We get it. Toys are the backbone of the holidays. It’s silly to pretend otherwise. They are entertaining, and they serve an important purpose. Play is vital, proven time and again to support cognitive development at all stages of childhood. It can and should be a regular part of a child’s routine.
But what if you don’t feel like giving another plastic tchotchke to the child in your life? What if you want to give them a rich experience, one they can revisit again and again? The answer is simple. Give them a book.
I know. In this era of rampant technology in every corner of our daily lives, the role of books seems like it’s at risk. You may be wondering if kids today even want to associate with something that doesn’t light up or do all the work for them. I assure you, this is not the case, despite what you have heard. Print or electronic format, a book is good medicine for today’s child.
But let’s up the ante, here. You can wrap up a Dr. Seuss or Pinkalicious book and play it safe, or you can venture into the impressive, lush world of multicultural children’s books. While still only representing a mere 253 of the 5,000 children’s books published in 2013 (source), the multicultural children’s books that are being made are often stunning, beautifully composed works of art.
But you grabbed a book from the limited selection at Walmart, and a book is a book, so therefore you’re giving the gift of reading and you win Christmas. Yes. Children’s books of any kind are potent objects of power and delight, “quality” be damned.
But here’s what you’re really giving when you give the gift of a multicultural children’s book. You are supporting a strong but woefully tiny part of publishing that needs every advocate possible. You are giving oxygen to stories of underrepresented or poorly represented groups of people. You are giving that child a mirror and a window, tales in which they can both see reflections of themselves and a peek into the experience of a different child. You are contributing to a global awareness and appreciation that is crucial for a well-informed and rounded little generation. You are making the world a better place.
Whoh. I think you just won Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/life.
And now, the list:
“Nino Wrestles the World” by Yuyi Morales
Tighty whiteys? Check. Lucha libre mask? Check? Hilarious encounters with the most nefarious villains in all of Mexican folklore? Check. Welcome to the brilliant talent of Mexican author and illustrator Yuyi Morales. It took a lot of restraint for me not to include her entire body of work on this list. Ages 4-8.
“Old Mikamba Had a Farm” by Rachel Isadora
Rachel Isadora repaints familiar fairy tales and nursery rhymes with an African flair, her stunning illustrations transforming Rapunzel’s flaxen hair into flower-decked dreadlocks and in this wonderful picture book, Old McDonald’s farm into Old Mikamba’s. We’re trading ducks, cows and chickens for zebras, wildebeasts, and lions, but we’re retaining the original charm and appeal of the song. Ages 3-8.
“Maria Had a Little Llama / María Tenía Una Llamita” by Angela Dominguez
Let’s help broaden kids’ knowledge of Latino culture, which spans more than a continent and over 25 countries. In the vein of rehashed nursery songs, we travel down to Peru, where Mary is Maria and she has a little llama instead of lamb. This gorgeous book is bilingual, each page printed in English and Spanish, doubling the usage and offering a, easy side-by-side comparison of the two languages. Ages 2-6.
“Take Me Out to the Yakyu” by Aaron Meshon
Many children live with dual cultural experiences, and this is celebrated in this little book depicting a young boy’s adventures at baseball games in America and Japan with his respective grandparents. Same, but different, and the common thread is fun. Ages 3-6.
“Chandra’s Magic Light: a Story in Nepal” by Theresa Heine
Cultural diversity is guaranteed in every choice on this list, but in this selection, so is economical diversity. When their family cannot afford it, two girls with gumption take matters into their own hands and find a way to raise money for a solar powered lamp to replace the kerosene one they know is making their baby brother ill. Saturated blues and purples color the vibrant, starry Nepalese country, making this a most beautiful and excellent choice. Ages 5-9.
“Mi Familia Calaca/My Skeleton Family” by Cynthia Weill
Skeletons for the holidays? Yes! Weill makes unique picture books using Mexican paper mache and mixed media. The minimal text is both in English and Spanish, giving readers a tour of Anita’s family, pet and, of course, the universal bane of her existence, her bratty younger brother, Miguel. A visual treat. Ages 3-6.
“The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred” by Samantha R. Vamos
This is a bright, cumulative tale detailing the roles of everyone, from the cow to the chicken, in bringing the ingredients for the farm maiden’s rice pudding. Spanish vocabulary is seamlessly woven in, with each word introduced in English first. A glossary is provided in the back. So fun for play acting! Ages 5-9.
“Mama Panya’s Pancakes: a Village Tale From Kenya” by Mary Chamberlin
A little resourcefulness and a lot of love turn Mama Panya’s meager pancake ingredients into enough pancakes to feed the entire village her son invites to dinner. Sharing is caring, so share the warm story with the child in your life. Ages 5-9.
“Wild Berries” by Julie Flett
Quality time with grandma is special all around the world. The young boy in this sweet little book enjoys berry gathering with his as they call things they come across by their Cree names. Short, simple, but brimming with a quiet elegance. Pronunciation and blueberry jam recipe in the back. Ages 3-6.
“Deep in the Sahara” by Kelly Cunnanne
Help widen your child’s perspective of the diverse African countries and Islamic traditions and explore the customs of Mauritania in North Africa. Lalla longs to wear a malafa, the beautiful body and head scarf that her mother and sisters wear. She learns just what the garment means in the end. An important look of a seldom discussed area. Ages 5-9.
“Mooncakes” by Loretta Seto
The Moon Festival is celebrated by the Chinese and Taiwanese with mooncakes and moon gazing. A young girl listens to the traditional tales about the Jade Emperor and the Jade Rabbit as Mama and Baba rock her under the night sky. Beautiful, moony illustrations complete the effect. Ages 5-9.
“A Pinata in a Pine Tree: a Latino 12 Days of Christmas” by Pat Mora
Trade the turtle doves for pastelitos and the golden rings for tamalitos, and you’ve got a fun new version of the traditional 12 Days of Christmas carol! Paired with Magaly Morales’s saturated rainbow illustrations, this will be a fantastic treat for Christmas this year. Ages 4-9.