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EDUCATION : Ethnic Novels Join Fitzgerald, Faulkner on School Book Lists

October 25, 1990|MARY YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I browse through the writers' names in my English textbooks, I see mostly white males. But when I look out at my students, I see males and females, Asians, Latinos, blacks, and other ethnic groups.

The ethnic makeup of the Westside, and of Southern California in general, is becoming ever more diverse, and, although Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and the others are still valid recorders of the "American experience," they can't do it alone anymore.

To help your child understand and get along with other kinds of people, several local experts in ethnic literature have helped me make a list of books that are authentic and fun to read.

Although there are dozens of cultures shaping our society, three are especially noteworthy by virtue of their numbers in Southern California and their contribution to American literature: blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans.

Latino literature offers a variety of novels for teens, but here are three consistent favorites:

* "Pocho , " by Antonio Villareal, gets its title from the derogatory term used by native Mexicans to label American-born Mexicans. "It gives the reader a fairly detailed, accurate, and interesting picture of what the life of a typical Hispanic in L.A. or anywhere else might be like," said Ernest Garcia, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School. It is aimed at junior high school readers.

* "The House on Mango Street," by Sandra Cisneros, is also suggested by Garcia for junior high readers. Written in an easy and conversational style, the book traces the life of a young, inner-city Latino girl and discusses a variety of problems that any student can understand.

* "Famous All Over Town" is the hottest Latino novel among students at Venice High School, according to English teacher Wendy Fairbanks. In it, author Danny Santiana presents a Latino boy whose friends have all moved or been jailed or killed. "It's a strong portrait of a lonely, displaced kid," said Fairbanks. "It's stunning--it just knocks the kids out."

Black American literature has a long tradition that, many people are surprised to learn, began well before the Civil War. But the most powerful and popular works are more recent:

* "Black Boy," the unforgettable autobiographical account of Richard Wright's life and struggle against racism in the South, is one of the most controversial works read by Westside students. Some teachers criticize the detailed violence, while others say it's no worse than what students see on TV or the streets.

"Once we stop talking about these things, we'll really have problems," said Judy Wong-Nichols, English teacher at Westchester High School, where "Black Boy" is required reading.

* Toni Morrison's "Beloved" is also in demand; it traces an ex-slave's life and her fight to conquer her own past. " 'Beloved' will be taught 20 years from now as required reading right next to Faulkner," predicted Carol Jago, English teacher at Santa Monica High School. "Its message is equally as vital for Americans to understand who they are."

* "Hoops," Walter Myers' story of a black youth obsessed with basketball, will please even the pickiest readers, says Fairbanks. "I give it to boys who refuse to read books, and they read it," she said.

Asian-American literature covers many separate cultures and languages, but three groups seem to dominate--Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese. Here is one book from each:

* "The Joy Luck Club" put author Amy Tan atop the New York Times' paperback bestseller list last summer, and deservedly so. Jago insists that these stories of conflict between Chinese mothers and their Americanized daughters "should be required reading for any child who lives in two worlds and is trying to adjust to life in America." Sophisticated junior high and average senior high students will enjoy Tan's book.

* "Farewell to Manzanar," Geanne Houston's story of her Japanese-American family's World War II internment in California, was my own first glimpse of Asian-American life. Houston's account of being viewed as an enemy in her own country is painful but necessary. It's also timely, since some internment survivors received checks from the U.S. government earlier this month. "Farewell" is good for junior and senior high readers.

* Much of Vietnamese-American literature deals with the voyage to America in the 1970s and '80s, and "The Girl in the White Dress" is one of the best. In it, Peter Townsend describes the arrival of a young girl who is the sole survivor of her family. This is a popular Asian-American novel at Palisades High School, English teacher Russell Smith says.

Of course, new books representing these ethnic groups are published frequently, and nearly any teacher can add personal favorites.

This brief list will, however, give your child a fundamental and respectful insight into the widely differing people who make up a significant part of the diverse society we live in.

Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. She writes a weekly column on education for The Times.

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