Real People, and Common Themes: Using Trade Books to Counter Stereotypes

Jo Sullivan

For students who need to be exposed to global perspectives, one of the most enjoyable and informative means is through trade books with social studies value. The right choice of trade books can offer an opportunity for teachers to spread knowledge and understanding of the world outside. Trade books leave vivid impressions and stimulate students' curiosity for further knowledge. Using them is also a serious responsibility. In the best books, the images, themes, and characters portrayed will expand and enhance the understanding of other peoples and countries. However, the wrong selection of books can reinforce the more common stereotypes found in the books, magazines, movies, cartoons and toy packages that surround our students from an early age.

Choosing the Right Framework
In using trade books to enhance global understanding, it is essential, first, to keep in mind the formal and informal context in which students learn about other cultures and, second, to have clear goals and use them as the guides to our choices. In selecting books for young learners, I suggest that the criteria should be:

1. Does the book show our common humanity? Our students need to understand that real people, who live and work in other countries, share our interests and aspirations.

2. Does the book provide a sound knowledge base when it deals with the geographic, social, historical, political, economic, and/or religious aspects of life in other societies?

3. Does the book show that other peoples have different but valid approaches to our common human concerns and needs?

4. Does the book increase understanding and empathy for others and the potential to learn from other peoples and cultures?

Putting the Framework into Practice
Teaching with trade books requires careful planning to ensure that these global educational objectives are met. Trade books should be selected that bring real or realistic people and the events of their lives to students and also avoid common distortions of other cultures. Some of the most important principles of using trade books that challenge or counterbalance global stereotypes in the classroom are the following:

1. Make Appropriate International Comparisons. First, we can ask ourselves some guiding questions: do I teach this topic, issue, or concept when I teach about North America or Europe? If the answer is no, then we should think twice before introducing this issue in a discussion of Latin America or Africa. For example, if we want to examine endangered species in Kenya or Brazil, are we presenting Kenyans or Brazilians as the poachers and European or American environmentalists as heroes? We could look at the debates about the spotted owl, or local debates that show the differing points of view of farmers, loggers, and environmentalists in the U.S., and transfer that complexity and understanding to our approach to Kenya or Brazil.

Second, we can ask ourselves at the end of a unit/lesson whether students will say, "I would really like to visit Mexico some day" or "I would like to meet/talk with Ghanaians." We have made a serious error if our students finish the lessons relieved that they do not live in the country portrayed in the book.

2. Use Thematic Studies with Caution. To its credit, the global studies movement has produced comparative thematic and interdisciplinary curriculum material. But when those themes are poverty, overpopulation, underdevelopment, the status of women, human rights or disease, our students often get their first, or only, exposure to other countries through an emphasis on problems. Unless we are prepared to be truly comparative and examine these issues in the United States at an appropriate grade level, I suggest that we not address these themes.

3. Avoid Problems. Our choices should avoid focusing on problems, unless we are prepared to address such themes in our own culture (divorce, child abuse, homelessness), history (slavery, corruption, treatment of Native Americans), and politics.

4. Integrate Global Studies Content into our Existing Curriculum. The soundest and most practical approach for busy teachers is to examine our current curriculum themes and to expand on these. Do we teach cities in third grade? Does our geography curriculum look at human interaction with the environment? Is second grade studying families and community? Does our fifth or sixth grade study world history or ancient civilizations? Trade books can add a global perspective to the current curriculum.

5. Choose Appropriate Themes. It is best to choose themes we teach already, such as city and country life, continuity and change, the struggle for democracy, or human interaction with the environment. Especially appropriate are themes that reflect our common humanity, such as friendship, family and community, religion, shelter and architecture, coming of age, or children's roles in the family.

6. Relate to the Daily Lives of Children. Most readers of any age enjoy and care about issues that relate to their lives. Select books that relate to the issues, concerns, and activities of our students. Characters, dilemmas, and dramas familiar to children will pique their interest and communicate the message that people all over the world struggle with similar issues.

7. Acknowledge that We Have Something to Learn From Other Peoples and Cultures: To name just a few important issues, how have other cultures raised children, handled adolescence, cared for elders, honored ancestors, or struggled with emerging democracies?

8. Avoid Non-Typical Peoples and Lifestyles. Are we drawn to groups that appear "colorful," but are untypical of their own countries or continents? We do our students a disservice by repeatedly focusing on exotic lifestyles. The Maasai, for example, are as typical of Kenya as the Amish are of the U.S. We must choose books that show real people and realistic characters whose lives and experience reflect the complexities and diversities of their country or era.

9. Be Consistent with Vocabulary. If it is a cottage in England, then it is a cottage (not hut) in Guatemala. If we meet "the French" in France, then it should be "the Nigerians" (not natives) in Nigeria.

A Few Favorites
The following three books are among my favorites. One is suitable for the primary grades, one for intermediate grades, and one for the young adult levels of the children's trade book range.
Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman, the sequel to the award-winning 1991 book, Amazing Grace, is the story of a lively and energetic African-American girl's visit to her father and new step-family in Banjul, the capital city of The Gambia, West Africa. A central theme of this book is the importance of family, and the idea that "a family is what you make it." The author takes on the issue of step-families and the challenges that arise, especially when geography-and in this case culture-separates children and their parents. The vibrant illustrations challenge stereotypes because they reflect the richness and diversity of an African city and play a major role in increasing the reader's knowledge base. The book depicts African urban life, which is rarely shown in children's books. It portrays the typical housing, lifestyles, economy, markets, accurate clothing and variety of dress.

This book could be approached in several ways. As a means of linking students with African geography, students could be asked: Where is west Africa? The Gambia? Banjul? What is unique about this small country? What is the significance of its location? What is the role of the river Gambia? What are the historical reasons for the origins of The Gambia? Why is Grace's father living there? A teacher could also focus on families and the central theme, "What makes a family?" What are Grace's feelings about traveling to see her father? Why is she hesitant? What changed her mind? How did she handle meeting the new branch of her family? Students could chart or diagram comparisons of similarities and differences in their communities, or between U.S. cities and life in Banjul.

Days of the Dead by Kathryn Lasky, with photos by Christopher Knight, is a photo essay that focuses on a Mexican family preparing for and observing the Days of the Dead honoring their ancestors. These are real people with real names, a sense of place and a history. The reader joins them and their neighbors as they prepare to celebrate the lives of their grandparents, Juan de Jesus and his wife Domatilla. The author provides a comparative context by a discussion of rituals honoring the dead from several cultures, including our Celtic origins of Halloween, and Egyptian and Aztec burial and death customs and rituals. Themes of family, children's roles in the family, religion and religious preparations, and daily life are emphasized. Readers get to know the family as its members prepare food, make offerings, and clear grave sites, in this annual event. Daily life is interwoven through the preparations for the special occasion. The photos follow the theme, while also showing housing, fields, farms, markets, and churches. This intermediate book deals with history, geography, and religion.

Days of the Dead is rich in teaching possibilities. A teacher could focus on customs honoring the dead in numerous cultures, including our own. How do we honor our ancestors? What roles do different family members play in these rituals? What are children's responsibilities? If the focus is the environment and/or geography, the daily life of the family can be examined: how do they earn their living? feed themselves? How do they depend on their environment? In what ways is this similar to our own students' community?

The African Mask, by Jane E. Rupert, is a fictional account of a young woman Layo's betrothal, coming of age, and relationship with her extended family. It takes place in the Yoruba (Nigeria) kingdom of Ife nearly 1000 years ago. The characters are believable and are presented in an accurate historical context.

The volume addresses our common humanity through its themes of family, coming of age, and a young person seeking her own identity. It shows how people in other cultures make choices about their future-about marriage, crafts and skills. Rupert increases our knowledge base by writing a carefully researched historical novel situated in the area now known as Nigeria 1000 years ago. We can learn about ancient history, ideas about art forms and Yoruba religious beliefs. As the reader becomes engaged in the fate of the young heroine, we learn about marriage and betrothal customs and the differences between those and our own expectations for young people today and in our own past. Because the book's fictitious characters are so well-drawn, young readers can easily empathize with the dilemmas, dramas and choices of the heroine.

The African Mask can be used as a way of beginning a discussion of life and culture in ancient west Africa, or it could be used to understand the common experience, and specific circumstances, of coming of age in an ancient culture. It can also provide background on Nigerian and west African history, the significance of Ife as an ancient religious center, the economy of pre-European Africa or the role of art in Nigerian culture and family life. As a personal story, it is a way to discuss adolescence, emerging identities of young people, and loyalty to family, career choices and marriage customs.

We can teach about faraway peoples and cultures in a way that avoids stereotypes. By careful selection of high quality trade books, our choices of characters like Grace, the children of Juan and Domatilla, and Layo can challenge and change the images our students and our society hold.

Annotated References
Crofts Marylee, "Teaching About Africa in Elementary Schools, " in Helping Boys and Girls Discover the World: Teaching About Global Concerns and the United Nations in Elementary and Middle Schools, Leonard S. Kenworthy, Editor, 1978. Much of my thinking on these issues has been shaped by Marylee Crofts and other colleagues involved in African Studies Outreach Programs. This handout is still relevant-and needed-today.Randolph, Brenda, ed., Africa Access Review of K-12 Materials, Africa Access, Silver Spring, MD, 1992. Brenda Randolph and colleagues in African Studies and K-12 education have reviewed hundreds of books with African themes and give clear criteria for their evaluations. The 1996 review is now online at and is updated frequently.Randolph, Brenda, ed., Afrophile, Africa Access, Silver Spring, MD, 1994. This compilation is a listing of all the recommended books that are reviewed in the above collection. Online: Trade Books Recommended:Hoffman, Mary. Boundless Grace. (Sequel to Amazing Grace) illustrated by Caroline Binch. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. New York. 1995. 24 pp. Primary. Lasky, Kathryn. Days of the Dead. Photos by Christopher Knight. New York: Hyperion, 1994. 48 pp. Intermediate. Rupert, Jane E. The African Mask. New York: Clarion. 160 pp. 1994. Intermediate and Young Adult.

Jo Sullivan is Principal of Federal Street School, Salem, Massachusetts. She is a former member of the Book Review Committee that selects the annual notable children's trade books in the field of social studies on behalf of National Council for the Social Studies and the Children's Book Council.