Childern’s Books & Diverse Cultures in an Undergraduate Course

by Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University

One of the benefits of attending the IBBY conference was discovering new friends. It was a special delight to meet authors from other countries. The conversations we had during breaks, at lunch, at evening receptions and at dinner offered enriching ideas to take back to share with my students and colleagues. Devika Rangachari is an author from India who became a new friend. Attending her session and learning about her research regarding the role of women in Indian history was informative. She gave me one of her books, Harsha Vardhana.

The novel tells about a powerful king in Indian history, CE 606, and how his sister influenced his reign. One evening during the conference I read the book. I found it to be a dramatic story that gave me a wider view of Indian history. It was a pleasure to talk with Devika the next day about her writing and the research for the book. With conversations and experiences like these I discovered new books that I might use in my Global Literature course.

Introduction

A Global View Through Children’s Literature, a course for undergraduate students at Eastern Washington University in the United States, supports students in gaining a wider perspective of world cultures and issues through reading a variety of children’s and young adult literature. The University draws students mainly from rural areas of the states of Washington and Idaho. People from diverse cultures are invisible to these students because they have had few first hand experiences with other cultures. My colleagues, Dr. Jane Liu and Dr. Chris Valeo, and I designed a course that addresses this problem. Dr. Valeo from the English Department and I from the Education Department teach the course. We combine our knowledge, perspectives and expertise in children’s literature and other cultures. In sharing children’s and young adult literature with international settings we widen the cultural views of our students.

Description of the Course

Children’s and young adult literature offers a unique opportunity to explore a variety of perspectives regarding global issues. Class experiences include read alouds of picture books and inquiries about themes through reading sets of children’s books gathered around the themes. Guest speakers enrich the class with their stories that connect with the books the students are reading. For example, Dr. Jane Liu who grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China comes to talk with the class after they have read Revolution is Not a Dinner Party. In whole class and small groups the class explores the following themes: family structures throughout the global community, the impact of war on communities, how geography influences cultures. In small groups the students read set of books that match the themes. All the students read and respond to the following young adult books:

    •Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone.
    •Compestine, Ying Chang. Revolution is Not a Dinner Party.
    •Hobbs, Will. Crossing the Wire.
    •Jolin, Paula. In the Name of God.
    •Kamkwamba, William & Mealer, Bryan. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
    •Lat. Kampung Boy.
    •McCormick, Patricia. Sold.
    •Mortenson, Greg & Relin, David. Three Cups of Tea: “One Man’s Journey to Change the World… One Child at a Time”. Adapted by Sarah Thomson.

To respond to these novels the students participate in large and small group discussions where they share their written reflections about the books. The class also features presentations by students and guest speakers as well as explorations through experiences such as museum displays, traveling journals, art projects and more.

Outcomes and Evidence

The following lists the learning outcomes and how the evidence from the students that is gathered:

    1) Students will come to understand that culture is a construct that transmits stories and is transmitted through stories (evidence: museum display, textsets exploration, response papers).
    2) Students will gain familiarity with other cultures on the way to a better understanding of the global community through the reading of children’s and young adult literature (evidence: response papers).
    3) Students will learn to consider non-U.S. perspectives through their responses to children’s literature (evidence: response papers, classroom discussion).
    4) Students will develop a thoughtful and critical reading stance that allows for consideration of their source, the author’s point of view, and the impact of their own perspective on their reading of children’s literature (evidence: final project).
    5) Students will develop critical insights into sociopolitical issues and trends around the world (evidence: graffiti wall, response papers, final project).


Course Impact on Students

The course contributes significantly to the students’ understanding about world cultures and issues that affect the global society and has become a popular course with students that represent many majors across the University. The course has two major impacts on the students. First, they read, respond and discuss books about other cultures. Second, they become acquainted with the rich resources available through children’s and young adult literature. Here are some quotes from students’ about the course:

    “Most of these books I would have never chosen on my own. They are amazing books, but I have never pushed myself to read these hard topics until now!”
    “I used a few radicals to form my opinion about the Muslim Cultures and about the Middle East in general. I have never seen or even thought of life on their side!”
    “I love that I have been changed in some ways and unchanged in others; ultimately, this is the value of what I have read and where it has taken me. It is, in fact, how I have grown.”
    “… I’ve learned that it’s not necessarily about changing the world, but about changing the lives of the people that you encounter.”
    “What I have realized by reading the variety of books this quarter is that not only did I learn a lot about cultures but I have more feeling and relate more to the characters in the books.”
    “I have learned there is a great big world outside of me that deserves my attention, my prayers, my concerns and my dedication to becoming more knowledgeable.”
    “It is important to realize that it only takes one person, one idea to change the world.”

Conclusion

At the end of the quarter, students tell us that reading the books in the class has changed their views of other cultures. When the course is finished we ask students to list actions that they will take as a result of the reading the books for the course. They proposed to: share the ideas they discovered with friends and family; start fundraising for global humanitarian or environmental causes; volunteer for the Peace Corp; continue to read widely about other cultures. It is a rewarding course for both professors and students.

Bibliography: Common Books Read in the Course

Beah, Ishmael. (2007). A Long Way Gone. New York, FSG.
Compestine, Ying Chang. (2007). Revolution is Not a Dinner Party. New York, Holt.
Hobbs, Will. Crossing the Wire. (2006). New York, HarperCollins.
Jolin, Paula. (2008). In the Name of God. New York, Square Fish.
Kamkwamba, William & Mealer, Bryan. (2009). The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. New York, Morrow.
Lat. Kampung Boy. (2006). New York, First Second.
McCormick, Patricia. Sold. (2006). New York, Hyperion
Mortenson, Greg & Relin, David. (2009). Three Cups of Tea: “One Man’s Journey to Change the World… One Child at a Time”. Adapted by Sarah Thomson. New York, Penguin.

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4 thoughts on “Childern’s Books & Diverse Cultures in an Undergraduate Course

  1. Kari says:

    First of all that is a very impressive undertaking to start up your own class, based on the means and needs of the students. Culture and diversity can be passed off sometimes and not much thought be put into it, but once you delve into the topic you can realize that you are indeed ignorant in many areas. By participating in group discussions and reflection, students are able to express their feelings and share something of their own experience.
    “Most of these books I would have never chosen on my own. They are amazing books, but I have never pushed myself to read these hard topics until now!” I am currently taking a tradebooks class and I feel the same way, I would have never read many of the books that we have so far if I hadn’t been required to, yet I am very glad I did. Usually it is the books we would never pick up based on their title or cover alone that turn out to have the most meaning and really allow us to self-reflect.
    I am amazed at how the students really got on-board with the class and took it to a new level even after they finished, by joining the Peace Corps or raising funds and so on. That goes to show you that the class was truly effective and you are doing your job right whenever you can see your students really getting involved outside the class.

  2. Heidi Storie says:

    I think this class sounds like a great idea. It is an excellent way for people to get to better understand diversity in a fun and exciting way! Diversity is an important thing for people to understand who have not grown up around it. This sounds like a class that I would be interested in taking.

  3. Leslie Mobley says:

    I love that you are opening the doors for so many people to learn about other cultures, when they may not have stepped foot through that door otherwise. I am an elementary education major at Indiana University Southeast and in our tradebooks class, we were looking at books from different cultures. One of the books our instructor selected for us was Climbing The Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman. This is a book about a girl from India who begs her family not to arrange a marraige for her (which is the norm in her society), because all she really wants to do is stay in school and eventually go to college. Once girls are married, they are forced to stop attending school and to start tending to the husband and family. It was such a great story and made me feel so proud to be an American, where I have a choice in what I want to do with my life. The decision to go to college was simply based upon whether or not I wanted to go. No one else was capable or allowed to make that decision for me. This is a book for young adults, but a great book to give young children, especially girls, a chance to see the freedoms that we are allowed, that are not allowed in other parts of this world. The class sounds great and I wish much success to both you and your students!

  4. Cathy Cronin says:

    I found your article really interesting to read. The course that you are teaching in children’s litature is very similar to the class that I am in at Indiana University Southeast. Some of the books that we have read this semster, I would have never had chosen that book to read on my own. Most of them I have enjoyed reading, others not so much.

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