Books about bilingualism for kids

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As some of you may know we’re raising M and J bilingually. My husband, W, is Dutch and he and I met when we were both studying for PhDs in Linguistics so given our interest in language it was never really an issue whether our kids would be raised with one language or two.

For us, so far, it has all been very easy and a great deal of fun! W speaks pretty much exclusively in Dutch to the kids, and I do the same in English. English is also the community language (ie the language spoken outside the home by everyone else the kids come in to contact with), and it’s the language W and I talk to each other in.

Photo: Rubber Bullets

Books, of course, have played a huge role in supporting our kids’ bilingualism – we try to have as many Dutch language books in the house as we can (and in particular Dutch language audio books) although we haven’t as many as we’d like because books in the Netherlands are much more expensive than in the UK (and the Euro-Pound exchange rate hasn’t been in our favour).

As well as books in Dutch, I’m always on the lookout for books which feature bilingual children (speaking any combination of languages), in order that M and J can see that they are not unusual and that being bilingual is fun and can bring great enjoyment. Such books are few and far between, but below’s a list of books which feature bilingualism in some form or other.

I have not read all of these books so I am going on reviews/blurbs available when it comes to ascertaining whether or not the books really do feature bilingualism as a theme. If you have read any of them and feel they are not appropriate for inclusion in this list, please leave me a comment to let me know! Most of the books on the list feature bilingualism as part of the immigrant experience. I have not found any books featuring bilingualism where that is the societal norm (as it is in parts of the world) – perhaps an inevitability given that I have looked only at books published in English.

Photo: Daquella manera

About becoming bilingual as a kid having moved to another country
I Hate English! by Ellen Levine illustrated by Steve Bjorkman
My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
Home at Last by Susan Middleton Elya, illustrated by Felipe Davalos
Marianthe’s Story: Painted Words and Spoken Memories by Aliki
In English, of course by Josephine Nobisso
Dear Whiskers by Ann Whitehead Nagda (short novel, grades 2-4)
No English by by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Amy Huntington
La mariposa by Francisco Jimenez, illustrated by Simon Silva

Photo: Scazon

About having a second language to keep in touch with a second culture
Too Young for Yiddish by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Neil Waldman
Playing Loteria / El juego de la loteria byRene Colato Lainez, illustrated by Jill Arena
Annie — Anya: a month in Moscow by Irene Trivas

Photo: Eirik Newth

About not wanting to speak a second language
Get Ready For Gabi #3 by Marisa Montes, illustrated by Joe Cepeda
The boy who wouldn’t talk by Lois Kalb Bouchard

Photo: Jay Tamboli

Kids and families simply being bilingual
Yoko Writes Her Name by Rosemary Wells
Cooper’s lesson by Sun Yung Shin
Minutka: The Bilingual Dog by Anna Mycek-Wodecki (various language combinations including English with Italian / Polish / Turkish / German)
Pepita Talks Twice/Pepita Habla dos Veces by Ofelia Dumas Lachtman and Alex Pardo Delange (Languages: Spanish and English)
Abuela by Arthur Dorros, illustrated by Elisa Kleven (Languages: Spanish and English)
Isla by Arthur Dorros, illustrated by Elisa Kleven (Languages: Spanish and English)
Papa and Me by Arthur Dorros, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Languages: Spanish and English)
Kitchen Dance by Maurie J. Manning (Languages: Spanish and English)
Just In Case: A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book by Yuyi Morales
Just a Minute!: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book by Yuyi Morales
I Love Saturdays y domingos by Alma Flor Ada, illustrated by Elivia Savadier
Faraway Home by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan
The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez by Rene Colato Lainez, illustrated by Tom Lintern
Tomas and the Library Lady by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colon
Three Cheers for Catherine the Great! by Cari Best, illustrated by Giselle Potter
Alamo Wars by Ray Villareal (Novel, grades 6-8)

Bilingual children helping older relatives who are not bilingual / other monolinguals
Speak English for Us, Marisol! by Karen English, illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez
Grandfather counts by Andrea Cheng, illustrated by Ange Zhang
The Wakame Gatherers by by Holly Thompson, illustrated by Kazumi Wilds
Uncle rain cloud by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Fabricio Vandenbroeck
Class Mom by Margaret McNamara, illustrated by Mike Gordon (early reader)
Halmoni’s Day by Edna Coe Bercaw, illustrated by Robert Hunt
A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ronald Himler
I Speak English for My Mom by Muriel Stanek
The Walls of Cartagena by Julia Durango, illustrated by Tom Pohrt NB This is a novel aimed at young teens

Photo: JSolomon

Nonfiction books about being bilingual
Being Bilingual Is Fun! by Claudia Schwalm

Photo: courgarmicrobes

Books about Language / with samples from multiple languages
1000 times No by Tom Warburton
What is Your Language? by Debra Leventhal and Monica Wellington
Baloney by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith
Yum! Yuck! A Foldout Book of People Sounds by Linda Sue Park, Julia Durango and Sue Rama
The Subway Sparrow by Leyla Torres

Photo: msvg

There are LOTS of books available where vocabulary from a second language is interwoven into the text (although there is no specific theme of language or bilingualism), particularly with Spanish as the second language but I have not included them in this list. Perhaps that’s for another day! There are also quite a few books in print dealing with being bi/multicultural which I have not included in this list unless they make specific reference to language issues.

In drawing up this list I’d like to thank everyone on the Rutgers’ child-lit list who chipped in with suggestions. If you have any more suggestions I would LOVE to hear from you!

Today’s post will hopefully form part of the next Carnival about Bilingualism, to be hosted by Bringing Up Baby Bilingual on July 1st. If you’re interested in “bilingualism, multilingualism, multiculturalism, language learning, language teaching, or raising children with more than one language” do head on over to Bringing up Baby Bilingual and see what’s on offer.

21 Responses

  1. Zoe @ Playing by the book

    About an hour after I posted this list M came running to tell me that bilingual people “can’t read so well”. I was a bit surprised and asked her what she meant. It turns out that in The Borrowers by Mary Norton, which she is listening to on CD at the moment has a bilingual character who says:
    “I’ve just come from India. If you’re born in India, you’re bilingual. And if you’re bilingual, you can’t read so well.”
    Hmm. This isn’t the sort of positive message I was wanting to send out to M. But it did make me wonder if readers knew of any other books where there is a negative portrayal of bilingualism.

  2. sandhya

    It is wonderful that you are taking the effort to introduce your girls to both your languages. I believe that one needs to be immersed in one’s language to be able to really understand one’s culture. Some indigenious cultural concepts can be expressed best in the particular language and often defy translation. Even if one finds a suitable word in another language, the original nuance is often lost. Check this out:
    In India, most people are multilingual. There is the first language, which is spoken at home. Then there is English, which is naturally learnt if the child goes to a school where the medium is English. If the child resides in a state whose local language is different from its first language, that makes three. Then there is our national language, Hindi, which makes it four. Children staying in metropolitian areas have playmates speaking various other languages, which introduces them to more. Of course these days most of these converse in the common language, which is usually English. Sad, but that quite often reduces the chances of the child becoming multilingual.
    Tulika books has made a case for bilinguism in this post by its editors. They have many bilingual picture books for kids.
    In response to your query about books which potray bilinguism negatively, here is an article which I found interesting.

    Sorry for the (too) long comment!

  3. Kristine

    Hi Zoe,
    I think it such a wonderful gift for children to be raised with more than one language. I’ve also observed around where we live that it’s not so much a decision that families make rather these days (similar to yourself) it’s just assumed that that is what you’ll do. I know in previous generations families that have migrated here have completely abandoned their language and culture to ‘fit in’ even to the extent of changing their name to an english name.
    PS Must get some bilingual paper towels! I must also make more effort to engage my paper towels in discussions.

  4. Zoe @ Playing by the book

    Hi Kristine,
    Yes, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to speak another language (or more) well. I don’t know how things will develop with the girls – it’s not unusual for bilingual kids in our sort of situation to go through a rejection phase when they’re a bit older but it’s all good so far. And yes, bilingual paper towels are great when you can’t get sensible conversation out of anyone else! 🙂

  5. Zoe

    Hi Sandhya,
    Loved your post about growing up multilingually 🙂 I recommend others to go and read it. Tulika is clearly doing a great job publishing books in bilingual editions. I haven’t yet found any bilingual English-Dutch books though! And your comment wasn’t too long – I really appreciate you taking the time to write a thoughtful response to my post – the dialogue is so important to me.

  6. Zoe @ Playing by the book

    Hi Sandhya,
    Yes, some German roots on my Dad’s side… but that was a classic case of the German born parents refusing to speak German to their (English born) children so it never got passed on. In fact when world war 1 broke out the parents and their youngest daughter were sent back to Germany as “enemy aliens” (despite the parents having lived in the UK for 40 years). The daughter was 18 and had NO German whatsoever – it must have been very difficult for her. German is widely taught in schools here, and given the Dutch input at home I’m fairly sure the girls will go for German when the time comes.

  7. Ann Daniels

    Please tell M that bilingual people can read just fine – sometimes better than monolingual people. It just depends on whether they like to read, spend time reading, and have parents and teachers who help them learn to read.

    I babysat for a girl who was trilingual – her mother is Swedish, her father is Chinese, and she grew up in an English-speaking country. One night she brought me Pippi Longstocking, in Swedish, for her bedtime story. I explained that I couldn’t read Swedish; “OK,” she said, “I’ll read it to you!” which she proceeded to do, with a running translation. She was seven.

    So sucks to The Borrowers, in this case.

  8. Zoe

    Hi Ann, Thanks for your encouraging comment! And how lovely it must have been to hear Pippi read to you in Swedish. A treat 🙂

    Hi Mary Ann, yes it’s that old adage isn’t it – use it or lose it. But finding opportunities to use your second language (especially as an adult learner) aren’t always easy.

  9. Ian @ Tidy Books

    Brilliant post Zoe, I’m also bringing my son up bilingually. Outside the home he speaks English, yet in it he is taught Black Country, or Yam Yam. On a serious note, I really would like to help him pick up a second language, with me doing the same. I really should make Tidy Books’ Geraldine aware of this post, as her children are being raised with two different languages. And at the same time I should also probably tap her up for some free French lessons.

  10. BookishIma

    As a member of a bilingual/bicultural family, this is a wonderful resource. I’m looking forward to looking through all the links. I didn’t realize you were a bilingual household also.

    I can’t think of any books I’ve seen with negative messages about bilingualism, but I do see books all the time emphasizing that bicultural kids should be “both” in a way that I’m not always so comfortable with, even though the intent seems positive. Nothing as overt as “if you’re bilingual, you can’t read so well” – ack!

  11. Corey Heller

    Fabulous list! I had no idea there were so many books like this out there! I will definitely send people your way whenever they ask about a list of bilingual books for kids. Thank you for doing all of the work to put this together!

    Corey from Multilingual Living

  12. Bernadette

    Awesome post, Zoe! I just finished working a course training teachers on bilingual and ESL education. Our program focuses heavily on literature-based instruction and this will be an excellent resource for the teachers.

  13. Zoe

    Hi Ian – Thanks for making me smile! This photo is for you:

  14. Zoe

    Hi BookishIma, I imagine that negative portrayals of bilingualism might be found in older books – and of course The Borrowers has a colonial strand running through it which I think plays a part in some of the attitudes expressed.

    Hi Corey, Yes, the list looks quite long, but I felt that the portrayals of bi/multilingualism were quite limited – as I said in the post, the books are pretty much all about the immigrant experience, rather than societal bilingualism or simply where you have two parents who speak different languages.

    Hi Bernadette, your course sounds really interesting. Do you know about “Open Wide, Look Inside” – A blog “about teaching elementary math, science and social studies, with heavy emphasis on the integration of children’s literature across the curriculum.”
    I find it a great resource.

  15. Bernadette

    Thanks for that blog suggestion, Zoe! I’ve bookmarked it – looks fantastic! Some of my teachers have mentioned her other blog – The Miss Rumphius Effect.

  16. M. Lynx Qualey

    If you hear of any that explore Arabic-English dualism, I would love to know of them. (I fear that, despite a large diaspora, publishers might shy away from them in part because Arabic is seen as a “political” language. At least many adult publishers see it that way.)

    I’m so jealous about the Dutch audio books. I’m still looking for good kids audio books in Arabic.

  17. Annemarie

    I am looking for children’s books where vocabulary from a second language is interwoven into the main text of the book. I am doing some research for a piece of writing that I’m working on. I’d very much appreciate any tips or lists as i’m having some difficulty obtaining samples of this type of writing. thanks a mill!

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