A National Survey of the Use of
Multicultural Young Adult Literature in
In a 1998 NCTE publication, United In Diversity: Using Young Adult Multicultural Literature In The Classroom (Jean Brown and Elaine Stephens, editors) Ted Hipple of the University of Tennessee professed to being a "pooper" about multicultural literature. In his chapter, "Puzzlements from a Pooper; on Much Confusion about 'Multicultural'," Hipple explained that he was confused about what makes a novel multicultural. Does multicultural literature include all cultures, or is it predominately a movement to include racial and ethnic minorities in the literary canon? He is not alone in his questioning, especially among those teaching young adult literature at the university level.
According to research published in The ALAN Review by Melissa Comer (1998), professors teaching young adult literature (YAL) believe that multicultural literature is important. In her dissertation, A National Survey to Determine the Status of the Design and Teaching Techniques of Young Adult Literature Courses at the College or University Level, Comer surveyed sixty professors about their YAL courses, and the majority agreed that one of the strengths of adolescent literature is its ability to appeal to all groups of readers.
A review of Comer's findings, however, reveals that the majority of the most commonly used "core novels" in YAL courses were authored by white males. These findings were similar to those made by Abrahamson (1981) in a survey of YAL professors. According to Comer, only two of the most common novels were authored by non-whitesÑMildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (1976) and Walter Dean Myers' Fallen Angels (1988). Comer concluded that multicultural literature is under-represented in the most commonly used novels in young adult literature classes. Are Comer's conclusions accurate? Are YAL professors determined to change the cultural diversity of secondary English literature, or are they complacently choosing the "classics" of YAL without considering newer, multicultural literature?
I sought to determine the extent to which the idea of multicultural literature is supported in YAL courses by surveying roughly the same group of professors regarding their attitudes about multicultural literature and their use of it in their courses. Data from the surveys provide indications of how much emphasis is being placed on the importance of using multicultural literature in the secondary school.
To conduct the research, I took a two-pronged approach by creating a survey and by collecting syllabi used in methods courses. Fifty surveys were sent out, and 37 were returned. Those who were sent surveys were selected because they are involved in young adult literature, as members of the board of directors of groups like ALAN and SIGNAL. Several were also identified by an Internet search as professors who teach young adult literature at the university level. I was able to collect 18 course syllabi from respondents. The survey, twenty questions long, had two divisions. The first section asked questions about the number of novels professors had used in their courses and the gender and race of the authors. The second section asked, using a 4-point Likert Scale, about attitudes about multicultural literature, its importance, relevance, and so on. I chose to avoid defining "multicultural" for the respondents, because I was interested in their perspectives and definitions.
The only information I sought from the syllabi was related to which young adult novels and authors are being taught. I sought to address the question of whether or not the works being taught could fit into a broad definition of "multicultural" literature (see Phase II).
Phase I: Survey (Please refer to Table 1)
Questions 1-6 : The first section of questions asked professors specifics about numbers of novels on a common reading list, self-selected novels, etc. The mean number of novels required for a common reading list was 9.5, while the range was a minimum of two and a maximum of 20. Students were allowed to self-select anywhere from 1-30 novels, with the average number being about 13. Out of the assigned core novels, professors assigned an average of 5.27 novels by female writers (range of 0 to 13) and 2.38 by a member of a racial minority (range of 0 to 5). Few chose works by non-American writers; the number of novels selected ranged from 0 to 2, with the mean being 0.29. Looking at the sum total of assigned novels by all respondents, 49% were by females, 38% were by racial minorities, and 5% were by non-Americans.
Question # 7 and #8: 95% of respondents said that they did intentionally use multicultural novels; however, only 56% said that they have specific unit or lesson on multicultural literature in their courses.
Question #9-12: These questions focused on professors' opinions about the importance of multicultural literature. When asked to respond to the prompt, "It is important for school children to study multicultural literature," 95% of respondents strongly agreed and 5% agreed. The same percentages agreed that it was important for college students, in general, and pre-service teachers, specifically, to study multicultural literature. The respondents reached consensus when 100% thought that practicing teachers should study multicultural literature.
Questions #13-14: These questions had more varied answers. When asked if teaching multicultural literature was an attempt at political correctness, 17% agreed, 45% disagreed, and 33% strongly disagreed (5% did not answer). Conversely, when asked if multicultural literature is overlooked in teacher preparation, 22% strongly agreed, 50% agreed, and 28% disagreed.
Questions #15-16: The next two questions asked about the place of multicultural literature in the canon. 44% strongly agreed, and 50% agreed that it was under-represented at the high/middle school level (6% did not answer). 17% strongly agreed and 45% agreed that it was under-represented in the college canon; 38% disagreed, perhaps feeling that multicultural literature had made more in-roads at the university level.
Question 17-20: The last four items asked general questions about multicultural literature. When asked if multicultural literature is too narrowly defined by race, rather than by culture, 72% either agreed or strongly agreed; 17% disagreed, 5% strongly disagreed, and 5% did not answer. 78% of respondents agreed or strongly disagreed that multicultural literature will receive more emphasis in the next decade. The other 22% did not answer. 72% agreed that multicultural literature is difficult to teach, but 28% disagreed. Finally, 62% agreed or strongly agreed that teaching multicultural literature changes how texts are chosen, while 17% disagreed and 22% did not answer.
Phase Two: Examination of Syllabi
Along with the survey, syllabi were collected from professors in order to examine the titles of novels in the core-required readings. In general, the novels selected by professors did not correspond with the results found in earlier surveys. Most notably, I found a greater number of recent novels than had been reported by Abrahamson in 1980, and Comer in 1998.
TABLE 1 Questions from Survey
The following questions required respondents to fill in information:
- How many young adult novels are in your common readings list?
- How many novels are students allowed to self-select?
- How many novels on the common list are written by females?
- How many novels on the common list are written by a member of a racial minority?
- How many novels on the common list are written by a non-American?
- How many novels on the common list are written by an ethnic minority?
- Do you intentionally use multicultural young adult novels in your course?
- Do you have a specific unit/lesson on multicultural literature in your course?
The following questions required respondents to respond with "strongly agree,"
"agree," "disagree," "strongly disagree," and "not applicable":
- It is important for school children to study multicultural literature.
- It is important for college students to study multicultural literature.
- It is important for pre-service teachers to study multicultural literature.
- It is important for in-service teachers to study multicultural literature.
- Teaching multicultural literature is an attempt at political correctness.
- Multicultural literature has been, and still is, overlooked in teacher preparation.
- Multicultural literature authors are under-represented in the high/middle school canon.
- Multicultural literature authors are under-represented in the university canon.
- Multicultural literature is too narrowly defined by race, rather than culture.
- Multicultural literature will receive more emphasis in the next decade.
- Teaching multicultural literature is difficult for most teachers.
- Teaching multicultural literature causes a change in how texts are selected (at any level of
Based on the data in the survey and in the examination of syllabi, I conclude that professors are doing the following:
- Generally allowing students to self-select novels that interest them, thus allowing more reader flexibility and encouraging individuals to explore more types of YA novels;
- Achieving a balance between male and female authors in core course readings;
- Including many minority writers in core course readings;
- Using newer YA novels alongside older ones;
- Honoring the idea of multicultural literature in the core novels they select;
- Valuing the idea of multicultural literature by implicitly or explicitly including it in their readings selections and course teaching;
- Thinking that multicultural literature is undervalued and overlooked in teacher preparation.
To address the questions I asked before starting this study: Professors teaching adolescent literature courses do indeed value multicultural literature, both in theory and in practice. Unlike other surveys of comparative groups, I found little evidence that only books written by white males formed the core of readings assigned in young adult literature courses. The respondents in this study, to use a hackneyed phrase, do seem to preach what they practice and practice what they preach.
One aspect of the study that intrigues me is the dearth of non-American writers in the core readings. If professors believe, as they stated, that multicultural literature is too narrowly defined by race, why not then include other cultures outside the United States? Only one non-American, Aidan Chambers, who is British, was found on more than one syllabus. Perhaps this question can be addressed in subsequent studies.
Abrahamson, R. "How Adolescent Literature is Taught in American Colleges and Universities: A National Survey." English Education, 13.3 (1981): 224-229.
Hipple, T. "Puzzlements from a Pooper; on Much Confusion about 'Multicultural'." In Jean E. Brown and Elaine C. Stephens, Editors, United In Diversity: Using Young Adult Multicultural Literature In The Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1998, 143-147.
Myers, W. D. Fallen Angels. New York: Scholastic, 1988.
Taylor, M. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. New York: Dial, 1976.
David Gill is an Assistant Professor of English Education, Watson School of Education, University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Reference Citation: Gill, David. (2000) "A National Survey of the Use of Multicultural Young Adult Literature in University Courses." The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 2, 48-50.