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Teaching Global Children's Literature: What to Read and How to Read

Five College Consortium's Doors to the World Project supports the critical teaching of global children's literature which respects, reflects, and expands the worlds of children. Today the project director, Maria José Botelho, and faculty consultant, Natalie Sowell, share guidelines for integrating global children's literature into classroom learning experiences.

Join them this Thursday, August 11th on Twitter for #Globaledchat at 8pm Eastern time. 

by guest bloggers Maria José Botelho and Natalie Sowell

The metaphors of mirrors and windows have long had an association with children's literature. Books as mirrors reflect the worlds and experiences of children back at them, acknowledging and affirming their lives. Books as windows expand their lived experiences through stories and information. However, the metaphor of children's picture books as doors signifies action, the possibility of critical engagement with texts through questioning and comparison of words, images, storylines, and other textual elements. This piece explores how books, if critically chosen and read, can serve as doors to cultural understanding in the classroom.

Representing Cultural Diversity
Communities of color represent a significant percentage of the US population. However, since the early 1980s, the Cooperative Center for Children's Books has documented that less than 10% of children's publications are about or by people of color. In recent years, movements like We Need Diverse Books have continued to call attention to the lack of diversity in children's books. Because of the underrepresentation of particular cultural communities in children's literature, the Five College community defines global children's literature as multicultural literature, books by and about communities of color within the United States, and international books produced by authors/illustrators and publishers outside the United States.

Global children's literature recognizes the United States as a diaspora, a home to many global cultures with different historical and sociopolitical circumstances. People exercise power with each word they say and action they take. Teachers must attend to which cultures are represented, underrepresented, misrepresented, and invisible in children's books (what to read) as well as recontextualize these books within the history, culture, and time from which they emerged (how to read). 

Selecting Children's Books
Childrens_literature.jpegTeachers have the great responsibility of selecting children's books for particular classrooms that serve particular cultural communities. For example, the multicultural book The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin represents a Taiwanese-American child's family experience, using neighborhood gardens as metaphors of cultural practice. While this story might resonate with Asian American and other bicultural children, teachers need to consider how the book relates to the cultural experiences of all children with whom they work and how it reflects the complexities of their lived experiences. Moreover, there is diversity within cultural communities; one book alone cannot represent a cultural experience. The Ugly Vegetables is a semi-autobiographical text about the author/illustrator and represents one cultural member's experience in negotiating her bicultural identity; it does not represent all Taiwanese Americans or Asian Americans.

The term Asian American is a gross lumping of people, much like when we group Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans. All these cultural communities have great diversity within their groups. Therefore, teachers must consider: In what ways will this book expand the understanding of other cultures and lifestyles? The Ugly Vegetables showcases a bicultural experience but also shows the specificity of these processes in one place and time. Reading more than one children's book representing a specific cultural group can show how that culture is diverse, dynamic, and complex.

Teachers must also consider how use of the book will contribute to children's understanding of the underrepresentation, misrepresentation, and/or invisibility of this cultural community. The Ugly Vegetables is an important contribution to children's literature because the Taiwanese American and other Asian American communities are underrepresented in US children's literature. When children see themselves reflected in children's literature, they can negotiate their identities as they make sense of the words and images. The book also challenges some stereotypes about immigrant communities, such as they are victims of their circumstances, and they are all poor. Here, the reader finds a middleclass family, information that is communicated by the material world of the characters: single-family homes, expansive backyards, and an at-home mother. The mother and child demonstrate that they take action in their life by planting a garden with vegetables that are important to their culture as they negotiate their understanding of this cultural practice.

This book, like all children's literature, can inform curriculum planning. It can support inquiries into families, gardening, and food with younger children. It can also be modified for older students who could interview family members about family and cultural practices particular to their communities. Their interviews can inform picture book representations. Children can also emulate the artistic technique of gouache, a water-soluble paint that is opaque rather than translucent.

Reading Children's Literature
Understanding how to read children's literature is as important as knowing what to read. Reading critically demands that young readers take notice of how words and images tell stories and how these story elements are in dialogue with each other. Consider one of the first double-spread pages in The Ugly Vegetables. What do the images communicate about the neighborhood's cultural diversity and sense of place? The use of the double spread offers a panoramic view of the backyards. There is a sense of spaciousness because the fenceless yards spill from one house to another. The large trees signal that this is a suburban or rural setting. Cultural and age diversity is a reality in this neighborhood. The artist's use of gouache conveys harmony, stability, and permanence in this community.

Considering what is going on in images, taking stock of the book's construction, making meaning through initial interpretations, connections, and disconnections are all entry points into a text. Children can examine the jacket, spine, and end papers. What do the images, typography, front matter and back matter, and design elements (e.g., color, composition, line) reveal about the storyline? About place and culture? Children can also name the ways that the text does not reflect what they know and the questions the text provokes. What about the words and images remind the children about their lived experiences? What are some disconnections? Children should be encouraged to name these dissonances to deepen their meaning making.

After these preliminary reading practices, teachers can turn children's attention to deeper reading within the text (point of view, interactions among characters, themes, ending, genre). In the Ugly Vegetables example, the genre is realistic fiction blended with autobiographical aspects. Children should be invited to think about the hold that these genres have on their expectations for this text. Realist fiction implies that what we will find in the text is plausible in our daily lives. At the end, the neighbors come together to partake in the vegetable soup made from the harvest as they appear with armfuls of flowers, the other crops grown in the neighborhood. This closed ending could be opened with critical questions such as: What might the mother and child plant next year? What might the neighbors plant? How might the neighborhood rethink how they use their gardening plots?

Next, children can read beyond the text, exploring connections to the social and historical contexts. This story can be considered alongside immigration information about Taiwanese immigrants. Since this story takes place in upstate New York, children can explore the immigration patterns of this region. This story can also be read against conversations about the environmental benefits of home gardens. Other related texts can be compared with this story. For younger children, Growing Vegetable Soup or City Green are options and for older children, Seedfolks and Grow: A Novel in Verse are excellent additions. These pairings and comparisons might make this text more accessible to children who are reading outside their cultural experience. These juxtapositions will also provoke critical questions about how socio-economic conditions shape people's land use practices. The Summer My Father Was Ten, Wanda's Roses, and Seedfolks bring the readers up close to characters taking action for the good of the community.

Reading children's books alongside everyday texts, such as video clips, newspaper stories, advertisements, toys, music, and the like, sparks critical engagement with children's books. Children come to understand how worldviews are embedded in multiple texts.

Concluding Words
Global children's literature can be transformational. However, there is a danger in thinking that if teachers simply integrate these texts into their teaching, the books will create cultural awareness. Children's books are social constructions: many people have made many decisions in the texts' making. They are records of the time and place in which they were produced. In deconstructing global children's literature, children learn about how texts position them as readers and the communities that the texts render. In taking these texts apart, children learn how to negotiate their identities and how global cultures are diverse, dynamic, complex, and permeable. Critical engagement with global children's literature offers glimpses of the social construction of culture, that is, as children reassemble texts, they participate in remaking culture as they to create new meanings, new social worlds, and new inquiries. 

Connect with Five College Schools Partnership and Asia Society

Image courtesy of the authors. 

Maria José Botelho is Director of the Five College Doors to the World Project and Associate Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Natalie Sowell is Faculty Consultant for the Doors Project and Associate Professor of Theatre/Theatre Education/Applied Drama at Hampshire College.

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