M is for March, M is for Multicultural

photo credit: sandiadams08

I mention March, because following the heels of Black History Month, and being at the start of Women’s History Month, what better time than now to talk about multicultural books for kids?

Which brings me to the booklist I’m featuring today. To me, multicultural-themed books are not just part of a booklist, but a whole new way of thinking about ourselves, our reading habits, and how they reflect our country’s cultural heritages. I think we can agree that we are all immigrants, either first-generation, or several-generations past, and all of us can find a rich source of history, traditions, and beliefs as we travel back through our family roots.

No matter our reading habits, interests or backgrounds, there are always ways to break out of our comfort zones. As readers, I encourage you to ask a librarian, a bookseller, or a trusted friend to recommend a book you might not have read on your own, to venture into a different genre – fantasy, mystery, non-fiction, or what have you, and to read what is unknown, unfamiliar, and even unsettling.

The multicultural-themed books I’m highlighting here are ones that came out in the past twelve months. At the end of the post, are a few more titles, including those from years past, and I invite you to suggest more. For a more comprehensive list, be sure to look at blogger and bookstore owner Elizabeth Bluemle’s wonderful and ever-growing list: A World Full of Color, as well as author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s site (click the Diverse Reads link to see choices).


And to get people really excited about my recommendations, I’m giving away 2 shiny, new books from today’s list. One commenter, selected at random, will get to choose any 2 books he or she would like to have from my list, and will receive them at their doorstep, courtesy of me! Extra entry if you recommend a book not already on this list or suggested by someone else!

So let’s begin!*

*Descriptions taken from Indiebound


Description: Thirteen-year-old Lamar Washington is the maddest, baddest most spectacular bowler ever at Striker’s Bowling Paradise. But when it comes to girls, he doesn’t have game. So Lamar vows to spend the summer changing his image from dud to stud by finding a way to make money and snag a super fine Honey! When a crafty teenage thug invites Lamar to use his bowling skills to hustle, he seizes the opportunity. As his judgment blurs, Lamar makes an irreversible error, damaging every relationship in his life. Now, he must figure out how to mend those broken ties, no matter what it will cost him.

Why it’s on my list: This book is breezy and fun and chock-full of Allen’s own special brand of humor. And as Allen comments in an interview over at Reading in Color, “I’ve bowled on leagues since my middle grade years. A bowling alley is one place where trash talk comes in all languages; hands, facial expressions and of course, straight from the mouth! It’s an equal opportunity, multicultural sport, where abilities and disabilities don’t measure a person’s level of skill.” Definitely a book to check out.

HEART OF A SAMURAI – Margi Preus (Abrams)

Description: In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way. Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.

Why it’s on my list: Well, first off, it won the Newbery Honor this year. Also, I’m fascinated by how Preus, a resident of Duluth, MN, could envision such a meticulously crafted and researched story that took place in a setting, culture, and time period so different from hers. 

ONE CRAZY SUMMER – Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad)

Description: Eleven-year-old Delphine has it together. Even though her mother, Cecile, abandoned her and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, seven years ago. Even though her father and Big Ma will send them from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to stay with Cecile for the summer. And even though Delphine will have to take care of her sisters, as usual, and learn the truth about the missing pieces of the past. When the girls arrive in Oakland in the summer of 1968, Cecile wants nothing to do with them. She makes them eat Chinese takeout dinners, forbids them to enter her kitchen, and never explains the strange visitors with Afros and black berets who knock on her door. Rather than spend time with them, Cecile sends Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern to a summer camp sponsored by a revolutionary group, the Black Panthers, where the girls get a radical new education.

Why it’s on my list: This one is a Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King, and Scott O’Dell for Historical Fiction recepient. And oh yes, a National Book Award finalist, too. The book is about mothers and daughters, and has great atmosphere. Also, in a PEN panel interview, Garcia describes that in writing this historical novel, it was especially important for her to take a historical figure (in this case Hughie Newton, the youngest memberof the Black Panthers) that was in the “direct line of vision” of Delphine.  This connection Delphine feels for Hughie Newton and his tragic murder, is what gives this book set in the 1970s, a feeling of freshness and immediacy. Readers will be so caught up in the story, they will scarcely realize they are immersed in a different era.

 ZORA AND ME – Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon (Candlewick)

Description: Whether she’s telling the truth or stretching it, Zora Neale Hurston is a riveting storyteller. Her latest creation is a shape-shifting gator man who lurks in the marshes, waiting to steal human souls. But when boastful Sonny Wrapped loses a wrestling match with an elusive alligator named Ghost — and a man is found murdered by the railroad tracks soon after — young Zora’s tales of a mythical evil creature take on an ominous and far more complicated complexion, jeopardizing the peace and security of an entire town and forcing three children to come to terms with the dual-edged power of pretending. Zora’s best friend, Carrie, narrates this coming-of-age story set in the Eden-like town of Eatonville, Florida, where justice isn’t merely an exercise in retribution, but a testimony to the power of community, love, and pride.

Why it’s on my list: This book was handpicked for me by one of my favorite booksellers and owner of a nearby children’s bookstore. I can see why. The writing is bigger-than-life and tall-tale-ish without going over the top. And I think the idea of creating a fictionalized version of Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood is marvelous – what better way to introduce kids to one of our nation’s most respected writers? This book was selected as a 2010 Indie New Voices pick, and has been endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Estate.

THE RED UMBRELLA – Christina Gonzalez (Knopf)

 Description: In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. Her friends feel like strangers. And her family is being watched. As the revolution’s impact becomes more oppressive, Lucía’s parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own. Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?

Why it’s on my list: This is a great chance for young readers to get a small glimpse of Castro and the Cuban communist revolution of the 1960s, while still enjoying Lucia’s universal story of longing to fit in. The book, also handed to me by my local indie bookseller, is a 2010 Indie New Voices pick as well.

THE GREAT WALL OF LUCY WU – Wendy Shang (Scholastic)

Description: Lucy Wu, aspiring basketball star and interior designer, is on the verge of having the best year of her life. She’s ready to rule the school as a sixth grader and take over the bedroom she has always shared with her sister. In an instant, though, her plans are shattered when she finds out that Yi Po, her beloved grandmother’s sister, is coming to visit for several months — and is staying in Lucy’s room. Lucy’s vision of a perfect year begins to crumble, and in its place come an unwelcome roommate, foiled birthday plans, and Chinese school with the awful Talent Chang.Her plans are ruined — or are they? Like the Chinese saying goes: Events that appear to be good or bad luck often turn out to be quite the opposite, and Lucy finds that while she may not get the “perfect” year she had in mind, she can create something even better.

 Why it’s on my list: This book, written by one of our own Mixed-Up Files members, explores the need for finding balance between two different cultures, while bringing in its own new elements – basketball and interior design! As Wendy remarks, also in an interview at Reading in Color, “I…love the way girls are today: you can be girly AND athletic. I wanted my character to reflect that idea because when I was growing up, there was a bit of the sense that you could only be one or the other.”

SEAGLASS SUMMER – Anjali Bannerjee (Wendy Lamb)

Description: Eleven-year-old Poppy Ray longs to be a veterinarian, but she’s never had a pet. This summer, she’s going to spend a month with her uncle Sanjay, veterinarian and owner of the Furry Friends Animal Clinic on an island off the Washington coast. Poppy is in for big surprises. She loves tending to the dogs, cats, and even a bird, and she discovers the fun of newborn puppies and the satisfaction of doing a good job. But she learns that there’s more to caring for animals than the stethoscope and cotton swabs in her Deluxe Veterinarian First-Aid Kit. She’s not prepared for quirky pet owners, gross stuff, or scary emergencies. With help from a boy named Hawk, a chunk of seaglass, and a touch of intuition, Poppy gains a deeper understanding of the pain and joy of working with animals.

Why it’s on my list: I love the combination of rural Washington State (full disclosure – I’m originally from Washington State!) and the care of animals. I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen a book about an Indian-American with these elements before. I also think the tending and care of animals is something that will resonate deeply with young readers.

TALL STORY – Candy Gourlay (David Fickling)

Description: Andi is short. And she has lots of wishes. She wishes she could play on the school basketball team, she wishes for her own bedroom, but most of all she wishes that her long-lost half-brother, Bernardo, could come and live in London where he belongs. Then Andi’s biggest wish comes true and she’s minutes away from becoming someone’s little sister. As she waits anxiously for Bernardo to arrive from the Philippines, she hopes he’ll turn out to be tall and just as crazy as she is about basketball. When he finally arrives, he’s tall all right. Eight feet tall, in fact—plagued by condition called Gigantism and troubled by secrets that he believes led to his phenomenal growth.

Why it’s on my list: Told in alternating chapters between Andi and her brother, Bernardo, this book easily appeals to both boys and girls. I love the idea that both Andi and Bernardo are conscious of their height in different ways, and despite the London setting, Gourlay deals with many of the same issues facing families that immigrate to the United States.

 Additional Titles:

Jennifer Cervantes: TORTILLA SUN
Uma Krishnaswami: NAMING MAYA
Lenore Look: ALVIN HO (series)
Mitali Perkins: RICKSHAW GIRL
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich: EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO
Jacqueline Woodson: FEATHERS, LOCOMOTION

And now it’s your turn. What are some outstanding multicutural books you’ve enjoyed reading recently?

*Giveaway ends Saturday, March 12, midnight EST!*

Sheela Chari‘s novel, VANISHED, which comes out in August, is a tale of music, a missing instrument, and baseball cards, that will transport you all the way from Boston to Chennai. No plane tickets required.


  1. Thanks to everyone who stopped by! There are so many wonderful recommendations here – I can’t wait to find out more about them. The giveaway winner will be announced soon!

  2. What a great post! I’m a librarian and work to promote multicultural and global literature. I second Pragmatic Mom’s recommendation of A Long Walk to Water. Great book! I also recommend:

    Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, a wordless graphic exploration of immigration through the immigrant’s eyes.

    A Fistful to Pearls and Other Tales from Iraq by Elizabeth Laird

    The Flag of Childhood by Naomi Shihab Nye

    Anything by Margarita Engle–The Surrender Tree is absolutely beautiful. Last year’s new book was The Firefly Letters and she has a new book coming out later this year.

    Meja Mwangi’s The Mzungu Boy is great historical fiction about Kenya.

    Anything by Jane Kurtz or Beverley Naidoo. Kurtz writes mostly about Ethiopia and Naidoo writes mostly about South Africa, but has a fantastic book, The Other Side of Truth, set in Nigeria. Naidoo also has a book, Burn My Heart, about Kenya.

  3. If this drawing is open internationally, I’d love to enter it! (But no worries if not.)

    Recently, I’ve really loved Aliette de Bodard’s historical fantasy/mystery for adults, Harbinger of the Storm, and Ying Lee’s two Agency novels (YA historical mysteries), A Spy in the House and The Body at the Tower.

  4. My favorite MG have already been mentioned, so I don’t have any new titles to add. I do have many more to put on my wishlist, though!

    I loved NINTH WARD, and want to give it another plug! So touching and engrossing, I could not put it down.

  5. Would love to win. Additional multicultural books:

    I have a category of posts titled: People of Color Children’s lit here at http://www.pragmaticmom.com/?category_name=people-of-color-childrens-lit

    posts include for middle grade:

    Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord
    Anything by Grace Lin but my favorite is Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
    Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
    Anything by Linda Sue Park but my favorite is A Single Shard and her new book A Long Walk to Water is terrific and based on many true stories of the lost boys of Sudan
    Anything by Cynthia Kadohata but if you read only one, read Kira Kira
    Most books (all books are great but a few are not multi cultural though most are) by Pam Munoz Ryan but Esperanza Rising is wonderful
    Call Me Maria by Julia Ortiz Culfer for a gorgeous semi-novel in verse
    Anything by Yoshiko Uchida. Jar of Dreams is very dead on.

  6. Thanks so much for the great list of books. I look forward to reading titles you’ve listed. Blue and Comfort by Joyce Hostetter are ones I’d recommend. Not new titles, but great just the same. Please enter me in your contest! Thanks for such a quality blog. What a great group you are.

  7. Great list and such an important topic. I loved Grace Lin’s book and really want to read Tortilla Sun. Thanks for the contest.

  8. My favorite of the year was Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

  9. Now and Zen – Linda Gerber