The Sounds of Language: Multicultural Picture Books for Young Children

Children learn about the sounds of language through exposure to language games, nursery rhymes, and rhythmic activities. Engaging children in choral readings of rhymes and rhythms allows them to associate the symbols with the sounds they hear in these words. Not to mention the fact that it’s fun and engaging for both child and adult. There is a growing list of multicultural children’s books that combine the delight in playful oral language with striking images to enhance the experience. Enjoy!

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Yum-YuckYum! Yuck!: A Foldout Book of People Sounds by Linda Sue Park and Julie Durango. Illustrated by Sue Rama.
This playful book is a true celebration of language. Each fold-out page shows children around the world using different sounds to express their feelings. By looking at the expressions on the faces from many different parts of the world, the reader gets hints about what they are saying. Languages from French and Spanish to Farsi and Punjabi are represented as children around the world make “people sounds” such as happy surprise, sneezing, and cries to show delight or sadness.

Bee-bimBee-Bim Bop by Linda Sue Park. Illustrated by Ho Baek Lee.
Children delight in the rhythm and sounds in this fun-to-read story of a little girl anxious to eat her delicious traditional Korean rice dish of bee-bim bop. Besides being a cheery picture book about the fun of shopping and cooking with Mama, the language itself is a pleasure to savor as well. At the end of the book, the author provides kid-friendly instructions for making bee-bim bop that a child and grown-up can do together.

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SubwaySubway by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Karen Katz.
Told with an emphasis on rhythm and repetition, this is the story of a little girl and her mother going through the entire process of taking a subway in New York City. As she narrates their journey, she describes details like the music she hears playing, how dark the tunnel is, and the feeling of the motion of the subway. Not only is the story narrated from the child’s point of view, but the bright artwork is portrayed from her vantage point as well.

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Round-mooncakeRound is a Mooncake by Rosanne Thong, illustrated by Grace Lin
In a walk through her urban neighborhood, a little girl discovers the shapes that surround her: round, square, and rectangle. Most of the images are specifically Asian, such as rice bowls and dim sum. The book provides a lesson in shapes as well as contemporary Asian-American culture. The rhymes are charming and unique: “Rectangles are inking stones/Paintbrush racks/and mobile phones. ” It is a wonderful book to share with children about writing systems, as the family uses name chops to make an inky square shape, and paints characters using rectangle inking stones.

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CaribbeanA Caribbean Counting Book by Faustin Charles, illustrated Roberto Arenson.

In this celebration of Caribbean language, each rhyme is a traditional counting song. They are simply bursting with exuberance and playful language. The author collected these rhymes from many islands and learned them from young children in playgrounds as well as the elderly inhabitants remembering their own childhood rhymes. The bold and vibrant watercolor and collages help celebrate the Caribbean cultures.

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Shake-itShake It, Morena!: And Other Folklore from Puerto Rico by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand (Compiler), illustrated by Lulu Delacre

A collection of counting rhymes, songs, games, and riddles from the island of Puerto Rico. Lovely watercolor pictures help illustrate the native island flora and fauna. There are rhythmic songs for waking up and going to bed, which can either be sung or read as poems. (The music is included in the appendix, so you can explore songs that are new to you.) There are also other songs, games, and counting rhymes. The directions are easy to follow, too, so give it a try!

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Cha-Cha-chimpsCha-Cha Chimps by Julia Durango, Illustrated by Eleanor Taylor
Ten little chimps do the cha-cha-cha in this counting book with a catchy beat. Mambo Jamba’s is the place where hippos do the hokey-pokey, ostriches polka, and meerkats macarena. The dances are international from the jitterbug to the tango, with the little chimps sticking to their cha-cha-cha as a refrain. Lots of fun—until Mama chimp says, “Time for bed!”

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Skippyjon Skippyjon Jones in Mummy Trouble by Judy Schachner
If you haven’t read any of the Skippyjon Jones books, you are in for a treat. They are terrific readalouds for home or the classroom. In this adventure, Skippyjon—a Siamese kitten who thinks he’s a Chihuahua–wants to travel to ancient Egypt with his gang of Chihuahua amigos. Playful language abounds, as Skippyjon creates rhymes and sings songs, like this one (sung in a “muy soft voice”): “My chicos insist/and I dare not resist/the chance to meet a mummito.”

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Hello-World Hello World!: Greetings in 42 Languages Around the Globe by Manya Stojic.
In this book, readers can learn how to hello in many different languages. Beneath each word translation is the phonetic spelling, so an adult can experiment with the different languages while enjoying the book with a young child. The large colorful illustrations also expose children to a world of skin colors, hairstyles, and cultural accessories. A great read filled with new sounds.

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Chinse-MOther-GooseChinese Mother Goose Rhymes by Robert Wyndham, illustrated by Ed Young
Traditional Chinese poems, lullabies , and counting songs are collected in this charming book. The translator, Robert Wyndham, stresses that his English versions cannot be exact equivalents, but are meant to capture the feeling and intent of the originals. Along the sides of each vivid illustration are the actual Chinese characters, so this book is perfect for sharing with families who want to read to their children in both languages. The playfulness with rhyming language is entertaining for young children and adult readers alike.

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