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Multicultural Books

Reading a novel with characters from ethnic and cultural backgrounds different from your own is one of the best ways to move beyond the world that you know. You become a bigger, wiser person every time you slip into someone else's shoes and see the world through their eyes. And you can learn a lot about your own family and cultural background when you read a book about your own ethnic roots ... Here are a few titles to get you started.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a bestseller - with good reason! Put your feet in the shoes of Junior, "the part-time Indian" who narrates this tremendous book by Sherman Alexie.


AFRICAN-AMERICAN

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. For grades 8+. A humorous but touching coming-of-age novel set in the 1980s  about two brothers spending a summer in the African-American resort of Azurest in Sag Harbor, Long Island. After a year spent in New York at a posh, mainly-white private school, Azurest means freedom, time-honored rituals, and parent-teenager tensions that every teenager can relate to.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963  by Christopher Paul Curtis. Satisfy your "classic" requirement with this humorous, moving story of an African-American family who head down to Alabama from freezing cold Detroit - only to find that they are visiting at a time in history when racial tensions are high, a turning point for the family and the country.

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson.  "Narrator Frannie is fascinated with Emily Dickinson's poem, "Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul," and grapples with its meaning, especially after a white student joins Frannie's all-black sixth-grade classroom. Trevor, the classroom bully, promptly nicknames him "Jesus Boy," because he is "pale and his hair is long."  Frannie's keen perceptions allow readers to observe a ripple of changes. Because she has experienced so much sadness in her life (her brother's deafness, her mother's miscarriages) the heroine is able to see beyond it all—to look forward to a time when the pain subsides and life continues. Set in 1971, Woodson's novel skillfully weaves in the music and events surrounding the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, giving this gentle, timeless story depth." Publishers Weekly review.

The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake. Grade 6-8.  At school, seventh-grader Maleeka endures mean-spirited teasing about the darkness of her skin and her unstylish clothing. She seeks solace in writing an extended creative piece, at a new teacher's instigation, and also in the company of a powerful clique of nasty girls. Told in Maleeka's voice, this first novel bristles with attitude that is both genuine and alarming. The young teen understands too well that her brains aren't as valuable as the social standing that she doesn't have. In the end, she is able to respond positively to her teacher; she also becomes socially anointed through the affections of the most popular boy in the school. This message rings true in spite of the fact that Maleeka's salvation isn't exactly politically correct. Young teens will appreciate Flake's authenticity and perhaps realize how to learn from Maleeka's struggle for security and self-assurance.

Locomotion and Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson. The touching novels about Lonnie Collins Motion (a.k.a. Locomotion), a young African-American boy who has lost his parents in a fire and lives with foster parents while his sister has been adopted. How can anyone survive all that Locomotion does? Yet he does - with the love and support of friends, family, and understanding teachers.

Sarah Phillips* by Andrea Lee. Finely written short stories focusing on the experiences of Sarah Phillips, an African-American preppy, searching for a way to find her own identity in a world that seems to want to pin an identity on her.

Monster *by Walter Dean Myers. Steve Harmon, 16, is accused of serving as a lookout for a robbery of a Harlem drugstore. The owner was shot and killed, and now Steve is in prison awaiting trial for murder. From there, he tells about his case and his incarceration. Steve, an amateur filmmaker, recounts his experiences in the form of a movie screenplay. His striking scene-by-scene narrative of how his life has dramatically changed is riveting. Interspersed within the script are diary entries in which the teen vividly describes the nightmarish conditions of his confinement. Myers expertly presents the many facets of his protagonist's character and readers will find themselves feeling both sympathy and repugnance for him. Steve searches deep within his soul to prove to himself that he is not the "monster" the prosecutor presented him as to the jury. Ultimately, he reconnects with his humanity and regains a moral awareness that he had lost. (review from School Library Journal)

Betsey Brown *by Ntozake Shange. The coming-of-age story of Betsey Brown, an African-American girl growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s, wrestling with prejudice within the African-American community (her light-skinned grandmother does not fully accept her dark-skinned father) and in the white majority of America that is only beginning to wrestle with the issue of civil rights for all its citizens. 

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf* by Ntozake Shange. This unique choral poem is a truthful, biting, funny presentation of what it means to come of age as an African-American woman. For the older reader.

Lucy* by Jamaica Kincaid. A 19-year-old from Antigua, Lucy moves to the United States to work as a nanny in the household of a white American family. She thinks back to her life on Antigua as she tries to puzzle out the secrets of life in the States - both are full of mysteries and puzzles, and perhaps most baffling of all is the role of a young woman in both these worlds. A poetic, quiet novel full of power, best for the older, patient reader.

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall. A family from Barbados and their life in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1950s. A classic!

Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry. A classic historical novel for middle schoolers based upon the true experiences of Tituba, a young slave from Barbados who is accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Old-fashioned but gripping and unforgettable.


ASIAN

Lensey Namioka. Yang the Youngest and his Terrible Ear

Pegi Deitz Shea. Tangled Threads (Hmong family in Rhode Island)

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee.

Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee. Grade 5-7–A companion volume to Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Scholastic, 2003). From birth, when his father named him for his alma mater, great things have been expected from Stanford Wong. When his lack of interest in academics causes him to fail sixth-grade English and lands him in summer school, his star status on his school's basketball team is endangered. It is a summer of turmoil and family tension. Stanford's father is working longer and longer hours to try for a promotion, and a host of other changes are occurring. Stanford must come to grips with missing out on basketball camp, grit his teeth through tutoring sessions with Millicent the genius, see his beloved grandmother moved to an assisted-living facility, and try to hide his summer-school attendance from his buddies. His observations on his overachieving father and sister can be hilarious, and the loving close-up of his grandmother's dementia is wonderfully drawn. Stanford's days are narrated one by one, so readers are privy to all his musings, from the odor of farts to the rush of a first crush. There's much here for boys to identify with, including Stanford's need for parental approval and his single-minded pursuit of the sport he loves. His growth as a person as the summer unfolds is warmly satisfying. The conclusion has Stanford's workaholic father undergo an unexpected and unsubstantiated change of heart, but kids won't mind the surprise happy ending.–Faith Brautigam, Gail Borden Public Library, Elgin, IL

Cynthia Kadohata. Weedflower (Japanese-American internment)

Greg Leitich Smith. Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Asian kids and science fair)

Linda Sue Park. Project Mulberry (Korean kids and science fair)

Amy Tan. The Joy Luck Club*

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. A rollicking graphic novel that blends the experience of a Chinese-American boy with traditional legends (told untraditionally, as befits the topic) of the Monkey King, that spirit of mischief and misrule that lives within the book itself. For the older Middle Schooler.

CUBA

Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa. (coming of age, quinceanero)

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

How Tia Lola Came to Stay and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez.

GAY/QUESTIONING

Marion Dane Bauer. Am I Blue? Coming Out of the Silence. Grade 7 up-This collection of 18 short stories by recognized children's and young adult authors explores the various meanings of gay/lesbian identity in the lives of teenagers. 

Luna by Julie Ann Peters.  Regan shares in the struggles of her transgender brother Liam/Luna to gain acceptance in their family and society.

IRANIAN

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. "This lighthearted memoir chronicles the author's move from Iran to America in 1971 at age seven, the antics of her extended family and her eventual marriage to a Frenchman. The best parts will make readers laugh out loud, as when she arrives in Newport Beach, Calif., "a place where one's tan is a legitimate topic of conversation." She is particularly good making gentle fun of her father, who loves Disneyland and once competed on the game show Bowling for Dollars. Dumas's first book remains a warm, witty and sometimes poignant look at cross-cultural misunderstanding and family life. Immigrants from anywhere are likely to identify with her chronicle of adapting to America." Publishers Weekly review.

Persepolis
. Graphic novel set during the Iranian Revolution.

JEWISH/ARAB/PALESTINIAN CONFLICT

Daniella Carmi. Samir and Yonatan. (Palestinian/Israeli)

Naomi Shihab Nye. Habibi. Palestinian family moves back from St. Louis.

Anna Levine. Running on Eggs. (Jewish/Arab)


JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUST

Lois Lowry. Number the Stars. (grade 5)

Katheryn Lasky. The Night Journey (escaping pogroms of Czarist Russia)

Uri Orlev. Run, Boy, Run (Jewish boy escaping Warsaw ghetto)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Milkweed
by Jerry Spinelli. A Gypsy boy during the Holocaust years in Germany.

Night.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

JEWS IN AMERICA

All of a Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor.  A charming, delightfully illustrated series about a Jewish family with five daughters and one son, living in the early 1900s on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok. Two Jewish boys growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during the 1940s.

PUERTO RICO

When We Were Puerto Rican  by Sarah McCoy. The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico: a novel.  An 11 year old growing up female in Puerto Rico in the early 1960s.

MEXICAN/CHICANO

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. (Mexican) (Grade 5) One of Rachel Goluboff's favorite books; she's read it 5,000 times. "It's a girl growing up in Mexico in a wealthy family, and then something awful happens and she goes from a life of wealth into the life of migrant workers."

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jimenez.

Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs. No longer able to grow corn profitably in his Mexican village, 15-year-old Victor, who has supported his family since his father's death, resolves to go to El Norte: "It's time for me to do what men from our village have to do." Lacking the money to secure a guide, he ventures to a border town to wait his chance in the "whirlpool" of recent deportees, newcomers, and grizzled mojados ("wetbacks"). Successive attempts find him trekking through mountains and desert, fleeing la migra, and unwittingly becoming entangled with ruthless drug traffickers. (review from Booklist)

NATIVE AMERICAN

Marlene Carvell.  Who Will Tell My Brother? Grade 7-Up Through lyrical free-verse poems that span his senior year, readers come to know Evan Hill, an artistic, articulate student who embarks on a crusade begun by his older brother to remove the Indian as their high school's mascot. He shares a Native American heritage with his father, who embodies patience and quiet strength and who draws the teen into his once estranged Mohawk family circle.

Rachna Gilmore. A Group of One (American Indian)

Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. A rollicking, touching, heavily illustrated story of a 12 year old American Indian boy in Washington State who wrestles with his own disabilities, deep poverty, and the despair of his parents - and is determined to go to an all-white high school where he becomes a "part-time Indian." 

Will Hobbs. Far North.  School Library Journal says: "Gabe, 15, formerly of San Antonio, enrolls in a boarding school in Canada's Northwest Territories to be closer to his father, an oil field worker. Gabe's likable but depressed roommate, Raymond, is an Athapascan Indian. A map helps readers follow along as circumstances involving a plane crash leave the teens and Johnny Raven, an elder from Raymond's village, stranded with minimal supplies as winter hardens. The plotting is fast paced and action filled as the teens' cultures clash, and as they struggle against the cold, blizzards, isolation, starvation, injury, a wolverine, grizzly bear, and more ..."

Joseph Bruchac. The Code Talker. Gr. 6-9. Six-year-old Ned Begay leaves his Navajo home for boarding school, where he learns the English language and American ways. At 16, he enlists in the U.S. Marines during World War II and is trained as a code talker, using his native language to radio battlefield information and commands in a code that was kept secret until 1969.  The book, addressed to Ned's grandchildren, ends with an author's note about the code talkers as well as lengthy acknowledgments and a bibliography. The narrative pulls no punches about war's brutality and never adopts an avuncular tone. Not every section of the book is riveting, but slowly the succession of scenes, impressions, and remarks build to create a solid, memorable portrayal of Ned Begay. Even when facing complex negative forces within his own country, he is able to reach into his traditional culture to find answers that work for him in a modern context. Readers who choose the book for the attraction of Navajo code talking and the heat of battle will come away with more than they ever expected to find.



 

A great graphic novel with roots in Ancient China but a living, breathing, all-too-true life in modern America ...
America Born Chinese by by Gene Luen Yang
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