The Power of Multicultural Picture Books

Article excerpt

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My school is like many across the country. It is not in a large, multicultural city and does not accommodate a culturally diverse population. However, we have embraced the challenge to produce 21st century global citizens--even if our local area does not seem very global at first glance. Clearly, there is a need to equip all our children with the knowledge and understanding of other peoples' beliefs, cultures, customs, traditions and race to become citizens of the world.

To do this more rigorously, we decided to use the power of picture books as they are able to portray the lives of our children and others in an accessible manner. It also meant that we could permeate the whole curriculum on a regular basis, emphasising to children the importance of such understanding.

As a staff we agreed that we wanted to use picture books to:

* develop positive feelings in all our pupils towards their cultural heritage from wherever this originates so that they feel confident

* develop their own sense of belonging and self-esteem

* enable our pupils to recognise the value of diversity within and between identities, groups and communities

* critically reflect on the shared and diverse values in society

* know our pupils better and therefore discover the true diversity within the classroom so that it can be celebrated.

Our first action was therefore to audit our stock of multicultural books within our library and classroom book corners. In categorising a book as 'multicultural' we examined its promotion of ethnic, racial and cultural diversity. We noted that our range of multicultural books was strong in non-fiction, but our range of fiction titles was sparse. At first glance, choosing books to bridge this gap seemed an easy task. However, on closer inspection many books included stereotypes and cultural misunderstanding. Trying to find something contemporary or an author from another country who has written about their own culture in the English language, or where their work has been faithfully translated, was a test of our research skills.

However, help was at hand. One impact of this process has been an increase in the range of book stockists we now use. Independent book stockists--particularly those promoting inclusion and diversity--were able to guide us to specific titles which reflect the distinct needs of our pupils through text and illustration. They also ensured that we were promoting accuracy and authenticity in our book choices. Recommended stock often included picture books from less well-known publishers and from newly published authors and illustrators.

In order for these new books to have an extra impact, we did not integrate them immediately into our library. Instead we used our books in small group and whole-class reading sessions, or as an alternative story for SEAL assemblies. This provided valuable opportunities for discussion and enabled us to help dispel stereotypes and misunderstanding. We talked about how cultures change over time and how their own cultures might be perceived by someone else.

To further engage the children we asked the school council to make their own list of books from recommended titles and reviews which they could promote to the school. The children really loved this activity. There was much discussion over the possible merits of one title over another--great for your APP assessment! For the last few years our school has voted on its picture book of the year, chosen from a shortlist of ten. It's going to be a close call between Lin Yi's Lantern by Brenda Williams and Wings by Christopher Myers.

We categorised the books under five themes to develop the children's critical literacy skills:

* Similarity

* Dual language

* Traditional tales

* Respecting difference

* Minority characters in main roles or in worldwide settings

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