Helping Children Learn about Different Cultures through Reading

Helping Children Learn about Different Cultures through Reading

In honor of Picture Book Month, we are revisiting some of our past posts about the importance of reading. In this post from last year, we explore why it is important for children to read about all sorts of different characters and cultures.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. ” –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In her TED talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of growing up reading about white characters and coming to believe that they all drank Ginger Beer. She did not know what Ginger Beer was, but she knew that it was a big part of White, British culture. She saw only one type of character in the stories that she read and so came to believe in only a very small part of their story.

Children need to read about all types of people and places in their books. There are many good reasons for this, including those having to do with anti-discrimination and social justice. But let’s take a look at some of the reasons that may be closest to home:

  • Children need to see themselves in books. This will make them more likely to form those good reading habits that we have been talking about. If children do not see themselves, their families, or their culture in books, they may come to wonder what is wrong with them. Or if they never see their parents reflected in books, they might start to grow away from their own cultural heritages.
  • Children need to learn about other people and cultures. Our world is increasingly diverse and multi-cultural. Children need to learn about the range of human experiences and cultures as they grow up. And what better place to do that than by reading about them! This will not only give them better academic skills, but they are likely to have better social skills and empathy as well.
  • Multi-cultural parents need to be able to read with their children. Imagine if there were no books in your language or about your culture that you could share with your children. This is a reality for a number of groups. Every parent deserves the opportunity to cuddle with their child and read a good story that they both can understand and relate to. And we know how good that is for the parent-child relationship and for the child’s own reading skills.
  • All children need to be able to imagine themselves as readers and future writers. Jewell Parker Rhodes, an African American writer of children’s books, says that she was a junior in college before she realized that African American women could write books. She immediately switched her major. If children do not see themselves IN books, they may not be able to imagine themselves as readers and future writers OF books. As our world gets more and more diverse and we become more interconnected with people around the globe, we are going to need writers from all cultures and backgrounds.

Books for children have not been very diverse in the past. And that is still the sad truth. But we have found some resources that are listed at the end of this blog and that we will be sharing on our Facebook page. There are ways to offer your children books with diverse characters and stories. As Jewell Parker Rhodes says “Kids are smart – they know it’s fairer that everyone’s stories should be celebrated all the time.”

Children’s Book Council website on diversity: http://www.cbcdiversity.com/

Young adult novels with diverse characters: http://bzfd.it/1Tb0FZV

Website of We Need Diverse Books campaign: http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/

Picture books about family diversity: http://bit.ly/21d4D9z

Dual language picture books: http://bit.ly/1PaE7JL

Lists of multicultural books by age group: http://bit.ly/1kQBJLT

Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.

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