Multilingual ELL Children’s Literature: 6 Great Books

One recognized benefit of children’s literature is its ability to act as both a window and a mirror. A mirror in that it may offer a reader a reflection of oneself, which can be a form of validation that one is not alone, and a window in that it opens up new perspectives—introducing new people, places, and experiences.  These windows and mirrors are both important—it is beneficial for all children to both see pieces of themselves reflected in the books they read and also to explore books as a way to learn about the world around them.

This blog posting shares six contemporary children’s picture books, all of which have ELLs as central characters. Each of these stories shares the experiences of a child who is exploring the process of merging one understanding of the world with new insights through learning a new language in a new environment and, in turn, usually discovering and negotiating new aspects of his or her identity.

1. Marianthe’s Story: Painted Words and Spoken Memories. (1998). By Aliki. Green Willow Books. Marianthe’s Story, a two-part flip-over book, contains two sections. In the first book section, “Painted Words,” Marianthe, a Greek newcomer with beginning-level English, uses creative paintings to share about herself and her experiences. In the second section of the book, “Spoken Memories,” Mari has developed the language to put her experiences into words and revisits her journal and memories through spoken reflections. (See the Teacher’s Guide here)

2. I Hate English! (1989). By Ellen Levine, illustrated by Steve Bjorkma. Scholastic Blue Ribbon Books. “I Hate English!” shares the story of Mei Mei, a student from Hong Kong who has just transitioned to New York City and struggles to adjust to the new English environment all around her, not at all like the Chinese language she knows and loves. (See the Discussion Guide here)

3. My Name is Yoon. (2003). By Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. As Yoon is learning to write her name in English, she feels the English letters are disconnected from the beautiful formation of her name in Korean. She considers new words for a possible new name, like “cat,” “bird,” and “cupcake,” as she finds new ways to express her identity, before deciding that she can still be Yoon in her new environment.

4. I’m New Here. (2015). By Anne Sibley O’Brien. Charlesbridge. This book shares the story of three children (Maria, Fatimah, and Jin) as they adjust to the new sounds and words in their new classroom. Together they relearn how to read and speak in English and find their own unique places within their new community.

5. My Two Blankets. (2015). By Irena Kobald, illustrated by Freya Blackwood. Little Hare Books. This book tells the tale of a girl called Cartwheel who had moved away from her war-torn home and wrapped herself up into her own blanket, a metaphoric safe space composed of her comfortable words and sounds. As she adjusts and time goes by in her new home, she begins to weave herself a new blanket, filled with her new words, until she finds she has two complete blankets, both of which she can use and can continue to “always be me.”

6. The Name Jar. (2001). By Yangsook Choi. Dragonfly Books. The Name Jar describes the experience of Unhei, a girl who has recently moved from Korea. After being teased about her name, Unhei decides she needs to find a new name. After several adventures, Unhei decides her own name is the best fit for her after all.

Of course, there is no one single story that can represent any group of people, and more books are being published that feature language learners in prominent roles, sharing varied perspectives and individual experiences. The windows and mirrors these books provide can help us all to reflect and see new outlooks. I always love hearing about new books, and I would love to hear some of your favorites—please share some in the comments section below!

About Shannon Tanghe

Shannon Tanghe

Shannon Tanghe is the program director of the Master’s in ESL program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. She has taught in South Korea for more than 16 years, and has also taught in Egypt, Guyana, and the United States. Shannon was selected as the 2016 TESOL Teacher of the Year. Shannon holds a PhD in TESOL & Composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Shannon’s research interests are teacher collaboration, World Englishes, and teacher development.

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