ALAN v24n1 - Female Protagonists in Multicultural Young Adult Literature: Sources and Strategies

Volume 24, Number 1
Fall 1996

Female Protagonists in Multicultural Young Adult Literature: Sources and Strategies

Judith Hayn and Deborah Sherrill

In today's classrooms the teaching of multicultural literature featuring female protagonists is vital. The reasons are two-fold: teachers should not only emphasize the commonalties between all people from diverse backgrounds, but also bring females to the forefront of the study of literature because the texts studied have typically featured only males in multicultural settings and/or with differing ethnic roots.

Classrooms where the traditional classics dominate seldom give students of diverse backgrounds the opportunity to read about those like themselves. In addition, the American and British literature focus of the standard junior and senior (English III and IV) high school curriculum content rarely offers a female as writer or heroine. The canon may now include works by ethnic writers, but they are most often male such as James Baldwin or Richard Wright.

One major goal of teaching multicultural literature with contemporary protagonists is to have all students realize that children and young adults from diverse backgrounds experience the same successes and frustrations, struggles and accomplishments, and proud and embarrassing moments of growing up. It is critical to show students the universalities between culturally diverse males and females and to celebrate the differences and enhance the similarities. Unfortunately, outside the world- literature textbook, where the selections are often difficult to read and seem irrelevant to modern adolescents, the opportunities to engage with texts with this focus are rare. According to Applebee (1992) , the English curriculum remains narrow nationwide, with the majority of schools (public, parochial, and independent) teaching books with a white male viewpoint written by white male authors.

Furthermore, Whaley and Dodge (1993) note in the "Introduction" to their useful text, Weaving in the Women , that most of us teach in traditional schools with firmly entrenched tracking systems webbed into traditional courses in English 9, 10, 11, and 12. For them, and many other secondary teachers in all disciplines, some guidelines for making the curriculum more inclusive remain valuable. An awareness of literature by female authors and just as essentially with females in prominent positive roles in a variety of multicultural settings becomes vital for both young male and female adolescents. This article's intent is to provide the rationale and underlying assumptions for doing so in all classrooms, along with appropriate strategies for implementing a variety of young adult novels with this focus.

In an increasingly diverse country, students need to find themselves in their reading as they engage in that crucial goal of adolescence --formulation of self, an identity. Such reading experiences, however, can cause difficulties for those students who represent the culture being studied, particularly where classes contain relatively few students from diverse backgrounds. Dilg (1995) reminds us of this pitfall:

As representatives of the group in questions, they may be linked by their classmates, however unfairly or unrealistically, with negative characters or characteristics depicted by the writers.... Thus at times, although students of color may be gaining a literary history, they are doing so in front of students who can be insensitive to a host of issues directly or indirectly associated with culture and identity. (p. 20)

In addition, white students who have been given the security of the dominant culture may find some uncomfortable moments as they are given the opportunities to see that culture in unattractive literary situations.

Fishman (1995) identifies three approaches to multiculturalism: one where literature is categorized by the national/ethnic identity of the writer, a second approach that features the idealistic harmony achieved by exposing readers to ethnic issues that emphasize similarities, and, third, an approach that focuses on the differences in cultures and tends to legitimatize the development of in-born barriers. Because each of these views tends to reinforce stereotypes and even create new ones, she offers a pluralist perspective, "to help students understand the multiplicity, legitimacy, accessibility, and similarity of differences in this country" (p. 76) . For Fishman , pluralism is rooted in these assumptions:

1. Students and those immediately around them represent multiple cultures individually as well as collectively;

2. Students can learn about their immediate cultural plurality to begin developing an inclusive cultural/multicultural perspective;

3. This recognition of multiple cultures in their own lives can help students understand multiple cultures further removed from their own. (p. 76)

Most importantly, Stover and Tway (1992) remind us that multicultural literature is crucial for connecting our students with the world. For the teacher, the literature leads to the development of worthwhile classroom activities and thought-provoking assignments necessary for creating responsible, critical, creative thinkers. Young adult novels written by and about minorities, by and about immigrants recently assimilated into this culture, and by those from other countries who write about the adolescent experience in other lands provide one method for beginning to break down barriers created through culture and ethnicity.

An important by-product of immersion in literature written from a perspective other than Anglo-American results in an increased tolerance among adolescents for those who represent other cultures. Citing a study by Hugh Moir examining young adult literature from 1960-1980, Stover and Tway note in the helpful text, Reading Their World: The Young Adult Novel in the Classroom (1992) , that, although in recent years, the number of novels with minority viewpoints had increased, this trend has more recently declined. Therefore, with this reduction in availability in mind, the attached bibliography annotates quality young adult fiction published since 1990 that features multicultural female protagonists.

Some of the classics in this field include works that are still viable for inclusion in today's curriculum and by authors who continue to write from a multi-ethnic viewpoint. Others are more recently written works in which students can also explore self-identification issues, relationships between others and themselves, and relationships between and among cultures.

Why the search for female heroines? Kelly (1992) sums up the rationale in the first paragraph of her chapter "Gender Issues and the Young Adult Novel" in the same text mentioned above:

If we believe that literature can make us rethink or resee or reevaluate our ideas about others and ourselves, then the portrayal of male and female roles in adolescent fiction is an important classroom consideration. If adolescent literature provides an environment for young adults to see the results of decisions made by characters, and to evaluate their ideas and behaviors, then how males and females interact in those fictional situations can shape thinking by reinforcing stereotypes or by promoting alternative views. (p. 154)

Kelly reiterates that, in quality novels featuring female protagonists, one issue that is often not addressed in those that feature boys as heroes is that of girls' acceptance of their bodies' changes and growth patterns. Elements held in common with novels featuring both genders include themes of relationships with those of the same sex and of the opposite sex and with parents. Complicating these considerations is the sensitive role women, both young and adult, assume in differing ethnographic settings -- religious, cultural, racial, etc. When this dynamic begins to affect the development of identity, the adolescent female with a minority background should be able to find role models and affirmation in young adult literature while others should be able to understand the uniqueness of her situation.

Novels from the 1970s and 1980s

Indeed, novels like those of Mildred Taylor featuring Cassie Logan certainly retain validity for the classroom because the classics Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981) and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) can still move and challenge young people. Not all of Taylor's works dealing with life in southern Mississippi during and after the Depression feature Cassie, but more recently The Road to Memphis (1990) does follow the gutsy protagonist as she continues as a high-school student. Following her history from the African-American perspective, students in a still racially unstable society can find help in forming opinions about the origins of much of this tension. Joyce Carol Thomas's earlier works Marked by Fire (1982) and Water Girl (1986) trace the stories of Abby and Amber respectively as they struggle to find themselves as young black women. Others who have dealt with the plight of the African-American female include Alice Childress in A Short Walk (1981) and Rainbow Jordan (1982). Virginia Hamilton presents adolescent black heroines when she writes the stories of Teresa in Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), Sheema in A Little Love (1984), and Talley in A White Romance (1987). Walter Dean Myers presents the story of Didi and her brother Tony growing up in Harlem in his classic novel Motown and Didi: A Love Story (1984). These novels, cited above, although published in the 1970s and 1980s, are still worthy of study and/or inclusion in classroom libraries for the Black American perspective on being young and female in America.

The tradition of the young adult heroine who comes from the Caribbean area has been explored by Rosa Guy in the life of Desiree Die-Donne in the Antilles in My Love, My Love or The Peasant Girl (1985) while Scott O'Dell's historical novel of the West Indies Slave Rebellion of 1733 traces the story of Raisha in My Name Is Not Angelica (1989). African writers deal with black heroines from their cultural perspective as Buchi Emecheta has Ngbeke narrate her own coming-of-age story in Nigeria, The Moonlight Bride (1983), and Beverly Naidoo tells Niledi's story centered in the terrorism of apartheid in Chain of Fire (1990).

Asian-American heroines appear in Linda Crew's novel Children of the River (1989), the story of Sunder who has escaped the Khmer Rouge to deal with the conflicts between two cultures as does Kim Andrews when she journeys to one of the Japanese-American concentration camps of World War II in Kim/Kimi (1987) by Hadley Irwin. Other novels featuring Japanese bi-cultural struggles for young adolescent girls include The War Between the Classes (1985) in which Gloria D. Miklowitz writes of Emiko (Amy) Sumoto's experiences in a class experiment with status, and A Jar of Dreams (1981) in which Yoshiko Uchida tells the story of Rinko growing up in the Depression in California. The Chinese-American struggle for identity in girls is exemplified in a historical novel based on the journey of Sun Yat Sen from China to Canada in 1909 to find followers like Lillian Ho's father in The Curses of Third Uncle (1986) by Paul Yee. Two novels often studied at the high school level are by Amy Tan: The Joy Luck Club (1989), which traces four Chinese families from pre-1949 China through 20th-century America as grandmothers, mothers, and American-born daughters of those families struggle for understanding and identity; and The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), which provides an extended reading for those fascinated by the dilemma of the Chinese-American female.

Several recent novels focusing on the Asian experience for young girls growing up in differing cultures examined from the viewpoints of natives of that culture are presented in the contemporary bibliography at the end of this chapter. Included is the sequel to a standard novel often taught in world literature classes. In Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (1989), Suzanne Staples begins the saga of the 11-year-old daughter of a Pakistani nomadic family and her eventual acceptance of an arranged marriage as part of her cultural heritage.

The Hispanic female adolescent experience is chronicled in the classic novel by Sandra Cisneros in The House on Mango Street (1989), where Esperanza, her narrator, tells readers of her neighbors, her low socio-economic background, and her dreams for "a house all [her] own." In other earlier works, the Latino heroine Kata leaves Mexico in Irene Beltran Hernandez's Across the Great River (1989), and Luisa deals with a bi-cultural relationship in Claudia Mills' Luisa's American Dream (1981).

Another aspect of the young female protagonist's quest for identity appears in Native-American literature. Of particular worth for study is A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987) by Michael Dorris where Rayona as part Native American and part African American must make peace with herself as she flees a Montana reservation in her quest. In Jean Craighead George's The Talking Earth (1983), Billie Wind, a young Seminole girl, leaves school at the Kennedy Space Center for the Florida Everglades in a similar journey. Jamake Highwater's Ghost Horse trilogy begins with Legend Days (1984) with Amana's story as an 11-year-old survivor of a small pox epidemic who is forced to marry an elder in the tribe. Her sorrows and rebellion against the constraints of womanhood are chronicled here. Scott O'Dell also deals with these conflicts in several young adult novels published prior to 1990, including Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea (1986), Island of the Blue Dolphins (a 1960 Newbery Award winner), and Black Star, Bright Dawn (1988). In these historical works, he writes of the young Shoshone girl who accompanies Lewis and Clark, of Karana who survives alone on an island off the Pacific Coast for several years, and of Bright Dawn who enters the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska.

The emergence of maturity and identity in novels with Jewish American heroines is also the basis for several novels for adolescents. Although many of these are based in Nazi Germany and use the Holocaust as the theme, others are more contemporary. Sandy Asher writes of Ruthie Morgenthau's decision to have a bas mitzvah while coming to terms with her father's death in Daughters of the Law (1980). Susan Beth Pfeffer uses the same ritualistic ceremony as the basis for Becky Weiss's conflict in Turning Thirteen (1988). In The Night Journey (1981), Kathryn Lasky's heroine Rachel learns of her grandmother's life during the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, thus gaining insight into her faith. Chaim Potok gives his heroine in Davita's Harp (1986) a similar dilemma when her non-believing parents, one Jewish and one Christian, are caught in the chaos of World War II. Much of the Holocaust literature lends itself to a moving thematic unit on that topic. Of special note is Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry, the story of the friendship between Annemarie Johansen, a Christian, and Ellen Rosen, a Jew, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Ellen pretends to be Annemarie's sister as the Rosen family is smuggled to safety in Sweden. Another Newbery winner, this book represents the true triumph of the human spirit. A switch on this theme has Hannah, living in the United States in 1988, suddenly transported in time to become Chaya in a concentration camp in 1942 Poland; this tour de force is The Devil's Arithmetic (1988) by Jane Yolen.

Multicultural Heroines--10 Contemporary Titles

That contemporary texts successfully deal with this complexity is apparent in a number of novels published in the early to mid-nineties, including the following:

Banks, L. One More River. Avon/Camelot, 1993.
Lesley Shelby, an intelligent, popular fourteen-year-old Canadian Jewish girl, has her comfortable life take a drastic turn when she moves to Israel and, with her family, survives the 1967 Six Day War.

Hesse, K. Letters from Rifka . Henry Holt., 1992.
Rifka, a young Russian immigrant to American, tells the story of her family's dramatic escape from persecution through letters to her cousin Tovah in Russia. The 1919 journey is filled with frightening experiences.

Hamilton, V. Plain City . The Blue Sky Press, 1993.
This novel focuses on a young girl who has difficulties in school because of her appearance. The main character, Buhlaire Simms, is an interracial child, who struggles to find her own identity.

Meyer, C. White Lilacs. Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Rose Lee, a young black girl growing up in Dillon, Texas, in the 1920s, is moved out of her house so that the white citizens of the town can build a park to beautify the town. This moving novel, based on an actual historical event, shows the racial tension of the period coupled through an outstanding coming-of-age narration.

Namioka, L. April and the Dragon Lady . Harcourt Brace, 1994.
April lives in a house in Seattle ruled by her traditionally minded Chinese Grandmother. April refuses to be a part of the old Chinese traditions and decides to date Steve, an American. Will her grandmother ever be able to change her old-fashioned, sexist ways?

Paulsen, G. Sisters . Harcourt Brace, 1993 .
A bilingual tale of the day in the lives of two girls: an illegal Mexican immigrant, selling her body on the streets in order to send money back to her mother, and a spoiled, upper-class beauty, agonizing over cheerleading tryouts.

Robinson, M. A Woman of Her Tribe. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.
Annette is fifteen and in-between: half Anglo and half Nootka Indian. She must choose between the country, where she was raised by her family and her Granmaw, and the city, which she finds frightening yet thrilling and full of exciting new people.

Staples, S. Haveli . Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
In this sequel to Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind, Shabanu has become the youngest wife of the elderly Rahim, a wealthy Pakistani landowner whom she was forced to marry. She must choose between her own dreams and the responsibilities of her world.

Woodson, J. I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This . Delacorte Press, 1994.
Marie is a leader among the popular black girls in Chauncey, Ohio, a prosperous black suburb. She befriends Lena, a poor white student, who moves to town. Lena decides to share a terrible secret about her father. Marie provides her the support she needs to face her problem.

Woodson, J. Maizon at Blue Hill . Dell, 1994.
Maizon is the smartest girl in her Brooklyn neighborhood and decides to attend an all-white boarding school in Connecticut. Maizon misses her grandmother and best friend and must decide if the rewards of the school outweigh the sadness she feels from her separation from them. This book is a sequel to Between Madison and Palmetto (1993).

Multicultural Literature -- Other Titles
(These books are briefly annotated in the text of this article.)

Asher, S. Daughters of the Law . Beaufort Books, 1980.
Beltran Hernandez, I. Across the Great River . Arte Publico Press, 1989.
Childress, A. A Short Walk . Bard, 1981.
Childress, A. Rainbow Jordan . Avon, 1982.
Cisneros, S. The House on Mango Street . Vintage, 1989.
Crew, L. Children of the River . Delacorte, 1989.
Dorris, M. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water . Holt, 1987.
Emecheta, B. The Moonlight Bride . George Braziller, 1983.
George, J. The Talking Earth . Harper, 1983.
Guy, R. My Love, My Love (or The Peasant Girl ). Holt, 1985.
Highwater, J. Legend Days . Harper Collins, 1984.
Hamilton, V. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush . Putnam/Philomel, 1982.
Hamilton, V. A Little Love . Putnam/Philomel, 1984.
Hamilton, V. A White Romance . Putnam/Philomel, 1987.
Irwin, H. Kim/Kimi . Macmillan, 1987.
Lasky, K. The Night Journey . Warner, 1981.
Lowry, L. Number the Stars . Houghton, 1989.
Miklowitz, G. The War Between the Classes . Delacorte, 1985.
Mills, C. Luisa's American Dream . Four Winds, 1981.
Myers, W. Motown and Didi: A Love Story . Viking, 1984.
Naidoo, B. Chain of Fire . Lippincott, 1990.
O'Dell, S. Island of the Blue Dolphin . Dell, 1960.
O'Dell, S. Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea . Houghton, 1986.
O'Dell, S. Black Star, Bright Dawn . Houghton, 1988.
O'Dell, S. My Name is Not Angelica . Houghton, 1989.
Pfeffer, S. Turning Thirteen . Scholastic, 1988.
Potok, C. Davita's Harp . Fawcett, 1986.
Staples, S. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind . Knopf, 1989.
Tan, A. The Joy Luck Club . Ivy Books, 1989.
Tan, A. The Kitchen God's Wife . Ivy Books, 1991.
Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry . Penguin, 1976.
Taylor, Mildred. Let the Circle Be Unbroken . Penguin, 1981.
Thomas, J. Marked by Fire . Avon, 1982.
Thomas, J. Water Girl . Avon, 1986.
Uchida, Y. A Jar of Dreams . McElderry, 1981.
Yee, P. The Curses of Third Uncle . Lorimer, 1986.
Yolen, J. The Devil's Arithmetic . Viking Kestrel, 1988.

Novels in the Classroom

Noskin and Marshalek (1995) chronicle the success of a nine-week thematic unit for juniors in American literature as they teach "The American Dream," "[they] make a commitment to multiculturism and adhere to the contention that meaning is created through an interaction between reader, text, and community" (p. 80) For the adolescent female, this interaction becomes even more crucial when dealing with texts from this culturally diverse perspective. Women of all ages survive in the young adult novels cited above even under the most stultifying and discriminatory conditions to emerge as heroines, protagonists who conquer conflicts other than those surrounding their gender to emerge triumphant.

Points for Discussion -- Strategies for Study

* Use a number of strips of paper in a variety of colors. Students choose a color based on an imagined painting of themselves. Discuss and compare. Each child begins journal or personal essay with "I think I am _____ because... "

* Begin discussion with the most popular names of 1991: Ashley, Amanda, Jessica, Samantha, and Stephanie for girls; Michael, Christopher, Joseph, and Daniel for boys. What has happened to names in today's classrooms? Invented names? Names from other cultures? Worth of names? Names for boys and those for girls? Discuss reactions and assumptions.

* List individually characteristics of men and women. Prepare a class compilation. Discuss the items to find out if all men or all women do these things.

* Study one of the lesser-known cultural groups in the United States through picture books and young adult literature. Examples include the people of Appalachia, the inhabitants of the South Carolina island who speak Gullah, the Cherokee who remained in North Carolina.

* Study as a unit one group in the United States, for example, Jews. Brainstorm topics or names of Jewish people for research. Use selected young adult novels centered on this cultural/religious group.

* Freewrite about topics such as "what's important to me," "what I believe in," or "what I am striving for in life." Construct circle maps with high-level goals in central circles with spokes leading out to smaller circles with actions of beliefs associated with achieving these goals. Respond to a text and refer back to freewrites and maps, discuss how responses reflect their cultural models.

* Reflect on the different stances readers adopt in responding to literature and how these show loyalties to certain groups, particularly male/female responses.

* Students discuss how adolescents in their school communicate their own cultural models to others after creating a tree diagram chart. Students list groups in the school along the top and characteristics of each on the branches underneath.

* Pair books with similar themes or topics to include both a male and a female protagonist. When reading a survival book by Gary Paulsen, pair it with one by Scott O'Dell.

* Use literature purposefully so readers identify with the characters to understand that the admirable qualities possessed by both male and female characters are qualities they may wish to emulate in their lives.

* Through selected feature films, attack racial stereotypes. Suggestions include Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) from American Playhouse Series and Thunderheart (1992) from Columbia TriStar Home Video.

* Because some of these texts are difficult as a result of the strangeness of both culture and names, have students respond in writing to the following: what they liked, what they didn't, what puzzled them, what patterns did they see? Conduct discussion based on written responses.

* Use pen pals by forming partnership with International Friendship League, Inc., 55 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, MA 02109; (617) 523-4273.

* Making sure point of view is clear, ask students, individually or in groups, to rewrite chapters of their self-selected text choices using the viewpoint of another culture or another gender.

Works Cited

Applebee, A. N. "Stability and Change in High-School Canon. English Journal , 81.5, 1992, pp. 27-32.
Dilg, M. A. "The Opening of the American Mind: Challenges in the Cross-cultural Teaching of Literature." English Journal , 84.3 1995, pp. 18-25.
Fishman, A. R. "Finding Ways In: Redefining Multicultural Literature." English Journal , 84.6, 1995, pp. 73-79.
Kelly, P. "Gender Issues and the Young Adult Novel." In Reading Their World: The Young Adult Novel in the Classroom , Virginia Monseau and Gary Salvner, Eds. Boynton/Cook, 1992, pp. 154-167.
Noskin, D. & Marshalek, A. "Applying Multiculturism to a High School American Literature Course: Changing Lenses and Crossing Borders." English Journal , 84.6, 1995, pp. 80-86.
Stover, L. & Tway, E. "Cultural Diversity and the Young Adult Novel." In Reading Their World: The Young Adult Novel in the Classroom , Monseau, Virginia Monseau and Gary Salvner, Eds. Boynton/Cook, 1992, pp. 132-153.
Tiedt, P. L. & Tiedt, I. M. Multicultural Teaching A Handbook of Activities, Information, and Resources . Allyn & Bacon, 1995.
Whaley, L. & Dodge, L. Weaving in the Women Transforming the High School English Curriculum . Boynton/Cook, 1993.

For a more complete discussion of this topic by Hayn and Sherrill see Females in Adolescent Literature , Lisa Spiegel, editor, published by The Writing Company.

Judith Hayn teaches young adult literature at Auburn University and Deborah Sherrill is on the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation : Hayn, Judith, and Deborah Sherrill. (1996). Female protagonists in multicultural young adult literature: Sources and strategies. The ALAN Review , Volume 24, Number 1, 43-46.