We live in a global village. With the internet and satellite TV so readily available, adults and children alike now have the opportunity to discover new cultures, languages, foods, customs and ideas. Keeping this in mind, many educators are searching for children’s literature that reflects and celebrates ethnic diversity to share with young readers.
Debbie Bell is the executive director of HIPPY Canada (Home Instruction for Parents of Pre-School Youngsters). HIPPY staff and volunteers work with parents across Canada with an aim to ready pre-school children for success in kindergarten. When selecting children’s books for participating HIPPY families, Bell and her team ask many questions, including: “Can [a variety of] children see themselves in this book? Can they relate to the activities taking place in the story?” With many immigrant families participating in the programs, diversity and identity is key.
Bell was initially surprised at the shortage of Canadian children’s books that meet HIPPY criteria. Ideally, stories featuring Aboriginal and other non-white children as protagonists and plots to which a variety of children can relate are selected by HIPPY staff. However, Bell had a difficult time finding one publisher who could match their needs. “We, collectively, have to take seriously the notion that this isn't good enough...” says Bell regarding the scarcity of diversity in children’s books.
Allan Stratton is the Canadian author of Chanda’s Wars and Chanda’s Secrets. These works of fiction feature the struggles and triumphs of an African teen whose parents have died of AIDS. Stratton speaks with many young readers and he understands the huge impact that connecting with literary characters has on growing minds. “When I do readings in schools, I am deeply moved by the reaction of students of African background, who have often come from countries dealing with upheaval,” he says. “While it's important for majority students to be exposed to worlds beyond their experience, it's equally important for minority communities to see themselves reflected in literature.”
What can we do to encourage more diversity in children’s literature? “First of all, there has to be collective demand to produce [books with ethnically-diverse central characters],” says Debbie Bell. “Second, they should become integral from pre-school all the way up so kids have exposure to literature that is inclusive and portrays diversity in a positive way,” she adds. Author Allan Stratton offers his opinion on how teachers and librarians can assist: “[Educators can] help kids to discover the human links between themselves and those whose lives, at first glance, may appear unfamiliar.”
Stories showcasing ethnic diversity will be more readily available to Ontario kids via TVOKids and TVOKids.com. “We worked with HIPPY and with our own Gisele’s Big Backyard Book Council to select the books for the upcoming season of Gisele’s Big Backyard Book Club,” says Stacie Goldin, TVO educator and researcher. New book club selections include: 'Our Corner Grocery Store' by Joanne Schwartz, 'Mattland' by Hazel Hutchins and Gail Herbert, 'Chicken, Pig, Cow' by Ruth Ohi. To discover more about these (and other) selections visit Gisele’s Big Backyard Book Club.
Collectively, we need push literary boundaries. By promoting ethnic diversity in children’s literature, Ontario’s culturally-rich population will be reflected and we can expose both our children and ourselves to new worlds.