Multicultural literature

Topic/Subject area: The Process of Reading

Author: Marianne Ruud, Lektor, Nannestad videregående skole

Multicultural literature

This article will provide some background information about the role of multicultural literature as a learning device for young people to better understand our multicultural society. Mention is made of the PISA results for minority speaking students. This article will also look further into how to implement multicultural literature in the classroom relying upon social issues as a starting point for selecting multicultural literature. Tips will be given as to how to get started in the classroom by making it multicultural and some guidance in choosing books that young adults are interested in.   


Baldwin, Bean and Readence, (2001) state that multicultural literature provides a portrait of people's experiences from a bicultural perspective. This literature deals with minority groups within a culture who fall outside the mainstream culture in a society. When multicultural literature is presented in a culturally and authentic manner, students can identify themselves with these books they read and relate to the characters' experiences. Nieto (2000) is of the opinion that in order to effectively use multicultural literature in the classroom, teachers must become multicultural themselves. Social issues are a good starting point for selecting multicultural literature. Good multicultural literature gives an honest and accurate description of the human condition experienced by people from these various cultures.

There is, however, a third culture developing in our society. This third culture is made up of one's ancestors mixed with the culture in which he or she lives. This third culture does not share a common culture. Our society is in the process of becoming a generation belonging to Generation E.A. - Ethnically Ambiguous. Our future may be a "post-ethnic world in which culture is a matter of personal definition and choice, rather than something one is born into." (Heian, Sjøvoll 2007)

There is also a growing number of subcultures in our society. According to Gelder (2007) subcultures are characterized by having their own unique practices, values and rituals. They have a negative view towards work, place no importance on class, have their own territory (the hood, the street, clubs), they have their own groups removed from their home situation, they refuse to live the common and everyday life and they tend to overdramatize their lifestyle by exaggeration. Many of the qualities of a subculture can be characterized by language, sexual preferences, gender, religion, geographical location, politics and a sense of belonging. Western subcultures have seen groups like the hippies, punks, goths, and skinheads to name a few, however, today there is a growing number of subcultures online due to the development of the internet and the worldwide web. These online communities offer a whole new challenge to our society and to our educational institutions. All of this and the above should be taken into consideration when working with multicultural literature.

The OECD project, PISA, Program for International Student Assessment concluded with the following results for minority speaking students, as summarized in Hvistendahl and Roe (2003), that students from homes with two foreign born parents show capabilities in mathemtatics, science and reading to be at a level lower than their corresponding peers. Although students born in Norway with two foreign born parents showed siginificantly better results in math than their foreign born counterparts, there were no major differences shown in capability for reading and science. Students with two foreign born parents have a lower socioeconomical status than their peers. Parents' education and job background correspond greatly with results showed in reading and science. This difference became even greater compared with the minority speaking groups mentioned earlier 1

Nieto (2000) points out that learning is built upon experience and that experience is something we all possess. However, she emphasizes that this element is often ignored when it comes to young people, especially young people who do not have the kinds of experiences needed to prepare them for academic success. Teachers must be willing to build upon students' experiences, no matter where they are in the sequence of events. Nieto continues by saying that culture is complex and cannot be reduced to holidays, foods and events.

Everyone has a culture because all people participate in the world through social and political  relationships informed by history as well as by race, ethnicity, language, social class, sexual  orientation,  gender and other circumstances related to identity and experience. (p. 48)

Nieto is telling teachers that they cannot change students' failure to excel academically before they  implement appropriate social and instuctional interventions. Teachers need to acknowledge students' differences and then teachers act as a "bridge" (p. 55) between their students' differences and the culture that dominates them in society. Florio-Ruane (2000) makes three points about culture:

First, like other big ideas, culture resists easy definition; second, despite its complexity, it is worth our  effort as literacy educators and researchers to struggle with the idea of culture; and third, understanding  culture involves not only reason, but also creativity. (p. 14)

Introducing young people to multicultural literature and in turn implementing it actively into the teaching taking place in the classroom contributes to students' ability to develop social skills, be more socially aware and socially competent.

Moje, Overby, Tysvær and Morris (Spring 2008) have written an article describing how young adults read texts "embedded in social networks allowing them to build social capital";. Wolk (2009) has written an article suggesting books that young people can read to teach them social responsibility. Enlightment on this topic will be given more consideration later in this paper.

Make the Classroom Multicultural

Before introducing multicultural literature to students and using it in the classroom, the classroom itself needs to be multicultural. In addition, teachers need to be more multicultural. If a teacher is going to have his or her students read multicultural literature then she or he must be willing to read it and take time to do so before introducing it to students. Here are some suggestions for multicultural activities to motivate students and teachers in a content classroom to particpate in a multicultural way of thinking. (Baldwin et. al, 2000)

Name Sharing
One of  these activities is called Name Sharing.  Everyone's last name has some special story to tell. Last names offer a look into history and the unique cultures that exist. A last name can also offer insight into how a culture develops and changes. A student pairs up with another student in the classroom and tells about his or her name. The other student does the same and then all the students gather together to share with the whole group. This simple activity of pairing and sharing and then discussing with the whole class helps create a sense of a multicultural community in the classroom as well as focusing on the important element of language, an individual's name. I have personally tried this activity, however not with names, rather with articifacts. Each of my students brings an artifact to class during the beginning of the school year and we sit around in a big circle. They show their artifact and then tell a story about it. They choose the story they want to tell and how they wish to involve the artifact's significance. This has proved to be very successful with my students. The artifact has functioned as a shield for them. It comes between them and the rest of the class. As a result, my students do not feel so vulnerable when telling their stories as the artifact becomes the object of concentration and focus, rather than them. The articfact has shown to carry with it personal and emotional qualities as it is connected to the student's cultural and social background. We have experienced a real sharing and understanding of each other's worlds.

Extension Activity
The Name Sharing activity can be extended to include an activity where students pair up with another class member and use the survey questions to follow an interview this person has about his or her ethnic and cultural background, as well as values they hold. (Kinney, 1993 in Baldwin

  1. Where did your ancestors come from? Country, region, city?
  2. Why did they come to this country (this region and community)?
  3. Where does most of your cultural community live?
  4. What are the more popular jobs for your cultural community?
  5. What are the popular unique terms and gestures used by the community?
  6. Do families stay close geographically as they grow up?
  7. Do multiple generations live in the same household?
  8. Who are the decision makers in the family?
  9. How does the decision making process happen?
  10. How are elders treated in the family and community?
  11. How is respect shown?
  12. Do family members have certain cultural names? What are the popular names? 
  13. Who are married children influenced by the most in their decision making?
    ______Children ______Grandparents  ______Cultural Leaders
    ______Parents ______Nieces/nephews ______Spriritual Leaders
    ______Siblings ______Neighbors  ______Other
  14. What are some special values and beliefs your culture upholds?
  15. Is your community focused more on the individual or the group? Please state examples.
  16. What are some ways a teacher can act that are culturally appropriate in your community?

Successful Activities I Have Done In My Classrooms

In my International English class at Nannestad vgs my students and I have been involved in several activities connected to multicultural societies that have proved to be successful. We read the book Persepolis (Satrapi, 2005). This was popular with the class as the book is in a comic book form (a graphic novel). Comic books are extremely popular with young people. During week 45 (Aftenposten, Friday 21st Nov. 2008) stated that a comic book, Pondus , topped the list for fiction.

We also watched the movie version of the book, Kite Runner 3, with the same name, written by Khaled Hosseini. Some students, at their own choosing, read the book which is about the coming of age of a young boy, Amir, who moves to the USA from Afghanistan and his relationship with his childhood friend, Hassan. Another great book by this same author is called A Thousand Splendid Suns 4 which is about women's suffering in Afghanistan. Students became fascinated with many aspects of Islam. Debates and discussions arose in class surrounding social issues connected to Islam. At this time there was also much debate surrounding Muslim women's use of the veil (hijab among other names given for it).

Dramatization of literature
Dramatization of literature, especially literature which is difficult to read, is a wonderful way to help students better understand and comprehend what they are reading. Reading aloud is a great way to motivate students to want to read further in a book. These two strategies have proved to be very successful in my classrooms. One of my classes dramatized forbidden love, using Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet 5 and applying the theme from his play into the cultural settings of couples torn apart because of hatred and prejudice. The students also viewed the movie, Romeo and Juliet 6 starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes for a better understanding of Shakespeare's work. One group chose to portray a boy and girl from the Gaza Strip. They studied clothing, behavior, listened to the accents used on the English language spoken by the Israeli and Palestinian people from this area and held a play with costumes and props for the rest of the class. They emulated the accent used on the English these people speak and lived themselves in the roles and behavior of these people. Some of the students even wore some of the attire they were using in their roleplay during the day. The props became a part of them and they not only lived themselves into their roles on stage, but also offstage.

Hands On English in a Multicultural Setting 
Another activity in my International English class involved having my students in the school kitchen after we culminated our lessons on multicultural societies. The students were put into small groups and were given the liberty to choose a cuisine from one of the societies we had studied. and choice of themes. They prepared various dishes to represent the cultures focused upon. We posted pictures and texts on the homepage for our school.

This project in the kitchen was taken to the next level with students from the class who wished to pursue this style of learning. These were students who had a need for hands on learning. They expanded the project to include cuisine, what the word itself means and connecting people from other countries through food. They called themselves "Gutta på kjøkkenetBoys in the Kitchen. You may read about both of these projects from the homepage of Nannestad vgs. I have included a link here directly to one of the projects and if you scroll down to the end of the article, you will find the related link to the project including the whole class.

Another project which was very successful in the International English class was based on the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer 7. These books fascinate young people. A group of girls in the class have been involved in reading all four books  One of the girls had read all four books twice! They put together a written and oral presentation of the author, her upbringing as a Mormon, looking into the Mormon religion and how this has influenced her writing. They have also studied the subculture of people who suffer the disease, pyphoria, which forces these people to live their daily lives much like a vampire does. They introduced the theme of forbidden and impossible love. They have also connected the movie, Twilight 8, to the books and studied the similiarities and differences between them. Much of their work covers the requirements for the competence goals mentioned in the K06 curriculum.

Sustained Silent Reading
This is a great tool to use in the classroom, whether it is working with multicultural literature or any aspect involving the reading of texts. Chinua Achebe is considered to be one of the most influential African intellectuals of the 20th century (Winkler, 1994 in Balwin He is by many viewed as the father of the African novel in English. When he was headmaster of his secondary school in Nigeria, he had one rule after class, three to four days a week, that students closed their textbooks and read novels, poetry, or any other type of texts for pleasure. Sustained Silent Reading – SSR (Nagy, Campenni, & Shaw, 2000 in Baldwin is a program a teacher establishes for regular reading times for students. The purpose for SSR is provide students with the opportunity to practice reading skills using contented related texts that they enjoy reading. SSR also provides students with time for reading. There are two separate phases in SSR: Instructional readiness and the reading activity itself. In instructional readiness the teacher explains to the students what SSR is and why the class will be carrying this out. During the reading activity itself, everyone must read, including the teacher. SSR should not be interrupted by questions and talking. The SSR period should be begin from the start of the school year to establish good reading habits. There are time limits of not more than 15 to 20 minutes each time.

How to Choose and Where to Look for Young Adult Multicultural Literature for the Classroom

As was noted earlier, the choice of multicultural literature can have its departure point in the social issues being studied and discussed in class. Social issues can arise from many sources such as science related topics, social studies related topics, perhaps some aspect of art and music. The list is long and the possibilities for themes are endless. There are many good articles included on the International Reading Association's website about multicultural literature. In fact this website is rich in information and guidance for teachers using young adult literature in the classroom. Visit and search for example, multicultural literature. Numerous articles written by various experts in this field as well as other fields within literacy are mentioned. One important element to keep in mind in choosing material is to find authors and works that are accurate and authentic descriptions of the cultures being portrayed.

The Alan Review
The Alan Review
 is a journal published by The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English. This journal is totally devoted to the field of literature for adolescents. In their Summer 2006 edition, numerous articles are included, rich in content about multicultural literature. I have included a link here to this edition.

Kaywell (2006) presents the theme "Growing Up Female Around the Globe with Young Adult Literature". Here are some great young adult books to read in this area:

  • The Red Moon by Kuwana Haulsey is about a young girl, Nasarin, who is an outcast from her tribe in Kenya. She is an outcast because she is getting educated and refuses to be circumsised for marriage. The novel starts out in Harlem with flashbacks to Africa.
  • Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn is a novel about domestic violence as seen through the character of a 16 year old boy named Nick.
  • The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis is a novel taking place in the early years of the Taliban regime concentrating on the harshness girls and women face living in modern-day Afghanistan.
  • Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta is an autobiography about a Nigerian woman trying to overcome tribal domination.
  • Journey for the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran by Roya Hakakian is about a young Jewish girl growing up in Iran during the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
  • Haveli by Suzanne Fisher Staples is a sequel to the book, Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind about Sanbanu who is like a caged bird due to the bonds of custom.
  • My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban by Latifa takes place during 1989 when civil war broke out between different ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
  • Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata is about a Japanese-American family after World War II and their struggle to improve their way of life.
  • Esparanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is about Esparanza and her mother who are forced to leave their comfortable life in Mexico and end up living in poor conditions in a Mexican work camp outside Los Angeles.
  • The Diary of Ma Yan: The Struggles and Hopes of a Chinese Schoolgirl by Ma Yan is about a girl from a rural area of northwest China who sees education as her only means of escaping a life of poverty.
  • It Happened to Nancy by Beatrice Sparks is about a girl who dies from AIDS after being date raped.
  • Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman is a book about Sarah Erdman's experiences during the two years she lived in the northern Ivory Coast village of Nambonkaha.
  • Chanda's Secrets by Allan Stratton is about a girl forced to grow up before her time due to a mother who neglects her and her siblings, leaving Chanda to take care of herself and them. It is also a story about AIDS as Chanda's mother becomes infected and has possibly infected her.
  • Upstream by Melissa Lion is about Martha growing up in rural Alaska who suffers from depression because of the death of her boyfriend, Steven.
  • Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta is a book about an Australian born girl named Francesca and her battle with teenage anxiety.
  • Things Left Unsaid : A Novel in Poems by Stephanie Hemphill is a book about defiance, rebellion and a look at self-identity.
  • Shizuko's Daughter by Kyoko Mori is about a girl who must deal with her mother's suicide, her father's new wife and herself.
  • Tangled Threads by Pegi Deitz Shea is about Mai Yang and the years she spent in a refugee camp in Thailand fleeing Laos from the yellow rain. She is relocated to the United States and her story continues there.
  • A Stone in My Hand by Cathryn Clinton is about a Palestinian girl and her family living under Israeli military occupation.
  • A Sky So Close by Betool Khedairi is a novel in first person narrative about a girl caught up between two cultures in conflict, East and West.
  • Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen is a story about Gabriela Flores who loves to climb trees to enjoy the splendour of nature. However, one day she witnesses the slaughter of her teachers, classmates and nearly all of the inhabitants in her Mayan village by American-trained guerillas.
  • Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye is about Liyana, an Arab-American girl who moves from St. Louis to Jerusalem. Her daily life is burdened with the fighting between the Palestinians and the Jews. Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples is about young Najmah and her struggle to survive in war-torn Afghanistan after the Taliban take his brother and father away to fight in the war. She witnesses something so tragic that she is not able to speak.

Hauschildt (2006) suggests using young adult literature to help young people deal with the issue of terrorism. She points out that the teacher can decide whether or not to cover international and national issues, or to concentrate on the individual's personal emotions and fears, or perhaps a combination of both. She chose three works by Caroline Cooney 9 to cover the various aspects of terrorism affecting a whole world and at the same time making its impact on an individual level.

  • Flight #116 is down! by Caroline Cooney allows readers to experience being an airline victim
  • Code Orange by Caroline Cooney is about bioterrorism
  • The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney goes into the mind of the protagonist to give readers a better idea as to the inner thoughts of a terrorist.

Hauschildt concludes by saying, 

The ultimate hope for engaging young adults with literature that intersects with the world around us is the  replacement of fear, ignorance and inaction with knowledge, a developing understanding and proactive steps toward making our world more habitable, whether on an individual or an international scale. (p. 25)

Judy Kilburn McDonald is a librarian at Waynesboro Elementary School in Waynesboro, Tennessee. Even though her bibliography on multicultural literature is from 1996, it is still a good list of books to refer to for selecting material for your classroom. Some of the books cater to a younger audience, but the books listed here are worth reading and within a reading level that most teenagers will find friendly and motivating. This is a link to her site.

I hope that this article has helped you to better understand how to use multicultural literature in the classroom. As I have pointed out, it is not only searching lists for good books, purchasing them for your class and letting students read them; it is also about creating a multicultural environment in your classroom, preparing students for reading multicultural literature, and through the use of multicultural literature, taking them into a world of understanding and compassion for not only their own cultural experience, but the cultural experiences of others, especially other young adults like them. If you have any questions or need any further help in finding material, please do not hesitate to contact me at my private email address, as this is always an address I use no matter where I work. Good luck with your future endeavors!

References used for this article

Baldwin, R. Scott, Bean, Thomas W., & Readence, John E. (2000). Content Area Literacy, An Integrated Approach, (7th ed.). Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Florio-Ruane, S. (2000). Culture in Literacy Education: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In National Reading Conference Yearbook, 49 (pp. 12-30). Chicago: National Reading Conference, Inc.

Gelder, Ken. (2007). Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. Routledge.

Hauschildt, P.M. (Summer 2006). Worlds of Terrorism: Learning through Young Adult Literature. In The ALAN Review 33.3 (pp. 18-25). Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.

Heian, B. & Sjøvoll, R.H. (2007). Multicultural Societies. In International Focus. Oslo: Gyldendal Forlag AS (p. 83).

Hvistendal, R. & Roe, A. (2003). In Aasen, Joar; Engen, Thor Ola & Nes, Kari (Eds.) Ved nåløyet.Rapport fra konferansen «Hvordan klarer minoritetselevene seg i skolen?» 14 (pp. 165-182). Høgskolen i Hedmark.

Kaywell, J.F., Kelly P.P., Edge C., McCoy L. & Steinberg, N. (2006). Growing Up Female Around the Globe with Young Adult Literature. In The ALAN Review 33.3 (pp. 60-69). Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.

Korsvold, K. (2008). Pondus selger mer enn romaner. Aftenposten, (Kultur, Friday, 21st Nov. 2008)
pp. 6-7.

Landt, Susan M. (May 2006). Multicultural Litrature and Young Adolescents: A Kaleidoscope of Opportunity. In Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(8). pp. 690-697.

McDonald, J. (Spring 1996). A Multicultural Bibliography. The Alan Review, Vol.23, no.3.  (Tempe AZ: Arizona State University) [on-line] 31. May 2009.

Nieto, S. (2000). Language, Literacy and Culture: Intersections and Implications. In National Reading Conference Yearbook, 49 (pp. 41-60). Chicago: National Reading Conference, Inc.

Moje, E.B., Overby M., Tysvær, N. & Morris, K. (Spring 2008). THE COMPLEX WORLD OF ADOLESCENT LITERACY: Myths, Motivations and Mysteries. In Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 78, No. 1. Cambridge: Harvard Education Publishing Group. (pp.107-154).

Satrapi, M. (2005). Persepolis. No Comprendo Press.

Wolk, S. (May, 2009). Reading for a Better World: Teaching for Social Responsibility With Young Adult Literature. In Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 52(8). (pp. 664-673) IRA: International Reading Association.


1 It is worthy to note that the new PISA survey 2009 carried out in the months March to May may show varying results. The PISA  2009 National Report will be available in December of 2010.

2 Pondus is a comic book series written by Frode Øverli

3 Hosseini, K. (2003). Kite Runner. Riverhead Books.

4 Hosseini, K. (2007). A Thousand Splendid Suns. Riverhead Books.

5 Shakespeare, W. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (about 1595) Copyright 1974. In Evans, G. Blakemore (Ed.), The Riverside SHAKESPEARE (pp. 1055-1099). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

6 William Shakersperare's Romeo og Julie [Video] (1996). Kommunenes Filmsentral

7 The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer consists of 4 books: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn. Publisher is Little,    Brown and Company.

8 Twilight Evighetens kyss [Video] (29 April 2009). Nordisk Film Distribusjon.

9 Cooney, C. (2005) Code Orange. New York: Delacorte Press.
   Cooney, C. (1997) The Terrorist. New York: Scholastic Inc.
   Cooney, C. (1992) Flight #116 is down! New York: Scholastic Inc


Publisert 15. juni 2020 12:52 - Sist endret 15. juni 2020 12:52