by Kathy G. Short, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
This month, WOW Currents highlights the trends in global books published in the U.S. between Summer 2019 and 2020. Each summer, I work on an update for the K-12 global reading lists, fiction and nonfiction, to post on the Worlds of Words website. Exploring possible book titles, reading reviews and analyzing themes provides insights into patterns across this annual collection of global books. This post overviews these trends and the subsequent weekly posts each examine one trend in more depth with examples of books.
The global books selected for the lists are identified by consulting global award lists, such as the Outstanding International Books and Notable Books for a Global Society, and awards focusing on particular ethnicities or regions of the world, such as the Children’s Africana Book Award and the Middle East Book Award, among many others. Throughout the year, global books are identified from multiple review sources and from review copies of global books sent to Worlds of Words.
To be considered for inclusion, a book must be set in a global culture outside of the U.S. or focus on a character who moves between a global culture and the U.S. The book must receive positive reviews and be recommended for educators to consider for classrooms and libraries. Finally, the book must be culturally specific, rather than generic where no cultural references or values are evident. Some picturebooks depict animals or children in a generic setting with no obvious connections to a culture’s traditions or values, such as the well-known The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfisher. Others focus on animals or children in a setting that includes cultural artifacts in the illustrations or have cultural values at the heart of the story. The same pattern can be seen in fantasies, with some embedded in the mythology and cultural traditions of global cultures and include characters with strong cultural identities, while others remain generic.
One pattern across the 2020 global books is the expansion of the global cultures that are the focus. Initially, many global books in the U.S. are set in English-speaking countries, particularly UK, Canada and Australia, and that gradually expanded to books set in Europe, especially France and Germany, and to Nordic and Asian countries, especially Sweden, Norway, Denmark, China, Japan and Korea. The 2020 books include many set in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Few of these books are translated, meaning the majority are written by English-speaking authors, but many of these authors have strong family ties to the global cultures in which their books are set.
Another encouraging trend is that many of the picturebooks are contemporary, rather than historical or folklore, dealing with everyday activities and concerns, such as cooking, going to the market, worrying about acceptance and connecting with grandparents, that children everywhere can connect to. At the same time, the books are set in a culture that is unique, conveyed through the illustrations and the specific activity of the child, such as the food being cooked, and through the integration of terms from that language into the text. There are also more contemporary novels across the grade levels than in previous years, but they tend to focus on conflict and violence, particularly related to refugees, with only a few showing a child or teen dealing with other life issues. The image of the contemporary world outside of the U.S. continues to be one of displacement and violence in most novels. The shift is from historical to contemporary depictions, but the overall themes of conflict and oppression are similar.
Another major trend is refugee books, both picturebooks and novels, across the grade levels, but particularly in the middle grades, 4-8. The refugees come from a wider range of countries in Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Asia, and are headed to different locations, not just to the U.S., a previous pattern. There is also more exploration of the reasons why people are forced to flee and their extremely difficult journeys, along with the confusing aspects of the new culture in which they find themselves.
World War II continues to be a historical setting of great interest for authors, starting at grades 4-5 and going through 11-12 in both fiction and nonfiction. While the Holocaust in Germany and Europe remains a central focus, an interesting trend is the emergence of novels set on the Asian front of the war, such as Polish Jews in Shanghai, Japanese occupiers in China and American children imprisoned in China.
Young adult fiction continues a strong focus on fantasy, along with refugees and historical stories of oppression, including but going beyond WWII. One shift is the cultural traditions and mythologies within which the fantasies are set, including China, Japan, Nigeria, Philippines, South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. This shift opens new fantasy worlds and traditions to teens, while still containing the appealing elements of fantasy quests and dystopias. Only a few contemporary YA novels were located, but were set in countries such as Iran, Sweden and India, rather than focusing on Europe. There were also several novels in which the main character returns to a parent’s home country, Japan and Haiti, in search of their identities and heritages. Across all genres, more YA books focus on Muslim characters, a pattern across children’s novels and picturebooks as well.
In nonfiction, the dominant trend was in the number of biographies and memoirs with a focus on people from a much wider range of backgrounds than typically found in the past, such as memoirs of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia and biographies of a female Chinese physicist, a Muslim world traveler, a Nicaraguan poet, a mathematician from India and a Mexican chemist. In addition, collections of biographies about women from around the world were a strong focus in 2020.
One notable absence in terms of global literature are series books for young readers, such as easy-to-read books and transition chapter books. Series books play a significant role for readers in grades 1-4, who need these books for independent reading and to gain reading fluency. Given the large number of series books and the many new series that are introduced each year, the lack of global books is particularly striking.
These trends are discussed in more depth in blogs over the next several weeks, along with examples of books that reflect these trends. The 2020 K-12 global reading lists are available on the website and arranged by grade level, K-1, 2-3, 4-5, 6-8, 9-10, and 11-12 and separated by fiction and nonfiction. Separate lists of global poetry and short stories are also available. Each book on these lists includes text complexity information and a short annotation.
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