998):125-38.
Moll, Patricia B. 1994. . Tampa, Fla.: Hampton Mae Institute.
Norton, Donna. 1995. (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:
Kira Isak. n.d. Race, gender, and disability in today’s
children’s literature. www.edchange.org/multicultural/papers/literature.html.
Rand, Donna and Toni Trent Parker. 2001. . New York: Wiley.
Romero, P. and D. Zancanella. 1990. Expanding the circle: Hispanic
voices in American literature. 79 (1), 24-29.
Nancy. 1998. Making books available: The role of early libraries,
librarians, and booksellers in the promotion of African American
children’s books. . www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2838/is_nl_v32/ai_20610467.
Wake Forest University. African-American books need place in
the classroom: 2002, WFU News Service.
Recommended books that celebrate African-American families
Bradby, Marie. 2000. Momma, Where Are You From? New York: Scholastic.
Buckley, Helen E. 1994. Grandfather and I. New York: Scholastic.
Greenfield, Eloise. 1990. She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby
Girl. New York: Lippincott, Williams, and Watkins.
Hamanaka, Sheila. 1994. All the Colors of the Earth. New York:
Hoffman, Mary. 1991. Amazing Grace. New York: Dial.
Hudson, Wade. 1993. I Love My Family. New York: Scholastic.
Hudson, Wade. 1991. Jamal’s Busy Day. East Orange, N.J.:
Just Us Press.
Johnson, Angela. 1990. When I Am Old With You. New York: Orchard
McKissack, Patricia. 1988. Mirandy and Brother Wind. New York:
Nolen, Jeradine. 1999. In My Momma’s Kitchen. New York:
Pinkney, S. L. 2000. Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children.
New York: Scholastic.
Ringgold, Faith. 1991. Tar Beach. New York: Crown.
San Souci, Robert. 1990. The Talking Eggs. New York: Dial.
Smith, Will. 2001. Just the Two of Us. New York: Scholastic.
Williams, Sherley Anne. 1993. Working Cotton. San Diego: Harcourt.
About the author
Rosalyn Butler graduated from Texas State University with a degree
in early childhood education. Currently she is a pre-kindergarten
teacher at McBee Elementary School in Austin, Texas. When she’s
not in the classroom, Rosalyn enjoys reading, assembling latch
hook rugs, and traveling.