Historical Fiction and the Mirror of Multicultural Lit

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has a line on their website about multicultural literature and how “all children deserve books in which they can see themselves and the world in which they live reflected.”

We’ve been looking at the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for my class, and I agree that the characters as caricatures in Huck Finn are sometimes less than helpful (and especially racist). While I think the book still has literary merit, I’m not sure it’s real useful as the kind of multicultural “mirror” that the CCBC suggests.

Which makes me think… is historical fiction really the most effective tool for such a pursuit? It’s good for bringing the past to life and hopefully keeping us from being “condemned to repeat it,” but I’m not sure kids can always see themselves very well in historical fiction, especially if we’re talking about a group that has been oppressed as much as the slaves were.

Even with a well-written, unbiased historical fiction novel, one could argue that slave culture might be harder for today’s kids to identify with. Obviously, there can be more to identify with than that, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. On the other hand, Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s Sam and the Tigers has more of this timelessness in its illustrations than the original Bannerman Little Black Sambo storybook or this terrible 1935 cartoon.

Historical fiction is often more of a window than a mirror. We might do better to focus on multicultural books that reflect the same [contemporary] culture or have illustrations/names that are timeless.

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