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Sonja Olson

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Reviews and Questions for a Multicultural Classroom Library
Empowering your students, closing the achievement gap, and having fun doing it!

Who in my classroom is missing from my library? I teach in St. Paul, and I have a lot of Hmong students in my classroom, but when I started at my job I had zero books with Hmong protagonists. If you have students who aren’t represented on your shelves, add voices like theirs to the library! This is a great way to make them know they belong in your classroom (and academic spaces as a whole). If I’m not sure about a book because I haven’t read it or I don’t know much about that culture, I’ll ask my students to read the book for me and tell me what they think. They’ve never turned down the chance to be an expert on their own culture. Sometimes they don’t finish the book, but it’s never a negative experience for the student or me.

Bamboo Among the Oaks edited by Mai Neng Moua
Moua both edits this anthology and contributes to it, doing both jobs well. The stories in the book range from the adrenaline-filled "Mrs. Pac Man Ruined My Gang Life," to the introspective "My Dad the Mekong and Me the Mississippi," to the funny “Hmoob Boy Meets Hmong Girl.” I’ve had many students check it out of my library, but I’ve also pulled stories from it to complement my curriculum.

Are the non-white characters in the books I’m choosing relegated to the role of a sidekick, or similarly, is there a white “savior figure”? Empower ALL your students to be strong leaders, not sidekicks, in the field of their choice. While a blend of cultures is wonderful, far too often students of color are tokenized. Instead of picking The Blind Side, a story that tells of a wealthy white family in Tennessee taking in a homeless black teen, choose I Beat The Odds, the same story written by Michael Oher, the teen who went from homelessness to the NFL, with lots of help along the way. Or better yet, buy both books and let the football player in your 3rd hour compare the two.

47 by Walter Mosley
This book is part fantasy, part historical fiction, takes place in the South, pre-civil war, and is told from the perspective of a young African-American boy. One of those elements often throws off a reader, but those who enjoy it appreciate how the themes of science fiction and African American history combine for a dynamic social commentary. Also, the audio version is spot on.

Does the book that I’m considering perpetuate stereotypes? Look for books that undermine stereotypes, rather than reinforce them. This can usually be solved by having several different types of stories. I worried that the stories in my library featuring African American males were all about life on the street. While they were often popular, I knew I had to show more options. Upon a student’s request, I bought a copy of The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac (featuring the lyrics of his songs as he originally wrote them down in his notebook). I asked a basketball coach for a list of books that my students would like—or at least a list of current stars, so I could buy their biographies. Instead of a story about negative peer pressure, I found one on positive peer pressure: We Beat the Street, a non-fiction story about three African American boys who made a pact to become doctors.

We Were Here by Matt de la Peña
This fast-moving novel set in California shows de la Peña at his best. He lets you really get to know the main character, and you’re over halfway through the novel before you find out what landed him in juvie (unless you’re good at foreshadowing). The dialogue is slangy and filled with swearing, using a journal format to let the narrator be as emotional as he needs to be. Two secondary characters, Rondell and Mong, add a fuller picture of incarcerated teens.

Is this book written by someone with an intimate knowledge of the culture? Good writing shows nuance, relies on details, and has perfect dialogue. These things are really, really, hard to portray in a borrowed culture. Yes, it is harder to find multicultural books when I narrow my search to books written by members of that culture, but it’s worth it because the books are better. This gap between books published by non-white people and books published by white people is all the more reason we need to empower our multicultural students to read, write, and publish their work.

Game by Walter Dean Myers
With age comes wisdom. Myers was born in 1937, and at times this book acts like a big brother passing along important stuff about life. So, if the dialogue isn't razor sharp, forgive him and look instead at the subtlety, often about how race may or may not be affecting a situation, how family and dreams can make all the difference in this game of life. Myers writes a plot-driven novel here, detailing Drew’s basketball season. Myers doesn't rely on any romantic relationships, but deftly draws secondary characters in a little sister, an assistant coach, neighbors, and teammates.

Is the book I’m choosing historically accurate? Reading should inform students, not mislead them. Check to see who’s telling the story, or from what perspective the book is told. A disenfranchised group may have a different narrative. Look for those stories. Try reading Louise Erdrich’s story Game of Silence back to back with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, and look for the differences in what two young girls see when they hear their fathers talking about life after 1850.

Down Garrapata Road by Anne Estevis
This quick read about the Mexican immigrant families of Garrapata Road is small but sharp! Each section tells about a different family, through several short stories. Some are funny, some just give you a snapshot of life, and at least one made my eyes well up.

Are the stories on my shelves relevant? When looking for books that empower a specific cultural group, the first thing I usually find is non-fiction (often a How-We-Came-to-America story) or historical fiction. I had two books, both by Korean authors with Korean narrators, on my shelf. One was Linda Sue Park’s book A Single Shard, a story about a 12th century Koran potter, and the other was An Na’s book The Fold, a story of a Korean American with a major crush and the possibility of plastic surgery. Guess which book is beat up and worn out because it’s been passed around to so many backpacks? Well, it’s not about 12th century pottery. Historical fiction is GREAT!  But quality, relevant fiction can be just as thought-provoking and stimulating.

The Fold by An Na
The first page shows us the main character popping a pimple and wondering how to get her crush to sign her yearbook. The book ends with much bigger issues, such as coming out in a Christian community, plastic surgery to make eyes open wider, and the differences between first and second generation immigrants.

Will this book work for the ages of my students? While it’s important for books to be available in a broad range of reading levels, the content needs to interest the age level of your students. Even though Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis passed every other question on this list, my students didn’t read it because the main character was too young for them. Even the kids who were reading at a low enough level to be challenged by the book didn’t pick it up. It’s equally important to find challenging books for high-level readers, even if they’re not interested in college-level themes.

Flight by Sherman Alexie
While the Lexile level is a manageable 550, the themes of death, destruction, and disenfranchisement mean that this is definitely meant for a high school reader. The narrator’s background could make readers feel sorry for him, but because Alexie weaves in history and strong characters, the narrator is not someone to pity, but someone to talk to, learn from, and build bridges with.

Does this story empower my students? It’s not enough to avoid being racist. Your classroom library at its best can break down barriers, raise up leaders, and give students not only a vision for their future, but the reading skills that it takes to achieve their greatest dreams. We need to balance telling tough truths and showing students positive stories too. Genocide, war, slavery, and marginalization can be balanced by biographies of great inventors and athletes, love stories, or graphic novels.  

My Life as a Rhombus by Varian Johnson
This protagonist likes math, and she’s really good at it. In fact, she tutors other kids. Rhonda has some past choices that still haunt her; high schoolers will quickly recognize the choices of alcohol, sexuality, and responsibility. Math and academic language pepper this story of maturing relationships.

Should I take any books off my shelves? If you want your classroom library to be THE place where kids can find terrific books, cut out the deadwood. I finally took out my yellowed copies of Julie and the Wolves and Walk Two Moons. I wanted to hold on to them—they were classics, stories that had strong Native American characters, and were easy enough for a struggling reader to get through. But after trying my best to “sell” them to my students, with only a tepid response, I culled my bookshelves and gave them away. I needed to save my space for the best books.