It was announced last Monday that children’s book author Tomie DePaola passed away the previous week. As an Italian-American, reading stories about my culture written by someone who grew up in the same culture was a powerful influence. I read all the Strega Nona and Big Anthony books, Tom, and his many other retellings of Italian tales. DePaola will be missed, but his stories live on and I hope to someday share these with my future children.
This leads to my point for today’s post. It is important for children to read books reflective of their culture. For most of publishing history, almost all children’s books featured white characters with an Anglo-Saxon-based culture. Prior to Strega Nona’s publication in 1975, the only other classic of children’s literature I can think of that featured the non-dominant culture was Corduroy (1968). And The Snowy Day followed in 1976. And even though those featured an African-American character, the story was still universal and a character of any culture could have been the main human character. Still, those books were stepping stones of what was to come. It is possible, though I’m not a children’s literature expert despite two courses on the topic, that DePaola’s Strega Nona may have been the first to use both a character from a non-dominant culture and a story set within that culture. He would go on to pen numerous stories based on Italian and Irish Culture, both of which he claimed as his heritage. With the help of those within other cultures, DePaola also authentically brought to life several Native American (ex. The Legend of the Bluebonnet) and Mexican-American (ex. The Legend of the Poinsetta) tales as well.
Fast forward to the last couple decades. More and more cultures are being depicted in children’s literature. Authors such as the late Patricia McKissack and Walter Dean Myers have penned both picture books and youth novels featuring strong, relatable African-American characters (Fallen Angels by Myers is a particular favorite about Black, Jewish, and Latino soldiers in a unit during the Vietnam War). Patricia Mora and Pam Munez Ryan both write about the Latinx population. Mora even created the Día de los libros/Día de los niños (Day of the Book/Day of the Children, coming up on April 30) to celebrate diversity in children’s literature. Joseph Burchac and Sherman Alexie have written novels about the Native American experience. Then there are picture books such as And Tango Makes Three* that are representative of LGBTQ culture and Under My Hijab by Hena Kahn that represents Muslim culture.
Having these representations in literature is very important. Children need to learn about their culture because it helps foster an understanding of that culture and increases their confidence because they see characters like them in the books they read. By seeing their culture represented, youth can connect to the literature more. Between that connection and a confidence boost, they can hopefully realize they have the ability to set lofty goals and try to achieve them. Then the youth need to also go beyond reading about just their heritage and read about others as well to foster an understanding of other cultures to help make our world a better, more peaceful and cooperative place.
*Yes, I know the characters are penguins, but it’s a famous example of LGBTQ in children’s literature.
P.S. I’ve read almost every book mentioned plus others by DePaola, McKissak, Myers, and Mora.