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In the Classroom:
Evaluating Multicultural Picture Books

Have you ever opened the door to an unfamiliar culture or lifestyle through the pages of a book? Picture books that depict a variety of ethnic, racial, and cultural groups help young children develop an understanding of others and learn about diverse backgrounds. Multicultural children's literature can serve as a mirror for children into their own lives and as a window through which to learn about other's lives. Unfortunately, according to a recent article on the possibilities and pitfalls of multicultural picture books, too often picture books offer a distorted picture of multiculturalism in the United States.

Several issues have been raised about the accuracy and authenticity of multicultural picture books. One concern is that teachers and providers may assume a book is multicultural if it has non-European American characters or themes, but it may in fact misrepresent cultural groups and use common stereotypes. In addition, a single book about a cultural group may not adequately portray a group's experience. In reality, the perspective of an individual author affects the view he or she presents of a culture.

Teachers and providers must take the time to evaluate and choose high-quality picture books so that children can learn correct and useful information from the books to which they are exposed. The article's authors present several recommendations to help teachers and providers better evaluate and utilize children's picture books with good multicultural portrayals.

  • Training for teachers and providers should include opportunities to discuss their own and differing perspectives about racial and ethnic identity and how racial and ethnic groups are depicted in multicultural literature. This should include the development of a better understanding of the cultural groups in U.S society, and of the stereotypes and assumptions associated with these groups.
  • When assessing books for multiculturalism, teachers and providers must ask questions such as: Are characters outside the "mainstream" culture depicted as individuals or as caricatures? Does their representation include significant cultural information? Who has the power and wisdom in the story, and how do they use it? How is language used to create images of people in particular population groups? Is the author a member of the groups he/she is representing?

When children look at picture books, they are exposed to particular views about individuals and groups of people, including messages about what other people and other cultures are like. Following through on these recommendations can lead to a more beneficial use of multicultural picture books as part of the early childhood curriculum.

Source:
"Examining Multicultural Picture Books for the Early Childhood Classroom: Possibilities and Pitfalls", J. Mendoza and D. Reese, Early Childhood Research and Practice, Fall 2001.

For more information:
contact Jean Mendoza, College of Education University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1310 S. Sixth Street, Champaign, IL 61820, or by e-mail at jamendoz@uiuc.edu, or online at ecrp.uiuc.edu/v3n2/mendoza.html.

Facts in Action, June 2002

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