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Cultural Diversity in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

By Sandip Wilson
 | Oct 30, 2017

The picture books and novels in this week’s collection travel to a range of historical and contemporary settings, addressing important issues and events while following the day-to-day lives of people from around the world. These stories serve as windows, providing insights into different human experiences within different cultural contexts.

Ages 4–8

Kissimi Taimaippaktut Angirrarijarani=Only in My Hometown. Arnakuluk Friesen. Trans. Jean Kususak. Ill. Ippikasuat Friesen. 2017. Groundwood/House of Anansi.

Only In My HometownSet in the Canadian territory and archipelago of Nunavat, this story shows the daily life of a tightly knit Arctic community. Bright acrylic-and-watercolor illustrations complement the richness of the lyrical text. For example, accompanying the illustration of children and women in parkas standing in blowing snow are the lines “‘Only white remains of the fourteen long blizzarding days. / Get out the shovel. /Don’t fuss or grovel. / Only in my hometown.’” The bilingual text is in both written and spoken Inuktitut followed by an English translation on each page, which highlights the importance of language to cultural self-identity.

Nipêhon=I Wait. Caitlin Dale Nicholson (with Leona Morin-Nielson). 2017. Groundwood/House of Anansi.

I WaitIn this gentle intergenerational story, a young girl waits with her mother for her grandmother before the First Nations family sets out on a day trip to collect wild yarrow. Written in Cree and translated into English, the story shows the fullness of their day as they share a quiet connection walking through fields and woods. Warm acrylic illustrations express the sense of peace and pleasure of time spent together conveyed by the text, which is punctuated with playful humor. The back matter includes a recipe for yarrow tea and a dedication by each author to the women and others in their lives with whom they have shared love, connection, and work.

When the Rain Comes. Alma Fullerton. Ill. Kim La Fave. 2017. Pajama Press.

When the Rain ComesLiving in Sri Lanka, Malini is delighted to awaken one morning to the sound of an approaching ox cart bringing rice seedlings. The arrival is particularly exciting because she will be learning to plant them. With a monsoon storm approaching, her first task is to hold the reins of the huge, snorting ox. When the wind blows the seedlings across his back, the ox becomes increasingly agitated, and when the rain floods the roads, Malini is cut off from family. She must swallow her fear of the frightened ox, lead him to safety, and find shelter to protect the seedlings. Rendered in pencil and watercolor, the illustrations depict the drama and danger of the wind, driving rain, and Malini’s effort to protect the rice seedlings and soothe the ox.

Ages 9–11

Amina’s Voice. Hena Khan. 2017. Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster.

Amina's VoiceAmina, a middle school student in Milwaukee, faces two challenges: participating in a pioneer project with her friend, Soojin, and another student, Emily, who has teased her in the past and, at the wishes of her father, practicing for a public competition in reading the Quran organized by the Iman of her Islam Center. Amina loves music and when she sings she feels transformed from a skinny girl into a glamorous star, but her singing is discouraged when her uncle, visiting from Pakistan, insists music is forbidden by their religion. When Soojin becomes an ally of Emily, Amina questions the alliances she has with others at school while she also strives to meet her family’s expectations. As she reads the Quran, Amina finds new meaning in the values of her family, and when vandalism devastates the mosque, she uses her special musical talents to soothe the pain of her family and community.

Beyond the Bright Sea. Lauren Wolk. 2017. Douglas & McIntyre Dutton /Penguin.

Beyond the Bright SeaThe only life that 12-year-old Crow has known is living on the Elizabeth Islands off Cape Cod, Massachusetts with Osh, the man who rescued her, as a newborn, from the sea. In this historical novel set in 1925, she yearns to find out where she is from and who her parents were. Once she learns she came from Penikese, a nearby island that had been a leper colony, she gains insight, but the discovery brings more questions into her life.  She now realizes why people avoid her and why she wasn’t permitted to attend the local school. People fear what they do not understand. All she has of her past is a ring and a nearly indecipherable letter that had been attached to the swaddling when Osh found her. Searching for answers about her family puts Crow and the people she loves in danger as she learns the history of her family and the people who lived on the island.

Three Pennies. Melanie Crowder. 2017. Atheneum/Simon & Schuster.

Three PenniesEleven-year-old Marin has had seven foster mothers in San Francisco, California. The only consistent part of her life is a copy of the I Ching (The Book of Changes) that she consults daily. To determine her reading for the day, she uses three pennies to indicate the change lines identifying the hexagram that gives her guidance into the events of her life. When Gilda, her social worker, interviews her for possible adoption, Marin reads her fostercare file left open on the table containing a sheet with a contact name given when Marin was surrendered to social services. As Marin discovers a link to her birth mother, Gilda arranges a probationary period with Lucy, a doctor who wants to be Marin’s adoptive mother. Although her life is made comfortable and she is cared for and valued, she yearns to find her birth mother. In this novel of discovery, Marin gains an unconditional acceptance that both sustains her in her search for her birth mother and challenges her to think about her life in a new way.

Ages 1214

Turtle Island: The Story of North America’s First People.  Eldon Yellowhorn & Kathy Lowinger. 2017. Annick.

Turtle IslandChronicling thousands of years, this nonfiction book illuminates cultures of First Peoples in different parts of the continent and shows how civilizations grew and changed from the Ice Age to the 20th century. In the creation myth, pregnant Sky Woman falls through a hole in the sky and birds set her down on the back of the Great Turtle. Other animals plunge into the sea and retrieve mud to make the world on the turtle’s back. Each chapter focuses on a different cultural community of the North American Northwest, the Plains, the Southwest and Mexico, and the Northeast and presents the history and mythology of the people, their invention in building communities, the effects of the encounter with Europeans, and information on contemporary daily life. The book includes sources and suggestions for further reading in the back matter.

Ages 15+

#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women. Lisa Charleyboy & Mary Beth Leatherdale (Eds.). 2017. Annick. 

Not Your PrincessIn a book of multiple genres, including narrative, poetry, drawings, and paintings, the stories of contemporary girls and women of First Nations from all over North America share their fears and aspirations, as well as their experiences with self-identity, family, community, and sisterhood. The stories, accompanied by photographs, include calls to action, rousing women to take pride in who they have been and who they are now. The back matter includes credits and acknowledgments. 

In a Perfect World.
Trish Doller. 2017. Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster.

In a Perfect WorldCaroline looks forward to summer vacation, working with her best friend at the local amusement park, and traveling with her boyfriend before their senior year of high school, until suddenly, plans are disrupted. Instead, Caroline must move to Egypt for the coming year, with her mother who is opening an eye clinic in Cairo. As part of her mother’s residency, the family has a driver who shows them historical and religious sites until he falls ill and his son, Adam, takes over the job. Adam dutifully chauffeurs Caroline around the city and environs, and takes her to famous sites such as Giza and to places that tourists do not usually see such as neighborhood markets and ancient religious sites. In this novel of self-doubt, discovery, and loss, affection grows between Caroline and Adam, until Caroline’s life is once again disrupted.

Speak of Me as I Am. Sonia Belasco. 2017.  Penguin/Philomel.

Speak of Me As I AmAfter the death of his best friend, Carlos, Damon sets out to discover what Carlos experienced in his life as a photographer. While working in the family diner, Melanie explores the world of painting that her mother had been immersed in before her death from cancer.  They each ponder the lives of the people they were so close to and discover their growing friendship as they prepare for the upcoming high school production of “Othello,” with Damon as Othello and Melanie as the designer and painter of the stage sets. In this novel of loss and healing, Damon and Melanie discover they can make contributions to people they love in ways they didn’t expect.

When Dimple Met Rishi.  Sandhya Menon. 2017. Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster.

When Dimple Met RishiIn this romantic comedy, Dimple Shah and Rishi Patel participate in Insomnia Con, a web technology summer program at San Francisco State University for students entering college. Dimple, who is keenly interested in coding, is committed to education, and she challenges her parents’ expectations that she finds a good husband. Rishi, who loves comic book art, as the eldest son of his family, is committed to meeting the family’s expectations to be an engineer. Although their families have intended that Dimple and Rishi get to know one another, the two Indian-American teens (who plan to attend universities on opposite coasts) have no intention of cultivating a relationship. When they are paired up to work on a special project, however, things get complicated, and they are challenged in pursuing their own dreams while honoring their families’ values.

Sandip LeeAnne Wilson serves as professor in the School of Education and the English Department of Husson University, Bangor, Maine.

These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.

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