The We Need Diverse Books movement (http://weneeddiversebooks.org/) has gotten a lot of press lately, and for good reason. We really DO need more diversity in children’s literature. There are wonderful books out there, but there could be more, and a lot more, right?
Children need to see themselves in literature, and they need to see others who are not like them. You can learn a lot about life and the world from books, even if you are living in a pretty isolated, all-one-kind-of-people kind of place. Reading diverse books might make you realize that your way of thinking and looking and being is not the only one, and that’s ok. Knowing that there are people somewhere who think like you do – if you feel different — can help make those moments when you feel like you will never be free of a place or a person less horrible. In fact, it can be really wonderful.
I’m not a first- or second-generation immigrant. I’ve never been a refugee or suffered because of a war. I’ve traveled to other countries and lived overseas, but I’ve never been to Vietnam/Việt Nam. Looking in on Mai’s world in Listen, Slowly is one way I can learn about those things, though. I can relate to what she feels, even without the same past experiences. Parents can be annoying. Relatives can be annoying. Grandparents have lived lives you don’t really understand. Mean girls are mean girls all over the world. Good friends don’t always come in predictable packages. Being away from your home can be jarring, upsetting, challenging and thrilling all at the same time. Some themes are universal.
I loved this book, because it was such a beautiful combination of so many things. Thanhhà Lại captures how hard it is to be the kid who’s bridging cultures while trying to figure out who she or he is, and she does it while recognizing that both sides can be good, bad, frustrating or all of the above. The sights and smells and sounds of Vietnam are filtered through Mai’s perspective, but it’s an experience we can all relate to in one way or another. Yes, we need more diverse books, especially if they’re as good as this one!
Other books about culture and conflict to keep in mind:
Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhhà Lại
Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai
I Lived on Butterfly Hill, Marjorie Agosín
The Language Inside, Holly Thompson
The Trouble with May Amelia, Jennifer Holm
Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson