At Home with Multicultural Adolescent Literature
For teachers living in urban areas or the border states, multiculturalism is no longer an issue for debate or discussion. Multiculturalism is now an always exciting, sometimes challenging, everyday fact of life. For example, over 80% of the students in the Los Angeles public schools are ethnically diverse students, and it is not uncommon to find speakers of some five or six different first languages in a single classroom. Although access to multicultural literature is essential for these students, it is important to realize that such literature is hardly for them alone.
On a recent visit to my hometown in rural Iowa, I was surprised (and pleased)to find an editorial in the newspaper called " `Us,' `them,' `we' and ESL cutting." It seems that about 20% of this small town's population speak Spanish or Vietnamese as a first language. Yes, the world is shrinking and the global family of the future has arrived -- and if not in your neck of the woods quite yet, then soon.
One positive and powerful way to encourage understanding among various cultural groups, no matter who or where, is through the reading of good multicultural adolescent literature. Such young adult books are generally accessible and enjoyable; furthermore, teens and pre-teens of all cultures readily recognize the similarities of their experiences in regard to friendship, love, and family relationships. They will also note their commonalities concerning issues like identity, responsibility, and preparing for the future.
Homes are an important part of the lives shared by adolescents of all cultures,whether they embrace that home or reject it or feel about it some emotion between these extremes. Promoting the reading of books that look at homes in the lives of teenagers from many cultures can, therefore, be an important beginning in the exploration by young adult readers of what they have in common and how they differ. Teachers can further encourage cross-cultural understanding through a variety of activities that help students examine the connections between the roles that home play in their own lives and the lives of the characters they read about. And so I offer the following list of young adult literature that features homes in an important role, along with some suggestions for classroom activities.
Recommended Multicultural Adolescent Literature
Featuring Memorable Homes
HA: Hispanic American
AfA: African American
AsA: Asian American
NA: Native American
E: Easy reading, usually best for middle-school students
M: Moderate difficulty, middle- or high-school students
C: More challenging reading, usually for older or more mature students
Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents . Plume, 1991.304 pp., HA / C.
Four sisters adjust to their Dominican-New York City move over almost 30 years.Their stories unfold with realism and zest.
Block, Francesca Lia. Witch Baby . Harper Collins, 1991. 103 pp., O / E.
It began with Weetzie Bat ; her most recent is Angel Juan . These books feature a truly multiethnic cast of characters based in a punk,fairy-tale Los Angeles. Be sure to read these before you recommend them; your professional judgment is essential!
Burgess, Barbara Hood. Oren Bell . Delacorte, 1991. 182 pp., AfA / M.
Humor blends with urban life in this Detroit-based murder mystery.
Crew, Linda. Children of the River . Delacorte, 1989. 213 pp., AsA /M.
Cambodian Sundara adjusts to life with her aunt and uncle in Oregon. This powerful immigrant story also focuses on generational conflict.
Dorris, Michael. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water . Warner Books, 1987. 372pp., NA / C.
Three female generations' perspectives reveal secrets, love, folly. Read it for yourself, even if you won't be able to recommend it to your middle-school students.
Gallo, Donald R., Ed. Join In: Multiethnic Short Stories by Outstanding writers for Young Adults . Delacorte, 1994. 258 pp., O / M.
Gallo has gathered another winning collection of short fiction. For those who haven't ventured into multicultural literature, an excellent place to begin is with such a collection.
Hobbs, Will. Bear stone . Atheneum/Avon, 1989. 154 pp., NA / M.
Cloyd finds a home in the mountains away from his reservation home. Look also for the sequel, Bear Dance .
Hodge, Merle. For the Life of Laetitia . Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1993. 214 pp., AfA / E.
Laetitia leaves her beloved home and grandmother in the rural Caribbean to live with her father in the city so that she might further her education. How wise is her choice?
Johnson, Angela. Toning the Sweep . Scholastic, 1993. 103 pp., AfA /E-M.
Emily travels to the California desert to visit her grandmother; Emily'smother was never able to accept the desert as her home, and Emily learns much about her mother and herself during the time she spends there.
Meyer, Caroline. White Lilacs . Harcourt Brace - Gulliver, 1993. 242pp., AfA / M.
This fascinating work of historical fiction is set in 1920s Texas and based on fact.
Meyer, Caroline. Rio Grande Stories . Harcourt Brace - Gulliver, 1994.257 pp., HA, O/M.
Each story features a different student, paired with that student's writing fora class project. A unique and appealing approach.
Mori, Kyoko. Shizuko's Daughter . Fawcett Juniper, 1993. 214 pp., AsA/ M.
Japanese Shizuko learns to cope with her mother's suicide and her father's remarriage. The tone is lyrical and somber, but there's some hope in the final pages.
Myers, Walter Dean. Somewhere in the Darkness . Scholastic, 1992. 168pp., AfA / M.
Myers tells a compelling story of a reunited father and son.
Paulsen, Gary. The Crossing . Dell, 1987. 114 pp., HA / M.
The streets of Juarez are Manny's home. This is one of Paulsen's most poignant novels, I think.
Rana, Indi. The Roller Birds of Rampur . Fawcett Juniper, 1993. 312 pp.,O / C.
Sheila's two homes, in London and in India, represent two sides of her identity; like many immigrants in the U. S. or other countries, she struggles to merge these parts into a coherent whole. Some of the grandfather's speeches are long-winded and didactic, but the scenes and action in India are vivid and compelling.
Sasaki, R. A. The Loom and Other Stories . Graywolf, 1991. 112 pp. AsA/M-C .
These nine beautifully told stories feature members of a Japanese-American family.
Seabrooke, Brenda. The Bridges of Summer . Dutton - Cobblehill, 1992.143 pp., AfA / M.
It's a culture shock for Sarah Jane to leave New York City to live with her Gullah grandmother on a small island off the coast of South Carolina. How will she cope?
Soto, Gary. Local News: A Collection of Stories . Scholastic, 1993. 148pp., HA/E.
Soto gives us another wonderful set of stories about growing up in California.See also Soto's Baseball in April and Other Stories .
Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind . Alfred A.Knopf - Borzoi Sprinters, 1989. 240 pp., O / C.
Pakistani customs require Shabanu to make difficult decisions. The exotic scenes of nomad life are quite remarkable. Haveli , the sequel, is also a wonderful book.
Taylor, Mildred D. Let the Circle Be Unbroken . Puffin Books, 1981. 394pp., AfA / M-C.
The middle book of the three books about Cassie Logan and her family, this story depicts the power of home and family to sustain a person through difficult times.
Taylor, Theodore. Timothy of the Cay . Harcourt Brace, 1993. AfA / E.
Readers learn about Timothy's upbringing in the Caribbean -- and more.
Thomas, Joyce Carol, Ed. A Gathering of Flowers: Stories About Being Young in America . Harper Collins, 1990. 232 pp., O / M.
A marvelous collection described by its title, with works by Soto, Haslam,Lowry, Thomas, and others.
Wolfe, Virginia Euwer. Make Lemonade . Scholastic, 1993. 200 pp., O /M.
Fourteen-year-old LaVaughn takes a job as a babysitter for Jolly's two children. Portrayals of both homes are vivid; this marvelous and unique book could be described as stream-of-consciousness in poetic blank verse.
Yep, Lawrence. The Star Fisher . Morrow Junior Books, 1991. 147 pp.,AsA / E.
Based on Yep's experiences as a child, the story is set in the 1920s in West Virginia.
Suggested Activities for Exploring the Role of Home in YA (and Other)Literature
1. Brainstorm phrases, sayings, and titles including the word "home"(over a few days or in groups would work well). Then share these and discuss what "home" symbolizes or reflects. (One group came up with "homesick,""homemade," "homeless," "homework," "Home is where the heart is,""homeboy/homie," "It hits home," "Make yourself at home," "Homeclub," and Home Alone .)
2. Have the class list a number of television programs, movies, or literature in which home plays a central role. As a whole class cluster ideas for one title from the list, perhaps addressing people, places, feelings, things, and activities. Then groups of students can cluster other titles and discuss how authors and producers use homes in their works. Students may also look for accuracy, stereotypes, and realism in these depictions.
3. Read several descriptions of homes taken from literature and attempt to predict what the characters who live there will be like. What do they look like, and what do they do? What are their values and their dreams? I have used "Waiting Between the Trees" from Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club , "The house on Mango Street" from Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street , and excerpts like the ones below.
Sundara marveled as she parked the station wagon in front of Jonathan's huge white house. So big for only three people! Why did the Americans want all this space around them? Didn't they like to be close with their families? The yard was impressive, too, with these venerable old trees. She couldn't help comparing them to the pathetic twigs in her own yard. The McKinnons' home had a look of permanence, as if the people inside had never lived anywhere else but right here....
That was the look of their whole house, Sundara decided. Fine quality worn to a comfortable familiarity. ... Off to the left of the entryway she could see the living room with its velvety, russet-toned furniture. And their plush carpeting-- no plastic runners! You were free to walk right on it, let your tennis shoes sink deep into its softness. To the right, in the dining room, she was drawn toward a chandelier hung with bits of flashing glass that caught and scattered the morning sunlight into rainbows on the page gold wallpaper.
It's almost a palace , she thought.
( Children of the River , pp. 92-95.)
Finally, towering alone and beacon like, the old oak which marked the boundary of our four hundred acres came into view. On the right side of the road the forest continued. On the left it ended, leaving in its stead the massive oakand the open richness of red Mississippi farmland.
Beyond the oak lay the east pasture, and beyond it the cotton field, left dead-looking by the August fire which had started there and swept across the rows of green and purple stalks, taking fine puffs of cotton ready for picking and bolls of flowered richness still blooming. The fire had destroyed a quarter of the year's crop and damaged much of the rest with its smoke and heat. The pasture, which before the fire had boasted a soft greenness, was scorched brown, and the oak had been singed by the heat of the fire, a fire Papa himself had started to stop the lynching of T.J. But no one except the family and Mr.Wade Jamison knew Papa had set the fire; it was too dangerous for anyone else to know....
Going up the drive, we followed the path of giant rocks leading to the back porch and entered the house through the kitchen. There we found Big Ma at her usual place by the cast-iron stove stirring a pot smelling strongly of collard greens.
( Let the Circle Be Unbroken , pp. 28-29)
4. Use a jigsaw approach with collections of short stories or full length works. Home groups -- so to speak -- read and discuss a single story or novel.Later, mixed groups share and compare the different selections read.
5. Students might research and report on related issues: the homeless, the homebound, old folks' homes, latchkey children who are home alone, shelters or homes for battered women, etc. There are always opportunities for involvement if you and your students are so inclined: collecting cans of food for a food pantry, visiting the elderly, etc.
6. Ask students to draw side-view models of their ideal homes (perhaps after seeing Matt Groening's "Bongo's Dream House" or even Barbie's Dream House).This is a chance to be totally creative; realities of finances don't apply, but what you care about does! A written description could accompany the drawing.
7. Have students create a bulletin board of homes. The board could include photos or drawings of their own homes, apartments, condos, etc.; pictures from magazines like House Beautiful , Architectural Digest , National Geographic , National Wildlife , etc.; and drawings of homes portrayed in adolescent literature.
8. Writing topics: these could simply be provided as options for reading log or journal writing, or they could be more fully developed.
* What is your favorite place or room in your home? Why is it special to you?Write a description of this place or room and explain its significance to you.
* What is your neighborhood like? What are its sights, sounds, smells? What do people in your neighborhood do? What is the predominant "feel" of your neighborhood? Write a description of your neighborhood, so that another person could really experience it and understand what you think of it.
* If you heard today that you'd have to move, what would your feelings be?Would you be elated? depressed? wary? curious? Pretend you've just been told you have to move to another town (or country). Write a letter to a friend at school explaining what's happening and your feelings about the move.
* What contributions can you make to help your home be a secure, loving home?List as many possibilities as you can think of; then choose the three or four most important and elaborate on those.
* We know that "homemakers" clean, cook, care for the sick, and decorate to make comfortable, loving homes. But what if you were thinking more in science-fiction terms? What would a homemaker be? Write a creative story that involves a homemaker.
* The class could interview some elderly persons about their childhood homes.These could be turned into human-interest stories and published as a book.Copies should be given to those interviewed.
* What are some of the traditions practiced in your home? Which is most meaningful for you? Write a description of that tradition so that it comes to life for readers and so that it will be obvious how and why this tradition is meaningful to you.
* What is your second home? What is this place like? How is it like your first home? How is it different? What's the value or purpose of having this second home?
Helbig, Alethea K. and Agnes Regan Perkins. This Land is Our Land: A guide to Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults , Greenwood Press, 1994. (Annotated bibliography of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American books of fiction, oral tradition, and poetry.)
Oliver, Eileen Iscoff. Crossing the Mainstream: Multicultural Perspectives in Teaching Literature , NCTE, 1994. (This outstanding resource contains fourteen highly readable and persuasive chapters addressing multicultural literature issues, curriculum development, and teaching strategies.)
Stover, Lois. "Exploring and Celebrating Cultural Diversity and Similarity Through Young Adult Novels," The ALAN Review , Spring 1994, 18(3), pp.12-15. (Stover provides valuable ideas for teaching multicultural young adult literature.)
An active ALAN leader, Bonnie Ericson teaches in the Department of Secondary Education at California State University, Northridge.