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Promote authentically multicultural narratives with these stories for younger and middle readers about characters from marginalized communities, written by authors who share those identities.
The trajectory of critique about the lack of diversity in children’s literature includes some salient moments. Nancy Larrick’s 1965 article in the Saturday Review, “The All-White World of Children’s Literature,” reflected the dismal lack of diversity in literature. Rudine Sims Bishop’s article in Perspectives, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” (1990), gave us a widely used metaphor in scholarship and discourse about multicultural literature. And in 2014, Walter Dean Myers lamented the lack of diversity in his formidable opinion piece in the New York Times, titled, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”
In the 53 years since Larrick’s survey, the number of publications of and by people of color has crept up to around 10 percent (according to reports from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center). Meanwhile, debates continue about matters of authenticity and the co-opting of marginalized voices by authors writing about experiences outside of their identity groups. Social-media platforms have been instrumental in generating attention about authors, illustrators, and their literary creations. Two movements, We Need Diverse Books and #OwnVoices, are probably among the best known for their efforts to highlight authentic diversity in children’s and young adult literature.
The hashtag #OwnVoices is credited to YA author Corrine Duyvis and aims to acknowledge and promote books written by authors from marginalized communities who share the identities of their protagonists. This movement is in resistance to the historical co-opting of experiences of people of color by white writers. Many social-media and online resources list young adult #OwnVoices books. The corpus below includes recent publications with unique literary voices that extend #OwnVoices to younger readers.
Bowwow Powwow: Bagosenjige-niimi’idim. By Brenda J. Child. Illus. by Jonathan Thunder. Tr. by Gordon Jourdain. 2018. Minnesota Historical Society, $16.95 (9781681340777). K–Gr. 3.
Uncle tells Windy Girl stories of how the powwow has survived and changed with the passage of time. Windy’s dog, Itchy Boy, is her constant, loyal companion, and one day he creeps into her dream, where dogs have replaced humans at a powwow. An author’s note adds important details and corrects common misperceptions, and the text is written in English and Ojibwe. Digital-media illustrations in crisp colors add a contemporary feel.
Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker’s Story. By Joseph Bruchac. Illus. by Liz Amini-Holmes. 2018. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807500071). Gr. 2–5.
In this complex biography, Bruchac draws on extensive research of code talkers. At eight, Betoli is taken to boarding school, his name changed to Chester, his head shaved, and language forbidden. Chester ultimately lends his skills to the very power that fought his people and brought him both honor and trauma. Older readers will have salient questions about a society that forbade Navajo ways until they were useful. Striking illustrations merge both of Chester’s lives while keeping them distinctly separate.
A Different Pond. By Bao Phi. Illus. by Thi Bui. 2017. Capstone, $15.95 (9781623708030). K–Gr. 3.
Before dawn, a Vietnamese American man and his young son set out to fish in a nearby lake. As they travel the lamplit streets, build a small fire, and drop their hook into the water, the little boy contemplates his parents’ lives and the stories they’ve told him about living in Vietnam before coming to America as refugees. Phi’s bittersweet story of the resourcefulness of an immigrant family is lovingly illustrated in Bui’s evocative artwork.
Drawn Together. By Minh Lê. Illus. by Dan Santat. 2018. Disney/Hyperion, $17.99 (9781484767603). K–Gr. 2.
When a young Asian American boy visits his Thai-speaking grandfather, the language barrier and the generational divide seem insurmountable—until the boy brings out his paper and markers and they’re matched by his grandfather’s sketchbook and paintbrush. Together, they’re drawn into a vibrant world of boy wizards and mythical Thai warriors. Lê’s poignant and deeply meaningful tale is rocketed into the stratosphere by Santat’s dynamic and playful visuals, imaginatively conceived and action-packed even as they potently evoke the culture they’re drawn from.
Dreamers. By Yuyi Morales. Illus. by the author. 2018. Holiday/Neal Porter, $18.99 (9780823440559). Soñadores. By Yuyi Morales. Illus. by the author. Tr. by Teresa Mlawer. 2018. Holiday/Neal Porter, $18.99 (9780823442584). PreS–Gr. 2.
Morales and her son are dreamers—the books they read allow them to imagine a new life in a new country that doesn’t always welcome them. Based on her own immigration tale, the multi-award-winning Morales’ newest picture book recounts the challenges and wonders of living in a new country. The narrative text is poetic and full of emotion, and the English version is sprinkled with Spanish words. Morales’ mixed-media illustrations are breathtaking, and their joyous intricacy will make readers of all ages explore them further.
Early Sunday Morning. By Denene Millner. Illus. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. 2017. Bolden, $17.95 (9781572842113). Gr. 1–3.
A little girl nervously anticipates her first solo performance in the youth choir at church. She loves singing, especially at home with Daddy, but singing before an audience is another matter. But the love and support of family and community members buoys her through the week. Balancing themes of family and community, childhood and church, dedication and delight, this is complemented by energetic illustrations and an affirming depiction of an African American family. Little girls who love singing will find much with which to identify.
Imagine. By Juan Felipe Herrera. Illus. by Lauren Castillo. 2018. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763690526). K–Gr. 3.
Herrera, a former poet laureate of the U.S., offers up a brief autobiography in free verse, encouraging readers to consider their futures. As the son of migrant workers growing up in California, sensitive young Juan finds comfort in words through hardships and many moves, using them to write stories, poems, and songs. Backgrounds have a soft, almost unfocused look, and Herrera’s talents of speaking, singing, playing music, and writing poetry are inspiring.
Mina vs. the Monsoon. By Rukhsanna Guidroz. Illus. by Debasmita Dasgupta. 2018. Yali, $19.99 (9781949528985). K–Gr. 3.
Though the monsoon season is welcomed in India for the respite it brings from heat and drought, Mina hates not being able to play soccer outside. Ultimately, she realizes that sulking is pointless and that chai, samosas, and time with her mother are the monsoon clouds’ silver lining. This charming bilingual book has universal appeal and cultural specificity. A richly colored palette and crisp digitally imaged illustrations combine playfully with a story that is refreshingly free of stereotypical tropes. Can be paired thematically with Uma Krishnaswami’s Monsoon (2003).
Under My Hijab. By Hena Khan. Illus. by Aaliya Jaleel. 2019. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781620147924).
A young girl watches the women in her life, paying close attention to the different ways they wear their hijabs. A generous invitation by both author and illustrator to young Muslim girls to witness the variety of ways and reasons women wear hijabs, the book also considers the gaze of the outsider who may have questions. An author’s note explains when and why some Muslim women choose to cover or not. Cheerful, colorful images complement the affirming tone and message of this timely book.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. By Traci Sorell. Illus. by Frané Lessac. 2018. Charlesbridge, $17.99 (9781580897723). Gr. 1–3.
In Cherokee culture, Sorell shares, the expression of gratitude is part of daily life and extends from elaborate celebrations to struggles to ordinary life moments. Each section, organized by seasons, starts with the name of the season in Cherokee and an expression of gratitude for the change in nature, while subsequent pages describe community activities pertinent to that season. Folkloric illustrations in bright gouache colors are in pleasing contrast to the contemporary feel and setting. A 2018 Orbis Pictus Honor book.
Amal Unbound. By Aisha Saeed. 2018. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $17.99 (9780399544682). Gr. 4–6.
Pakistani Amal is intelligent, brave, and opinionated. An accidental encounter changes her life circumstances in a moment, as she is confronted with cruelty and despair, followed by hope and friendship. To spare her family from hardship, Amal becomes an indentured servant, leading her to fight for the underdog and stand up against classism. Rich descriptions convey Amal’s character with great conviction, and listeners will feel like they are exploring Pakistan’s dry roads, crowded marketplaces, and servant quarters alongside the young heroine.
The First Rule of Punk. By Celia C. Pérez. 2017. Viking, $16.99 (9780425290408). Gr. 4–7.
Malú isn’t happy about her recent move to Chicago because it meant leaving her dad (her parents are amicably divorced) and his record store behind. She decides to form a band, with the hope of finding “her people” in the process. Like any good riot grrrl, Malú finds a creative outlet in making zines, several of which appear in the novel and call attention to Malú’s passions, heritage (she is half Mexican), and private concerns. Pérez delivers an upbeat story of being true to yourself and your beliefs that tweens will rally behind.
Harbor Me. By Jacqueline Woodson. 2018. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $17.99 (9780399252525). Gr. 5–8.
Six fifth- and sixth-graders, all in a special class for those who learn differently, are suddenly given, by their beloved teacher, an extra hour of safe space to talk. Haley, the book’s narrator, describes how each child begins to unfold. Esteban’s story demands to be told first; Immigration Services have taken his father away. The others lend sympathy and support, and then, over the course of a school year, more confidences are shared. These children become each other’s safe harbors, and Woodson brilliantly shows readers how to find the connections we all need.
Merci Suárez Changes Gears. By Meg Medina. 2018. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763690496). Gr. 4–7.
Merci Suárez loves telling her abuelo Lolo about her days at school. But lately, Lolo has been acting differently—he wanders off, forgets things easily, and has even gotten angry. To add to Merci’s worries, sixth grade at Seaward Pines Academy has gotten off to a rocky start. As Merci navigates her way through the year, she discovers that, even though change is scary, sometimes it is unavoidable. Medina capably gets to the heart of middle-school experiences in this engrossing story of a kid growing into herself.
Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh. By Uma Krishnaswami. 2017. Lee & Low/Tu, $16.95 (9781600602610). Gr. 3–6.
Maria Singh is part of one of many half-and-half families (half Indian, half Mexican, in her case) residing in California during WWII. While the boys are away fighting Nazis, girls start forming Little Leagues, women work in factories, and all households save every bit of scrap and grease they can. In this historical novel for middle-grade readers, which references Japanese internment camps and other civil rights issues of the day, Maria becomes aware of all the grown-up problems around her and how those issues affect her world.
Scholars, teachers, librarians, and lovers of children’s and young adult literature are making their opinions available in a variety of easily accessible ways. The links below are a few of the blogs and websites to which readers can refer when seeking information, book recommendations, and reliable book reviews.
American Indians in Children’s Literature
De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children
We Need Diverse Books
Kitaab World: Exploring South Asia through Children’s Literature
Uma Krishnaswami: official website and blog
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop talks about developments since 1965 and The All-White World of Children’s Literature
Christopher Myers: “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”
Walter Dean Myers: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center
Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Rita Williams-Garcia are such prolific writers that an entire issue of Book Links could be devoted to their works. Follow the links below to video clips of and interviews with these authors talking about their middle-grade series and the role of identity—specifically their own—in the creation of their protagonists and consideration of their readers.
Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover series
The Crossover (2014)
Time for Kids
Sports Illustrated for Kids
Kwame Alexander and students talk about Rebound
Interview at the 2016 National Book Festival
Jason Reynolds’ Track series
Discussing Ghost on PBS
Reading Lu at the Strand with host Jacqueline Woodson
Reading from and discussing Sunny for National Poetry Month
Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gaither Sisters series
One Crazy Summer (2010)
P.S. Be Eleven (2013)
Gone Crazy in Alabama (2015)
Discussing personal thematic connections to One Crazy Summer
Reading Rockets interview
Amina Chaudhri is an associate professor of teacher education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
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