The Missouri Reader Vol. 42, Issue 1 - Page 54

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The classroom demographic is quickly becoming more diverse, and exposing children to multicultural literature is one way for them to begin to comprehend how diverse the world truly is. Books selected need to not only reflect the diversity of those in the classroom and school, but the diverse reality of the world (Higgins, 2002). Literature carefully selected to reflect the world’s diversity helps children better “understand the principles of tolerance, inclusiveness, diversity, and respect for all,” (Colby & Lyon, 2004, p. 28). Even with the emphasis on “virtual” experiences in today’s digitally dependent society, reading picture books remains a powerful learning opportunity. The personal interaction between the reader, listener, and text creates a unique setting for helping children understand that despite their many differences, all people share commonalities of needs, emotions, dreams, and fears (Norton, & Norton, 2010).

Despite the steady increase in the publication of multicultural literature over recent years (Hill, 1998), the percentage of books with multicultural themes remains low (Higgins, 2002). The Cooperative Children’s Book Center defines multicultural literature as “books by and about people of color.” More broadly defined, multicultural literature encompasses any book with characters that are not part of a society’s dominant group, such as those in cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, or ability minority groups. Multicultural literature has also been defined as books that “reflect the racial, ethnic and social diversity that is characteristic of our pluralistic society and of the world” (Bishop, 1997, p. 3). All children need to be exposed to positive images that represent their culture and themselves in the literature they are hearing and reading (Brinson, 2012). Further, learning how people from other cultures do similar things in different ways can help children gain a sense of acceptance and appreciation for diverse cultures (Hillard, 1995).

“The use of children’s literature can serve as a significant tool in helping expose children to the ways others express their culture,” (Barta & Grindler, 1996, p. 269). According to Hefflin and Barkdale-Ladd (2001) literature is a medium through which children construct messages about culture and roles in society. As such, it has the power to influence the overall culture in the classroom creating a community where differences are not only tolerated but also embraced allowing a more harmonious environment (Boles, 2006). Al-Hazza (2010) expressed the importance of including multicultural literature as an opportunity to learn to value all cultures, recognize and appreciate differences, and promote understanding of cultures different from their own that exist in our society. Exposure to multicultural literature can also increase students’ self-worth and allow them to connect with themselves and their culture on a deeper level by helping students of diverse backgrounds shape their cultural identity (DeLeon, 2002).

Reading traditional stories from a particular ethnic group encourages children to examine their views, expand their vocabularies, and gain a better understanding of themselves and others. Culturally specific children's literature can acknowledge and highlight the variability within a particular group as well as provide insight into distinctive customs.

Fictional children’s literature featuring Chinese characters tends to be folktales and stories set in ancient China (Minjie, 2009). ”Folktales from Chinese culture are undeniably a source of information about its values, beliefs, attitudes, customs, and other aspects in addition to their appeal to children’s imagination” (Cai, 1994, p. 170). In addition, traditional Chinese children’s stories often function as a moral education tool (Wang and Leichtman 2000).

To be beneficial, however, a book must be accurate and sensitive, and must avoid stereotypical or condescending depictions of the culture represented. Many good-intentioned teachers select literature for classroom use believing that just because the story centers on a particular cultural group that it inherently possesses the characteristics of quality that make it an appropriate cultural representation for children (Pang, Colvin, Tran, & Barba, 1992). Fortunately, more recently published Chinese childrenʼs literature is slowly replacing some well-known stereotypical depictions, like The Five Chinese Brothers (Bishop, 1938) with the title charactersʼ identical features, yellow skin and slanted eyes and Tikki Tikki Tembo (Mosel, 1968) with a nonsensical “Chinese” name that is not actually Chinese at all having originated in Japan (de Manuel & Davis, 2006). Classroom teachers, however, have little time to peruse the literature related to multicultural books or to search bookstore shelves and, as a result, need lists of dependable titles (Higgins, 2002).

Methodology

The books in this study were identified by using the online catalog for two separate public library systems for connecting counties in two different southern states to search the children’s book collection with the keywords “China” and “Chinese.” Limiting the books to works of fiction provided a sample of 32 picture books published between 1938 and 2014. Using a slightly modified version of an evaluation tool developed by Higgins (2002) to assess multicultural literature for stereotypes, negative images of cultural groups, and literary value, each book was independently evaluated by six researchers. The research team included four university faculty members (2 from the United States and 2 from Shaoxing, China) and two graduate students (1 from the United States and 1 from Beijing, China) in the field of education.

Results

The Chinese fables, folktales, and fairy tales described below were among the books receiving the greatest number of unsolicited positive comments.

Jin Jin The Dragon

Beijing-born New Yorker Grace Chang has authored two books that feature the golden dragon Jin Jin. In Jin Jin The Dragon (2007) Chang wonderfully weaves Chinese myth into a well-written story that presents a friendlier interpretation of the dragon than American children may have encountered previously. Chong Chang, Grace’s brother, brings the delightful and adventurous dragon to life in his beautiful watercolors. Along his quest for self-discovery, the dragon meets many, varied animals. Although none

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Multiculturalism with Picture Book Portrayals

of Traditional Chinese Literature

Paige Vituli, and Susan Martin