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January, 2008

Yuk Yuks

Multicultural Melange (Kid's Lit)
Kids must be allowed to peek out into the world
By  Alison Tharen

Children of diverse cultures should be able to see themselves in the books they read.
ulticulturalism is a beautiful thing — and it sells.

If you think it’s just a trend in the world of children's books take a peek into any classroom in any major North American city. More than 60 percent of the students may come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and class lists read like role call at the United Nations.

Teachers are constantly seeking children's books to use in their classroom that reflect the diversity of their students' cultural backgrounds. The very term ''multiculturalism'' originated in education, rising from curriculum changes that aimed to recognize and celebrate all the cultures that make up contemporary North American schools.

What happens in our schools has a direct affect on publishing. Since the 1960s children's book publishers have been trying to heed the urgent cries from teachers for more children's books that reflect cultural diversity. Teachers had good reason to raise the call.

In that era, authors with African American, Native American or Asian American roots wrote fewer than five percent of children’s books. Books by members of other minority groups were even harder, if not impossible, to find. The few books that did exist did little to depict accurate details of other cultures. Instead, the characters were portrayed as indeterminate anodynes, a token black kid thrown in among a sea of white faces.

Change has come slowly in the world of children's books. We've come a long way since the days of Little Black Sambo but there are still not enough novels and picture books with protagonists from diverse cultures in realistic contemporary settings. They certainly don't exist in proportion to their numbers in the classrooms or the population at large. The need exists.

So what does this mean to an aspiring children's book writer? It means that there is a greater interest among publishers for both fiction and nonfiction books set in specific contemporary North American cultures. There's a gap in the multicultural market and publishers are scrambling to fill it. There's not enough good material to meet the demand. I'm not talking about re-telling old folktales or writing culturally neutral stories. What's needed and sought by publishers is strong, innovative, authentic material written about a specific culture.

I'm certainly not advocating jumping onto any bandwagon just to get published. It's always best to stick with what you know whatever your cultural background. Avoid the mistake of making mistakes by trying to write about a specific culture that's not your own. Stick with what you know and don't write outside the bounds of your personal experience. It's good to know the market but it's not good to write for it.

This doesn't mean that a writer can't create an excellent work that includes characters from cultural backgrounds other than their own. Imagination builds bridges but if you're writing a contemporary piece it's important to get your facts straight. We all carry experiences that weave together to form our own unique cultural identities.

These include our experiences with other cultures whether we grew up in a specific ethnic community, a mixed neighborhood, or in homogenized suburbia. A good writer knows or learns their subject and doesn't get the facts wrong or leave out important information.

Multiculturalism isn't just a trend. North American life is becoming even more diverse and it's cultural mosaic is constantly expanding. The number and variety of multicultural children's books being published will grow with it. The children of many diverse cultures should, and will, be able to see themselves reflected in the books they read.

And they should be books that reveal the reality and complexity of the culturally diverse society, and world, we live in.

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Alison Tharen is a former staff writer for Toronto, Canada's Grolier Publishing Inc, the author of 28 published children’s books and contributing author to 18 children’s text books. She is currently finishing two new children’s book manuscripts. Email

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I rewrote twenty-two!

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