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Books for a More Multicultural World

I was sitting at a table with a couple of my high school English Language Learners (ELLs) thinking about what to write this month when I noticed that one of my students had a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and another student had a copy of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

For some reason, glancing at these books gave me the inspiration to check out the school’s book room (the room where all the class copies of books are stored). Packed into that little room were copies of what are generally considered “the classics”: The Canterbury Tales, Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Flies, The Things They Carried, The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, and A Farewell to Arms.

These are all great books, to be sure, but what I noticed that, aside from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, there was a distinct absence of what I would call multi-cultural (or non-Anglo) literature, which is somewhat disappointing for someone who works with students from around the world.

However disappointed I may be, this makes for a great blog topic: right-sized recommendations of multicultural books for older students (grade 5 to adult):

1. New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens by Brooke Hauser. This non-fiction book is written in a narrative-journalistic style.  This book absolutely exudes multiculturalism, by which I mean there are people portrayed in the book are literally from around the world.  The author records a year in the lives of students at one of New York’s International Schools.  This is one of the only schools where a student has to “fail” to get in; in other words, as long as a student is an English-language learner (meaning that they did not have enough English to pass the school’s English proficiency test) and there is room in the class, the student can attend the school. This is a great non-fiction read and is truly highlights many issues that our students are facing, such as having a family split between two countries, arranged marriages, family responsibilities taking precedence over academics, and homelessness. Just a caution- if you like a story with a chronologically-sequenced and singular plot, this is not the book for you. The author jumps around topics (all related, though) and at times it may be frustrating to the reader, who may want to “follow” a certain student on their journey. This is a more linguistically and cognitively challenging book and I think it would be best suited for either a professional book club or independent reading.

2.    American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. This is a vibrantly-colored graphic novel. American Born Chinese takes three separate stories, Jin Wang, Chin-Kee, and the Monkey King, and intertwines the stories in a surprising and thought-provoking way: Jin Wang is the son of immigrants and finds that he is one of two Asians in his school and has to learn English in addition to learning the culture, which is not always that easy; Chin-Kee is the embodiment of negative Chinese stereo-types from the moment he arrives with his luggage in the shape of giant Chinese restaurant to-go containers; and the Monkey King is a traditional tale about the exploits of a Monkey who grew dissatisfied with what he had and who he was and ended up searching to find more- ultimately realizing that the end of his journey was not so far from his beginning. Based on the author’s own experiences growing up and combining elements of Chinese traditional folk tales, American Born Chinese explores issues such as feelings of isolation, stereo-typing, and acculturation in a fun and engaging manner. Word to the wise: if you are using this book with students, be sure to teach how to read graphic novels first. Just because this book has pictures does not mean it is a low reading level or low cognitive level.

3.    Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi. This is a fiction novel. While the story centers around three generations of Indian women, the main focus is a character named Devi. Devi’s parents immigrated to the U.S. (from India), Devi and her sister grew up in the U.S., and for half of the year, Devi’s grandmother lives with the family in the U.S.  The authors admits (on her webpage) that she did not want to tell the tale of the Indian Diaspora or the story of immigrants who attempt to adjust to life in another country, however, to the everyday reader, that is exactly what will stand out the most after the first reading. The issues presented in the story are more adult, but definitely relatable: the potential problems with arranged marriages, the differences in cultural opinions between parents and children, the keeping of family secrets, and the way a family must come together in times of trial and learn to heal together.  Serving Crazy with Curry is a beautifully written novel whose characters come alive; it is a touching story that is sure to connect with audiences.  This may be a strong opinion, but if I had to choose between The Namesake and Serving Crazy with Curry…. Serving Crazy with Curry will win out every time.

4.    The Code: Five Secrets to Teen Success by Mawi Asgedom. This is a self-help book that is completely nonfiction. This book is essentially a reflection of the author’s life and what he has learned along the way; the book shares the author’s experiences and insights and offers practical “secrets” to succeed in life.  The author lived in Ethiopia, fled civil war when he was three years old, moved to Chicago and lived on welfare with his family, and eventually attended (on a scholarship) and graduated from Harvard.  This book discusses inner and outer goals, morals, thoughts, and actions. It is about recognizing what you want and how to get it and overcoming any obstacles that may be presented along the way. This book is not only at a lower reading level, but it also has built in reading journal entries, which makes it very teacher-friendly.

5.    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. If you have never read anything by Sherman Alexie (War Dances, Smoke Signals, etc…), this is a great place to start. This young-adult fiction novel (inspired by the author’s life) demonstrates that diversity and multiculturalism does not always mean coming from another country. The novel follows the story of Arnold Spirit, Jr. ( “Junior”): a relatively misfit Native American teenager who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation and makes the life-changing decision to attend an all-white school miles outside of the reservation. This book openly discusses issues such as racism, poverty, and tradition in a clever and heartwarming manner. While reading the book, it is clear to see how students will be able to identify with many of the struggles Junior faces and the ways in which he deals with his difficulties. This book is at a lower reading proficiency level, which makes it a great candidate for students of many ages.

–Karen Goyette, New Hampshire Representative (term 2011-2012)

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