Reflecting Students’ Lives in Children’s Literature

When I was a K–6 ESL teacher, I often felt frustrated because I couldn’t find high quality books that reflected my students’ lives.  Many of the books available to my students were about the folklore or fables from their home countries, but  I wanted my English learners to read books where they could see themselves and that reflect the lives they are currently living. I felt that it was important for my students  to make connections between the books they were reading and their lives so that they would become lifelong readers.  In 2014,  I read an opinion piece in the New York Times by Walter Dean Myers titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”  This article led me to research the number of books published each year that could be considered multicultural.

Cooperative Children’s Book Center

My search online led me to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center ( CCBC) at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. CCBC has been keeping track of the number of books written by and about people of color since 1985. At CCBC the term “multicultural literature” is defined as books by and about people of color and First/Native Nations individuals: African and African Americans, American Indians, Asian/Pacific and Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinos. I decided to look further to investigate literature about Latino children. To qualify for the CCBC list, a book had to feature a main character or a substantive secondary character who is Latino. In 2016, only 166 out of 3,400 books that were published for children were written about Latinos and qualified for the CCBC list.

Tools to Help You Find High Quality Multicultural Literature
One of the challenges for teachers and librarians is deciding if a a multicultural book is of good quality. Read, Write, Think  has some tools to help teachers and their students evaluate the cultural relevance of multicultural books.  Questions they might ask are, “Is the author from the culture that they are writing about?” “Has the author written other books about this culture?” “Does the book contain characters that are stereotypical?”  Another method to judge the quality of a multicultural book is to have the students  from the target culture judge it. Read, Write, Think has a couple of tools to help students judge the quality and cultural relevance of the books they’ve read: Cultural Relevance Rubric and Gathering Evidence on Cultural Relevance. A lesson plan is also available to help teachers use these tools with students.

Additional Resources

Cooperative Children’s Book Center (2015). 50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know, University of Wisconsin-Madison. This article list books for preK–6 grade students.

Meyers, C. (2015). The Apartheid of Children’s Literature, The New York Times.  Meyers talks about the difficulties he had as a child finding books that reflected his life.

Melville, K. (2017). Where’s My Story? Reflecting All Students in Children’s Literature, Education Week Teacher. This is a blog by a high school teacher who challenged her students to study and rate multicultural books and then write their own books to reflect the cultures of their first grade buddies.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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One Response to Reflecting Students’ Lives in Children’s Literature

  1. Stephanie Kahlert says:

    Hi Judie,
    I have been an EL teacher in Minnesota for the past 19 years. When I first started teaching, a good friend and EL teacher, introduced some of your books to me and I have been a big fan of yours ever since!

    I have been trying to research best practices for grouping or clustering ELs in the mainstream classroom and have not had much luck finding literature about this topic. I know that current research points to co-teaching as best practice, however our district hasn’t provided training on this to mainstream classroom teachers and for the most part our school wide system of teaching ELs is the pull-out model. Do you have an opinion on how to group EL students in the mainstream classroom? In the past, our district clustered by proficiency levels- the highest kids were grouped in one room, medium level students in another, etc… However, there has been some pushback on this from classroom teachers. The teachers who have the lowest kids say it is more work to teach them and they have longer conference times during the year because interpreters are needed. They would prefer mixed levels on ELs in the classroom so that they don’t have so many needy kids in a group.
    I would really appreciate your thoughts on this topic. I am open to either clustering or not clustering and prefer what is best for the EL students involved.
    Thank you so much for your time.

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