2020 Global Books: Picturebooks about Contemporary Experiences

Kathy G. Short, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

Freedom Soup cover shows a Haitain grandmother in a head scarf dancing in kitchen with child in braids.A long-term issue in global literature is the lack of books showing contemporary experiences, leading to misconceptions that other cultures are set back in time in comparison to the U.S. The global novels for middle grade and young adult readers identified on the 2020 Global Reading Lists are primarily historical fiction or fantasy with the exception of refugee books, a continuation of that problematic trend. In contrast, picturebooks for younger readers include many contemporary depictions of everyday life in a range of global cultures, including Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, Japan, China, Korea, India, Tibet, Iran, Syria and Indigenous Canada.

One theme of these picturebooks is their depictions of daily experiences, inviting young children to make connections with their lives and activities, while, at the same time, portraying the uniqueness of each cultural setting. Catch that Chicken! by Atinuke (2020) is set in Nigeria and involves a young girl who wants to be the best at something in comparison to other children. Her status as the best chicken catcher in her village is threatened when she hurts her ankle. The village setting in Nigeria and the activity of catching chickens is unfamiliar for many children but the desire of a small child to be the best at something is a strong connection. Lali’s Feather by Farhana Zia and illustrated by Stephanie Coleman (2020) integrates Hindi expressions, signaling the cultural context, while highlighting the universal delight of young children for imaginative play. Thukpa for All by Praba Ram and illustrated by Shilpa Ranade (2019) tells the story of a young blind boy in Tibet who loves his grandmother’s noodle soup so much that he excitedly invites many friends and neighbors to enjoy the soup. Cooking with family members, a favorite activity for young children, is the focus of Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisah Saeed and Anoosha Syed (2019), when Bilal and his father cook his favorite Pakistani dish for his friends, even though it takes all day to make. The Boring Book by Shinsuke Yoshitake (2019) is a translated book from Japan in which a child inquires into the common childhood complaint of “I’m bored.”

These books are significant given that young children make sense of the world and build concepts by making connections through their experiences in multiple contexts. They invite young children to feel connected to children in different parts of the world, while also making clear the differences across cultures. Young children may not understand where these cultures are located or differentiate a city from a country, but they can appreciate similarity and uniqueness in children’s lives across communities. Even if they don’t understand the specifics, they come to see that their way of living is not the only one.

Several new global picturebooks highlight the importance of grandparents as the source of close relationships and cultural knowledge for young children. In Freedom Soup by Tami Charles and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara (2019), a child learns how to make freedom soup, a New Year’s tradition based in Haitian history, while Leila’s Naani in Leila in Saffron by Rukhsanna Guidroz and illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova (2019) helps her celebrate her Pakistani identity. Another important theme is the willingness of grandparents to take time to be with a child. In Sing to the Moon by Nansubuga N. Isdahl and illustrated by Sandra Van Doorn (2019), a Ugandan grandfather shares stories and memories with his grandson on a rainy day. In Birdsong by Julie Flett (2019), a lonely Cree girl in Canada meets an elderly woman who spends time with her and shares her love of nature.

This focus on connections across cultures is also evident in nonfiction with cross-cultural books, such as Back to School: A Global Journey by Maya Ajmera (2019), which depicts what, where and how children experience school in different parts of the world, so that children can find their own traditions along with learning new traditions. Come Out to Play by Maya Ajmera (2020), contains color photographs of children playing games in over 35 countries, while Earth Hour by Nanette Hefferman and illustrated by Bao Luu (2020) depicts the annual Lights-Out Event that occurs on the same hour around the world to promote energy conservation.

Other trends include the many picturebooks about refugee children in the Middle East, Central America and Africa, discussed in the previous WOW Currents. There are also several books of folklore based in cultural traditions beyond the Western European stories typically available. Jaya’s Golden Necklace: A Silk Road Tale by Peter Linenthal (2019) is based in Buddhist traditions, while The Phoenix of Persia by Sally Clayton and illustrated by Amin H. Sharif (2019) is from ancient Iran and the Shahnameh.

Two special books stand out from the many excellent global picturebooks in their challenge of societal norms. Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison (2019) portrays a young Kenyan girl who tries to lighten her skin due to teasing about her dark skin color. This book addresses colorism, where lighter skin is viewed as more desirable than dark skin within the same cultural community, in a thoughtful way that encourages young children to challenge societal notions of beauty. The other book, Why Do We Cry? by Fran Pintadera and illustrated by Ana Sender (2020) is a translated book from Spain in which a young boy asks his mother why people cry. On each page, the mother provides a different reason, such as anger or sadness or not being heard, with the illustrations varying in color and style to visually portray the emotion. On the final page, the boy asks his mother why she is crying, to which she replies that sometimes we cry when we are happy.

Check the Global Reading Lists in Grades K-1 and 2-3 for more extensive lists of fiction and nonfiction picturebooks published over the past several years around these and other themes.

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