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Multicultural literature is the buzz word in collection development for public school libraries. The library media specialist is told this collection is essential for all children need to see themselves and their culture depicted realistically and authentically in picture books and novels, Theoretically, Ranganathan was correct. "Every book its reader. Every reader its book."
At times, the debate begins with the definition of what is multicultural literature. According to Daniel Darigan's book, Children's Literature: Engaging Teachers and Children in Good Books, "Multicultural literature is a global term that comprises not only literature of people of color who reside in North America-African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos-but also literature from and about other cultural groups, such as women, religious groups, people with disabilities, the elderly, gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals, the homeless, and people from religious cultures, such as Cajuns and Appalachians." (Darigan, 2001, p.293)
A multicultural collection can: (1) foster awareness, understanding, and appreciation of people who see at first glance different from the reader, (2) present positive and reassuring representations of a reader's own cultural group, and (3) introduce readers to the literary traditions of different world cultures or cultural groups in America. The library patrons live in a multicultural society that is becoming more and more diverse. According to the America Library Association (ALA) Bill of Rights, the library is suppose to be welcoming and open to all patrons. "Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation." (American Library Association, 1948)
Essentially, the library is to reflect society; it, too, should be a melting pot of all cultures and all cultural groups?
The value of good literature reflects many aspects of a culture-its values, beliefs, way of life, and patterns of thinking. A good piece of literature can transcend time, space, and language; it can even help readers to learn about an individual or a group of people different from themselves.
What is the true value of multicultural literature? If universally written testaments to the human experience are the calling cards for good children's literature, does it matter if the setting is in an urban ghetto or barrio, or some posh upscale community?
"Of course accuracy matters. You can get a lot of things wrong as a writer, an artist, or a reviewer when you don't know a place or a culture," says Booklist's assistant editor Hazel Rochman. (ALA Books, 1993)
So, why study multicultural literature?
Again, "Every reader its book. Every book its reader." As long as it is accurate?
"Quality multicultural children's literature helps the patrons think more broadly about all races and cultures, provided these books portray their subjects honestly." Research shows that the use of multicultural literature enhances the reading comprehension and problem-solving skills of all children. (Darigan, 2001, p. 293)
However, the librarian or collection developer must be aware of the controversial materials sometimes associated with multicultural literature. A selection policy should contain general statements about why materials are selected to help guide the collection developer. Whether controversial, outrageous, or just plain silly, it's the job of the librarian to be certain that students and teachers have access to materials that provide ideas, information and varied perspectives at the reading, interest, and developmental level of all their learners.
The study of multicultural literature is an important undertaking for teachers and students at all levels. If we are to grow as a people, we must ensure that respect for our diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural heritage is embedded into our educational process. "Multicultural literature is an important avenue for change. Through literature, we can come to a greater understanding of the historic foundations of racism and prejudice that have continued to undermine our society." (Gates, 2006, p.12)
Should we expect the same understanding from the literature we give to children?
To expect anything less is to sell our students short. "Every social issue or problem expressed in literature for adults eventually finds its way into literature for children and young adults." (Gates, 2006, p. 16)
No topic should be cast aside. The librarian has to learn to cast aside their own personal beliefs and develop a collection that reflects the community. While materials about sexual orientation or just sex, in general, can be considered controversial, if there is a needs connection to it; it has a right to be in the collection. Needs Connections can be anything from adding value to the collection to connecting to a curriculum standard. While "sexual orientation" might not be part of the curriculum, it does reflect a cultural grouping within society. Some school might also be participating in a "Worth the Wait" sex education program and books on sexual health would support that curriculum.
That being said, in a multicultural book selection, racial and cultural stereotyping must be avoided. Few issues in multicultural children's literature resonated with so many people as does the issue of cultural authenticity-the idea of writing about what you know. "Authentic multicultural literature is written by a person who is a member of the culture about which she is writing . . . not written by a person who thinks they know what life is like in another culture." (York, 2008, p.16)
For example, William Armstrong's Newberry winning novel, Sounder, portrays the lives of a poor African-American family. Armstrong is not African-American. "Critics charge that there is no way he could understand the nuances of living the lives of African-American sharecroppers." (Darigan, 2001, p.241)
In her 1997 article for the New Advocate, celebrated Children's Literature author Jane Yolen states that "we not confine writers to the narrow corridors of their own personal experiences," She cites a number of her books that she would not have been able to write had she been limited to her own cultural and geographical experience. (Yolen, 1997, p. 285)
Culturally specific books incorporate cultural details that help define characters. "No single author, regardless of skill or scope of experience, can represent an entire cultural group. Each author can only write from within his experiences and his life." (York, 2008, p. 16)
So who is right? Experience and authenticity? Yolen?
Or the reader?
"Every reader its book. Every book its reader."
When a reader can see themselves in a book, then the reader can begin to appreciate the richness and variety of specific cultures. Does it truly matter who wrote it?
Denise Agosto at Drexel University argues that high quality multicultural literature shares five major characteristics: accuracy, expertise, respect, purpose, and quality. As developers of a multicultural collection, the librarian must make sure that the material is an accurate representation of the culture. One type of theoretical framework that the librarian can use as guidelines in collection development are the literary awards given to multicultural literary works. These award-winning books can help ensure that Agosto's characteristics are being met.
In 1969, the Coretta Scott King award was established to recognize the distinguished works of African-American authors and illustrators. In 1996, the Pura Belpre Award was established to honor Latino writers. "Since the 1960s, more authors from minority cultural and racial groups have been writing for children and appear consistently on best book lists and award lists." (Darigan, 2001, p.311)
By being aware of their school's demographics, the librarian can better serve their patrons' needs. The collection needs to reflect the society the patron lives in. In material acquisition, they must not only take into account cultural authenticity, but also Agosto's five characteristics. The librarian must walk a fine line between censorship versus selection. Does the material fit the age appropriateness for their patron's grade level? Does it fit within the grade level's curriculum standards? Book reviews in School Library Journal are a good place for the librarian to start when evaluating new materials for acquisition, as well as the national award-winning booklists, as previously mentioned.
In building a multicultural collection, the books being chosen must measure up to the criteria used to judge literature in general. Racial and cultural stereotyping must be avoided. Agosto warns of this in assessing for cultural respect and purpose. "Do the author and/or illustrator avoid using a condescending tone? Are the minority characters portrayed as equal in societal worth to majority characters? Or are they represented in subordinate social positions? Although good literature contains universal themes, there should be a purpose for using a particular setting or for representing characters of a particular cultural background." (Agosto, 2001 )
Agosto, herself, wrote, "Multicultural literature must meet the general quality standards applied to all other literature." (Agosto, 2001)
So, how do librarians get these exceptional works of literature across to the students? What direct service can the library offer? "We need to build school climates in which every student is respected and included." (York, 2008, p.16) Sherry York, a retired school librarian, suggests a library reading club hosting weekly book talks. "Book talking authentic multicultural literature can encourage students to read, promote respect for all cultures, and help to make students feel welcome in our libraries."
In the end, doesn't it come down to this-- a good book is a good books. Perhaps, Ranganathan was the real winner. "Every book its reader. Every reader its book."
ALA | Home - American Library Association. (n.d.). Retrieved October 3, 2009, from http://www.ala.org
Agosto, D. (2002, May 1). Criteria for evaluating multicultural literature. Retrieved September 30, 2009, from www.pages.drexel.edu/~dea22/multicultural.html
Darigan, D. L., Jacobs, J. S., & Tunnell, M. O. (2001). Children's Literature: Engaging Teachers and Children in Good Books. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall.
Gates, P. S., & Mark, D. L. (2006). Cultural Journeys: Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc..
Yolen, J. (1997, Fall). Taking Time: Or How Things Have Changed in the Last Thirty-Five Years of Children's Publishing. New Advocate, 10, 285-291.
York, S. (2008, Aug. - Sep.). Culturally Speaking: Book talking Authentic Multicultural Literature. Library Media Connection, 16-18.