©2019 by Mary Grace Whalen

  • Mary Grace Whalen

Culture and Diversity in Children's Books

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

Beverly Cleary once stated, “If you don't see the book you want on the shelves, write it.” (www.goodreads.com) Toni Morrison is quoted as saying, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”(www.goodreads.com)


I grew up in a first-generation Italian family. My parents had seven children. They were the first Italian homebuyers in their neighborhood which was dubbed "Dutch Hill." Most of the dolls I had during childhood had blonde hair and blue eyes. None of them looked like me. Certain unnamed shows depicted Italians negatively, and some of the comments made on these shows would be considered ethnic slurs according to today's standards.


My father traveled from his hometown in Francavilla, Italy to the United States of America in 1939 at the age of nineteen. He arrived at Ellis Island alone with one tiny suitcase, a small amount of cash and a prayer card that he carried with him in pocket for the rest of his 93 years. He had traveled by sea, and according to his description, it was a crowded ship, a bumpy ride and many of the travelers were seasick. After arriving at Ellis Island, he started work as a shoemaker, the trade he had learned in Italy. When his trade was no longer in demand, he went to work in a factory. His story will always be part of my story.


He spoke no English when he first arrived. He knew no one.


It was a time in history when instead of encouraging newcomers to continue to embrace their roots, they were encouraged to become "Americanized." My father was proud to be an American, but he was also proud of where he came from.


He father never lost his accent. I can remember some distinct moments when my father seemed humiliated when he mispronounced words. People are not always kind about language differences. What comes to mind is stories I have read by Amy Tan articulately describing the experiences her mother and father witnessed on this topic. What people need to remember is that if someone has an accent, they can speak more than one language.


Sandra Cisneros, Edwidge Danticat, Richard Rodriguez, Gloria Naylor, Rosie Anaya, Nancy Mairs and Maya Angelou, -- these are just a handful of examples of authors who have paved the way and penned stories about culture and differences.


It is important for me to show positive examples of diversity in my books. Examples that allow the reader to SEE that we are ALL part of the mainstream and not invisible in literature. It's about the story, not the difference. We are here. The person first before the identifying factors. Just showing that we all exist rather than making any population invisible---that is what inclusion is all about. Kids need to see themselves and the people they love in books.


Your comments are always welcome. Bala, mala, whala!


Mary Grace Whalen











#diversity #culture #children's books