When you think about your favorite books, what is it that draws you to them? I’m willing to bet my favorite purple pen that it was the characters. For example, readers with younger siblings will likely identify with the protagonist of Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, Delphine, and her exasperation as she wrangles her little sisters on a long plane ride. In Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer DeLeon, high schoolers in bussing programs will likely relate to Liliana’s struggle to live in both the worlds of her Boston neighborhood and the school she attends in the affluent suburbs.
What makes these characters relatable? It’s the writer’s ability to create an authentic voice and lived experiences.
Stories that resonate, validate, and affirm the experiences of students are what Dr. Sharroky Hollie, founder of the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, call Culturally and Linguistically Responsive (CLR) texts. While the term CLR may be new to some, the idea of stories with strong characters will be familiar to most. And you can’t have a culturally responsive text without a well-developed, authentic protagonist.
So, what makes a character authentic?
Authentic Characters Have a Backstory
Author and writing instructor Lisa Cron tells us that stories aren’t about what is going on in the world around a character. It’s about why events, changes, and interactions matter to characters. In order for something to matter, a character has to have a backstory. Just like with actual people, a character’s identity is influenced by their backstory—all the lived experiences and family history that come before readers meet them. The characters’ backstory is the driver behind the choices they make, both good and bad. These choices, in turn, drive the plot.
Take a title that is excerpted in Curriculum Associates’ new Grades 3–5 reading program, Magnetic Reading, Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Latina author Meg Medina. Right off the bat, readers learn about Merci’s relationship with Lolo—her grandfather—how she loves walking to school with him, and how he calls her his preciosa (i.e., precious one). Lolo is a beloved fixture in Merci’s Cuban American family, so when his Alzheimer’s gets worse, Merci’s world is upended. She must come to terms with Lolo’s illness while taking on caregiving responsibilities and surviving middle school. Do these changes matter to Merci? You bet! Both in terms of the plot—will she still be able to do soccer after school?—and in terms of character. The changes force Merci to grow as a person by the end of the novel.
Magnetic Reading, a new Grades 3–5 reading comprehension program, is built around CLR texts and instruction that validate and affirm students of all backgrounds.Learn More about Magnetic Reading and Download a Sample Lesson
Authentic Characters Reflect Their Home Cultures
Dr. Hollie references the Iceberg Concept of Culture when analyzing novels for cultural authenticity. The iceberg takes an anthropological view of what makes people who they are. At the surface, you have things like food, dress, and celebrations. Below the surface are beliefs and behaviors like attitudes toward elders, rules of conduct, and patterns of handling emotions. Authentic characters are ones whose actions and reactions reflect behaviors and beliefs, those things below the surface that are tightly tied to their culture.
I’m sure you’ve encountered one of the many books written for children that feature culturally authentic food or celebrations. However, red envelopes, dumplings, and dragons aren’t what make a story about Lunar New Year truly authentic, for example. It is how the characters interact, think, and feel while at the celebration that makes the story relatable, validating, and enjoyable. National Book Award Finalist Grace Lin’s picture book, Bringing in the New Year, not only offers a visual feast of the cultural items found at a Lunar New Year celebration, it also celebrates the way each member of a Chinese-American family has a role in preparing their home for the holiday and highlights the custom of sweeping the old year out of the house to make way for the new.
Authentic Characters Use Authentic Language
There are many children’s and young adult books today, such as Merci Suárez, that interweave Spanish and English, lending authenticity to the Latino characters by inviting readers to hear them speak in their native language. Similarly, Black writers, such as Jason Reynolds, give their characters the freedom to speak in the familiar cadence of African-American English (AAE). In years past, we might have considered these examples of language choices the author made. But in reality, Merci Suárez must speak in both Spanish and English because that is who she is. Likewise, Jasmine and TJ from Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds speak AAE because it’s a part of their culture. To have them speak otherwise would be inauthentic. Rather than looking for books that model “academic English,” in seeking culturally authentic texts, we are looking for stories that reflect the conversational patterns of real kids, and thus, young readers, too.
Authentic Characters Are Multifaceted
Strong characters are never stereotyped, and they almost always carry more than one identity. Merci Suárez is Latina, but she’s also a girl in a large family where she’s expected to take on caregiving and other responsibilities as well as a kid, with all the desires and worries that come with youth. Dr. Hollie invites us to consider what he calls the “rings of culture” when analyzing cultural authenticity. The identities of strong, culturally authentic characters almost always touch multiple rings.
What are some of your favorite characters? Whom do your students enjoy reading about? I invite you to look at the characters through the lens of cultural authenticity:
- Do the characters have a rich backstory that drives the plot?
- Do their choices, behaviors, and beliefs reflect their home culture?
- Do their words and conversational patterns ring true?
- Are their identities rich and multifaceted?
I’ll bet you my second-favorite blue pen your favorite characters are nodding yes to each question.
Some Wonderful Books with Culturally Authentic/Strong Characters
- The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen by Thelma Lynne Godin*
- Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin
- Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson
- “Yasmin” series by Saadia Faruqi
- “Jasmine Toguchi” series by Debbi Michiko Florence
- Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina*
- Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds*
- Front Desk by Kelly Yang
- One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
- The Pants Project by Cat Clarke
- Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon
- Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson
*This title is featured in Magnetic Reading.