The importance of multicultural young adult fiction

Reflecting our current multicultural zeitgeist

Pooja Mathur, teacher librarian at The King's School, discusses the importance of Australian multicultural young adult fiction in secondary school library collections.

Reading fiction is an eloquent and persuasive means to impart education and it can facilitate deeper understanding of our society by building empathy (Baer and Glasgow, 2010; Gaiman, 2013). To familiarise students with cultures different to their own, school libraries must include fiction titles written by authors from diverse ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds, where the lives of migrant and refugee teenagers in contemporary Australian society are accurately portrayed.

This article explores that imperative. It briefly examines trends in multicultural literature and notes the role of teacher librarians in selecting texts which both assist students and resource the curriculum. In addition, it suggests some relevant multicultural texts, suitable for Stage 5.

Holding up the mirror: Reflecting our current multicultural zeitgeist

According to the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2019), 35.1 per cent of students enrolled in NSW government schools in 2018 possessed a language background other than English (LBOTE). In some Sydney schools, the proportion of LBOTE students can exceed 90 per cent (Ho, 2019).

These students need to feel represented in the texts they study. If they don't see themselves in these narratives, they can feel marginalised and detached, and begin to question their place in society (Landt, 2006).

In the past, multicultural characters were not central to the storyline of Australian fiction. They were minor, 'exotic' characters (Pearce, 2003, p 238), inserted to add colour and flavour to the story. While multiculturalism emerged in Australian children's literature in the 1970s, it was only from 1990s onwards that the central literary viewpoint started including both dominant and minority cultures (Pearce, 2003).

Today, writers from multicultural backgrounds pen stories that reflect their own experiences, including searching for identity, misunderstanding and misrepresentation, trauma related to refugee experience, culture clash, grief and loss, bullying, family ties and mateship, diversity (disability, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, religious and racial), economic and social status, and more. These authors aim to portray multicultural society in a way which is faithful to reality (Melanson, 2016), with no embellishments. As a result, in their stories, students meet characters of similar ages, who come from cultural backgrounds different to their own, but who deal with some shared real-life issues. And instead of learning about customs and traditions in dry, factual textbooks, they experience them via relatable characters (Landt, 2006).

The role of teacher librarians

As teacher librarians build the library collection, we are privileged to influence what students have access to and what they read. In selecting resources, we therefore need to represent every student we serve, and ensure they feel valued and cherished (Koester, 2015).

To 'know students and how they learn' and to 'select and use resources... that engage [them] in their learning' is inscribed nationally in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (AITSL, 2011). When we know our students, and thus choose multicultural literature which reflects their 'biopsychosocial' interactions, we build empathy and facilitate transformations in their sociocultural mindset (Travers and Travers, 2008, p 13; Chevalier and Houser, 1997).

Teacher librarians also assist teachers in fulfilling their curricular goals by building a relevant and comprehensive library collection (Wall and Ryan, 2010). We collaborate with teaching staff (Gilman, 2007) to design and deliver excellent educational programs (Gibbs, 2003), using our knowledge of contemporary multicultural literature to research, select and evaluate relevant titles.

According to the Standards of Professional Excellence for Teacher Librarians (2004), teacher librarians must 'fully understand the need to cater for the social, cultural and developmental backgrounds of learners in program implementation and curriculum resourcing' (standard 1.2). By connecting the study of relevant multicultural fiction titles to various curricular areas, a culture of inclusion and acceptance is promoted (Oberg, 2007), which results in higher positive student engagement (Colby and Lyon, 2004).

Multicultural texts for Stage 5

Study of the following contemporary Australian young adult titles could support a range of key learning areas, cross curriculum priorities and general capabilities, including intercultural understanding. Many of these texts also lend themselves well to exploration of English textual concepts, including character, authority, context, perspective, point of view and representation.

'Bro' (2016) by Helen Chebatte

This novel details the daily life and experiences of teenage boys studying at a multicultural school where everyone is defined by their cultural background. The text examines a range of relevant themes with unflinching honesty, including mateship, loss, violence, and the extreme steps some young men may take to defend their honour or to save face (Lees, 2016). This text could also assist students to understand concepts around racial tension, identity, cultural heritage, stereotypes, belonging, conflict resolution, grief, immigration, gender, family, and the impact of social media. The novel could support various curriculum areas, including English (EN5-7D, EN5-8D), PDHPE (PD5-3, PD5-6, PD5-9, PD5-10), geography (GE5-1, GE5-2, GE5-6), and history (Depth Study 5: The Globalising World: Migration experiences).

'Promising Azra' (2016) by Helen Thurloe

Azra, a typical 16 year old girl, loves her friends, her little sister, her parents and chemistry. She's an obedient daughter to traditional Pakistani Muslim parents. Secure in her plans for studying at university before getting married, her world comes crashing down when her domineering uncle arranges her marriage to a much older cousin in Pakistan. With help from the school counsellor and other concerned adults, Azra overcomes her fears about tainting her family's honour, and fights against the arranged marriage. For students in Stage 5, this resource could enrich the study of English (EN5-7D, EN5-8D), geography (GE5-1, GE5-2, GE5-6), and PDHPE (PD5-3, PD5-6, PD5-9, PD5-10). It also supports understanding of the general capabilities, including critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, intercultural understanding, and ethical understanding.

'The First Third' (2013) by Will Kostakis

18 year old Billy sets out to fulfil his beloved grandmother's bucket list and, on the way, learns valuable lessons about the importance of choices in life. For readers, his Greek heritage, immediate family, close friends, and their lives - with all their dilemmas and complexity - are relatable and believable. Recurring themes of this novel include grief and loss, identity (diversity) and culture (language, traditions), family ties and mateship. For students in Stage 5, this resource could support curriculum areas of PDHPE (PD5-3, PD5-6), English (EN5-8D), and history (Depth Study 1: Making a Better World?: Movement of peoples, and Depth Study 5: The Globalising World: Migration experiences).

'Cloudwish' (2015) by Fiona Wood

Set in multicultural Melbourne, this award-winning young adult novel walks us through a formative period in the life of a first-generation Vietnamese Australian teenager. Vân Uóc tries hard to stay true to both her parents' expectations and her own desires and aspirations, and navigates a seemingly forbidden attraction - all while dealing with bullying, her mother's depression and a magical wish (Buckley, 2015). This resource is well suited to Stage 5, and could support learning in English (EN5-8D), PDHPE (PD5-3, PD5-6), history (Depth Study 1: Making a Better World?: Movement of peoples, and Depth Study 5: The Globalising World: Migration experiences), visual arts (5.8, 5.9, understanding the cultural frame), and Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia.

'No Normal' (Ms. Marvel, 2014) written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona

In this text, Kamala Khan, a typical American teenager from a traditional Pakistani Muslim family, tries to find her identity while dealing with pressures of study, religion, bullying, others' expectations and her own desires. As she gains the 'gift' of being a polymorph, she ultimately realises that her strengths are her own culture, her parents' values and her personality. A costume and blonde hair do not change who she is (Jaffe, 2015). This text could support learning in Stage 5 across multiple areas, including English (EN5-8D), visual arts (5.8, 5.9) and visual design (5.2, 5.3, 5.4, 5.8), as well as general capabilities like critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding, and intercultural understanding.

Chinese Straight (2016) written by Maxine Beneba Clarke; illustrated by Isobel Knowles. (Also available as an SBS True Stories podcast, 2015.)

This digital text deals with the common teenage desire to fit in and be accepted by peers. After spending her entire childhood being teased about her frizzy afro, and in a bid for temporary acceptance by cool girls, Maxine decides to undergo chemical treatment for her hair. Sadly, instead of achieving the desired 'Chinese straight' hairdo, and the resulting acceptance, she is subjected to further humiliation and pain. This resource offers scope to explore English textual concepts of character and representation, and social issues, including cultural diversity, identity, the outsider, bullying, multiculturalism, body image, bullying, peer pressure and racism. It could support outcomes in English (EN5-8D), PDHPE (PD5-3, PD5-6), visual arts (5.8, 5.9) and visual design (5.2, 5.3, 5.4, 5.8).

Common themes

In nearly all these texts, characters struggle to juggle the attitudes, values, and beliefs of their ethnic, cultural and religious upbringing while trying to fit into contemporary multicultural Australian society. The protagonists often seek to resolve their dilemmas by finding a form of intercultural understanding, and they ultimately realise that one culture does not have to be sacrificed in favour of another. In the process, they acquire an understanding of how culture influences their identity (Clarke, 1998).

Most of the suggested titles also contain examples of contemporary characters striving to understand the miscommunications, misrepresentation and misperceptions that lead to misunderstandings between members of diverse cultural backgrounds (Richard and Ernest, 1993). For instance, refugees in Australia have often been depicted as either villains or victims. Little voice has been given to the complexity of resettlement - while recovering from trauma, adjusting to unfamiliar education and bureaucratic systems, seeking employment, and simultaneously navigating family, peer, individual and community expectations (Salazar, 2010). In contrast, 'Cloudwish' offers readers a glimpse of the stark horrors experienced by refugees, while also demonstrating that Vân Uóc and Billy have plenty in common, despite their vastly different cultural and family backgrounds. 'Between Us' (Atkins, 2018) is similarly remarkable, since readers hear three different refugee voices describing their thoughts, concerns and experiences.


To firmly establish inclusivity at the nucleus of our educational system (Cai, 2002), students require opportunities to read and study rich multicultural literature. Multicultural texts help students identify with their own culture. They introduce them to other cultures and urge them to ponder issues regarding diversity. They build empathy with characters who are different from them, which can transform into empathy in real life. This is key, since development of empathy is paramount for social harmony and for students to mature into responsible and successful citizens in today's multicultural and global society (Gerson and Neilson, 2014).

References and further reading

Atkins, C. (2018). Between us. Carlton, Australia: Black Inc.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2019). General capabilities.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2011). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

Australian Library and Information Association & Australian School Library Association. (2004). Standards of professional excellence for teacher librarians.

Baer, A. L & Glasgow, J. N. (2010). Negotiating understanding through the young adult literature of Muslim cultures. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(1), 23-32.

Buckley, T. (2015). Cloudwish [Reading Time review].

Cai, M. (2002). Multicultural literature for children and young adults: Reflections on critical issues.

Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. (2019). Schools and students: 2018 statistical bulletin.

Chebatte, H. (2016). Bro. Richmond, Australia: Hardie Grant Egmont.

Chevalier, M. & Houser, N. O. (1997). Preservice teachers' multicultural self-development through adolescent fiction. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 40(6), 426-436.

Clarke, A. L. (1998). Making literature meaningful: Exploring cultural identity in realistic young adult multicultural fiction (Master's thesis). Retrieved from Library and Archives Canada.

Clarke, M. B., Cecil, J., Boltin, K., Gibbon, M. & Leuna, S. (2015, September 9). Chinese Straight [SBS True Stories audio podcast].

Clarke, M. B., Knowles, I., Cecil, J., Boltin, K., Gibbon, M. & Fletcher, B. (2016). Chinese Straight [SBS True Stories multimedia feature].

Colby, S. A. & Lyon, A. F. (2004). Heightening awarness about the importance of using multicultural literature. Multicultural Education, 11(3), 24-28.

Gaiman, N. (2013, October 16). Why our futures depend on libraries, reading and daydreaming. The Guardian.

Gerson, M. W. & Neilson, L. (2014). The importance of identity development, principled moral reasoning, and empathy as predictors of openness to diversity in emerging adults. SAGE Open 4(4).

Gibbs, R. (2003). Reframing the role of the teacher-librarian: The case for collaboration and flexibility. Scan, 22(3), 4-7.

Gilman, T. (2007, May 23). The four habits of highly effective librarians. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Ho, C. (2019). Ethnic divides in schooling (In a Class of their Own discussion paper.) Centre for Policy Development.

Jaffe, M. (2015, April 10). Using graphic novels in education: Ms. Marvel. Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Koester, A. (2015, February 8). Selection is privilege [Web blog post].

Kostakis, W. (2013). The first third. Melbourne, Australia: Penguin.

Lees, S. (2016). Bro [Reading Time review].

Melanson, N. (2016, March 29). Meet Helen Chebatte [WordMothers web blog post].

NSW Department of Education. (2015). Multicultural education resources supplement: Volume 1. Scan, 34(3), 98-108.

NSW Department of Education. (2015). Multicultural education resources supplement: Volume 2. Scan, 34(4), 104-111.

NSW Department of Education. (2016). English textual concepts.

NSW Department of Education. (2016). Multicultural education resources supplement: Volume 3. Scan, 35(1), 86-96.

NSW Department of Education. (2016). Multicultural education resources supplement: Volume 4. Scan, 35(3), 86-97.

NSW Department of Education. (2017). Using picture books for intercultural understanding: Learning across the curriculum: Geography, History, English, Creative Arts K-10.

NSW Department of Education and Communities. (2014). Intercultural understanding through texts: English K-10 resource.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2003). Visual arts Years 7-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2004). Visual design Years 7-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). English K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). History K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). PDHPE K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2015). Geography Years 7-10 syllabus.

Pearce, S. (2003). Messages from the inside?: Multiculturalism in contemporary Australian children's literaure. The Lion and the Unicorn, 27(2), 235-250.

Richard, K. J. & Ernst, G. (1993). Using multicultural novels in the classroom: Understanding the other, understanding myself. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 67(2), 88-90.

Salazar, J. F. (2010). Digital stories and emerging citizens' media practices by migrant youth in Western Sydney. Journal of Community, Citizen's and Third Sector Media and Communication, 6, 54-70.

Thurloe, H. (2016). Promising Azra. Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin.

Travers, B. E. & Travers, J. F. (2008). Children, literature and development: Interactions and insights. In Children's literature: A developmental perspective (pp. 2-17). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Wall, J. & Ryan, S. (2010). Resourcing for curriculum innovation. Camberwell, Australia: ACER Press.

Wilson, G. W. & Alphona, A. (2014). No Normal (Ms. Marvel). New York, NY: Marvel Worldwide.

Wood, F. (2016). Cloudwish. Sydney, Australia: Pan Macmillan Australia.

How to cite this article - Mathur, P. (2020). The importance of multicultural young adult fiction: Reflecting our current multicultural zeitgeist. Scan, 39(2).

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