Multicultural Books Offer Diverse Reading Experience

Loriene Roy, President of the American Library Association, suggests the best books for children of color.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally, speaking of things to do on a weekend, this is a big weekend for the book business. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the last book in the blockbuster series, will be released on Saturday. Harry Potter is credited with turning millions of kids into avid readers, but are there books out there designed to speak to an increasingly diverse generation of American young people?

With us to talk about this is Loriene Roy. She is the new president of the American Library Association, and she was kind enough to come by the studio. Welcome.

Ms. LORIENE ROY (President, American Library Association): Thank you, Michel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Why do you think it's important that children's books show racial and cultural diversity?

Ms. ROY: Well, we are a nation of diversity, and libraries build collections that reflect the communities they serve, the places we want to go, and provide students with resources beyond and inclusive of their own cultures.

MARTIN: But one of the things that I think people like books like "Harry Potter" is even though it's set in England, you can kind of imagine anything because there - close your ears if you're listening, kids - there really are no wizards. And so you can just make them whatever you want.

Ms. ROY: Well, there are great books that explore all sorts of cultures, and "Harry Potter" is a great example as a gateway read for many children. But there are seven titles in that series; there's a lot more to read. And there are also great resources for people who are younger readers.

MARTIN: But why do you think it's specifically important that there be characters or other acknowledgments of racial and cultural diversity? Why do you think that matters?

Ms. ROY: Well, we know from some research studies that children do like seeing images of themselves, and it also is reflected in the self-esteem building exercises. Imagine a world where you saw no one like yourself. And it also gives the message that you are important. A book that reflects your culture says this is important enough to note and important enough to share with others.

MARTIN: What about the importance of reading books of different cultures? Do you think it's important, for example, for persons who belong to the majority culture to be exposed to literature that reflects other cultures?

Ms. ROY: And I think children do want to hear about other cultures. I'm a native person, I'm American Indian, and some of my students work with tribal communities on promoting books. I'm Anishinaabe or Ojibwe from Minnesota, but I remember visiting a school that was a Navajo school. And one of their librarians said, do you have books on other tribal communities because these kids know Navajo culture and they would like to learn about other tribal communities? So even if you are a person of color, even if you are a person steeped in your own culture, you know, it's a natural avenue of inquiry to find out what others are doing.

MARTIN: What would you put on a reading list for young children of color? I see you brought a wonderful selection of books today. Why don't you start wherever you want to start.

Ms. ROY: Yeah. This is great. Let's talk about some great books. This list of books I have and this assortment I have with me today, many of these titles represent award-winning books, books selected by committees of librarians who work through the many committee structures of the American Library Association.

And so one of the first books I wanted to mention is the 2007 Printz - P-R-I-N-T-Z - Award, and it's called "American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang. And it's noteworthy not just because it's a great story, but it's the first Printz Award book that is actually a graphic novel.

MARTIN: What story does that tell?

Ms. ROY: It's actually three stories interwoven: a Chinese cultural story about a monkey king, a young boy trying to find his way in a public school system, and then another story of the boy depicting another person. So it's three interwoven stories that all come together at the end in a remarkable way.

MARTIN: What age group?

Ms. ROY: I would say teen readers. But if you have a good reader who's seven or eight I think they would enjoy it. And my son is 17, and he enjoyed it, too.

MARTIN: Do you have any interesting books for African-American children or books that feature African-American characters?

Ms. ROY: Well, this year the American Library Association gave its first award for the graphic novel, and one of the honor books of the - actually, one of the award winners for non-fiction is a graphic biography of Malcolm X written by Andrew Helfer. In a similar format, using a lot of the illustrations in depicting the story of Malcolm X's life. It's also quite good.

MARTIN: What about for Latino children or featuring Latino children?

Ms. ROY: Well, I brought one of my favorites, favorites for several reasons. One is that the story was written by Pat Mora. She was the founder and is the founder of a wonderful book celebration event called Dia de los Ninos, Dia de los Libros. And now, American…

MARTIN: A day of the children, day of the books.

Ms. ROY: Yeah. Children's day and book day.

MARTIN: What day is it?

Ms. ROY: It's at the end of April, April 30th. But as Pat says, every day is book celebration day.

MARTIN: I know. How come you didn't invite me? You didn't invite me.

Ms. ROY: You're invited.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. ROY: But this book is called "Dona Flor," and so "Mrs. Flower," and it's a tall tale. I grew up in northern Minnesota so we grew up with the stories of Paul Bunyan. And most cultures have stories of tall, enormous, giant people. And in this case, Dona Flor is in New Mexico and she saves her community and little pumas are just like little tiny kittens to her. And she makes tortillas and they serve as rafts and roofs for the people as they construct their houses. It's beautifully illustrated. And it's also an award-winning title.

MARTIN: Why do you think these awards matter? I know that you see the little sticker. Often times when you go to the bookstore there's a little sticker on the book. But why should you look for that sticker?

Ms. ROY: Well, they help guide people to, you know, the best reading. And the fact that "American Born Chinese" won an award, you know, people will - it will always stay in print, people will be drawn to those books. Sometimes library set them up in separate collections.

And then, again, you have awards like the Blue Bonnets, where the kids select and say here is the one that I really like. This year the Blue Bonnet award-winner is actually the first English-Spanish book by Joe Hayes. So the book awards help parents. They help librarians. It's a terrific boon to the author and to publishers. And it is sort of like our academy awards.

MARTIN: What else do you have over there? I see a wonderful - I'm reading upside down. It's a skill every journalist should have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Langston Hughes?

Ms. ROY: So this is also a Coretta Scott King Honor Award, "Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes." And each page takes one of his poems and illustrates us some background about Langston Hughes, but beautiful illustrations. And then the poems - a way for young people to rediscover and discover a noteworthy author and poet.

MARTIN: I know a lot of people worry about what the rise over the popularity of video games and the Internet; that our kids, perhaps, aren't as fond of reading as a pleasure activity as they used to be. Do you have any advice for teaching a love of reading?

Ms. ROY: The parents of children are their first teachers. And the best advice we can give parents, really, is to be seen reading. There was a recent study that said only 20 percent of young people were recommended by their parents to go to the library to read and to pick up materials. So parents are the best role models. That if you're reading, if you have books, if you have magazines, if you're reading online, if you have audio books in the car, and they…

MARTIN: They start young, actually. I see you got something for a very young reader out there.

Ms. ROY: Well, there are - there's a format of book called a board book. And it's, actually, the pages, they feel like cardboard. And I found that working with tribal children that kids of all ages, actually, readers of all ages love the board books. The pictures are large and you can use these in a group. I've seen children at the Pueblo at Laguna sit around in a circle and read these books together. The good reader will help those who are struggling and they like reading to younger children as well.

In this case, I'm holding up a book called "Baby's First Laugh." It's illustrated by Beverly Blacksheep. And it depicts a Navajo tradition that still exists today: The first person who makes a baby laugh is responsible for holding a feast for the community. And so through this story, which is told in both Navajo and English, you learn who is the person who will first make the baby laugh.

MARTIN: How would you find some of these books if you live in an area where, presumably, if you live in a largely African-American area, booksellers will have books geared toward, you know, the African-American population. What if you don't, or if you live in an area where there a lot of American-Indians or people of - native people, presumably, your booksellers will have these books? But what if you don't and you'd love to explore those books, what would you do?

Ms. ROY: The first stop would be a school and public library, because you're working with expert specialists, people who, even if they might not be African-American or a native person, they would know the book awards, they would know the winners, they would know how to develop lists and access book lists that already exist.

MARTIN: Most of these books weren't written when you were growing up. So do you have a favorite book from childhood you want to tell us about?

Ms. ROY: Favorite books from childhood? I remember the first book I read, because I was about two years old and the family my parents bought this house from left a book for me. And it was a book about Laughie(ph) the dog. I remember it was a fabric book. And so it was probably the first book I owned. I remember books of - when I was about 13, I read a book by the English writer Laurie Lee, and it was a book called "The Edge of Day." And I still read that book almost every spring.

MARTIN: Oh, that's lovely. Mine was "Harriet the Spy."

Ms. ROY: It was a great series.

MARTIN: Harriet was obsessed with tomato sandwiches, and Harriet wanted to be a spy. And that's really all I'm going to say about that at the risk of revealing too much about my personality.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Loriene Roy is the president of The American Library Association. She joined us here in the studios. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And now it's your turn. Do you have a favorite book, a spy novel maybe? What multicultural books do you recommend for your kids and for you? Tell us what's on your nightstand.

Visit us online at npr.org/tellmemore, or you can read all the blog and share your thoughts. If you can't wait to get online, you can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, the number is 202-842-3522. It's your turn to tell us more.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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