The Power and Potential of Multicultural Diverse Literature


This article explores how multicultural and diverse literature contributes to a school library collection through its unique ability to inform, provoke socio-emotional responses and stimulate social justice and reform, while validating the experience and identity of a multicultural and diverse student body. Examples of recently published notable books are provided. Themes and conceptual tools of the genre are introduced and the role, challenges and responses of the teacher librarian are examined.


Schools around the world are seeing an substantial influx of diverse students due to migration, immigration and globalisation (Boelens, Cherek, Tilke, & Bailey, 2015), a trend that has long been the norm in international schools. Within international schools, those under the umbrella of the International Baccalaureate (IB) are expected to go beyond literacy and numeracy to equip students with attitudes and values that allow them to become socio-emotionally balanced global citizens (International Baccalaureate Organisation, n.d.). Focusing on the upper years of the IB primary years program (PYP) how can the inclusion of multicultural and diverse (MCD) literature support both the academic and socio-emotional curriculum to meet those ambitions and what can other schools learn from this?

Key issues

MCD literature is defined as works “that reflect the racial, ethnic and social diversity that is characteristic of our pluralistic society and of the world” (Bishop, 1997, p.3 cited in Hinton & Dickinson, 2007). Cai (2002) expands the definition to cover issues of diversity, inclusion, power structures and the ability to transform society by the inclusion of marginalised people of all races.

Conceptual tools

Tschida, Ryan and Ticknor (2014) combine two conceptual tools for an understanding of MCD literature – texts as mirrors, windows and sliding doors (Bishop, 1990) and the danger of the single story (Adichie, 2009). Using these tools, one can be critical towards what has passed as MCD texts (Botelho & Rudman, 2009; Duren, 2000; Robinson, 2013) with many questions raised about the legitimacy of authors who publish MCD works – including the “insider / outsider” debate (Ehrlich, 2015; Mendoza & Reese, 2001; Short & Fox, 2003; Singer & Smith, 2003). Carefully translated books can overcome some of these issues if not overly ‘localised’ for the market into which they are being translated and there tend to be fewer stereotypes (Kimmel, Garrison, & Forest, 2015).


To ameliorate the dangers of the single story, MCD literature needs a substantial volume of works of quality and legitimacy. O’Sullivan (2004) provides a sober history of MCD literature, commencing with the post-war idealistic creation of institutions such as International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) and the International Youth Library (IYL) in Munich and ending with damning statistics on “how international is international children’s literature?” – hint – it’s not. Facts that are echoed by annual tallying of books in the USA by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (2015).


Power to change

Cognitive literacy theory using scientific research suggests that literature contributes to the socialisation of students, promoting the development of theory of mind through the association of emotion through visual and textual stimuli in a reciprocal relationship between social development and academic performance – MCD literature can play a significant role in this (Biwu, 2014; Elizabeth & Selman, 2012; Nikolajeva, 2012; Rider, 2013). Although many primary school libraries have a multitude of books that portray Begler’s (1998) five F’s – food, fashion, fiestas, folklore, and famous people, these have a touristic superficial view of culture do not provide the mirror or window perspective that sophisticated MCD books provide (Doll & Garrison, 2013).


One of the differentiating factors of education in an IB school is the hope that: “our students will help to build a better world through intercultural understanding and respect” (International Baccalaureate Organisation, n.d., para. 2). Equity, social justice and reform is at the heart of multicultural education (Gorski, 2011; Cai and Bishop, 1994, cited in Short & Fox, 2003). Intrinsic to the inquiry cycle of the PYP is “taking action” – students are expected to go beyond researching and understanding to making a difference in the world. However in order to fulfil its literary and pedagogical potential, MCD literature needs to simultaneously be at the right developmental level, to emphasize desirable attributes, be honest and authentic while fulfilling the other usual criteria for quality including well developed plot, skilful illustrations, appealing characters and connection with the reader (Cai, 2002; McNamee & Mercurio, 2007; Nikolajeva, 2012; Oswald & Smolen, 2011).


The dominant themes in MCD literature can be summarised as: stories from the original culture; bridged cultural experiences: adoption stories; identity or image stories and refugee, migration or immigration stories (Masuda & Ebersole, 2011).

This article focuses on the latter due to topical relevance; pervasive current media coverage; curricula relevance; the fact that most students in international schools have personal experience of relocation; and the reality of schools as “the most public environment in which diverse student populations come into contact with each other” (Tanners, 1997, cited in Lowery, 2011, p. 268). In addition, migration literature has evolved as a unique genre (Bersh, 2013; Hope, 2007; Kimmel et al., 2015).

Value to the collection

MCD literature provides many benefits to a collection. Three of these will be highlighted – the ability to educate, to develop socio-emotional and meta-cognitive skills and to provoke social transformation.


Students in primary school may be unfamiliar with the history of the countries and regions that their multicultural peers are from and unaware of differentiations between groups, while being affected by public media portrayal (Lowery, 2011). MCD can serve as a conduit for learning and scaffold enquiry provided it is authentic and accurate. Deepening media presentation with personal factual research is highlighted in Drita my Homegirl (Lombard, 2008) where Maxie researches the Kosovo war, and A Long Walk to Water (Park, 2010) which personalises the “Lost boys of Sudan” story. Julie spontaneously researches Mongolia and presents her findings at every opportunity in Unforgotten Coat (Cottrell Boyce, 2011) and even Shocky learns about

Chingas Kahn. Heart of a Samurai (Preus, 2010) weaves in historical information about the early isolation of Japan and the mutual distrust, ignorance and fear between Japan and America whereas The Journey that saved Curious George (Borden & Drummond, 2005) gives an account of fleeing Paris in the second world war.


MCD literature has been shown to enhance the reading comprehension of language learners through its culturally familiar material and creating a window to view others engaged in language learning in a non-trivial manner (Hadaway & Young, 2011). In nearly all the texts highlighted the learning of English forms a central theme: “Until you children master English, you must think, do, wish for nothing else” – Inside Out and Back Again (Lai, 2011, p. 132); “the boys weren’t just learning English; they were hiding themselves inside English” – The Unforgotten Coat (Cottrell Boyce, 2011, p. 38). Kasienka’s initial low level of English holds her back academically in The Weight of Water (Crossan, 2011); and Maxie has to grapple with Drita’s poor English in Drita my Homegirl (Lombard, 2008) while for Manjiro, Heart of a Samurai (Preus, 2010), learning English is a matter of survival.


Besides the power of story, illustrations contribute to character depth and enhance understanding (Broadway & Conkle, 2011). The use of primary source material to illustrate Heart of a Samurai (Preus, 2010) and The Journey that Saved Curious George (Borden & Drummond, 2005) contributes to the authenticity of the story as well as allowing a segue into aspects of research and information literacy.

Socio-emotional and meta-cognitive skills

One of the unique aspects of reading is its dual role as an emotional and intellectual act and as such it can perform the function of scaffolding children’s ability to care about people, events and concepts outside their current existence (McNamee & Mercurio, 2007).


The development of resilience, empathy and theory of mind is articulated as an educational goal by most educational systems and the importance of vocabulary (Bosacki & Wilde Astington, 2001; Figueroa-Sánchez, 2008) and literature in developing theory of mind is well documented (Djikic & Oatley, 2014; Kidd & Castano, 2013; McTigue, Douglass, Wright, Hodges, & Franks, 2015). Although bibliotherapy is a distinct specialisation, from its research we are aware of the power of literature to provoke a socio-emotional response and empathy and to reach individuals who may not be open to other forms of intervention (Djikic, Oatley, Zoeterman, & Peterson, 2009; Gomm, 2012; Johnson, 2012; Montgomery & Maunders, 2015; Riahinia, Azimi, & Seify, 2010). Both William her boyfriend-in-spe and Konoro – her “too black” immigrant-doctor-who-is-a-cleaner neighbour tell Kasienka she has the resilience to save herself – Weight of Water (Crossan, 2011), Manjiro’s mettle is tested on the whaling boat, in America and when he attempts to return to Japan – Heart of a Samurai, (Preus, 2010) and Hà survives fleeing Vietnam and settling in Alabama – Inside Out (Lai, 2011).


The deployment of virtual reality (VR) tools such as Clouds over Sidra (Arora & Milk, C., 2015), where one not only observes but is immersed in the experience takes situating students inside a story further, with many authors hailing the ability of VR to enhance empathy. There is some debate around the problems and potential of VR, to promote empathy through mirror neurons (Constine, 2015; Hamilton, 2015; Sutherland, n.d.) as well as its suitability for children (Lewis, 2015).

Social transformation

Good MCD literature promotes higher order thinking and engages students cognitively emotionally and motivationally in order to provide socio-emotional support, and foster bonds and peer relationships between students (Triplett & Buchanan, 2005). Migration themed books can provoke thought and discussion about the respective roles and responsibilities of the ‘incumbent’ versus ‘incoming’ characters. The more successful books show the complexity and ambivalence of these relationships. In Weight of Water (Crossan, 2011) Kasienka, when not being bullied by Clair, is met with exclusion and indifference. Julie, becomes the “Good Guide” to Chingis and Nergu in Unforgotten Coat (Cottrell Boyce, 2011) and finds their presence fascinating but confusing and disruptive to her understanding of the world she lives in. The contact between Maxie and Drita in Drita (Lombard, 2008) is initially enforced by their teacher and gradually evolves into authentic friendship while Hà and Manjiro find friends outside their peer group. Hà is relentlessly bullied by a “pink-colored boy” but taken under the wing of an elderly neighbour, Miss Washington, – Inside Out (Lai, 2011) and Captain Whitfield befriends Manjiro – Heart of a Samurai, (Preus, 2010).

Role of the teacher librarian

The role of the teacher librarian (TL) in selection and promotion of materials and creating an literary environment is well documented (Claasz, 2014; Hinton & Dickinson, 2007; La Marca, 2003), however the curation and provision of MCD literature places unique demands on the TL (Colbert-Lewis & Colbert-Lewis, 2013; Marcoux, 2009; Mestre, 2009). MCD materials in the collection should validate a student’s home cultural experience and language; use technology to facilitate learning and self expression including students’ own writing; create cooperative, interactive learning opportunities and encourage home / school collaboration (Hinton & Dickinson, 2007; Kim, Greif Green, & Klein, 2006).


The existence of MCD literature faces three substantial barriers. In the first place it does not get published at all, secondly, if it does, it is from an outsider’s perspective and finally once in existence it may not get into the school library or the classroom (Ehrlich, 2015; O’Sullivan, 2004; Tschida et al., 2014). Besides the usual lists and awards such as the Batchelder, Jane Addams or Stepping Stones awards, the TL committed to MCD literature needs to tap into international librarian, author and publisher networks as well as the school learning ecosystem – particularly the parents of non-English speaking students. In addition books may not be available through the usual procurement channels requiring creative solutions.


MCD curation involves ensuring the cultural authenticity of the collection including literary qualities, believability, portray of power relationships, response by insiders, origin of the book, accuracy of details, authenticity of values and attitudes, providing the audience personal connection to the story, authorship, perspectives, being at the correct socio-emotional developmental level and relationship to other books in the collection (Masuda & Ebersole, 2011; McNamee & Mercurio, 2007). Combining Selman’s theory on interpersonal understanding with an understanding of the types of books that fit in with cognitive developmental stages, the TL can ensure suitable MCD books are available at every age and stage (Cornett, 2007; Elizabeth & Selman, 2012; Selman, Jaquette, & Lavin, 1977).


The TL needs to constantly be vigilant as the criteria of suitability changes with increased cultural awareness and as research into MCD literature is published. Fortunately today more sophisticated and relevant MCD works are being published that can replace dated and unsuitable material. Part of the role of the TL involves the diplomatic ‘re-education’ of teachers who may automatically reach to favourites from their youth that have subsequently been condemned by cultural insiders as prejudiced, or portraying stereotypes or negative cultural images (Short & Fox, 2003). Extreme sensitivity should be shown towards ‘insider’ readers of books in the collection and the TL needs to make teachers aware of ‘insider’ reviews of the books included as curriculum resources (Doll & Garrison, 2013).


In the past, literature was relegated to language / arts programmes. Due to its multi-faceted benefits to inform, enhance understanding and critical thinking and to change perspectives and encourage social action, it is now infused through the entire curriculum. Besides encouraging reading and ‘evangelical outreach’ TL’s need to be embedded in curriculum development (Loertscher, 2002 cited in Hinton & Dickinson, 2007). A five phase model of integration of MCD literature into the curriculum is suggested, commencing with traditional literature moving towards contemporary fiction, biography and poetry (Smolen, Oswald, & Jenkins, 2011) while Bersh (2013) and Barone (2011) and all the authors in Multicultural Literature and Response: Affirming Diverse Voices (Smolen & Oswald, 2011) encourage the creation of literature sets along MCD themes to enhance the curriculum as well as suggestions for response activities and give excellent examples of these.


The role of the librarian goes beyond identification and acquisition of books, to ensure the promotion and accessibility of books in this genre and their integration into the curriculum and pleasure reading opportunities of students. In addition to curating lists of books that meet the criteria for the learner profile or attitudes, matched to the unit of inquiry (UOI) these books need to be selected and distributed to classrooms in time for the relevant UOI, or put on display as appropriate in the library. Teachers’ limited time and experience in selecting literature or ambivalent attitude to reading (Cox & Schaetzel, 2007; Cremin, Mottram, Bearne, & Goodwin, 2008) should not be allowed to form an additional access barrier to MCD books for students. Besides books in the collection, virtual curation of books, multimedia texts, materials and resources should be made accessible through the online learning platform, curriculum planning system, library blogs or library guides.


A small collection of books that meet the MCD criteria is no longer sufficient – every book should be scrutinized in order to ensure its potential to: validate experience and identity; appreciate other cultures; understand socio-political factors; critically examine the society we live in and prevent and reduce prejudice (Hinton & Dickinson, 2007).



The provision of MCD literature in a school library can be likened to an exciting quest – the librarian as the hero surmounting the barriers of accessibility and availability while warding off demons of the single story, stereotypes and negative portrayal. Ensuring suitability and reaching for the holy grail of a learning community of readers embracing the benefits of global citizenship, and ultimately the creation of the next generation of diverse multicultural authors and illustrators.




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