Engaging K-5 Readers with Global Literature

by Kathy Short, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

Our careful survey of global literature available for K-5 readers in the U.S. led us to concerns as well as possibilities. We searched for global literature that is currently in print and met our criteria for text complexity as well as usefulness within the school curriculum. This survey raised several concerns as well as provided possibilities for engagements with readers, especially around paired books.

The Red Pencil

One concern is the lack of global literature for K-1 readers. The majority of books that we located are easy-readers, many adaptations of traditional literature. In nonfiction, the books available for K-1 readers overwhelmingly focused on animals around the world, with few addressing social topics or history. Although there are many wonderful fiction and nonfiction picturebooks from global settings that can be read aloud to young children, few are available for them to read. An additional concern is the number of fantasy picturebooks that have animals for main characters and generic settings and values that fail to connect with a specific culture. We did not include these generic books in our lists.

The largest set of books we found are overwhelmingly for Grade 4-5 readers, both fiction and nonfiction. While books from England and Europe dominate, there are other cultures including Iran, Sudan and Thailand. Additional issues are that historical fiction continues to dominate with few contemporary portrayals in global settings and informational books are primarily about scientists working with animals in different parts of the world along with some biographies. One strong set of books, Citizen Kids from Kids Can Press, raises social issues such as health care, refugee camps, and microloans.

One way in which these books can be used with children is to pair a global book with a local book so that children can make connections from their culture to a global culture to explore similarities and uniqueness. Examples of possible pairings include:
• Pairing one of the many books sharing the U.S. song, The Wheels on the Bus, with The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk (Kabir Sehgal, India).
• Pairing Mean Jean, the Recess Queen (Alexis O’Neill, U.S.) with Red (Jan De Kinder, Belgium), about a child’s decision to stand up to a bully.
• Pairing School’s First Day of School (Adam Rex, U.S.) with Rain School (James Rumford, Chad), about getting school buildings ready for the first day of school.
• Pairing I’m New Here (Anne Sibley O’Brien, U.S.) with My Two Blankets (Irena Kobald, Australia) about young refugees adjusting to a new place while staying connected to their own culture.
• Pairing short chapter books, such as The Stories that Julian Tells (Ann Cameron, U.S.) with Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus books or The No. 1 Car Spotter and the Firebird (Nigeria).
• Pairing the well-known Sarah, Plain and Tall (Patricia MacLachlan, U.S.) with Book Uncle and Me (Uma Krishnaswami, India) or My Happy Life (Rose Lagercrantz, Sweden), stories of children dealing with changing relationships and taking action within families.
• Pairing Bud, Not Buddy (Christopher Paul Curtis, U.S.) with A Single Shard (Linda Sue Park, Korea), about children struggling to find a family and their place in the world.

Pairing global books with similar themes, allows children to explore across cultures:
• Pairing My Mother’s Sari (Sandhya Rao, India) with Mommy’s Khimar (Jamilah Thompkins-Biegelow, 2018, U.S. Muslim) and What Do You Do with a Rebozo? (Carmen Tafolla, Mexico), all of which depict children playing with an important item of their mother’s clothing.
• Pairing Juana & Lucas (Juana Medina, Colombia) with Mikis and the Donkey (Tak Dumon, Greece), about close friendships between a child and an animal.
• Pairing Bronze and Sunflower (Wenxuan Cao, China) with The War that Saved My Life (Kimberly Bradley Brubaker, UK), about children escaping difficult lives to create a new family.
• Pairing The Red Pencil (Andrea Pinkney, Sudan) with The Bone Sparrow (Zena Fraillon, Australia), about children in refugee camps using story in their struggle to survive.

Pairing fiction and nonfiction to provide an informational context for a child to understand a story:
• Pairing Ryan and Jimmy and the Well in Africa (Herb Shoveller, Uganda) with A Long Walk to Water (Linda Sue Park, Sudan) to provide a context to understand water shortage in African countries.
A Long Walk to Water (Linda Sue Park, Sudan) could also be paired with Brothers in Hope (Mary Williams, Sudan) to understand the civil war that led to boys walking hundreds of miles in search of safety.
• Pairing Tuck Everlasting (Natalie Babbitt, U.S.) with A Beginner Guide to Immortality (Maria Birmingham, Global) to explore the many ways that people have sought immortality throughout the world.
• Pairing Iqbal (Francesco D’Adamo, Pakistan) with Our Heroes: How Kids are Making a Difference (Janet Wilson, Global) to contextualize the story of one boy taking action with those of children around the world acting to challenge injustice.

One fascinating set of books for comparison are five nonfiction books that tell the story of Wangari Maathai, an environmental activist in Kenya, who organized a women’s movement to plant trees. Each book differs in what aspects of her life are depicted and how her activism is portrayed, leading to interesting discussions about author perspective and intention in writing nonfiction.
Wangari’s Trees of Peace (Jeannette Winter), Mama Miti (Donna Napoli), Seeds of Change (Jen Johnson), Planting the Trees of Kenya (Claire Nivola) and Wangari Maathai (Frnack Prevot).

These paired books can be used in a range of ways in K-5 classrooms:
• Teachers read aloud paired picturebooks over several days to the whole class, first to discuss each book and then to compare the books.
• Teachers read aloud one book as students read and discuss the other in literature circles.
• Students read and discuss both books in literature circles.
• One group of students read and discuss one book while another group reads and discusses the other book. Students then pair up across groups to compare their books, leading to a follow-up whole group discussion to share from their pairings.

Response strategies that can be used to support the discussion include:
• Web observations about the two books.
• Create a comparison chart, selecting 4-5 categories for comparison.
• Create a Venn Diagram to record comparisons.
• Create Heart Maps to compare the values/beliefs of the main characters across the two books.
• 3-column chart to show how the two books connect to each other, extend each other and challenge each other.

These pairings across place and time provide a context for children to explore and understand a book and a culture, so that they are less likely to dismiss global books as “strange” or to feel pity or superiority as they read about cultures that differ from their own. The pairings suggested here are a beginning and we encourage you to explore your own pairings.

Other possible pairings of books and ideas can be found in the Global K-5 book lists on Worlds of Words.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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