Becoming Critical Readers through Engagements with International and Multicultural Literature

“What?! That happened in America?”: Learning about U. S. History through Multicultural Literature

By Julia López-Robertson and Lillian Reeves

My teaching is guided by a sociocultural view of teaching and learning (Vygotsky, 1978) in conjunction with a desire to prepare preservice and inservice teachers to teach children from diverse cultural, socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds. These beliefs propel me to set up an environment conducive to the active participation of students in my courses. Concerned with the number of preservice and inservice teachers lacking knowledge of how to teach children from diverse backgrounds, “the persisting teacher to student cultural and linguistic mismatch” (Haddix, 2010, p. 99), I use multicultural literature as a vehicle to provide insight into the lives of the diverse children who attend U.S. schools. While I realize that the literature provides but a glimpse into the complex lives of the children and their families, it is nonetheless a step in the process of preparing culturally responsive teachers (Gay, 2000).

In my graduate class, Curriculum and Materials Development for English Learners, I had the pleasure of spending Monday evenings with eight students (seven whom I had in courses either as undergraduates or graduates) with varying degrees of teaching experience; one was an ESOL teacher, one was a middle school teacher, one had taught overseas, two were teaching English to adults and three were recent graduates of our Early Childhood program. Additionally, doctoral student, Lillian Reeves, the co-author of this piece, worked with me in the course; Lillian participated in our Blackboard discussions and co-authored several blogs that the students and I wrote for WOW Currents. Lillian was the extra set of eyes that brought a fresh perspective to interpreting and synthesizing the students’ discussion posts. While there were a variety of engagements that helped prepare students for teaching diverse learners, the focus of this vignette is our discussions of YA novels.

Pairing Multicultural YA Novels and Scholarly Articles

Most course engagements drew from children’s or young adult literature that I read aloud in class or novels that students read independently. Additionally, I paired each YA novel with scholarly articles because I sought to provide students with the background and a deeper understanding of the historical and sociopolitical context of the novels we were reading (see Table 1). In doing so, I felt that I could provide the seeds for richer discussions because the students could draw on the history and context of the situation presented in each novel.

YA Novel Scholarly readings
Return to Sender In the Contact Zone: Code-switching by Latino Writers
A Step from Heaven Moved by War, Migration, Diaspora and the Korean War
Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story The Spirit of a People: Hmong American Life Stories;
Hmong Voices and Memories: An Exploration of Identity, Culture and History;
The Hmong in America
American Born Chinese Graphic Journeys: Graphic Novels Representations of Immigrant Experiences;
Graphic Novels in the Classroom
A Glass of Water Mexicans as Model Minorities in the New Latino Diaspora

Table 1. Young adult novels and scholarly readings.

Book Selection

To help close perceived gaps in students’ knowledge of the immigrant diaspora, I chose to focus our readings on a select group of Young Adult novels that reflected a wide range of cultural, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds; presumably ones that might be found in our classrooms. I selected two books representing two different experiences of Mexican protagonists: Return to Sender (2009) by Julia Alvarez and A Glass of Water (2009) by Jimmy Santiago Baca. Alvarez’s novel focuses on young adolescents whereas Baca’s is a young adult/adult novel that discusses mature themes such as drugs, sex, and violence. I chose this book to give my students a more raw view of the struggles of young adults who experience violence against their parents and how this violence affects their views of the world.

A Step from Heaven by An Na (2001) recounts a young girl’s journey from childhood in Korea to adolescence and assimilation in the United States. In Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story, Pegi Deitz Shea (2003) tells Mai Yang’s story of struggle and acceptance from a refugee camp in Thailand to a home with her family in Rhode Island. American Born Chinese (Yang, 2006), a celebrated graphic novel, chronicles the experiences of a young Chinese American boy who turns his back on his native culture in order to ‘fit in’ and realizes that in the process he has lost part of his identity.

Blackboard and In-Class Discussions

In addition to our in-class discussions, students participated in weekly Blackboard discussions online, giving them the opportunity to extend conversations begun in class and to initiate new ones. These Blackboard discussions served as the basis for the blogs that each pair of students, Lillian, and I co-authored for WOW Currents, in March, 2011.

Our analysis of the Blackboard discussions and in-class discussions revealed recurring themes of shock and concern regarding knowledge of U.S. history, “what, I didn’t know about this and I thought I was good at US history!” and concern that, “if I consider myself a pretty educated person and I don’t know this, what does this mean for the kids in our schools now? I went to a pretty decent high school, how was this skipped over.” Davis (1995) states that many American students do not know U.S. history and offers that,

The reason for these historical shortcomings is simple; most of us learned history from textbooks that served up the past as if it were a Hollywood costume drama…our historical sense is frequently skewed, skewered, or plain screwed up by myths and misconceptions. (p. x)

Davis’ point resonated with many students as evidenced in the excerpts below:

100The Spirit of a People taught me a lot about the Hmong’s story and the history
101 − behind why many of them are refugees forced to leave their home country in
102 − hopes of finding a better life. − I was confused as to why they were living
103 − in a refugee camp in Ban Vinai from the start. It really is a shame and a
104 − disservice to all of the Hmong students who come to the U.S. for reasons
105 − unbeknownst to them. If this is a shameful act of the US gov’t that has
106 − been swept under the rug and erased from our history books, how are we
107 − supposed to do these children justice in the classroom? Again, this
108 − connects back to Campano and in the importance of knowing the culture and
109 − history of our students.

Jennifer learned generally about the Hmong through the YA novel and more specifically about the “history behind” why many were forced to leave their homes (lines 100-102) through the article, The Spirit of a People: Hmong American Life Stories (Buley-Meissner, 2002). In lines 103-105, Jennifer expressed that it was a “shame and a disservice to all the Hmong students who come to the U.S. for reasons unbeknownst to them.” While it is unclear who should be feeling shame–the Americans for their ignorance of history or the Hmong for keeping their history from their children–she continues with this line of thought and adds a hint of resentment in lines 105-106 when discussing the “shameful act of the U.S. gov’t that has been swept under the rug and erased from our history books.” Additionally, she clearly articulated her frustration at teachers’ positioning in schools when she questions, “how are we supposed to do these children justice in the classroom?” (107). Finally, her direct connection to Campano (2006), a required reading for another course she took with me the semester prior to this one, reinforced her belief that as teachers we must know our students and their history (108-109).

Michelle’s comments in the following excerpt illustrate Davis’ (1995) point that American’s “historical sense is frequently skewed, skewered, or plain screwed up” (p. x), which can be attributed to completely omitting certain figures from U.S. history:

100Harvesting Hope: The Story of César Chávez by Kathleen Krull is a powerful
101 − picture book that tells the story Chavez’s life and mission. To me, it testifies to the
102 − point we were talking about with the Hmong people and the absence of certain
103 − people in the history books and school curriculum. I would not have known about
104 − Cesar Chavez’s life until picking up and buying this picture book for my
105 − classroom except for maybe hearing his name. Although he is a controversial
106 − man, shouldn’t we at least know who he is and what he did?

She begins by bringing our attention to a picture book about César Chávez and connecting that to the absence of the Hmong and “certain people in the history books and school curriculum” (lines 102-103). Her use of the word ‘testifies’ (line 101), a deliberately strong word choice, indicates her distress that there are important people of color missing from U.S. “history books and school curriculum” (lines 102-103). Later (lines 103-105) she reveals that she may have ‘heard’ Chávez’s name but would not have learned about him except that she happened upon the picture book, Harvesting Hope: The Story of César Chávez (Krull, 2003). In this excerpt Michelle shared a gamut of emotions; beginning with the simple telling about a “powerful picture book,” then sharing her distress about the omission of important people from U.S. “history books and curriculum” and ending with a straightforward plea, “shouldn’t we at least know who he is and what he did?” (line 106). In another discussion Michelle asked a poignant question, “What message are we sending the children of this country [U.S.] through the things that we say or fail to say?” Indeed, what are we saying?

Final Reflections

Throughout the semester, the students continued to comment on their disbelief at not knowing about some of the historical events about which we were reading. Sometimes they were angry that the events were ‘swept under the rug.’ I shared that I first learned about the Japanese internment camps when I read Baseball Saved Us (Mochizuki, 2004) in a graduate course about multicultural children’s literature and that I also was angry at the atrocities of the U.S. and how they seem to have been wiped away from our history books (Davis, 1995). Sharing that I, too, was unaware of some of the occurrences in U.S. history seemed to make them feel a little better about learning about U.S. history this late in their schooling.

The students’ responses to the books were often developed around questioning, applauding, or expressing concern about the work, neglect (historically, culturally, linguistically), or interventions of the teachers portrayed. This literary experience and the historical intervention it shaped created a dynamic catalyst for the graduate students to assess and ultimately to intervene as historical, cultural, and linguistic advocates on behalf of the students they will serve in their own classrooms.

While not all of our teachers can be certified in ESOL when they enter their classrooms, they will undoubtedly encounter immigrant students and language learners across the grades and content they teach. Specifically, English teachers and literacy specialists have an obligation to be informed advocates for their students concerning matters of cultural and social capital (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). One way, then, to address the concerns raised regarding teacher preparation is to broaden courses in education to include global literature as readily as canonical literatures.

The work of John Dewey (1938) and Louise Rosenblatt (1965) have influenced educational reformers to view literature as an interactive pathway by which we come to first better understand ourselves and then to better understand others. When graduate students, heading into classrooms, are equipped with literary experiences that disrupt and confront any notion of singularity in the American experience, they are more likely to encourage a broader reading of our social circumstances–a reading the graduate students themselves demand and secure as evidenced in courses like this one. These experiences can foster a shift in curricula and the expansion of instructional outcomes that are no longer limited to securing the success of native English speakers alone, but are expanded to ensure a more democratic experience for all children in our schools.


Boatwright, M.D. (2010). Graphic journeys: Graphic novels’ representations of immigrant experiences. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53(6), 468–476.

Bourdieu, B. & Passeron, J. C. (1990). Reproduction in education, society, and culture. London: Sage.

Buley-Meissner, M. L. (2002). The spirit of a people: Hmong American life stories. Language Arts, 79(4), 323-331.

Campano, G. (2006). Immigrant students and literacy: Reading, writing, and remembering. New York: Teachers College Press.

Davis, K. C. (1995). Don’t know much about history: Everything you need to know about American history but never learned. New York: Avon.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Haddix, M. (2010). No longer on the margins: Researching the hybrid literate identities of Black and Latina preservice teachers. Research in the Teaching of English, 45(2), 97-123.

Her, V. K. & Buley-Meissner, M. L. (2010). Hmong voices and memories: An exploration of identity, culture, and history through Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary writing by Hmong Americans. Journal of Asian American Studies, 13(1), 35-58.

Rosenblatt, R. (1965). Literature as exploration. New York: Modern Language Association.

Torres, L. (2007). In the contact zone: Code-switching strategies by Latino/a writers. The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS), 32(1), 75-96.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wortham, S., Mortimer, K., & Allard, E. (2009). Mexicans as model minorities in the new Latino diaspora. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 40(4), 388–404.

Yang, G. (2008). Graphic novels in the classroom. Language Arts, 85(3), 185-192.

Yang, K. (2001). The Hmong in America: Twenty-five years after the U.S. secret war in Laos. Journal of Asian American Studies, 4(2), 165-174.

Yuh, J. Y. (2005). Moved by war, migration, diaspora and the Korean War. Journal of Asian American Studies, 8(3), 277-291.

Children’s/Young Adult Literature Cited

Alvarez, J. (2009) Return to sender. New York: Yearling.

Baca, J. S. (2009). A glass of water. New York: Grove Press.

Krull, K. (2003) Harvesting hope: The story of Cesár Chávez. Ill: Yuyi Morales. New York: Harcourt.

Mochizuki, K. (2004). Baseball saved us. New York; Lee & Low.

Na, A. (2001). A step from heaven. New York: Speak.

Shea, P. D. (2003). Tangled threads: A Hmong girl’s story. New York: Clarion.

Yang, G. (2006). American born Chinese. New York: First Second.

Links to Blogs: Border Crossings
To be or not to be: Graphic Novels in the Classroom?
Border Crossing: Children in the Cultural Crossfire
Border Crossings & Tangled Threads
The Space Between : A beginning journey into border crossing

Julia López-Robertson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Instruction and Teacher Education at the University of South Carolina. Lillian Reeves is a doctoral student at the University of South Carolina.

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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