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Chances are, your child lives in a community where he or she interacts with very few people from different cultures. In school, in the yard and on television, your child has little opportunity to learn about the greater world. This is not a bad thing. This builds a spirit of community and fraternity. However, a child who learns to appreciate other cultures gains two important advantages. The first is a sense of love for others. Children, like adults, fear what they do not understand. Fear all too often leads to aggression. If a child learns about the people outside his or her world, that child learns not to fear them, learns that it is valuable to communicate before attacking. That lesson is carried into adulthood. The second reason for learning about other cultures is intellectual. Psychologists agree that a diverse education breads a higher IQ. This means that a child who learns about many different things will have an easier time understanding any new thing he or she encounters. We all want smart, loving children. Reading good multicultural literature can promote that.

Children form their ideas about the world from the time they're born until they finish puberty. That's about 16 years. When we talk about literature for children, we're talking about books for kids from 5 to 16 years old. The people who can introduce children to good books are parents and teachers. These figures have an enormous authority over a child's ideas.

Books that promote an understanding of the greater world can be categorized by their adherence to a few simple rules.

1. The book contains multicultural material. This includes anything from a book about the Chinese New Year to a book on the Special Olympics. The cultures we are discussing are defined as any group of society that your child does not encounter on a regular basis.

2. The story and pictures do not uphold stereotypes. Characters, setting and plot should offer original insight into a culture and not simply parrot preconceived notions. For example, a book about a young black gang member in Los Angeles who wants to grow up and become a basketball star does not expand your child's ideas of what African Americans can accomplish. It is only reinforcing the stereotypical (and often untrue) images he or she deals with every day. If you can recognize a character like the one in the book in a hundred other stories and movies you know, chances are the book is perpetuating a steroptype.

3. The book is accurate. While a story of a boy living in Zaire, Africa might be entertaining, it may not be accurate. If the main character is hunting boars with a spear, living in a hut and rubbing sticks together to make fire, the book is lying to your child. Children in Zaire do have a different culture from most of the children in America, but they are not living in the dark ages. Common sense can often tell you if a book is accurate, or you can talk to your librarian about reference books.

Most public and school libraries have an extensive selection of good multicultural books. As a parent or teacher, you can spend just a few hours in these libraries applying the criteria listed above and your own common sense to pick out the best books for the children in your life. Once you've chosen a few of them, read them with the child. Mention the positive elements of the stories and encourage the child's interest in a given culture by helping him or her to choose other materials relating to it. Remember, also, that a book doesn't have to be perfect to have value. As long as you react appropriately to negative aspects of a book: pointing them out to the child, discussing how a particular element is badly represented, keeping an open conversation on the subject - your child will learn good multicultural skills. From you! Even with an older child, or a teenager, you can be integral in expanding mental horizons. Simply reading the book yourself and offering to discuss it over dinner is effective. Or suggest family activities that relate to the book - festivals or museum exhibits, theatre shows or musical productions.

Good multicultural literature is a gift we have the power to give a child. It will help that child to know more of the world. It will help that child to respect other cultures. It will help that child to develop a will to understand other people. A careful and thoughtful selection of fun books can do this. Some children read less than ten books before they graduate from high school. If only one of those books helps to open their mind to the possibilities of a global community, then children's literature has done its job. And so have you!

Bibliography:

No book is perfect, but these are entertaining and valuable. Read them; discuss them with your child. You'll learn together.

Ages 5-7 Martin, A. (1992) Rachel Parker, Kindergarten Show-Off. New York: Ballantine Books.
Ages 5-8 Munsch, R., Askar, S. (1995) From Far Away. Buffalo: Annick Press (U.S.) Ltd.
Ages 6-8 Onyefulu, I. (1995) Emeka's Gift. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.
Ages 8-11 Damrell, L. (1991) With the Wind. New York: Orchard Books.
Ages 12-16 Stine, M. (1994) Malcolm X, Civil Rights Leader. New York: Dell Publishing.