Books show multicultural world to kids


September 26, 1992|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

The extremists have done it again. They've taken a perfectly good word -- multicultural -- and given it a bad name.

On one side are folks who want to trash the classics because they are "Euro-centric." They bash books that include only white characters and are satisfied when a few strokes of sepia paint transform an acceptable percentage of the characters into African-Americans and Hispanics.

On the other side are folks who denounce anything that can be labeled "politically correct." They claim they can't say anything without offending someone -- I guess they've always said offensive things and gotten away with it in the past -- and they scoff at multicultural books as part of a liberal plot to undermine "traditional family values."

Fortunately, kids are above such silliness. They like to read books about different cultures because they're curious. Unlike many grown-ups, who come to fear differences, children start out eager to explore the world around them, including all the crazy things that make people different -- and alike.

Here are new books that elementary school readers might enjoy:

* "How My Family Lives in America," by Susan Kuklin (Bradbury Press, $13.95) is another excellent photo essay by Ms. Kuklin, whose books include "Taking My Dog to the Vet" and "Going to My Nursery School." In this one, she follows three American children through a typical day.

First there is Sanu, 5. Her father was born in Senegal and her mother was born in Baltimore. Sanu describes her father making a traditional Senegalese meal of rice, fish and vegetables. We see the extended family sit on a cloth on the floor for lunch. "Here's the best part: we get to eat with our hands, not with forks and spoons," Sanu says.

Sanu also introduces her maternal grandmother from Baltimore, who teaches her how to sing "Hush Little Baby Don't You Cry," and tells her to stand straight and tall (now there's a universal admonition).

Then there's Eric, whose father was born in Puerto Rico. Eric's mother's parents are from Puerto Rico, too, but she was born in New York City, just like Eric. We see the family eat arroz con pollo y habichuelas (rice with chicken and beans) and the kids learn to dance the merengue.

And even though Eric speaks Spanish as well as English, we never forget he's a regular American kid. We see him dressed in dinosaur pajamas, kneeling next to a bed decked out in Snoopy sheets. "I say my prayers to my guardian angel just like my mommy and daddy did when they were little," Eric says.

April was born in America; her parents were born in Taiwan. She goes to Chinese school on Saturday to learn to speak and write in Mandarin. She eats cold sesame noodles at lunch -- along with a juice box of Hawaiian Punch -- and her family gathers at night to eat carryout pizza before they play a Taiwanese game called Chi Chiao Bang, also known as Tangram.

* "The House I Live In: At Home In America," by Isadore Seltzer (Macmillan, $14.95) isn't about ethnic differences. But if you allow culture to include art, architecture and lifestyle, then it fits the bill.

Mr. Seltzer shows us 12 very different houses, painted in vibrant acrylics, each with a photo of a kid who might live inside. There's a 700-year-old adobe in northern New Mexico that a Pueblo Indian family has equipped with a television and refrigerator, a "Painted Lady" Victorian in San Francisco, a 1930s Hollywood bungalow (complete with pink stucco) and even a mobile home.

Mr. Seltzer's abiding love of architecture is contagious, and he gives readers a satisfying slice of history to go with each house.

* Patricia Polacco, author and illustrator of several books that portray different cultures, will be in the Washington area this weekend to promote her latest book, "Picnic at Mudsock Meadow" (Putnam, $14.95). Tomorrow from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., she'll be signing books at Borders for Kids on Rockville Pike, across from White Flint Mall. Then from 2-4 p.m., she'll be at the Children's Bookshop in Clifton, Va.

"Chicken Sunday," a story about children confronting racial hatred, is drawn from her childhood in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Oakland, Calif.

"Children are miraculous; they don't buy into prejudices until later in life," Ms. Polacco said. "I think that's what's going to save our world -- celebrating our differences rather than drawing a line in the dirt to separate us."

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