Monday, January 16, 2012

Multicultural Characters

As a writer, how do you know if your book accurately portrays the culture of its characters?

This a fitting question as we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. In our rapidly globalizing world, we are in need of children's books that celebrate the diversity in our communities.

As writer or illustrator, it's important to do your research. The following article from offers advice from top educators, writers, and illustrators on how to spot literature that transcends stereotypes. It is geared towards teachers, but is a great resource for writers as well. It includes some great book lists!

Some highlights from the article:

"Most of the Jewish children's literature I read as a kid was didactic: It set out to teach lessons, not to entertain. Today Jewish children's literature informs, inspires, amuses, and tackles larger themes, including coming of age and coming to terms with the past. The characters are full characters, growing up in a variety of cultures- and mixed cultures." -Etta Miller

"I try to be true to the culture and take the reader there. I want readers to feel the atmosphere of the setting, to know what it smells like, what the light looks like, the sounds the characters hear-all these senses come into play. Hopefully my illustrations will strike a certain chord, bring back a certain memory, and help you feel the characters are someone you know." -Floyd Cooper

"..look for good storytelling. If the author is not dealing with social issues- that's a good sign. Too often I see books about Mexican-Americans that adopt a patronizing "poor them, they're working too hard" tone." -Gary Soto

I think the best characters are believably rooted in their culture, but we can also relate to them.

A couple of my favorite titles from 2011: Good-bye, Havana! Hola, New York! by Raul Colon and A Mango in the Hand: A Story told through Proverbs by Sebastia Serra.

What are your favorites?


  1. I'd just like to comment on how far we've come in being careful and accurate in presenting other cultures to children.

    The article mentions ANNIE AND THE OLD ONE by Miska Miles as an incorrect portrayal of Navajo culture, but years ago elementary school teachers were reading this to their classes.

  2. Two oldies but goodies that I still read to my children are 'The Snowy Day' by Ezra Jack Keats and 'Corduroy' by Don Freeman.

  3. Good point Gale. Our society's idea of what's appropriate is constantly changing.

    Julie, I love those classics too!