Multicultural Literature: Mirror and
Window on Experience


Janelle B. Mathis


A teacher has just shared George Ancona’s Fiesta Fireworks in a classroom where either English or Spanish is the first language of students. The story is about a little girl whose grandfather makes fireworks for one of the biggest fiestas in Mexico. The children learn about the preparations for the fiesta at Tultepec to which people come from many neighboring towns. They respond through their personal connections to the story. For some, the connection is their own experience of fireworks displays on the Fourth of July. For others, who have recently come from Mexico to the United States, the story invites them to relive their participation in this fiesta or others like it.

As the children discuss the story, their dialogue focuses on the numerous Spanish words that Ancona uses within this story. The teacher takes this opportunity to invite the Spanish-speaking students to be the experts and teach the correct pronunciation of these words. ESL students, who the teacher notes are often passive, actively participate in correctly pronouncing pirotécnico, m’hijita, and abuelita. The colorful authentic photographs in the book invite further discussion. The Spanish-speaking students sense not only that their language is valued, but that the experiences reflected within this story are significant to others in the class who recall similar exciting occasions as they viewed fireworks. Students are united by their similarities in this literature-based lesson.


Multicultural Education: A Brief Reflection

“All students of all backgrounds, languages, and experiences need to be acknowledged, valued, and used as important sources of their education,” argues Nieto.1 Banks states that the goal of multicultural education is empowering “students to develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to participate in a democratic and free society.”2 With the growing inclusion of voices that have been marginalized in the past, this goal is much closer to becoming a reality in today’s classroom. Children’s literature can provide authentic sources of these often-silenced voices as well as the potential for a greater student voice than ever before.

Many teachers who strive to create democratic learning environments use literature that mirrors the experiences of their students. The need for children to see themselves reflected in the books they read is vital to their understanding and enjoyment of reading. Additionally, such books help children to develop feelings of self-worth and to attain information needed to participate fully in society.

Multicultural literature not only serves the role of “mirror,” but also provides a “window” through which readers view cultures other than their own.3 However, as students gaze through this window, it is important that they focus on the similarities in human experience that all people share. In learning contexts where information about diverse ethnic groups is isolated within the curriculum, through instruction that emphasizes exotic differences or spotlights these differences for a limited time, young children naturally reinforce and exaggerate the differences of which they are already aware. Their curious wonderings, and possible fears, may become shaped into stereotypes.4 By focusing on cultural similarities, on the other hand, children learn to trust others as they become more aware of their shared experiences. This experience has the potential to broaden their understanding of multiple perspectives, a key requirement in the NCSS Social Studies Standards and a necessary ingredient of multicultural education for all students.


An Approach to Multicultural Literature

There is no consensus on an exact definition of multicultural literature. For some scholars, its chief characteristic is to reflect the multitude of cultural groups within the United States. The focus of this definition usually rests on literature involving ethnic groups, minority religious groups, regional groups, and disabled persons—all groups whose needs, histories, or cultures have been less represented than those of the mainstream Anglo culture in the United States. Multiethnic books consistently have referred to the four major non-mainstream ethnic groups in the United States—African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians—although some books also include a global perspective. The body of literature representing all these groups has dramatically improved over the last decade in terms of authenticity, accuracy, and objectivity. Moreover, the increased number of books published about those outside the dominant culture is itself significant, although proportionately these groups are still underrepresented.

Other scholars argue that multicultural literature should reflect not only ethnicity or other forms of minority status, but various aspects of culture—including gender, age roles, community values, religious practices, and family experiences. In considering culture as a “system of values, beliefs, and standards which guides people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior,”5 it becomes apparent that a multiplicity of factors determine an individua#146;s life experiences. This broader notion of culture is expressed in books representing the dominant culture as well as minority cultures.

Perhaps a more effective approach to multicultural literature would be to blend these two definitions by exploring stories that represent diverse groups within society, while also helping children to connect with the characters, situations, and contexts described in these stories. Young children need to understand that many common aspects of culture help determine one’s life experiences, while not discounting ethnicity as a major contributor to the process.


Connecting with Common Experiences

In seeking books with multicultural contexts that invite young learners to identify similarities in human experience, teachers might consider the following commonalities among cultures: art forms, group rule, social organization, basic needs, and language.6 These commonalities have been used to frame the following exploration of exemplary books through which young readers can explore cultural similarities within diverse contexts.


Art Forms

Art is one of the oldest manifestations of culture and is enjoyed in many forms by all cultural groups. Music, visual art, dance, and dramatics hold both significant pleasures and symbolic values for people.

In The Bat Boy and His Violin, Gavin Curtis tells the story of a young boy whose father wants him to follow in his footsteps at baseball. More interested in playing the violin, Reginald finds a way to use his talents to soothe and entertain his father’s team. Young readers will find in this book not only support for exploring their own unique interests, but insights into African American baseball teams as they struggled for recognition in 1948.

The Old Cotton Blues by Lina England is about a young African American boy who cannot afford a clarinet and so learns to play blues on a harmonica. Rich sensory images describe the music that encourages him to pursue his dreams. Likewise, in Alvin Ailey by Andrea Pinkney, readers can identify with the young boy who pursued his hobby of dance. These books can lead to a broader exploration of different styles of music and dance, and the role they in people’s lives.

Powwow, an informational book with photographic illustrations, describes the symbolic dances performed by members of various Indian tribes and nations that take part in the country’s largest powwow, held annually in Montana. This book examines the artistry displayed in both the dances and the traditional dress for this occasion. The cultural beliefs and family participation involved in these dances may help young readers to connect with this experience.


Group Rule

This category of shared cultural experiences is extended here to include the systems of beliefs, knowledge, values, and traditions that help shape different cultural vantage points. The social rules and values that add structure to daily life in every society appear in various forms of literature, such as folktales, fables, and hero legends.

Ann Morris is known for books that examine a common concept or activity across cultures. In her books Work and Play, both concepts that have tacit and written rules, the author uses simple text to describe variations in work and play among people engaged in activities that are common to all. The book includes global perspectives as well as diversity within the United States.

The concept of working together is explored in Building a Bridge, in which two kindergartners—a Navajo and an Anglo—discover that collaboration in building blocks allows them to create not only a better bridge but a friendship. Because this story takes place at a reservation school, the Anglo child is the one who is “different” and must build bridges between her home and school life.

In A Boy Called Slow, Joseph Bruchac tells the legend surrounding the childhood of Sitting Bull. As this great Lakota hero makes the traditional journey from adolescence to maturity, he learns that in order to outgrow his childhood name, he must earn his new name according to the customs of the tribe.

American Indian folktales also hold insights into the value systems and rules by which people are taught to live. In The Eagle’s Gift a young man follows the instructions given him by the eagle and brings the gifts of joy and festivity to his people. Another folktale character, Eagle Boy, also learns to follow rules and as a result brings the traditional Navajo healing ceremony to his people.

The rules of war are often unfair and affect those least deserving of them. So Far From the Sea by Eve Bunting tells the tender story of Japanese American family members visiting their grandfather’s grave at Manzanar. The father tells his boyhood memories of leaving home and living within the confines of this Japanese internment camp during World War II. The story does not place blame, but brings to life people with the ordinary desire to be treated as equal citizens—people with whom young readers should easily be able to connect.


Social Organization

The social structure with which children are most familiar is that of the family. Later, their understanding of social connections expands to include school, community, region, country, and ultimately, the world.

Ma Dear’s Aprons by Patricia McKissack tells the story of a young boy whose father has died. Using his mother’s varied aprons to represent different days, he describes the activities each day holds. As children relate to the loving relationship between the boy and his mother and the symbolic nature of the aprons, they are also made aware of the social structure of an era through this family’s interactions with Anglo people.

White Socks Only explores a different aspect of social organization. At a time when racism kept African Americans from even drinking out of the same water fountains as whites, we meet a little girl who misinterprets the sign “Whites Only.” Young children can relate to this spirited, unassuming child whose venture alone into town results in her naively challenging the social structure.

Bonesy and Isabel by Michael J. Rosen is a moving story about a young South American girl who is adopted by a family in the United States. Integral to this family’s structure are the pets they have also adopted, which provide friendship for Isabel as she struggles to learn a new language and find her place in her new family. Many connections are forged as issues of adoption, caring for animals, death, and immigration to a new country are woven together throughout the book.

Abuelita’s Heart by Amy Cordova describes the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter as they explore the natural environment of the Southwest in a story that underlines the value of family history. Young readers should also be able to identify with Will in Less Than Half, More Than Whole as he tries to understand the meaning of this phrase used by a friend to describe Wil#146;s mixed heritage. A loving grandfather helps give Will insight into both his own individuality and the value of diversity within their family.


Basic Needs

Food, clothing, housing, and other necessities of life are represented within this cultural commonality.

Salmon Summer by Bruce McMillan describes the adventures of a nine-year-old Aleut boy as he helps his father catch salmon. This book should provide young readers with insights into both the life-style of these Alaska natives and their own roles as helpers within the family. Apache Rodeo by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith and Lawrence Migdale introduces children to the many artistic aspects of Apache culture demonstrated in the events leading up to a rodeo.

Many multiethnic books are cross-cultural in that they include more than one culture within the focus of their story. Mama Provi and the Pot of Rice by Sylvia Rosa-Casanova tells the story of a young girl who lives on the eighth floor of an apartment building where her grandmother lives on the first floor. When the girl catches chicken pox, Grandmother carries a pot of chicken soup upstairs. On each floor, she meets a neighbor who trades some ethnic treat for a bowl of chicken and rice. By the time Grandmother gets to the eighth floor, she is carrying quite a multicultural meal, and young readers have met quite a diverse group of people residing in this New York City neighborhood.



While language and culture are inseparable, people may experience language in different ways across cultures. In Tomás and the Library Lady, the protagonist is the renowned educator Tomás Rivera, who discovered the imaginative power of books as a child. Children reading about Tomás’s delight in the source of the stories he found at the library may connect it to their own experience of reading and the people who invited them into the world of books.

In Gathering the Sun, a beautiful tribute to the Spanish language and to farm workers, Alma Flor Ada uses both English and Spanish poetry to present the letters of the alphabet. Illustrations and text provide sensitive descriptions and share the beauty of two languages.

In the Park provides an interactive encounter for readers as Xiao Ming experiences a typical spring day at the park. Observing the many pleasant aspects of nature as well as other people in the park, Xiao learns how to draw Chinese characters that closely resemble the different aspects of nature he is observing. Young readers may recognize the logic behind the formation of characters when given the opportunity to try their own skill at recreating these artistic letters.



When young readers see their own culture recreated in literature, they learn that their culture is valued. To see one’s life experiences represented in books is empowering, and constitutes a first step toward developing a sense of the universality of human experience. Young readers, whether they are of the particular culture described in a book, can make connections with its characters through shared experiences. Furthermore, they may gain “an emotional stake in understanding how and why people live as they do.”7 The use of multicultural literature as an integral component of social study can help young people develop new perspectives by celebrating similarities as well as by respecting differences. As citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world, young readers of authentic multicultural books will probably develop the ability to make informed and reasonable decisions for the public good.



1. Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1996).

2. James A. Banks, An Introduction to Multicultural Education (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1994).

3. Rudine Sims Bishop, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Perspectives 6 (1990): 9-12.

4. Carol Seefeldt, Social Studies for the Pre-school-Primary Child (New York: Macmillan, 1993).

5. H. Hernandez, Multicultural Education: A Teacher’s Guide to Content and Process (Columbus: Merrill, 1990).

6. Seefeldt.

7. Charles Temple, Miriam Martinez, Junko Yokota, and Alice Naylor, Children’s Books in Children’s Hands (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998).

Children’s Books

Ada, Alma Flor. Illustrated by Simon Silva. Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet in Spanish and English. New York: Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1997.

Ancona, George. Fiesta Fireworks. New York: Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1998.

Begaye, Lisa Shook, and Libba Tracy. Building a Bridge.

Bruchac, Joseph. Illustrated by Rocco Baviera. A Boy Called Slow: The True Story of Sitting Bull. New York: Putnam, 1998.

Bunting, Eve. Illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet. So Far From the Sea. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.

Coleman, Evelyn. Illustrated by Tyrone Geter. White Socks Only. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Co., 1996.

Cordova, Amy. Abuelita’s Heart. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Curtis, Gavin. Illustrated by E. B. Lewis. The Bat Boy & His Violin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

England, Lina. Illustrated by Teresa Flavin. The Old Cotton Blues. New York: Margaret K. McEldery, 1998.

Hausman, Gerald. Illustrated by Barry Moser and Cara Moser. Eagle Boy. New York: Harpercollins Juvenile Books, 1996.

Hoyt-Goldmith, Diane. Photographs by Lawrence Migdale. Apache Rodeo. Holiday House, 1995.

Lacapa, Kathleen and Michael. Illustrated by Michael Lacapa. Less than Half, More than Whole. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing Co., 1994.

Lee, Huy Voun. In the Park. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1998.

McKissack, Patricia C. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Ma Dear’s Aprons. New York: Atheneum, 1997.

McMillan, Bruce. Salmon Summer. Boston: Walter Lorraine, 1998.

Martin, Rafe. Illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi. The Eagle’s Gift. New York: Putnam, 1997.

Mora, Pat. Illustrated by Raul Colon. Tomás and the Library Lady. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Morris, Ann. Illustrated by Ken Heyman. Work. New York: Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1998.

Morris, Ann. Illustrated by Ken Heyman. Play. New York: Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1998.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Alvin Ailey. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1993.

Rosa-Casanova, Sylvia. Illustrated by Robert Roth. Mama Provi and the Pot of Rice. New York: Atheneum, 1997.

Rosen, Michael J. Illustrated by James Ransome. Bonesy and Isabel. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.


About the Author

Janelle B. Mathis is Assistant Professor of Teacher Education and Administration at the University of North Texas, Denton, Texas.