–Learning to Appreciate Our Differences & Similarities –
Best Children’s Books Featuring Multicultural Characters
A good children’s book has the ability to open up places in the mind and heart, to bring new words and expressions into the landscape of a children’s brain. Reading books with rich diversity can open up discussions that go well beyond comprehension. The ideas and concepts that children and families pull from books can bleed into their world, creating more opportunities to expand one’s ideas of friendship and discovery.
Here is just a small smattering of such books we’ve discovered here in our house.
This is the story of a prickly cactus, desperate for the closeness of a hug. This is not the thing to do or be in his prickly environment. He’ll hurt any animal, poke any soft thing, and his family expects total complacency, NO HUGS.
This is a book that while not preaching any message, can help us see the needs of those around us. It may help children see more of what they have to offer, too. We may have to be a bit creative with those who need extra care, including ourselves. Isn’t this what we hope for our kids? They that will be strong friends and will see goodness even through spikes. Felipe is the best name, too. I love every illustration and want to see more from this author/illustrator, who, by the way, grew up in Italy.
Next up, a book that is aimed at the Young Adult readers, Gadget Girl, by Suzanne Kamata. Incidentally, I have had the privilege of interviewing this prolific, award-winning author. Our conversation is here. Besides the superb writing, the standout feature is that her main character, Aiko, has cerebral palsy. This is not a trait often found in books, certainly not pertaining directly to the main character.
Aiko is also bicultural, of American and Japanese heritage. She is being raised by a single mother, dealing with all of the typical fifteen-year-old stuff, plus navigating her own unique terrain. She is complex and talented. Hooray for such a person with a disability being painted so beautifully.
Such a well-written chapter book could be read aloud by parents to children and discussed. It is so refreshing to meet this main character who teaches us and shows us her life with a different gait. It helps me be more ready to understand and befriend someone with any range of special needs. Aiko also helps me to look beyond the physical as she is witty and possesses a great passion for art.
Sometimes language or lack of language can be a disability. Kids and their parents may be teased. Living abroad now, raising children who are in school, I understand, more than ever, the pressure kids and families can face as they try to establish themselves in the community, meet needs, and gather friends.
Enter YOKO books, by the beloved Rosemary Wells! We first discovered the original YOKO, the Japanese cat who lives in America and brings in sushi lunches and red bean ice cream, to her classmates’ horror.
The idea of Difference is paramount in YOKO. The drawings and Japanese washi paper used in Ms. Wells’ illustrations are lush and dialogue is realistic with plenty of “EEWS” and a “YUCKORAMA” thrown in. YOKO, like many of our children, doesn’t quite fit. She is across two worlds. YOKO is becoming bicultural as well as bilingual.
Did you know there are other YOKO books? Look!
Yes, kids will look different, act differently. No one is totally alike! We come from a wealth of backgrounds, languages, and experiences. DNA. Fingerprints. No one is the same, but we can become aware of the similarities that bridge gaps and help us understand bigger things.
We may not like our own differences, of course.
Freckleface Strawberry knows all about that and so does the fabulous Julianne Moore, yes, that actress, and the book’s creator.
She is teased to no end and resorts to the kinds of “remedies” found in Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice. Remember that goodie?
Often characters grow by first accepting their own differences. I know. All of us struggle with this. It’s a lifetime thing.
Last up is another classic, stories by Ezra Jack Keats! We own this collection, Keat’s Neighborhood.
Besides the timeless nature of his characters and plots, Mr. Ezra Jack Keats was a forerunner in creating diverse books for children.x A Jewish author and illustrator in New York, he was the first noted creator to give us a main character of color. Peter, as in Peter’s Chair and Snowy Day was perhaps the first African American character that kids, all kids, would come to love. Ezra Jack Keats bridged gaps and didn’t just mend fences; he built ladders and forts with his characters. All of this was legendary, groundbreaking stuff. An author/illustrator didn’t have to create another See Dick Run book. He expressly went out of his own cultural background and into another. He did so with aplomb, giving us someone to whom we could relate.
Additionally, in A Letter for Amy, Peter invites his friend, Amy, to his party. She is the only girl, much to his friends’ chagrin. Hello, friendships beyond gender. Hello, children seeing others as friends and not the enemy.
Well, that is my first take on enjoying books of diversity with my clan. There are so many gorgeous books worth exploring and collecting.
Again, this is just a peek, a part 1, into my grouping of children’s book with multicultural characters! I did not include any Sandra Cisneros, any Yangsook Choi, Angela Johnson, or two dozen other incredible authors. Okay? Officially, let’s call this a “To Be Continued”. There’s just so much and the need is there. We are a world of diverse readers. We need good libraries and of course, follow-up discussions.
What else do you suggest for our modest home library? What is a must?