Multicultural Books for Toddlers, Children and Teens
By Susan Weintraub
The selection of books below are in addition to the books recommended in our Winter 2013 print edition. The books portray a variety of families and family relationships- stepfamilies, biracial families, single-parent families, same sex families, inter-generational families, families living miles apart out of financial necessity, as well as parents and children who live together but struggle to cross emotional barriers created by family secrets, mental illness, and autism. These poems, picture books and novels are set in different places across the globe – Japan, China, India, and the United States- but they share universal feelings of love, anger, success, disappointment, laughter and heartbreak.
You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you. – Frederick Buechner
In My Heart by Molly Bang (Little, Brown and Company, 2006)
When we’re apart, I miss you.
But when I look inside my heart,
I see you sitting there.
You’re with me everywhere I go!
With a gentle and playful voice and vibrant illustrations, author/illustrator, Molly Bang, reminds parents and children of the connection they share throughout a day even when they are apart.
*Consider pairing this with Georgia Heard’s heart mapping from Awakening the Heart. As she explains in her book, “It’s a poet’s job to know the interior of his or her heart.” She suggests creating a heart map of all the important things, people and places, moments and memories, happy and sad, big and little.
The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norman Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Hyperion Books for Children, 2005)
In this winner of the Caldecott Medal, the window may look like a regular kitchen window, but the young narrator of the story knows that it’s not. It’s a window for greetings and goodbyes, peekaboos, making silly faces, and blowing kisses- the stuff that makes up the most important of everyday rituals. The narrator surely understands this:
When I get my own house someday
I’m going to have a special
Hello, Goodbye Window, too.
By that time I might be a Nanna myself.
I don’t know who the Poppy will be,
but I hope he can play the harmonica.
Oh Brother! by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Mike Benny (Greenwillow Books, 2008)
Even though Xavier knows that his parents are better off divorced, when Xavier’s mother remarries, it is difficult to have a new stepbrother who he thinks of as “Mr. Perfect.” In twenty poems, Nikki Grimes shows how strangers eventually become brothers. The collection concludes on a positive note with the following:
A New Song
After this year,
I’ve learned one thing:
is a song we sing,
and we can add new notes
anytime we like.
Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrations by Jamel Akib (Lee and Low Books, 2006)
On Rakhi Day, Arun wishes that he had a sister. In India, where his dad was born, sisters tie shiny bracelets on the wrists of their brothers. The bracelets are called rakhi too, just like the holiday. Brothers and sisters promise to be good to each other, and everyone eats special sweets. Arun is excited to learn that he will be getting a new baby sister. She isn’t coming from the hospital like his friend’s little sister; she is coming from India, and her name is Asha, which means “hope.” Arun and his family wait for many months and celebrate her birthday even though she is still on the other side of the world. When she finally arrives and Arun meets her at the airport, she has a special gift for her new brother.
A New Year’s Reunion by Yu Li-Qiong, illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Liang (Candlewick Press, 2011)
First published in 2008 in Taiwan, A New Year’s Reunion tells the story of how Maomao is reunited with her father who is coming home for New Year celebrations. While the family in this book is fictional, as the author mentions in a note at the end of the book, “there are in reality over 100 million migrant workers in China, many of whom work hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away from home, returning only once each year, for just a few days, at New Year’s.” While the story illustrates a New Year’s celebration in contemporary China, it is also portrays the love and sadness of a family separated for financial reasons.
In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 2009)
According to an interview with the author, Patricia Polocco, the idea for this picture book came after a visit to a fourth grade class in Texas. The students were reading aloud from essays they had written about their families. One little girl began reading about her “untraditional” family when she was rudely interrupted by a classroom assistant who said, “You sit down. You don’t come from a real family.” That night in her hotel, thinking about this child who had been bullied and embarrassed by an adult, Polacco wrote this book as a way of celebrating differences.
Told from the point of view of a girl adopted by her two mothers, Marmee and Meema, In Our Mothers’ House is a tribute to two mothers who always believed in, honored, and loved their children. The story emphasizes the love shared by family throughout the years as holidays are celebrated, traditions are created, and the family expands and welcomes another generation.
Will and his family live in our mothers’ house now. We were so pleased that it didn’t go to a stranger, and it is still a gathering place for all of us and our families. The walls still whisper our mothers’ names.
All of our hearts find peace whenever we are there…not only remembering them, but being there, together, in our mothers’ house.
Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Candlewick Press, 2011)
Elephants can sense danger. They’re able to detect an approaching tsunami or earthquake before it hits. Unfortunately, Jack did not have this talent. The day his life was turned completely upside down, he was caught unaware.
Eleven-year-old Jack Martel crawls out of his tent after his first night camping in Arcadia National Park to discover that his mother’s tent and their rental car are missing. Once Jack faces the reality that he has been abandoned, he tries to figure out how to find his mother and avoid being taken by the Department of Social Services. As it turns out, Jack is not a typical boy, and he is used to his mother’s unpredictable behavior when she is “spinning” out of control.
Jacobson begins each chapter with a fact or anecdote about elephants that runs parallel to Jack’s story. As the author learned in her research, elephants are maternal creatures. Even when at risk, a female will not abandon her young, and if an elephant family is destroyed due to poaching, the elephants will form new families. Although Jack feels very much alone, he discovers that like the elephants that he loves, his “family” is larger than he has imagined.
Visit the author’s website at www.jenniferjacobson.com to follow Jack’s route and learn more about the places that he visits as he searches for his mother, or submit your own story of what Jack might have experienced if his adventure had taken part in your part of the world.
Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011)
Author Sheila O’Connor believes “everyone has a story to tell- and that stories help us see each other’s hearts.”
When Raine arrives at the mysterious artist mansion on Sparrow Road where she and her mother are spending the summer, she has no idea why her mother has agreed to work there as a cook. “No music. No TV. No computer. No telephone. And everyday, silence until supper.” These are the rules presented to her by the brooding and iceburg-like owner, Viktor.
While Raine initially would like nothing more than to get on the next train back home, she is soon preoccupied with questions about Viktor, the artists, the orphans that once lived in the attic, and why her mother suddenly took this job out in the country.
Determined to unlock the many secrets, Raine’s search for answers becomes a story of self-discovery, a story of love, loyalty, forgiveness, and family.
Rules by Cynthia Lord
When Cynthia Lord’s daughter asked her why she never saw families like her own portrayed in books or on television, Lord went searching for books that included children with severe special needs. While she found some, most were very sad. “Sadness is part of living with someone with a severe disability, but it’s only one part. It can also be funny, inspiring, heartwarming, disappointing, frustrating – everything that it is to love anyone and to live in any family.” This first novel reflects all of these different facets of family life.
Twelve-year-old Catherine has spent years trying to teach her autistic younger brother David “the rules,” including:
Say “thank you” when someone gives you a present (even if you don’t like it).
Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.
No toys in the fish tank.
If it’s too loud, cover your ears, or ask the other person to be quiet.
Take your shoes off at the doctor, but at the dentist leave them on.
But this summer, Catherine meets a new “sort-of” friend and she realizes the importance of thinking about others’ perspectives and that we often follow social “rules” without even knowing why.
Orchards by Holly Thompson, illustrations by Grady McFerrin (Delacorte Press, 2011)
One week after
you stuffed a coil of rope
into your backpack
and walked uphill into
where blooms were still closed fists
my father looked up
it wasn’t my fault
I didn’t do anything!
my mother hissed
and made the call
to her older sister
Thompson’s novel in verse is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Kana Goldberg, a half-Japanese, half-Jewish American teen. After the suicide of a classmate, Kana’s parents decide to send their daughter away from her clique of friends to spend the summer living at her mother’s ancestral home in Japan. Kana spends hours working in her family’s mikan orange groves and has time to process the pain and guilt she feels as she gets to know her Japanese family and participates in their daily customs and rituals.
In her guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s website, Cynsations, Holly Thompson tells the story behind her writing of Orchards.