Becoming Critical Readers through Engagements with International and Multicultural Literature

Students’ Views of the Values of Characters in International Children’s Literature

By Deanne L. Paiva

As a reader of multicultural books with my primary-age students, I have striven to select and critique books that attempt to depict authentic cultural character traits within authentic settings and issues (Hancock, 2008). Recently my literature journey has begun drifting towards international literature which is defined as literature that is originally published in a language other than English and/or a country other than the United States, or published in the United States with characters that represent cultures or countries other than the United States (Hancock, 2008). As a teacher, I assume that I should apply the same criteria and have the same expectations when evaluating international literature that I do with multicultural literature. I look for literature that portrays characters, their settings, and their cultural issues in an authentic, respectful way. These books do not ask readers to look at the characters as the same as them, but rather asks readers to embrace and celebrate the characters’ diversity, thus adding a new layer to their understandings and appreciation. When looking for quality multicultural books, Rochman (2003) suggests that “good books unsettle us, make us ask questions about what we thought was certain. They don’t just reaffirm everything we already know” (p.104).

One purpose of children’s literature is to pass on moral and cultural values to a new generation (Bishop, 2003). Using that as a tenet, I began thinking about the values in multicultural children’s books. A brief conversation launched my inquiry into how to think about the values depicted in multicultural children’s literature. I was analyzing the values portrayed by the characters in Allan Say’s Tea with Milk (2009). In this book, the central character flees her parents’ home in Japan once she realizes that she is to be part of an arranged marriage. A graduate student in the small group in which I was sharing my findings questioned me about the idea of arranged marriages in Japan. He had lived in Japan for several years and was married to a Japanese woman. He said that he was not aware of arranged marriages in Japanese culture. I contacted another source, a friend who is also Japanese, who informed me that arranged marriages still exist in certain social classes. They were more prevalent a half a century ago which matches the setting of Tea with Milk. I was lucky to have someone familiar with Japanese culture to question me as well as another source to clarify.

My inquiry into the values in children’s books led me to another thought: the values that I see in these books may not match the values my students see after experiencing the book because of our differences in age, background, education, and experiences. I teach third grade in an urban public school. Most of these third grade students are Hispanic, along with one Anglo student and two students who emigrated from Ghana. Although all of the Hispanic students were born in the United States, many of their parents moved to the United States from either El Salvador or Mexico. These students have large family groups or members of their community from their home countries living in Dallas. Some students whose extended families reside outside of Dallas visit their parents’ home countries or family members residing in other countries once a year.

My classroom seems to be one of the students’ first experiences with multicultural literature. Our daily read aloud time and instructional time are heavy with multicultural literature, often focusing on the works of a specific author such as Allan Say or Patricia Pollaco. I began reading international literature with them in the second part of our school year. I have had only a few experiences with international literature, so I relied on the book reviews in WOW Reviews as a valuable resource when selecting literature. I chose books with Hispanic characters that reflected the majority of my class population, a book from Ghana to honor two cousins from Ghana, as well as books that represented cultures not found in my classroom. Besides the characters’ cultures, I chose books which depicted subject matter that might be interesting to students, allowing them a chance to share family stories and explore topics that could enhance their understanding of historical or contemporary issues.

Since students are the consumers of these books, I am more interested in the values they glean from a story than the values I see, so I set out to engage the third-grade students in conversations about the values depicted by the characters in this international literature. I chose two simple questions to examine the characters’ values identified by students: What is important to the characters? What evidence from the book supports your idea? Each week we would read an international book aloud. Generally, I introduced the book, conducted a picture walk, and generated some ideas and questions from the students before I read. If I saw misconceptions, I tried to clarify through the picture walk. I read the book two to three times in two or three settings and then asked students our guiding questions.

After the first reading, I wanted to capture their initial reactions to use later as a foundation for their text experience and so I recorded their responses to: What do we know about this book? I used a large chart tablet to record responses anytime the students were reflecting on the books. We enjoyed many wonderful pieces of international literature, some light-hearted, and others informing us on difficult issues. In this article, I have chosen a few that represent the larger group of books.

Grandma and Me at the Flea (Herrara, 2002) is a story about a grandma and a grandson, Juanito, who go to the flea market every Sunday to sell their used goods. While at the flea market, Grandma sends Juanito on errands to other flea market merchants with a token especially for that person. The storyline shows Grandma as a rematero, a community advocate, and a healer. Students said that these values were important to the characters:

Important to the Character Evidence from the text
Value used things They resell used things and buy other people’s used things.
Trading The zarape seller traded a blanket for the rub down that Grandma gave his sister when her back hurt
Herbs can heal headaches Grandma told Juanito to give herbs to Senora Vela.
Paying for Juanito’s expenses His parents move from farm to farm for work
Tamale recipe for a quincenera The Beltman’s daughter is having a quincenera and he says it will be a big hit with the sweet tamales.
Grandma is a Remetero All the people who she gives things to are so thankful. The jewelry man starts to cry when he says how much Grandma helped him.

Table 1

Josias, Hold the Book (Elvgren, 2006) is set in Haiti. Josias does not “hold the book” or go to school because he works his family’s land. Each day his friends encourage him to attend school with them, but he does not see a purpose for schooling, until one day he cannot get his beans to grow well in his garden. He comes to see education as a way to help his family prosper on their land. This time my students commented on what is important as well as what is not important to the characters:

Important to the Characters Evidence from the text
Helping in the garden Gather water, plant beans, tried several ways to make the beans grow better
All of the family helps with the garden and animals in order to survive Parents do not go to a job, his sisters help around the house and do not go to school
They use resources they have to survive They make their own hoses and use hay for the roofs; make their own fires; grow the food they eat; carry water on their ways for a long way and up a hill.
Family They work together and never fight.
Not important to the characters Evidence from the text
School Josias doesn’t want to go to school until he needs help with is garden; his parents won’t let him go until the end of the story.
Church They never talk about going to church.
Stores They never buy anything at the store. There are no stores in their village.

Table 2

Four Feet Two Sandals (Williams & Mohammed, 2007) is a book that asks the reader to understand the outcomes of war. Two female characters, Lina and Feroza, meet in a refugee camp on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and build a friendship while sharing a pair of sandals with each girl wearing the pair for a day at a time. The girls’ shared experiences of slain family members and fleeing persecution helps strengthen their friendship and support for each other in the camp. While introducing this book, I had to spend more time than with other books building a background for my students to understand the setting of contemporary civil war and the effects on civilians, not just soldiers. I tried to give only the facts and not interject my viewpoints when sharing what may have caused these girls to flee. Of course, students reacted with emotive responses which turned into a natural conversation between them. The students kept looking to me for a gesture or verbal cue of acceptance as I sat motionless so that their viewpoints could drive the pre-reading discussion. Despite that they were so passionate regarding the girls’ plights, their after-reading responses seemed almost void of the setting of war or a refugee camp:

Important to the Characters Evidence from the text
Sharing The girls shared the sandals, washing clothes, and water.
Clothes that were donated Everyone ran to the trucks to get some.
Sandals They shared the sandals and they took them away from Lina’s little brothers so they won’t ruin them.
Water They stood in long lines to get water.
Family They told stories about their families.
School was important for boys In the camp only boys got to go to school.
School was important for Lina and Feroza They would sneak up to the window to watch then boys and practice their names in the sand.
Ramadan They would meet and share memories.
The list to get a new home Everyone from the camp would crowd around the list to see if their name was on it. Lina got excited when her family’s name was on the list.

Table 3

Two students were cousins from Ghana and so I was thrilled when I found an international book from Ghana, Sosu’s Call (Asare. 2002). Sosu is physically handicapped and not accepted by his rural village because he is not able to walk. Sosu helps save his village from a devastating flood by dragging himself to the village drums and calling out to the adults working the land. The two students native to Ghana shared that they did not live like Sosu in the country, but they lived much like we do in Dallas with houses and apartments and their parents went to jobs in the city and did not farm. However, Crystal did enjoy telling us that her cousin Wadie did “run around with no shoes in Ghana like Sosu.” I liked how their information helped broaden students’ views of Ghana so the students would not assume everyone lives like Sosu. Rochman (2003) states, “One book doesn’t carry the whole ethnic group experience” (p. 105). A student, Jackson, wrote a response that extended beyond the story:

I think that Sosu’s life is going to be good because he is a hero and now everybody likes him. Now since he saved a village, they might donate money so people can build a hospital there because some people may be sick and they don’t have medicine so they will die.

My goal as a teacher through this inquiry was to capture students’ perspectives about the values of characters. I looked through my students’ eyes and not my own. My experience has left me with two new questions:

•Do students only look for values that match their values?
•How can I guide students to see multiple perspectives?

Students’ views of a character’s values are born from their own value systems. After we read Playing Lotería/El juego de la lotería (Laínez, 2005), a story about a grandmother and grandson who teach their languages to each other through the Mexican version of a BINGO game, I observed students demonstrate their value of bilingualism by playing the game Lotería using both English and Spanish. They also shared with me that they play Lotería with real money at home. Their experience conflicts with my beliefs and experiences of children gambling with real money. As a child I can only remember the prize for winning being candy or a token or the right to go first in the following game. This reinforced for me that my students and I can never separate ourselves or check our identity at the door before we read a book. Hancock (2008) writes, “Moral background becomes an influential part of response to the actions and decisions of characters in literature. Readers measure the right and wrong of characters against their personal value systems” (p. 41).

What I am trying to avoid in this experience is to allow students to assign a value placing their culture as superior to the culture represented in the book. I do not want students to believe that their values are better than another culture’s values as depicted in a book. As to the question of multiple perspectives, I wonder if more probing of students’ responses, rather than simply recording their responses, would ask students to go deeper in their understandings. I wonder if we could achieve the building of multiple perspectives by triangulating our understandings with other resources, books, and characters. That might lead students to understand what influenced the characters to make decisions in the books and how events in our lives influence our decisions as well.


Asare, M. (2002). Sosu’s call. La Jolla, CA: Kane/Miller.

Bishop, R. S. (2003). Reframing the debate about cultural authenticity. In D. Fox & K. Short (Eds.), Stories matter (pp. 25-37). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Elvgren, J. R. (2006). Josias, hold the book. Ill. N. Tadgell. Honesdale: Boyds Mills Press.

Hancock, M. R. (2008). A celebration of literature and response (3rd ed.) Columbus: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Herrera, J. F. (2002). Grandma and me at the flea/Los meros meros remateros. Ill. A. DeLucio-Brock. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press.

Lainez, R. C. (2005). Playing Lotería/El juego de la lotería. Ill. J.L Arena. Flagstaff: Luna Rising.

Rochman, H. (2003). Beyond political correctness. In D. Fox & K. Short (Ed.), Stories matter (pp. 101-115). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Say, A. (2009). Tea with milk. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Williams, K. L. & Mohammed, K. (2007). Four feet, two sandals. Ill. D. Chayka. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books.


Deanne Paiva teaches third grade in Dallas, Texas. She is also a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas.

WOW Stories, Volume III, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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5 thoughts on “Becoming Critical Readers through Engagements with International and Multicultural Literature

  1. Children’s literature is one of the most important ways the we can express values as well as the values of other cultures through print. It would be a great way to compare and contrast what we hold as our cultural values here in the U.S. with those of the cultures we examine through international literature. How can children learn different view points as well as how to respect those viewpoints? How can children learn that the world is a much bigger place than the classroom, school, state, or country? For most, international literature holds the answer as well as the key to unlock those doors. TV is probably the other way, but how rich a resource we have with a book

  2. Genny O'Herron says:

    I appreciate having some how-to steps outlined for using multicultural & international lit in the classroom. It seems so obvious and straight-forward as I read, but without guidance like this I know I’d be floundering. I’m wondering about the Hancock quote, “Moral background becomes an influential part of response to the actions and decisions of characters in literature. Readers measure the right and wrong of characters against their personal value systems.” I like the emphasis on having students articulate the values they glean from a story, rather than on the values a teacher sees, and/but I’m wondering in light of Hancock’s observation if there is a skillful way for teachers to model how bias/stereotyping/cultural difference/over-generalizing factors into what-how we see & name values? Has anyone tried an approach like this?

  3. Genny O'Herron says:

    My above comment was suppose to follow the article about using multicultural and international lit by Deanne Paiva. Sorry for that confusion!

    I appreciated how this article focused on how being a holistic teacher requires the provision of holistic/creative/broad writing responses. It is true that a range and choice of expressive forms will allow student to demonstrate their knowledge (or lack of) most vividly. It is always helpful to see examples of new expressive strategies–THANKS!

    And yes — like in Finland, all teachers should be empowered to realte lessons to community issues & knowledge!!!

  4. I am posting to this article, as for some reason what I wrote about the other article posted here.
    I found this article much more interesting than the other one. I particularly enjoyed to writing samples by children, as I used to be a bilingual writing specialist. It is as interesting to read what children say in word as much as it is interesting to see how they respond through picture. Building on prior knowledge about refugees and experiences is a great way to begin a discussion about this topic.
    I also like the theme of children’s life journeys. It is a new concept since children aren’t viewed as having much of a life journey being only alive a few short years, yet they have as interesting a story to tell as adults through writing.
    I like the idea of taking into account the child’s family background, community, etc. in both the home country and the new country. This makes it much more interesting but also tells a much deeper tale. It connects the old with the new in a sense, but also has continuity. Reading and writing about these experiences is very important in a multicultural curriculum. International children’s literature plays a key part in this at all levels. The refugee experience is unique in this connection.

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