Thursday, January 14, 2010

Multiculturalism - Kinder and Gentler

There are certain lessons in life that can not be taught through books or school. These lessons are taught by life. For example, a child can be given a book about other children in India. In this book, the story illustrates how the children live, eat and go to school. Will the child reading the book feel empathy for the children of India? Will the child immediately love the culture of India? Perhaps, it is possible that it will happen, but that response comes from the child. In other words, the child has not learned to have the desire to understand other cultures. Instead, what the book may have done, is helped the child fulfill the desire to learn more about the world. A librarian, teacher even parent can not teach someone to have compassion, understanding, or even love. That is one of the major flaws of Multiculturalism. It’s main objective is to provide an avenue where children can develop mutual respect for other cultures. Nobel idea, but it is deeply troubling that educators believe that this can be taught.
Children’s stories have always been used as tools to teach morals of right and wrong. Grimms’ fairy tales, Aseop fables and other folk tales have done wonderful jobs though out the centuries. Perhaps that is why readers don’t mind when a writer retells the stories with new pictures or from a different perspective. The morals in these stories are timeless. Some things in life never change. There will always be greed, liars, mistreated heroes and heroines that forewarn what happens when one chooses to good or evil. Why does this not work for Multiculturalism as well? All too often, the writers of these books are hitting the reader over the head and demanding that the reader not only see all the differences but accepts them too. Some children are swayed by this but others will simply disregard the message. As stated previously, compassion can not be taught. Respect can not be taught either, it has to be earned.
For those librarians and teachers out there who cling to the assumption that multiculturalism enriches the curriculum, might I suggest taking a different approach to the matter at hand. Exposing children to other cultures is a worthwhile endeavor when it is pointed out that we are more alike than we are different. For example, Mem Fox’s Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes is a delightful book that reminds every mom and child that no matter where you are born in the world, everybody’s mommy counts the ten little fingers and ten little toes. Of course, this is teaching the baby from the get go that there are differences but how wonderful that the outside differences may be different but the behavior of human beings are similar. That is for the babies, but there are worthwhile picture books that don’t beat up the reader into accepting other cultures. Some of my favorite books depict the families behaving just like any family children may know from their neighborhoods or their own family. This is not such a bad thing, is it? Wouldn’t it be much better if children saw themselves in the books and thought, “Oh, that reminds me of my mom and dad.” If the goal of multiculturalism is to embrace another culture and accept it. than why point out the differences? Why not remind readers that each one of us walks on the same earth, but sometimes to a different beat but most of the time to the same beat that harmonizes with the world’s song.? Okay, before we all break out singing “Kumbaya”, let’s examine the books that explores different cultures without hitting a reader over the head and actually teaches a lesson that is teachable.

Mama Provi and The Pot of Rice by Sylvia Rosa-Casnova.
Great book that reminds the reader that each culture has it’s own special way of cooking. Mama Provi specialty dish comes from her home land of Puerto Rico and it is called arroz con pollo. Lucy, Mama Provi’s granddaughter, is sick with the chicken pox. To cheer up her granddaughter, Mama Provi makes her special dish and takes it to Lucy. Along the way, Mama Provi meets her neighbors who have their own special “ethnic” foods, and asks them if they would like to trade a little of their food for a bowl for arroz con pollo. By the time Mama Provi reaches Lucy, she not only has food that represents the Puerto Rican culture, but from the cultures of all their neighbors.

Kitchen Dance by Maurie Manning
This book is so wonderfully warm and vibrant. Hispanic parents are cleaning up after dinner, while the children should be in bed sleeping. Not a chance! When the children hear a commotion coming from the kitchen, they’ve got to find out what’s going on. Dancing! That’s what mom and dad are doing, instead of doing their chores. So not to be left out, the children begin to dance too! Gently, Mom and Dad let the little ones know it’s time for them to return to bed. However, the warmth of that kitchen lingers with the reader as the story comes to a close.

Zuzu’s Wishing Cake by Linda Michelin
Zuzu has a new neighbor and she doesn’t quite know how to make friends with the little boy. After several attempts at making gifts for her new friend she finally realizes the best way to show friendship is a wishing cake. Zuzu’s red hair stands out against the little boy’s ebony hair and dark skin. The reader never sees the boy’s mother, except briefly when Zuzu mention’s that the boy’s mother speaks in a language she does not understand. She also wears a sari, which indicates the new neighbors are from India. This book is an excellent example of how not to hit a reader over the head with multiculturalism. It gives plenty of hints that the new neighbor is from another country without being so obvious. It is almost as if the culture didn’t matter because all Zuzu really wants is a a friend.

Grandparent’s Song by Shelia Hamanaka
Celebrates how a child can come from a family tree full of different cultures. Each person in her family tree shares a physical traits with her, but also cultures that makes her family unique and blended. This is a wonderful opportunity to discuss with children how each of our families’ have their own song.

Picnic in October by Eve Bunting.
An oldie but a goodie. Eve Bunting is a well known children’s author who is one of my favorite. This book is not one of her more well known titles, but it is a treasure! The story is about an Italian family who make an annual visit in October to wish the Statue of Liberty a Happy Birthday. On that particular day, the family notices another immgrant family who remind them of what is was like to come to a new country, trying to learn the language and staring a new life. For me, it’s a wonderful reminder of my own Italian family. However, this story could be told from any ethnic point of view and still ring true. America is the home of some many wonderful cultures. Yet, we are all the same.

This short list of books is just the beginning of many books that provide the tools of learning about other cultures without being in the reader’s face. The term Multiculturalism has to be removed from our lexicon as librarians and educators. Perhaps if we focus on what brings people together, family, love and hope, than it wouldn’t be necessary to force children to accept other cultures. They might just begin to look at others as being just like themselves.
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