News - Selecting Multicultural Kids' Books: Tips From GU's Resident Expert

Selecting Multicultural Kids' Books: Tips From GU's Resident Expert

By Carla Morris

Great multicultural children’s books can dispel stereotypes, open up new worlds, and teach respect. But how can parents know that a book touted as a multicultural gem measures up?

We posed this question to Greenville University’s resident expert, award-winning children’s author Professor Alexandria LaFaye. Her most recent book, Ready to Fly: How Sylvia Townsend Became the Bookmobile Ballerina (HarperCollins, 2020), tells the true story of an African American girl who falls in love with ballet after watching Swan Lake on TV. LaFaye coauthored the book with friend and illustrator Lea Lyon.

Ready to Fly follows two other books from LaFaye with multi-cultural themes: Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town (Albert Whitman & Company, 2019) and No Frogs in School (Sterling Children's Books, 2018).

Cultural Accuracy, A Must

LaFaye advises choosing books that reflect cultural accuracy and engage children in the subject matter in ways that directly relate to them.  

“The cultural accuracy piece is the sticking point,” she says. 

She recommends consulting a book-selection guide compiled by Social Justice Books.org. It urges parents to notice how an author develops characters of underrepresented groups and what the book says about the identities of persons it portrays. View the complete guide here

Follow-Me-Cover-web.jpgExercising Imagination and Empathy

An avid cultural explorer, LaFaye scopes out new vistas and taps her imagination and empathy to figure out how to “package” her discoveries for young minds to process. History plays an essential role. 

She set Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town in the Exoduster Movement during the late nineteenth century. 

“When I realized how few people knew about the Exoduster movement in which tens of thousands of African-American homesteaders established claims in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, I wanted to inspire young readers to know more.”

The story follows a young fictional girl and her family as they establish their homestead in Nicodemus, Kansas. The State Library of Kansas selected the book as one of this year’s Notable Books for its portrayal of this chapter in the state’s history. 

Stories That Make the Heart Sing

Ready to Fly came to LaFaye through illustrator and aspiring author Lea Lyon. Lyon had drafted a story based on an interview she had conducted with ballerina Sylvia Townsend. She shared the draft with LaFaye, knowing that LaFaye mentors writers and helps them to bring out the full potential of their stories. 

“When I read what was then called The Bookmobile Ballerina, I knew I wanted to offer more than advice,” says LaFaye. “I wanted to co-author the story because it was so special and so inspiring, and I so wanted be a part of giving it wings. Lea graciously agreed to take me on as a writing partner.” 

Sylvia aspired to learn ballet as a young girl in the 1950s, a time when ballet schools did not welcome African Americans. She consulted books from a bookmobile to teach herself how to dance. She eventually earned a place in a dance studio and later opened a studio of her own. 

“It was a blessing all the way around for everyone involved,” says LaFaye. Ready to Fly becameAlexandria-Lafaye.jpg Lyon’s first book as author. It was also the first editorial project for the book’s editorial assistant, who later was promoted to editor. The project’s illustrator had always dreamed of illustrating a ballet book. 

“So far, this book about pursuing and reaching a dream has been a dream come true for everyone involved,” says LaFaye. 

The Full Beauty of God’s Design

LaFaye’s delight in the convergence of talents, backgrounds, and aspirations echoes her appreciation for the rich tapestry of cultures around her. She sees how many cultures reveal the full beauty of God’s design; she wants others to see that beauty, too.

“We should all read books about as many cultural identities as possible,” she says, “to develop a fuller and deeper understanding of every part of God’s Kingdom so that we may have the compassion and connection to fulfill God’s plan for us all.”

Learn More:

A. LaFaye: Author, Professor, and Inspiration
Sriblerus: 80 Years Engaging the Fine Art of Critique
Book Lover Lands Job Reading for a Living
Student Organizations: The Scriblerus

This story was published on September 01, 2020




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