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New Book Explores Cultural Competence

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A new book published by the American Library Association offers a primer for librarians and English/language arts teachers newly interested in cultural competence and its role in teaching and learning.

Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors through Reading (American Library Association, 2013), edited by Jamie Campbell Naidoo and Sarah Park Dahlen, collects short essays from scholars, librarians, and teachers that attempt to answer a question of broad appeal and import: "How do people become more open to and accepting of people who are different from themselves?" Contributors explore how youth literature can provide the spark and the fuel for conversations about diversity.

The challenges involved in evaluating and selecting books for a collection is one angle of inquiry. Diversity in literature as a way to make literacy instruction more accessible is another theme. Finally, several contributors address the representation of various ethnic groups, sexualities, and disabilities in youth literature and the publishing industry.

Chapter One establishes six approaches to defining and evaluating multicultural literature; remaining chapters each address one or more of the approaches:

1. Classification schemes based on the level or type of diversity portrayed in the book

2. Individuals' experiences in learning to understand and appreciate a culture that is not their own

3. Authentic portrayals of culture with a little "c" focusing on the micro level of daily events

4. The pluralistic nature of a single culture instead of one incident or viewpoint

5. Evaluating the work of cultural insiders based on criteria appropriate to their own culture

6. Whether "outsiders" can write about or illustrate a culture that is not their own

Contributors offer many suggestions for teaching and collecting youth literature with attention to diversity. Some propose prioritizing the inclusion, in reading lists or library collections for youth, of literature representing non-dominant cultures. Others embrace cultural pluralism, which chapter author Anna L. Nielsen describes as follows:

Cultural pluralism is the idea that the cultural practices and identities of all groups, minority and majority, have an integrated and defining place within the wider cultural construct of the dominant culture. No cultural practices and identities are disappeared and no cultural group is invisible. All have a valid and "invaluable unique identifying faction of the whole."

In Nielsen's interpretation, a dominant culture provides the context for understanding minority cultures, which could lead to the use of "diverse" as a synonym for "other." Nielsen also equates "shared cultural systems" – a dominant culture – with "shared impositions of what common sense is for all who live under them."

Challenging "common sense," or what counts as "normal," is also the focus of "Growing Mixed Up," a chapter about representations of mixed-race youth in literature. Amina Chaudhri conducted a review of young adult and children's books featuring multiracial characters and observed a consistent theme: narratives built around the "conflict" of racial identity. She writes:

Conventional literary patterns have monoracial characters in coming-of-age stories emerge from transformative experiences wiser and more self-confident. Mixed-race characters are also transformed, but the site of both conflict and resolution is the fact of being mixed, and the transformation process is private, internal, and usually solitary. Once characters understand their racial identity, all problems are solved. In this way, the problem is the mixed-race subject, not the attitudes of society.

"Growing Mixed Up" highlights a recurring theme across chapters: the need for culturally authentic children's literature that represents individuals and communities as part of a diverse and inclusive definition of what is "normal."

Librarians and educators with an extensive background in culturally relevant teaching and other diversity issues may not benefit from a primer on familiar territory. However, the object of Diversity in Youth Literature is not necessarily to unveil new or groundbreaking research, but rather to provide an introduction to culturally competent teaching and librarianship. While short chapters and limited scope of research prevent this volume from offering much more than a collection of conference posters, the range of subjects it covers could indeed open doors to further inquiry and reflection.

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