Children’s Lit Corner

We’ve recently had the delightful experience of sharing our home with a young foreign exchange student from Poland. Not only are we eating lots of Polish meals (pirogi, bigos, ciasto z sliwkami, to name a few) but also have the opportunity to talk about culture and differences and similarities between nations. Most of all, we have learned to love our new son and brother and recognize that the things that make us similar are a lot more important than the things that might be different or strange or unfamiliar.

What does this have to do with a Children’s Lit Corner? Well, I think that reading a book about a different culture or region or world is akin to welcoming an exchange student into one’s home or life for a little while. For example, I have never been inside of the foster care system, but after becoming friends with Gilly Hopkins, and learning from her very personal point of view how it felt to go from one place to another, not really allowing herself to thaw enough to accept love when it was offered, I feel I have had some exposure to what it feels like to be a foster kid. Similarly, when reading about the girls who were asked to leave their families up at the mountain and go down to attend the Princess Academy, I know I felt I knew a little of the mountain culture, their quarry speech, the dry scent of linder in the air, and maybe the beauty of the little miri flower. Books can do that. They can bring another culture or world or tradition into perspective and make it understandable, at least for awhile.

One of the things I believe reading does is to keep our hearts soft and open to ideas. Yes, this can be challenging sometimes, especially if the ideas might be new and different. But reading is also a way to travel and observe people without having to spend a lot of money on an airplane ticket or a hotel room. Instead, it is a way for a child to be invited into the home of some other family and see things from the view of that new front porch or cherry tree or island cave.

I remember reading Island of the Blue Dolphins and being completely overcome by the experience of Karana living alone on her island. Her family was gone, but she retained her culture and traditions as best she could. Similarly, I know several boys (and a few girls) who have practiced sitting for long periods of time in their backyards trying to acquire the skills of a ranger after reading John Flanagan’s books in the Ranger’s Apprentice series. The land of Araluen might be a made-up place, but the culture described certainly becomes real as we read about Will and Halt’s adventures.

Maybe any book does this: opens up doors to new thoughts and ideas. Right now, because we are sharing our home with Bartek, we are learning a lot about Polish culture. This makes me anxious to learn about all sorts of other cultures—but necessarily from books, because the availability of more foreign exchange students in my area is rather scant.

So here are some books I’ve found that explain in inviting and natural ways about different cultures or regions or worlds or eras. This is, of course, a very limited list. I could have added several to each general topic. Please add others that have particularly intrigued you!

Life at sea: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi
Life on the frontier: Caddie Woodlawn and the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Life in a Jewish family: Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, books by Chaim Potok
Ireland during the potato famine: Books by Patricia Reilly Giff
Life in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Books by Deborah Ellis, the Breadwinner, for example
Venice: The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke
Going down the Amazon river: Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson
Life in a Chinese-American family: The Year of the Dog, by Grace Lin
Life in France: Nicholas books by Rene Goscinny
Swedish life and heritage: Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren, The Golden Name Day, by Jennie Lindquist
Africa: Several of the books by Nancy Farmer, A Girl Named Disaster, for example.
Life in a modern British family: The Casson family chronicles, by Hilary McKay
Life on Mars: Journey between Worlds, by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
Life on a bayou: The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt
Life in India: Younguncle Comes to Town, by Vandana Singh, and Homeless Bird, by Gloria Whelan

Oh, there are so many, many more books to explore, but here is a small sampling and some of the places they can lead. Where have you gone in books? Where have your children explored? Please share and we can all go somewhere exciting!

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2 Responses to Children’s Lit Corner

  1. Th. says:


    Thornton Burgess’s books always did that for me although, of course, I could never actually visit fox or frog society, his depictions made them so easy to believe in.

    I was also impressed as a child how, say, a bear and a beaver might view the same experience in a very different way. Which was a lesson in culture in itself. After all, the predator who is hungry views the chase very differently from the prey who wishes to stay alive.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    I agree that part of the attraction of books for children (and the rest of us) can often be exploration of foreign shores and experiences. From your list, Potok’s books and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books particularly did this for me as a child. I remember how *exotic* growing up on a farm seemed to me when reading Farmer Boy, in particular. Part of the craft of a good writer is to do that: make the different seem interesting, while at the same time comprehensible.

    Of course, for children the world of grown-ups is in some ways an exotic place, and so even stories about day-to-day life and experience have the potential to do this, if written well.

    For me as a child and early teen, the sf&f adventures of Andre Norton provided an endless stream of exotic worlds that were satisfyingly different, even as the main characters went through experiences of not fitting in and learning independence that resonated for me. More realistically, the nonfiction memoir Black Elk Speaks introduced me to an authentic world of American Indian life. The Doctor Dolittle books presented not only exotic locales but also made me want to visit England, as did The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper.

    In contrast, Tom Sawyer — which many readers seem to feel evokes some kind of universal spirit of boyhood — was exotic for me, but unpleasantly so: Tom was the kind of boy I’d cross the playground to avoid, and I could neither understand nor sympathize with him. Both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn made more sense once I moved to Wisconsin, only a dozen miles from the Mississippi River…

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