Bridging the Cultural Divide Through
Multicultural Children's Literature

By Marie Hseu, M.A., Teaching Assistant, Biola University
and June Hetzel, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Biola University

Bridging the Cultural Divide
Multicultural Literature and the Identity Formation of Immigrants and First Generation Americans
Empowering Students to Promote Social Change
Strategies for Including Multicultural Literature in the Literary Canon


In the summer of 1999, 30 teachers in graduate education gathered at Biola University to study multicultural children's literature and its application to their elementary and secondary classrooms. During this course, picture books and novels from Asian American, African American, Latino, Native American, and European genres were discussed. Teachers in the graduate program provided written responses to the literature selections in their personalized journals. Among the favorite novels was Bette Bao Lord's In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (1984), the story of a young girl, Shirley Temple Wong, who immigrates from China to America. Because many of the teachers enrolled in the course were children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, they closely identified with this particular selection.

For example, Connie Wong, immigrant from Hong Kong, wrote "As a Chinese, I laughed with the author; however, sometimes, I knew I laughed with tears inside my heart." Connie went on to say, "Like Shirley, I too miss my country and my family members when having the Chinese New Year, the Moon Cake Festival and the recent Dragon Boat Festival. Things seem different when not having the family together when you celebrate those days. Childhood memories usually flash back and they are so precious when you are away from your [home] country." This journal response is an example of how multicultural children's literature can capture common childhood experiences, emotions, and adjustments and elicit personal reflection for the immigrant as well as providing insight for the non-immigrant.

Cindy Hsu, an immigrant from Taiwan, also enrolled in the same graduate children's literature course reflected in her journal, "I remember having finished first grade here [in the U.S.] after my family moved from Taiwan. I was about one of maybe five Chinese students at my elementary school. Everyone was friendly, and said 'hi' to me often. When I said 'hi' back, they would get very excited. By the middle of second grade I could speak and read English. My parents, like Shirley's (the main character), kept telling me not to forget about being Chinese, and speaking Chinese. And, like Shirley, I sometimes wished that if I had come from a different cultural background, then all my problems would be solved. The important issue this novel pointed out is that wherever you came from only adds the spices to your problems, but that the main ingredients of growing up are all the same."

This article attempts to demonstrate how multicultural children's literature can heighten students' awareness of both common and diverse childhood experiences, bridging the gap between home and school. Through a deepened understanding of the student's own culture, as well as the cultures of others, multicultural children's literature serves as a powerful tool for strengthening identity formation, closing the gap that potentially can occur for the student who struggles with the transition between his or her home and school cultures and closing the social gaps between students who need a deepened appreciation for each other's cultural heritage.

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Bridging the Cultural Divide

Multicultural children's literature is one way to effectively bridge the gap between immigrant students' home and school cultures. This learning gap is related to students' schema, defined as the context in which students construct knowledge to learn and understand the meaning of texts (Greene, 1988). Schema theory involves Vygotsky's idea of activating students' prior knowledge and balancing the assimilation and accommodation processes based on Piaget's theory of cognitive development (Martinez & Nash, 1990).

Immigrants who have limited English skills may be more motivated to read material that contains themes and events that are already in their schema. For example, one teacher who used multicultural literature in her classroom observed how multicultural literature that depicted immigrant themes affirmed the knowledge of immigrant students (Greene, 1988). The literature also provided opportunities for immigrant students' own growth in "knowledge about the culture of other people, and provide[d] them with exposure to the structures necessary for improving school and cultural literacy" (Greene, 1988, p. 46).

However, the richness of multicultural literature should not be confined to immigrant students only. The benefits of multicultural literature can positively affect, educate, and enrich children and adults from the mainstream culture. For example, after reading Mildred Taylor's The Gold Cadillac (1987), Carrie Moy, graduate student recalled, "This story reminds me of a time when the local police, for no legitimate reason, arrested my brother and his friends. They were teenagers driving around in the city that I lived in. When my mother went down to pick them up from the police station, the first thing the police officer said to my mother was, 'Do you speak English?' Did this police officer not understand that some Asians grew up speaking English as their primary language like my mother and I did? I was only eleven years old at the time, but I still remember how angry I was at the situation, and how I was so disappointed in the police officers who misjudged my own brother and my mom." Open discussion of Carrie's personal classroom experience in response to the literature opened the eyes of many mainstream students who had not experienced being treated differently, based upon their ethnic identity. Discussion ensued that helped many students realize patterns in their own thinking where they themselves had made generalized assumptions about people based upon ethnic identity, rather than the individual.

If cultural awareness and understanding are our goals, then mainstream students (children and adults) must also become educated about other cultures and the struggles that many of their non-mainstream peers and colleagues face every day. Mainstream and non-mainstream students of the twenty-first century live in a global society; their future interactions will be international (Licktieg, 1996). Therefore, the need for students of all backgrounds to be aware of the cultural values, beliefs, and traditions of other people groups is greater than in the past and a heightened sensitivity towards the individual is a nonnegotiable character quality.

Unfortunately, immigrant children and mainstream students often have limited access to quality multicultural literature that would assist them in cultural understanding. When June Hetzel, Ph.D. (coauthor) surveyed her graduate students, asking how many books they had as children, some of her immigrant students had as few as three books in their home during their childhood, while some of her mainstream graduate students estimated they had 2,500 books or more in their homes. Additionally, when asked about the type of literature in their homes, limited multicultural literature was available for all. When asked about the type of required reading during their elementary and secondary schooling experiences, predominately mainstream and Eurocentric literature was read by the majority of her class, despite the fact that the majority of her class was not from mainstream Eurocentric backgrounds.

Short and Goodman (as cited in Martinez & Nash, 1990) argue that the myth that only mainstream books are for everyone and that multicultural literature only pertains to minority children is false. Mainstream graduate students continue to document in their journals the personal benefits of reading multicultural children's literature, even as adults. Violet Harris, a prominent editor and writer about multicultural literature sadly states that "fewer than five to eight percent of the approximate 5,000 children's books published each year can be classified as multicultural" (as cited in Martinez & Nash, 1990, p. 600). The paucity of multicultural children's books available to students makes it vital for librarians and teachers to put forth a concerted effort in providing access to a plethora of multicultural children's books in the classroom.

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Multicultural Literature and the Identity Formation of
Immigrants and First Generation Americans

Recent research proposes the incorporation of quality and authentic multicultural children's literature to aid immigrant students in their identity formation and adjustment to the assimilation process in the U.S. Steiner (1998) explains that identity formation is critical in the development of children because it gives them the sense that they belong and are accepted in society. Multicultural children's literature can affirm their identity by showing that their opinions exist within the context of history, the classroom, and beyond (Martinez & Nash, 1990; Steiner, 1998). Harris (1990) also found that children derive "pleasure and pride" from reading about familiar characters and cultural experiences (as cited in Martinez & Nash, p. 599).

James Lee, a first generation Chinese American, responded in his journal after reading In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, "I could identify a lot with many of her [Shirley Temple Wong's] experiences as she struggled and attempted to squeeze herself into her new role. I remember the feelings of aloneness and unhappiness when you feel so isolated, even though you are surrounded by many children, yet none are your friends and there is no one that you can confide in and share with. Yet slowly you become a part of them [as] you start sharing common experiences and activities and hobbies." James' journal entry shows how multicultural children's literature can benefit the identity formation of immigrant students and first generation Americans. Broadening students' perspectives of culture and solidifying their own identities will empower students to take an active role in preventing the future perpetuation of racist philosophies in our society.

Furthermore, multicultural literature "offer[s] hope and encouragement to children who face many dilemmas and experiences depicted in some of the texts" (Harris, as cited in Martinez & Nash, 1990, p. 599). Many immigrant families are living in poverty, are frustrated with language barriers and combating racial discrimination. Literature can provide a gateway for students to critically examine their own problems in relation to the characters in the text. For example, immigrants who struggle with language barriers can empathize with the characters portrayed in I'm New Here (Howlett, 1993) and I Speak English for My Mom (Stanek, 1989) that address the adjustments to a new school culture and learning English. Other genres, such as multicultural biographies, historical fiction and nonfiction, can also help students see how other immigrants have overcome their difficulties in the past and triumphed in the process.

One of the primary struggles that immigrant students face is establishing their national identity. Students may find it difficult to balance "maintaining [their] ethnic roots and becoming Americanized" (Steiner, 1998, p. 23). Shannon (1988) summarizes this growth process well in his four stages of cross-cultural identity formation that briefly describe how immigrant children deal with living in dual cultures. In the first stage the student rejects both his or her native culture and the dominant culture and ends up feeling "homeless" (Shannon, 1988). During the second stage, students decide to keep one culture and reject the other, yet in actuality they are rejecting a part of themselves that "leaves them feeling less than whole" (Shannon, 1988, p. 15). The third stage is to keep "dual identities" based on others' opinions and still not feeling accepted in either group (Shannon, 1988, p. 16).

Marie Hseu, the primary author and a first generation Chinese American, recalls, "I remember fighting with my mother about attending the local Chinese school to learn Mandarin, because I felt that I only needed to speak English, and I wanted to fit in with all my Caucasian friends. I was also timid about speaking Chinese with my mother when my Caucasian friends were around, because I thought they would make fun of me or not accept me as one of them. It is unfortunate that I felt ashamed of my cultural heritage, because I longed to assimilate into the American mainstream. It was not until I was an undergraduate and took some Chinese courses in college that I realized the importance of learning how to read and write Mandarin."

Thus, multicultural literature serves an important role in helping students arrive at the fourth and final stage of identity formation, rather than feeling disenfranchised from the mainstream. During this stage the student has a "self-created inclusive identity" and is "defined ... from within" (Shannon, 1988, p. 16). "As cross-cultural children hear stories of other searchers and experience the act of telling itself, they are more able to create their own stories and their own identities" (Shannon, 1988, p. 14).

Multicultural literature can help students begin to tell their own stories and bridge the gap between the home and mainstream cultures. An example of a multicultural children's book that applies to immigrant children is Who Belongs Here? (Knight, 1993). In this book, "all readers are sensitized to the reasons for immigration and problems facing new immigrants; they will be motivated to examine their personal heritage and the definition of what it means to be 'American'" (Steiner, 1998, p. 26). Empowerment and change occurs as the term "American" is redefined to include minorities and immigrants.

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Empowering Students to Promote Social Change

Finally, the value of incorporating multicultural children's literature into the classroom is that it will empower its readers to social action. Students cannot defend a cause that they know nothing about nor ever knew existed. Students who are living through these prejudices need a safe forum in which to discuss these cultural issues and how to effectively and peacefully solve these problems. Students who have misperceptions, stereotypes, and racist tendencies need to broaden their perspectives and oftentimes are unaware that they carry these misperceptions and overgeneralizations until they are enlightened by a friend from another culture or an effectively written multicultural selection. Multicultural children's literature is one way teachers can aid students at an early age in cultural understanding and constructive social problem-solving, promoting acceptance of a pluralistic society.

However, empowerment of minorities can only occur if multicultural literature is available to educate students studying in predominantly white European-American schools as well. For example, Macphee (1997), a 30-year veteran teacher introduced multicultural children's literature to her first grade class, all European Americans living in the mid-western U.S. She audiotaped their responses and discussed their drawings about four African-American books. Her main concern was that "most ethnically-encapsulated white students' experiences of other sociocultural groups are through television or marginal and superficial interaction that does not present a whole or true picture of the groups" (Macphee, 1997, p. 33).

In her student samples, Macphee (1997) found that the students understood when Jackie Robinson was unjustly treated because of the color of his skin and that his pain was the direct result of another group's oppression. Furthermore, students incorporated "personal experience" to empathize with the characters of another race. The white children could relate to the universal need to be accepted and loved. Thus, as mainstream students read about other people groups, shared values and experiences came to the forefront.

Empowerment of a non-mainstream student is not a fast process. It requires great thought to plan an in-depth study of cultural groups. Oftentimes, teachers mistakenly try to patch up these large and significant omissions of minority contributions in the textbooks by haphazardly inserting cultural heritage days in the schedule, focusing on food, holidays and customs, but overlooking the core cultural values and beliefs. The dangers of the "contributions approach" to multicultural education is it can lead to a "superficial treatment of different cultures" and "a reinforcement of stereotypes and misconceptions, including the notion that ethnic cultures are not integral parts of the dominant cultures" (Banks, as cited in Rasinski & Padak, 1990, p. 577).

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Strategies for Including Multicultural Literature in the Literary Canon

Norton (1990) has suggested a well-organized phase model of sequencing the multicultural children's literature curriculum into one's classroom. Her five-phase model is based on her ten years of research of multicultural literature in upper elementary and middle schools and in the university. Her model is described here as a recommended starting point for integrating multicultural children's literature into the classroom. The following is a brief summary of her five-phase model with each genre described.

Phase One: Traditional Literature--General

Phase one consists of teaching traditional literature and oral stories of a large cultural group that is usually not found in the western literary canon (Norton, 1990). For example, students would enjoy hearing Tales from the Bamboo Grove (1986) by Yoko Kawashima Watkins or Junko Morimoto's folktale, The Inch Boy (1986), a Japanese rendition of Tom Thumb.

Phase Two: Traditional Literature--Specific

Phase two involves discussions of traditional tales for one specific area, such as identifying values, beliefs, and themes from a specific group of people within a larger culture. For example, students might study Native American literature in phase one, examining a broad brushstroke of picture books and novels. However, if students read literature reflecting a specific people group or nation, such the Sioux, Navajo, or Iroquois, they would become familiar with a particular nation's values. An example of specific literature would be The Legend of Scarface: A Blackfeet Indian Tale (San Souci, 1978) or Welsch's Omaha Tribal Myths and Trickster Tales (1981).

Phase Three: Historical Autobiographies, Biographies, and NonFiction

Phase three uses autobiographies, biographies, and historical nonfiction to analyze values and beliefs. This phase provides a foundation for understanding authentic beliefs of people groups. Farewell to Manzanar (1973), a Japanese-American story of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's experience in an American internment camp and Tatjana Wassiljewa's Hostage to War (1996), which tells her Russian experience of growing up during WWII, are both autobiographies that depict cultural values and perspectives during the WWII era.

Phase Four: Historical Fiction

Phase four delves into historical fiction. Students evaluate the fiction for authentic cultural beliefs and alignment with values presented in historical nonfiction sources. Enriching literary works in this genre might include Theodore Taylor's The Bomb (1995), a story of how the era surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima affected South Pacific Island cultures, or Karen Hesse's Letters from Rifka (1992), depicting a Jewish family's experience fleeing Russia to America during WWII.

Phase Five: Contemporary Works

Finally, in phase five, students analyze contemporary fiction, biography, and poetry for values and beliefs that correlate with traditional works, analyzing "themes and threads across literature" (Norton, 1990, p.30-31). Globe Fearon's Latino Poetry (1994) collection, Gary Soto's Baseball in April (1990), and Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street (1989) all represent quality contemporary Latino literature. Joyce Carol Thomas' Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (1993), Faith Ringgold's Dinner at Aunt Connie's House (1993), and Dolores Johnson's The Children's Book of Kwanzaa (1996) express the richness of contemporary African-American poetry and family celebrations.

The main benefit of this five-phase model is its holistic literary perspective of a particular culture. A classroom literature study that examines only traditional literature of the past provides a one-dimensional view of a particular culture. Providing the past and present literature of a culture provides a two-dimensional model. However, by examining the literature of a culture's past and present and connecting the values with the student's own cultures, provides a three-dimensional holistic model through which students can affirm their own identities and through which the texture of a culture is truly understood.

Intentional, purposeful, and careful sequencing and selection of quality multicultural children's literature is essential in depicting an accurate view of American culture as well as facilitating our students' abilities to seamlessly serve in a multicultural global community.

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Mainstream and non-mainstream children and adults attest to the benefits of reading multicultural children's literature. Integrating multicultural literature into the curriculum addresses the values and beliefs of all cultural groups represented in and beyond the classroom. Furthermore, multicultural children's literature broadens global awareness and acknowledges the importance of evaluating and formulating positive pedagogical methods for helping immigrants and first and second generation Americans to discuss their assimilation experiences. Finally, meaningful and sequential incorporation of multicultural children's literature benefits all children by strengthening the fabric of cultural understanding, weaving the past and present with current cultural values, and laying the foundation to bridge the cultural divide.

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Bao Lord, B. (1984). In the year of the boar and Jackie Robinson. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Cisneros, S. (1989). The house on Mango Street. New York, NY: Random House.

Greene, B.M. (1988). A cross-cultural approach to literacy: the immigrant experience. English Journal, 77 (5), 45-48.

Hesse, K. (1992). Letters from Rifka. New York, NY: Puffin.

Howlett, B. (1993). I'm new here. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Kawashima Watkins, Y. (1992). Tales from the bamboo grove. New York, NY: Bradbury Press.

Knight, M.B. (1993). Who belongs here? An American story. Gardiner, ME: Tilburty House.

Johnson, D. (1996). The children's book of Kwanzaa. New York, NY: Atheneum Books.

Latino poetry (1994). Paramus, NJ: Globe Fearon.

Licktieg, M.J. (1996). Books of Japanese Americans, books of Japan: a recommended list. MultiCultural Review, 5 (3), 26-33.

Macphee, J.S. (1997). "That's not fair!": A white teacher reports on white first graders' responses to multicultural literature. Language Arts, 74 (1), 33-40.

Martinez, M., & Nash, M.F. (1990). Bookalogues: talking about children's literature. Language Arts, 67 (6), 599-606.

Morimoto, J. (1986). The inch boy. New York: Viking.

Norton, D.E. (1990). Teaching multicultural literature in the reading curriculum. The Reading Teacher, 44 (1), 28-40.

Rasinski, T.V., & Padak, N.D. (1990). Multicultural learning through children's literature. Language Arts, 67 (6), 576-580.

Ringgold, F. (1993). Dinner at aunt Connie's house. New York, NY: Hyperion.

San Souci, R. (1978). The legend of Scarface: A Blackfeet Indian tale. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing.

Shannon, G. (1988). Making a home of one's own: the young in cross-cultural fiction. English Journal, 77 (5), 14-19.

Soto, G. (1990). Baseball in April. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Stanek, M. (1989). I speak English for my mom. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman and Company.

Steiner, S.F. (1998). Who belongs here? Portraying American identity in children's picture books. MultiCultural Review, 7 (2), 20-27.

Taylor, M. (1987). The gold cadillac. New York, NY: Puffin Books.

Taylor, T. (1995). The bomb. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace.

Thomas, J.C. (1993). Brown honey and broomwheat tea. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Wakatsuki Houston, J. & J.D. Houston (1973). Farewell to Manzanar. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Wassiljewa, T. (1996). Hostage to war: A true story. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Welsch, R. (1981). Omaha tribal myths and trickster tales. Chicago: Swallow.

written ©2000

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