“Diversity” took on new meaning for me during the years I spent as a K-5 Limited English Proficiency Instructor in Williamsburg, Virginia. I had the privilege of working with small groups of children from India, Nigeria, China, Morocco, El Salvador, Columbia, and Puerto Rico, just to name a few. My students spent most of their day in the regular classroom, but came to me for extra support in language learning. I helped them with all subjects, working on vocabulary, spelling, writing, and cultural context. We read and wrote stories together to work on vocab and English fluency. One of my favorite parts of getting to know these kids was hearing their stories about their families and traditions. They weren’t “foreign” or “other.” They were just regular kids, with regular feelings, regular parents who loved them and cooked for them and played with them – just like their classmates.
One of the things I looked for as I selected books to read to my students was, of course, literature set in their own cultures/home countries. But you know what? Most of what I found was non-fiction that was designed to instruct American-born children about other cultures. Now, there is nothing wrong with this type of literature, and I enjoy reading books like that with my own kids to broaden their understanding of the world. However, what I really wanted for my little language learners were stories that featured their culture or homeland naturally. I didn’t want them to feel like a social studies lesson. I wanted a story that showed a family in India doing something totally universal that an American or Moroccan or Chinese child could relate to. I longed for a story that featured a little boy in El Salvador with a plot that wasn’t trying to “instruct” about the culture. Just a story set there – a story that allows learning to flow from a character connection. From understanding. I couldn’t find much of this for the children I worked with, so I began writing it.
While the differences among cultures are real, interesting, special, and one of the things that makes travel and learning so rich and fun, I believe adults and children need to also see the sameness between cultures – our shared love for our families, our love for animals, our fears, our struggles with learning new things, and our wonder at the beauty of our world.
Have you ever caught yourself thinking that people in a culture extremely different from yours must not really have the same emotions that you have? When I read The Fault In Our Stars, I not only cried my eyes out and sat in a pile of tissues for two days. I also really understood atheists for the first time in my life. I’ve always struggled to connect with Middle Eastern culture because it seems so incredibly different from my own. Sometimes, when differences are emphasized and our shared humanity is ignored, people can become stereotypes that we feel we have nothing in common with. My husband and I enjoy watching PBS’s Independent Lens from time to time, and this has been eye-opening to me. As we followed families of nomads through health problems, nights with fussy babies, and leaky tent roofs, their heartaches touched my heart. I cried. Watching a recent Independent Lens about the situation in Israel and Gaza was also fascinating to me, as we followed the lives of several refugees and their struggles to find jobs and provide for the families they loved just as much as I love my own. I think that what’s so special about these programs is that they’re not documentaries in the traditional sense. They’re people’s real stories. The facts and setting are just a backdrop. The people are the focus, and I love that.
Several of my students have left a lasting mark on my heart. One of my kindergartners came to me on the first day with one English phrase: SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS! Many of my little girls from South America were enamored with Dora the Explorer, and playing my Dora alphabet game was a favorite activity because they could relate to her. One of my third-grade little boys was a complete delight, and I’ll never forget him coming back from his day off for Ramadan saying, “Daddy decided to take me to see Beverly Hills Chihuahua instead of going to the mosque. It was so funny! You have to go see it, Mrs. Bandy!” His father had a second wife and several children back in their homeland- talk about a different culture! But I could relate to this little guy as easily as breathing. We related over stories, not cold facts. We could understand each other and also celebrate and enjoy our differences. They loved telling me about their moms’ special dishes, teaching me words in their own languages, and drawing pictures of holiday celebrations I’d never even heard of.
So, as writers and illustrators, I would encourage you to think of “diversity” in a new way. Let yourself enter into not only the wonders and differences of another culture, but into the hearts of its inhabitants. Write a story that will touch the hearts and minds of readers. Write a story of a struggle to blend old and new. Don’t take the easy route of showing only difference, only struggle, only prejudice. Write and/or illustrate a story that shows differences and sameness at once, because one without the other cheats us out of truly understanding each other.