Who Belongs Here?: Portraying American Identity in Children’s Picture Books

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This section focuses on several books that reflect the complexity of the meaning of identity. For all people the common element of identity is a need to belong. The range of identity may be from family structure to the larger issue of ethnicity and community. In the book Boundless Grace, we have the changing structure of families to talk about and the need to provide books that reflect families outside the once-traditional unit of Dad the bread winner, Mom at home, brother and sister forever amiable, and pets who were always dogs and cats. Other books with an identity theme examine immigrant children and their parents confronting the dominant culture of the school. I'm New Here is a story told through the eyes of a young immigrant from El Salvador starting her first school day in the U.S. Wanting to belong is a constant struggle for immigrants. Elisa Bartone's American Too and Peppe the Lamplighter are set at the turn of the century, a time when immigration was at its height in New York. Both books address the ever present identity conflict for immigrants struggling with maintaining ethnic roots and becoming Americanized. In another perspective on identity, the book Creativity by John Steptoe confronts the topic through school culture. Speaking the proper dialect, wearing the right shoes and clothes to avoid ridicule, and fitting in with the rest are the realities in his book. Personal identity is complex, but the common thread that resounds throughout is the desire to belong. Children need to see themselves in the literature to affirm their existence and importance.

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