In March 2011, I had the honor of hosting a discussion of multiculturalism in children's literature with award-winning authors Tanita S. Davis and Mitali Perkins, and Hannah Ehrlich of Lee & Low Books.
The idea for a group discussion came about after listening to Mitali speak at the Children’s Authors Breakfast at BookExpo America in May 2010. Mitali talked about literature being windows and mirrors. She drew on her own experiences as a reader of color to show how it has influenced her as an author of color.
“Windows and mirrors” was a new-to-me expression, and I love what it suggests: books are a way introduce worlds and characters beyond ourselves, and yet reflections of our own experiences.
To kick off that March 2011 round table, I started with this sentence: Reading widely is important for kids because ________.
Here are my panelists thoughts ..
Tanita: I would say “because reading widely shows the reader the commonality of the human experience.”
Mitali: Mine would be “the pen is mightier than the sword. The gift of literacy is power.”
Hannah: Wow, so many reasons! Reading widely is important for kids because it’s the greatest way to get people to understand from a young age that we are all more alike than we are different. Reading is such an amazing exercise in empathy, and reading widely helps children step outside the confines of their own experiences, sometimes for the first time, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
Books about different places, times, or people help children appreciate different perspectives and train them to find common ground with even those whose lives, from the outside, may look very different. Of course reading widely also gives children a wider base of knowledge about the world and helps them to expand the range of what they can imagine, and that’s always valuable. But I’ve always thought that the biggest benefit of reading widely, for kids and adults, is that it teaches us to identify with others and understand them, and that makes us kinder people.
Tanita: Oh! Can I add another one? Recent reading has prompted another spate of thought! I would add this quote from Ursula K. LeGuin:
We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark, and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.
Somewhere away on the other side of the sleeping globe are people whose language and culture and stories we haven’t yet discovered, and yet books can transcend that gap, and speak a language creates a bridge.
February is National African American History Month, aka Black History Month. This year's theme At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality gives us a chance to share familiar stories (The Emancipation Proclamation and March On Washington), and more importantly, introduce kids to stories within those times that they haven't yet discovered.
If you'd like to read the full discussion with Hannah, Mitali, and Tanita, visit the Family Bookshelf. In addition to writing books, Tanita, Mitali, and Hannah also blog about multiculturalism in books.