Magoosh GRE

Multiculturalism in Children’s Writing in the US in the 1980s

| January 16, 2017


This essay will firstly give an overview of the history of multicultural children’s literature. Secondly, it will map out key theories and debates surrounding multicultural children’s literature in the United States. Thirdly the essay will analyse two books set within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that were published in the United States in the late 1980s – The Flag Balloon and Israel Is. The essay will analyse if and how multiculturalism is presented in the text and the images and identify how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is informed in the books.
Each analysis will also assess whether the multiculturalism in the text and the images seems imposed or natural. The analysis of each book will also briefly assess whether the multiculturalism is natural or imposed in the society at the time each book was published.


According to Gopalakrishnan (2010), there is limited evidence and much debate as to when multicultural children’s literature began. For example, certain theorists argue that multicultural literature predates the 20th century (Norton and Norton 2003; Sims Bishop 2007). Regardless of when multicultural children’s writing was created, most theorists agree that before 1965, the number of multicultural children’s books was limited (Gopalakrishnan 2010). The year 1965 is described as the turning point for multicultural literature when a widely published article entitled ‘The All White World of Children’s Books’ (Larrick 1965) sparked a flurry of activity in the years following it. In the article, Larrick (1965) describes a survey she conducted, where she found that of 5206 books published in 1962, 1963 and 1964, only 349 or 6.7% included African American characters in their text or illustrations.

After this article was published, two significant groups formed: the Council on Interracial Books for Children (in 1965/1966) and the Coretta Scott King Award, established for authors and illustrators of African American and Black descent in 1972 (Gopalakrishnan 2010). After the formation of these groups, another study similar to that of Larrick (1965) was conducted in 1979 by Jeanne Chall and her colleagues. In this survey Chall found that there was over an 100% increase in the number of children’s books that featured an African American character (14.4% of all children’s multicultural literature in the United States) (Cohen and Cowen 2008).

According to Cohen and Cowan (2008) in the late 1980s and early 1990s multicultural children’s publishing experienced a spurt. Almost all major publishers increased their multicultural book lists and the number of smaller publishers specialising in multicultural books increased. This increase was due to sensitivity and growing awareness on the publisher’s part and also the need to purchase these books as the school demographics and requirements changed.

Since multicultural children’s books now form a more significant part of the literary landscape, the subject has attracted a number of theorists and scholars who have developed their own theories surrounding children’s multicultural literature Banks and Banks (2001). Although theorists of multicultural children’s literature attempt to theorise and analyse a myriad of topics surrounding the subject of multicultural children’s literature, one of the main theoretical debates surrounds the question, what defines multicultural children’s literature?

There are three theoretical approaches surrounding the definition of multicultural literature. The first approach is the all inclusive approach. Advocates of this approach argue that all literature should be defined as multicultural since, in their opinion, every human being is multicultural and each individual may describe their identity in a variety of ways (Shannon 1994; Schwartz 1995; Fisherman 1995).

The second approach is the multiple + culture approach. This approaches argues that multicultural children’s writing is defined as books that are simply about more than one culture in a society regardless of who is the dominant group and who is the dominated (Cai 1998). Bloor’s (2010) definition of multiculturalism expands one step further from the multiple + cultures definition and describes a multicultural society as not one where multiple cultures merely exist, but one where diversity is promoted and the mosaic of cultures is celebrated and encouraged.

The third approach is the exclusive approach. This approach is one where the theorists believe that children’s multicultural literature should only be defined as literature that is about populations that have experienced marginalisation and oppression. Some proponents of this approach state that multicultural children’s literature should only be defined as literature by and/or about people of colour since this form of literature gives people of colour the opportunity to have a voice. (Lindgren 1991; Harris as cited in Cai, 2002).

In addition to the different approaches to defining multicultural children’s literature, Sims Bishop has provided us with a theoretical classification of multicultural books. Sims Bishop (1982, 2007) divides multicultural children’s literature into three sub groups: melting pot literature, socially conscious literature and culturally conscious literature.
Melting pot books are characterised by those where aside from skin colour or a cultural definition, the story could apply to any character in the United States (Gopalakrishnan 2010). The second sub group of children’s multicultural literature is categorised as socially conscious books. According to Sims Bishop (2007), socially conscious books introduce one cultural group and its unique experiences to the mainstream to make “socially conscious” or to educate the larger group about the trials and tribulations of a unique cultural group. The main purpose of socially conscious books is “to engender empathy and sympathy [and] to promote tolerance for racial desegregation or integration” (Sims Bishop 2007: 61). Thirdly, culturally conscious books, according to Sims Bishop (1982), are those that depict the languages and cultural traditions of a group’s experiences most often from an insider’s perspective.

The working definition of multiculturalism in this essay will be the second approach, the multiple + culture definition where there is more than one culture in a society regardless of who is the dominant group and the dominated. The analysis will also explore whether the books expand to Bloor’s (2010) version of multiculturalism where the mosaic of culture is encouraged and celebrated. While analysing how multiculturalism is presented in each book, Sims Bishop (1982, 2007) classification of multicultural children’s literature may be applied to the analysis.



Multiculturalism is demonstrated immediately on the cover of this book and in the second line of text. The cover of the book has been illustrated in the colours of the Palestinian flag. Flags are a means of representing an identity, and there can only be an ‘identity’ if there is an ‘other’ (Berreby 2008). Although flags tend be representative of a country, state or nation, the second line of text in the book tells us that this flag is certainly not for a country. The narrator asserts ‘I have a flag but no country’ (Stickles and Townsley 1988: 7). The narrator continues to say ‘the soldiers who occupy my town and make all the laws say it is wrong to fly my flag’ (Stickles and Townsley 1988: 7). From this text we can deduce that these are a group of people who are a part of a country where their culture, customs and even identity may not be accepted. Nonetheless, this text clearly demonstrates that this a society in which the law makers have different ideological beliefs to those representing the cultural minority. In summary, using Cai’s (1998) definition of multiculturalism, multiple cultures living in one society, the cover page and first page of text depicts a multicultural, albeit uncomfortable society.

Multiculturalism is further demonstrated in the text, while simultaneously informing the reader about the Israeli-Palestinian. For example, the father of the narrator says he is ‘making bread for the family whose house was destroyed by the soldiers’ (Stickles and Townsley 1988: 11). We are informed that ‘the soldiers shut down the school’ (Stickles and Townsley 1988: 15) and the narrator’s brother is ‘beaten up by soldiers’ (Stickles and Townsley 1988: 15). The text is educating the reader about the trials and difficulties experienced by the Palestinians in the town. This is a clear example of Sims Bishop’s (1982, 2007) sub category of socially conscious, multicultural, children’s literature where the reader is informed of the trials and tribulations of the community (Gopalakrishnan 2010).

The images of flag day further emphasise the difficulties faced by the Palestinians and encourages the reader to feel empathy and sympathy for their situation. This is a further
demonstration that this book is an example of socially conscious multicultural literature. There are three images depicting how happy, joyful and cheerful the Palestinians are on flag day. Firstly, on page 23, in the square where the festivities of flag day are due to take place, each person has a smile on their face. Secondly, on page 25 there are six Palestinian men playing a series of instruments; while playing the instruments they have smiles on their faces. Thirdly, page 25 depicts five people holding Palestinian flags and smiling (Stickles and Townsley 1988).

These images are sharp contrasts to the next three images, which depict the arrival and the after-effects of the opposing force. Firstly, on the image on page 26 we see three angry looking men with rifles in a car. The text informs us that these are the soldiers. Secondly, on page 27 are five soldiers carrying guns. Finally, on page 29 the image shows us the square where the festivities were taking place. All the decorations have been destroyed. In this image we see the ultimate clash of the two cultures, who live together in one society. Although inharmonious, this image demonstrates two groups living in one society (Stickles and Townsley 1988). These images fit the multiple + culture definition (Cai 1998), where two cultures live together within one society regardless of who is dominating and who is dominated.

The dichotomy is emphasised further when we see the narrator of the book release her balloon bearing the Palestinian flag into the air. This image is followed by an image of a soldier attempting to shoot the balloon down. The penultimate image speaks volumes regarding the dichotomy between Israel and Palestine. The image shows four Palestinian children cheering, with a look of satisfaction on their faces that the balloon bearing the Palestinian flag is flying free. In contrast to this, the Israeli soldier is looking towards the balloon, holding his gun and frowning. The final image shows the balloon bearing the Palestinian flag flying high above the land (Stickles and Townsley 1988).

In summary, multiculturalism is depicted throughout the text and images in the book however the multiculturalism found in this book is characterised by the basic definition of multiculturalism, that is multiple cultures living in one society (Cai 1998). The book does not expand to Bloor’s (2010) version of multiculturalism where the mosaic of cultures is celebrated in the society. Although, the book demonstrates the most basic definition of multiculturalism, the book does fit into Sims Bishop’s (2007) category of social and cultural consciousness, where we learn about the Israel and Palestinian conflict from one cultural perspective and where the reader is encouraged to empathise and sympathise with the narrator, her family and the town’s people.. In essence this book does demonstrate a multicultural society at its most basic level and the book does inform us, albeit from only one perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict The book is effective in conveying multiple cultures living in one society since throughout the book the contrast can be seen between the Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers.


The interpretation of the book by the reader is highly subjective (as demonstrated by a variety of reader-response theorists (Rosenblatt 1978; Bleich 1978) and to a large extent, the answer to this question depends on a variety of factors including the ideological beliefs of the reader and the knowledge and experiences of the reader. For these reasons, it is problematic to prescribe whether or not the multiculturalism in the text and illustrations is imposed or natural. Each reader will interpret this differently.

It may be safer to look at the text and illustrations from both angles. One may argue that the images and the text of the book is imposed, forced and unnatural. After all, it is clear from the text and images as described in the examples that the Israeli soldiers do not want the Palestinians to raise the Palestinian Flag and the Palestinians do not want their territory to be occupied by the Israeli soldiers, implying that the multiculturalism is forced, unnatural and unwanted.

On the other hand, one might argue that the multiculturalism presented in the text and images is natural and that regardless of the reasons behind these cultures living side by side, both groups live in the same society regardless of who is dominating and who is dominated. This argument would insist that if the reader ignores reasons or circumstance, multiculturalism is natural in the text and images.

At the time the book was written, the world was protesting against the treatment of the Palestinians including people in the United States (Neff 1997), thus to these people the multiculturalism would appeared imposed. In fact, regardless of political affiliation it is doubtful that one would describe the society as a natural multicultural one since the multiculturalism was a result of war.



From the cover page of this book, we see a striking image of multiculturalism. Three children appear to be on a Muslim prayer rug (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2008) hovering above Jerusalem. The boy is wearing a Kippah; Observant Jewish men keep their heads covered by wearing a skull cap (Kippah) (Board of deputies of British Jews 2006)) indicating that he is Jewish. The second child on the prayer rug has black braided hair in pigtails. While there is no confirmation on the cover, this girl may be Palestinian. Interestingly both the Jewish boy and the girl who may be Palestinian have taken their shoes off, indicating that the Jewish boy is showing respect for the Muslim prayer rug (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2008). There is another girl who is kneeling on the prayer rug. She has her shoes on, however her shoes are not on the prayer rug. Again could she be showing respect for the other cultures? The prayer rug is hovering in the air and in the background are scene depicts Jerusalem. We see the Dome of the Rock which is known to be symbolic to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths (Petersen 1994). In summary, the cover page surely demonstrates multiculturalism in Israel as we have three children from different cultures together on the prayer rug. This represents three cultures in one society (multiple + cultures) (Cai 1998). The image described is significant as it represents harmony between cultures when at the time (late 1980s), there were hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians (Neff 1997).

The second page most definitely represents a society of multiple cultures living harmoniously together. In this illustration there a number of images that demonstrate multiculturalism. Firstly there is a Jewish woman, identified by the fact that she is wearing a Tichel; Observant orthodox married women cover their hair in public (Board of Deputies of British Jews 2006). Interestingly, she is purchasing some products from a woman that is dressed in the colours of the Palestinian flag – black, green and red. In the background there is a man wearing a Kippah but also wearing non- traditional clothes. He may represent a more liberal approach to Judaism. He and his wife (who is not wearing Tichel) are purchasing items from a man wearing traditional Arab attire. In this scene people who seem to interacting with each other are smiling with one another indicating peaceful, harmonious relations between each culture (Topek and Kahn 1988). Not only do these images depict multiple cultures living together in one society, the images are also congruent with Bloor’s (2010) definition of multiculturalism, where the mosaic is celebrated.

One interesting scene demonstrating multiculturalism and the comparison between Palestine and Israel is the scene on page 6, which contains the text ‘big farms’ (Topek and Kahn 1988: 6). The farm appears to a Kibbutz demonstrated by the houses towards the left hand side of the page. What is interesting is that although this a Jewish Kibbutz, in the middle of the page there is a large chicken, illustrated in red, green and outlined in black, the colours of the Palestinian flag. The image shows the backdrop of a Jewish Kibbutz and in the foreground a chicken coloured in the Palestinian colours peacefully standing on a cow. Again this image demonstrates peaceful relations between Israel and Palestine and two cultures living together harmoniously side by side. This is Bloor’s (2010) definition of multiculturalism.

In the penultimate page, there are dove (a symbol of peace (Soucek 2006)) above a group of people. From the far left is a woman without a Tichel, standing next to a man who is wearing a Kippah, but also western clothes. This family may represent a more liberal attitude to Judaism. He is standing next to a man with a beard, who is wearing a long black coat, black trousers and a black hat. His wife is also wearing a Tichel and his daughter’s skirt below her knees. This family appears to be an observant Orthodox Jewish family. Next to the more conservative Jewish family is what might be assumed to be a more liberal Palestinian family. They are happily standing next to a family who are dressed in a more traditional Palestinian outfit. The son of the more conservative Jewish family is wearing blue and white and the son of the family is also wearing blue (the colours of the Israeli flag). The Jewish boy has his arm extended to the Palestinian liberal boy indicating a desire for a peaceful multicultural society. The different cultures together on one page fit both the definition of multiple cultures in one society (Cai 1998) and also Bloor’s (2010) definition of multiculturalism where cultures are living together harmoniously.

In summary, the book Israel Is certainly demonstrates a multicultural society, both in the most basic of definitions where there are multiple cultures living together in one society and in more advanced definitions; this book also fulfils Bloor’s (2010) definition of multiculturalism where the mosaic is celebrated and encouraged. The intent of the authors seems to be to encourage peace and harmony between all cultures in Israel. The only way this book informs us of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is its underlying insistence on peace. There are no images of war, only images of different cultures living in harmony.


The answer to this question is subjective and an insider’s perspective may be very different from an outsider’s perspective. From an outsider perspective, nothing appears unnatural about the illustrations; however an individual who lived in Israel during the late 1980s may have differing opinion. For example, an individual who may have experienced hostility from another cultural group may argue that the images presented are unnatural and have been imposed by the authors.

Given the events that took place in the late 1980s in Israel (the First Infatida) (Neff 1997) one may argue that the multiculturalism presented in the text is imposed and unnatural due to the hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis. Again, this is very subjective and each individual may have their own interpretation of events based on their own experience and knowledge.


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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Literature