Why Multicultural and International Picturebooks Matter

Why Multicultural and International Picturebooks Matter

Tuesday, 01 August 2017

by Assistant Professor Myra Garces-Bacsal, PhD, Assistant Professor, Early Childhood and Special Needs Education Academic Group at National Institute of Education


We often hear the phrases “multicultural society” and “celebration of diversity” lobbied back and forth, even more so during Singapore’s National Day. It is a real challenge, however, to live and experience it in a deeply personal and emotionally authentic manner. This, I believe, is where the reading of multicultural and international picturebooks come in, as a means of jarring people’s consciousness out of its complacency and typical ideations of what ‘multicultural’ and ‘diversity’ mean.

In our recently concluded OER-funded research project, we defined multicultural picturebooks as reading materials that go beyond diversity in race and ethnicity but also include differences in religion, ability, gender and identity, age, body image, political beliefs and socioeconomic status(1). This is different from international picturebooks which are originally published in their home countries outside of Canada and the United States, and have been translated into English from their original language(2). In a world that is increasingly becoming more global, with classrooms made up of different nationalities, it becomes imperative that teachers and parents be made more aware of ways through which they can provide a sense of home, belonging, and safety through culturally authentic, sensitively told, and beautifully illustrated stories that make children aware that they are not alone in their experience. As Yokota and Teale observed(3) : “That sense of community across global lines plays an important role in not ‘othering’ people from places and cultures we may not know personally.”

At the moment, I am writing this from my workstation as an international research fellow at the International Youth Library in Munich, reputed to have the largest collection of international children’s literature in the world. The library was founded by Jella Lepman who sought to build a bridge of international cultural exchange and cultural education of children and young adults through children’s books, after the second world war in Germany. When the library opened for the first time in 1949, children marvelled having access to books not only from Germany but around the world, leading them to declare with true certainty that the war is finally over. I learned about this library housed in a castle when I read Paul Hazard’s “Books, Children and Men” that I thought would also be a fitting end to this short piece:

Yes, children’s books keep alive a sense of nationality; but they also keep alive a sense of humanity. They describe their native land lovingly, but they also describe faraway lands where unknown brothers live. They understand the essential quality of their own race; but each of them is a messenger that goes beyond mountains and rivers, beyond the seas, to the very ends of the world in search of new friendships. Every country gives and every country receives, - innumerable are the exchanges, - and so it comes about that in our first impressionable years the universal republic of childhood is born. 


1. Lukens, R. J., Smith, J. J., Coffel, C. M. (2013). A critical handbook of children’s literature. NJ, USA: Pearson Education, Inc.

2. Yokota, J. & Teale, W. (2016). International books matter. Literacy Today (2411-7862)33(6), 6-7.

3. P. —630 Yokota, J. & Teale, W. (2017). Striving for international understanding through literature. The Reading Teacher, 70(5), 629-633.