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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Four Multicultural Novels for Everyone from Elementary to High School

Agosin, Marjorie (2014) I Lived on Butterfly Hill.  New York:  Atheneum.

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Opening Lines:  “The blue cloud finally opens – just when the bell rings to let the Juana Ross School out for the weekend.  I’d been watching the sky from the classroom windows all day, wondering just when the rain would pour down.  I run down the hall and through the front doors with Luciela, Marisol, and Gloria at my heels.  “Quick, girls, get under my umbrella,” Marisol shouts, and her cousin Luciela and I huddle close, on each side of her.”
            Celeste has a pretty carefree life, friends at school, a wonderful house on Butterfly Hill overlooking the harbor, two parents and a grandma to take care of her, and the joy of living in Chile, the most beautiful country in the world.  But when a military dictatorship seizes control of the country, warships fill the harbor, and her parents need to go into hiding because their volunteer work as doctors among the poor has branded them as subversive, Celeste gets sent to live with a single Aunt in the United States – in a very cold and barren place called Maine with no friends and no parents or grandma.  But these challenges are nothing compared to when she eventually returns to Chile and must find her mother and father who are among the disappeared.  
            This story has joy and comfort, heartbreak and homesickness, old friends and new, reunions, more joy, and a healthy dose of magic.
            You need to read this book.  You need to read it now.  Then your students need to read it.
            This could be a great book to study as a class, keep in your classroom library, or read aloud.  It is rather lengthy (clocking in at 454 pages), but kids who devoured Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo would probably like this one too. 
            There is nothing offensive here that I noticed and plenty of good thematic material for class discussions.  This book could be read aloud to fourth graders (though it might take all year) and some of the sharper ones could handle reading it, but it is probably best for 5th graders and up. 
            Read it as soon as you can.  It is the best book I have read so far this year.

Johnson, Angela (1998) Heaven New York:  Simon Pulse.

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Opening Lines:  April 28,  Sweet Marley.  I’m on my way to Kansas.  I guess me and Boy have finished our stay in Oklahoma.  I decided on Kansas because of a dream I had.  I dream so much now.”
Every now and then I run into a book where I have trouble keeping the characters and the story straight.  This one started out that way, but then, about a third of the way in everything sort of clicked.  This is the story of a girl named Marley coming to terms with the knowledge that her parents, who raised her, are actually her aunt and her uncle and that the person she has always thought of as her Uncle Jack, a carefree drifter who sends her postcards from time to time, is actually her father. 
While Marley is African-American and there are some references to her culture, this is a book in which race plays a small part.  It is not part of the theme, plot, or overall message of the book.  The book is more of a story about a girl learning to accept a past that doesn’t agree with her perception. 
It is a good book. There is nothing here that would give any cause for challenges.  The reading level is probably suitable for students as young as third or fourth grade, but because it manily deals with a kid trying to find her identity, I think it might work better for fifth grade and older. It would be a good book for your classroom library.  I am not sure it is thematically strong enough to sustain small group or whole class study in a literature class.  I also think that because of the confusion in the first several chapters, it might not be the best choice for a read aloud book. 

Kuroyanagi, Tetsuko (1981) Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window.  New York: Kodansha, USA

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Opening Lines:  They got off the Oimachi train at Jiyugaoka Station, and Mother took Totto-chan by the hand to lead her through the ticket gate.  She had hardly ever been on a train before and was reluctant to give up the precious ticket she was clutching.”
            One of my students, who is herself from Indonesia, highly recommended this book.  It reminded me a bit of Meynert DeJong’s classic early Newbery Winner, The Wheel on the School. As that book gives a glimpse of what it is like to grow up in a school in the Netherlands, so this book describes Totto-chan’s adventures in a school in Japan – only this is not a particularly conventional school.   In the beginning of the book, Totto-chan gets expelled from firt grade, essentially for being too curious, too interactive, and too excited about learning.  Her parents then send her to a different school – Tomoe, a school that meets in decommissioned train cars, where students learn whatever subjects they are interested in, and where teachers and students go on class walks every afternoon. 
            When Totto-chan drops her new purse in the pit toilet and wants to shovel out the cess pool to find it, the headmaster shows her where the shovels are, cautions her to be careful, and requests that she shovel all the sewage back when she is done.  The students go on camping trips in the school gym where they set up tents; come to school in the middle of the night to witness the arrival of a new train car classroom; and are allowed o go skinny dipping in the pool. 
            There is not much plot here, the story is more told in episodes, but it will certainly hold student’s (and adult’s attentions.)  Partly what is so enchanting about the book though is to get a glimpse into a completely different way of running a school.   Here is how the headmaster introduced the school library to the children.  “This is your library.  Any of these books may be read by anyone.  You needn’t fear that some books are reserved for certain grades or anything like that.  You can come in here any time you like.  If you want to borrow a book and take it home, you may.  When you have read it, be sure to bring it back!  And if you’ve got any books at home that you think others would like to read, I’d be delighted if you would bring them here.  At any rate, please do as much reading as you can!”
            This would be a great way to introduce another culture to your students.  It could easily be a read-aloud book for second through fourth grade.  It would be a wonderful addition to a class library.  And it could be an interesting topic of study for a unit that looks at education in other cultures. Fifth graders and older would also be interested.  And I highly recommend it for teachers wanting to rethink how to best do educator.

Park, Linda Sue (1999) Seesaw Girl. New York:  Dell.

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Opening Lines:  “’Is anyone coming?’ Jade Blossom whispered.  Graceful Willow peeped around the edge of the sliding paper door.  She looked back at Jade and shook her head, putting her finger to her lips.”
            We read books set in other cultures for two reasons, I think.  First to have an adventure in a world very different form our own.  Second, to discover again and again that we have a great deal in common with other cultures. 
Seesaw Girl  gives us plant of both of these aspects.  In the beginning, Jade and Willow are pulling pranks against the boys who live in the same court  They put soot in the writing ink so that the boys’ calligraphy will be blotchy.  Then they sew the boys’ trouser legs shut.  Before long, however, Willow gets married, leaving Jade alone, without her best friend.   
So Jade hatches a plan to escape the inner courtyard, journey out into the world, and visit her best friend.  Along the way she discovers that not everyone in seventeenth century Korea lives like she does.   

Nothing offensive here, and it is probably best for fourth grade and older.  It is a quick read, but a good one. 

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