Multicultural literature is defined as literature that represents any distinct cultural group through accurate portrayal and rich detail. It can appear in a variety of genres and when presented together, portray a multitude of perspectives about the lives, culture, and contributions of each the world’s diverse cultures.
Today’s post provides an annotated list of a few of my personal favorites – children’s multicultural books appropriate for the middle grades (grades five through eight). Though there are many wonderfully diverse cultures on our planet (and by no means do the titles I have selected represent every culture in our vast world), I have chosen to select two titles for each continent, essentially just skimming the surface.
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Please note – I have not made an attempt to evaluate the literary quality of each work nor its appropriateness in terms of cultural content and/or relevance to your curriculum. I leave that up to you – as your child’s parent and best advocate.
AFRICA & MIDDLE EAST
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
If you have heard Malala Yousafzai’s story in the news, then you surely know this young woman is a true heroine. I Am Malala, written with Christina Lamb, stands on its own as a great reading experience. It tells the story of how Malala’s Swat Valley was taken over by Taliban extremists and how she and her whole family had to live under the de facto rule of terrorists. In the book, we get to know her idealistic father and a figure little written about in the news: her remarkable mother. She was a brave woman, religiously devout, unable to read, who until recently lived her whole life in purdah. We also see the beauty of the Swat Valley through Malala’s eyes.
The cause of female education, of female empowerment, may well be the great cause of our time. You will read about it in this book, but also about Malala as a human being — intellectually competitive, surprisingly in touch with certain aspects of American popular culture, yet living a very different life from girls in Western societies. She is a patriot, a Muslim believer, and very, very brave. It is worth reading this book just to encounter her.
Laugh with the Moon by Shana Burg
Laugh With the Moon is the compelling story of a girl who is trying to find her way forward after a tragic loss. Clare feels as though she is betraying her mother if she’s happy. But Africa is such a change from what she knows that she is forced to think differently.
Thirteen-year-old Clare’s story takes place in Malawi. She has just suffered one of the worst losses a child can imagine; her mother has died, leaving Clare alone with just her father, a doctor who seems to care about everyone else more than Clare. At least, that’s the way she feels when he up and moves the two of them to rural Malawi for several months where he will be working at the local hospital and she will attend the local village school.
The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean
This exciting story takes place in 13th century Cathay (China), where Di Chou, a sailor, kills Haoyou’s father in the hopes of marrying his wife, Qing’an, and sets fire to Haoyou’s house. At this point, Haoyou and his mother move into Haoyou’s great uncle Bo’s house. Bo forces Haoyou’s mother to work in a drinking house, locked up in the cellar, and away from sunlight for months at a time to pay for his gambling addiction.
To earn money for his uncle, Haoyou agrees to be a wind tester, a dangerous job where he is strapped to a kite and propelled upwards into the wind. He faces a difficult decision: should he be obedient and respect his elders as is custom, or go against everything he has been taught and save the money for his mother and himself?
Up and up the wind drew him.
Haoyou looked about him and saw the whole
world beneath him. And it was his.
The key to this riveting story is a strong, cunning, heroic female character who is a distant relative named Mipeng. I was touched and astounded by her bravery and intelligence, as well as her friendship and support of Haoyou.
Bound by Donna Jo Napoli
This book is reminiscent of the classic Cinderella story but set in imperial China when the custom of foot binding was common practice. With both Xing Xing’s biological parents departed, Xing Xing is left in the care of her stepmother with the company of her stepsister, Wei Ping. Shortly after Xing Xing’s father’s death, Stepmother starts to “prepare” Wei Ping for marriage. Stepmother insists on finding Wei Ping the grandest husband possible, one who will take all of them in.
In order to make Wei Ping a suitable wife in ancient China, her feet need to be bound. The process of foot binding literally includes breaking the bridge of the foot and tying it back with tight strips of material. Wei Ping is left crippled in agonizing pain for months after Stepmother binds her feet, taking all of her helplessness and anger out on Xing Xing.
Xing Xing serves as the family servant and is emotionally abused by both Wei Ping and Stepmother, both of whom consider her unworthy of being a wife, with unbound ugly feet and too educated for a woman.
AUSTRALIA & POLYNESIA
Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry
Ten-year-old Mafatu, a boy from a Polynesian Island tribe, doesn’t seem to measure up to the standards set for being a “man” in his tribe. Most troublesome of all is his fear of the water. At the age of three, he was nearly killed when his mother drowned. Now he must conquer his fears. How can he grow up to be a powerful, confident, courageous chief if he is afraid to paddle out to sea and go fishing with the other boys?
The story starts off on the island of Hikueru in the Tuamotu Archipelago east of Tahiti at a time before European ships and missionaries had arrived. It is a wonderful tale of overcoming challenges and reaching through barriers to achieve your goals.
Jamberoo Road by Eleanor Spence
In 1825, Missabella and her 10 orphans voyaged from England to New South Wales in primitive Australia. Through hard, pioneering work they turned their coastal land grant into a home. Now five years later, Missabella is determined to provide for the future of her orphans according to each one’s character.
With their varied personalities and backgrounds, it will not be an easy task. Clever, independent Cassie, has ambitions to be a writer. The “Jamberoo Road” leads her inland, to the discomforts and enticements of being governess in a wealthy colonial family. Here, restless Luke, employed by the family as a stable boy, will create his own troubles. Cassie’s story, interwoven with Luke’s and that of all the other orphans is an account of personal growth and a vivid journey into early-day Australia.
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
This gripping, action-packed novel tells the story of 18-year-old Daniel bar Jamin, a fierce, hotheaded young man bent on revenging his father’s death by forcing the Romans from his land of Israel.
Daniel’s palpable hatred for Romans wanes only when he starts to hear the gentle lessons of the traveling carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth. This is a fast-paced, suspenseful, vividly wrought tale about friendship, loyalty, the idea of home, and community.
This is not a religious book but rather a book about life in that time, the unrest and resistance of many Jews to Roman rule, and the confusion of many Jews who are looking for a military messiah and are trying to decide if Jesus could be that man. But more than that, it is like any other moral tale of any other time; it is a story of a man trying to decide what is the right thing for him to do.
Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
After his mother’s sudden death, a young boy named Crispin finds himself in trouble with authority. When he accidentally witnesses a midnight meeting in the wilderness near his home, the steward of his 14th-century village accuses him of theft. Now he is wanted, dead or alive, for a crime he did not commit. He has no choice but to flee from the only home he has ever known, far into the English countryside.
With nothing to his name except a lead cross that belonged to his mother, Crispin sets out on a frightening journey, full of danger and excitement, to save his life and justify himself. But no matter how far he flees, Crispin is pursued. The villagers know he didn’t do it, but they continue on under the order of the steward. The same steward that made life terrible for the villagers. He increased labor, decreased pay, and executed the innocent. Why then, are they so eager to follow his orders?
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Set in the late 1600s, this book tells the story of Kit Tyler, a 16-year-old girl who sails from Barbados to Connecticut after her grandfather passes away. Kit travels to Connecticut to live with her aunt and her aunt’s family, none of whom have met her and do not know that she is coming.
Connecticut was a Puritan community struggling for independence from England at the time and the culture shock is difficult for Kit, who grew up affluent and independent. The townspeople are not very welcoming to her, and some begin to fear that she is a witch because she is different from them.
Kit’s troubles get worse when she becomes friends with an old Quaker woman people call the Witch of Blackbird Pond.
Johnny Tremain by Esther Hoskins Forbes
Johnny Tremain is an apprenticed silversmith of one Mr. Lapham. Unusually skilled in the trade, Johnny’s the star of the household. The other apprentices envy and hate him and the members of the Lapham family love him.
Just the same, Johnny is unaccountably vain. Boastful and overflowing with pride, he lords his superior abilities over everyone he meets, even catching the eye of the greatest silversmith in Boston, Paul Revere. Yet when a broken crucible maims Johnny’s hand, the life he had planned for himself can never be.
Desperate for work, he finally finds a place with the Boston Observer, a Whig news publication. Soon Johnny finds himself rubbing shoulders with the men of the Revolution. His life becomes enmeshed in the spy networks and fighting words that lead up to the American Revolution. In doing so, he becomes a major player in the creation of a new America.
The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan
The Dreamer invites readers into the creative, sensitive mind of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet. In this beautifully written fictional biography, Ryan artfully meshes factual details with an absorbing story of a shy, Chilean boy whose spirit develops and thrives despite his father’s relentless negativity.
Neruda, who was born Neftali Reyes, sees, hears, and feels poetry all around him from an early age. Luckily, he finds understanding and encouragement from his stepmother and his uncle, whose humanitarian and liberal attitudes toward nature and the rights of the indigenous Mapuche people greatly influence his developing opinions.
In early adulthood, Reyes starts using the pseudonym by which he becomes known, taking his last name from that of a famous Czechoslovakian poet. Ryan suggests that this was how he hid his activities from his father.
The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph
Twelve-year-old Ana Rosa is a blossoming writer growing up in the Dominican Republic, a country where words are feared and only the president can write books. Yet there is so much inspiration all around her — watching her brother search for a future, learning to dance and to love, and finding out what it means to be part of a community — that Ana Rosa must write it all down.
Writing is her passion, and words flow out of her pencil onto the paper bags in which Papi brings home his rum, onto napkins, onto gray shop paper. As she struggles to find her own voice and a way to make it heard, Ana Rosa discovers the power of her words to transform the world around her and to transcend the most unthinkable of tragedies.
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My list is by no means complete. Please share your favorite titles in the comments. I would love to discover a new author and get a glimpse of another culture.
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