WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures
Introduction: Representations of Contemporary Global Communities
Many scholars of international children’s literature, concerned about the media focus on war and disaster in global contexts, believe that children’s and adolescent literature can provide insightful, authentic images of a range of contemporary global lifestyles and cultures. Another issue has been the dominance of folklore and historical fiction in the global literature being published for children and adolescents, which can create misconceptions of these global cultures as dated, rural, and traditional. Both the diversity and universality of diverse global communities are significant points of connection and conversation as teachers and learners position themselves to better understand the others with whom they share our contemporary world.
In some of the picture books reviewed here, children share the uniqueness of their daily lives and cultures as well as the universal experiences that can be part of any child’s background. Anna is a child in Africa and many aspects of her urban African life, some very similar to urban lifestyles elsewhere, are woven into Anna Habiscus Song. Her search for how to express her joy in life is among the universal feelings to which a reader may connect. The same author has also told the story of a contemporary child in an African village in The No. 1 Car Spotter. While the hardships of a life in poverty may resonate with children, so will the humor and resourcefulness of characters in this early reader chapter book. Meena, a title that originated in Belgium, shares the fear and imagination of children—potentially mirroring adults—that leads to prejudice and bullying as three children believe an older neighbor to be a witch. A New Year’s Reunion describes the excitement of a traditional New Year celebration in China tempered with the modern dilemma of families being separated for long periods of time due to the father’s work.
Contemporary images of the global community have also been shared in previous WOW reviews of picture books, such as Big Red Lollipop (Rukhsana Kahn), First Come the Zebra (Lynn Barasch), I am Thomas (Libby Gleeson), and My Name is Sangoel (Karen Lynn Williams).
Some of the titles reviewed in this issue show adolescents who are facing family challenges during those critical years when identity is being acknowledged and shaped. In The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, Dini, just entering adolescence finds herself moving from the U.S. to India for two years due to her mother’s new position. Despite her own Indian heritage and her idolization of a Bollywood star, she is faced with many changes in her new community. In Orchards, a Japanese American girl is sent to live with her relatives in Japan for the summer after the suicide of a friend and rumors about the involvement of her circle of friends in this tragedy. She learns about her Japanese heritage and customs from a supportive extended family as she deals with the potential outcome of bullying and cruel words that often are part of teen relationships. Under the Mesquite finds its protagonist dealing with situations of family loss, border issues, and the call for resilience in a story that will resonate with many despite geographical or cultural boundaries.
Other contemporary adolescent images described in previous WOW Review issues include: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu (Wendy Wan-Long), Our Secret Siri Aang (Christina Kessler), The Year of the Dog (Grace Lin), A Step from Heaven (An Na), In Darkness (Nick Lake), and La Línea (Ann Jaramillo).
While images of war are a typical portrayal of many international countries, children’s and adolescent literature offers perspectives that transcend the nameless and faceless victims and survivors of these challenging situations. In contemporary literature, readers realize those involved as people having complex lives that have been disrupted and whose own strengths have enabled them to confront the challenges in positive, creative, and hopeful ways. Now is the Time for Running tells a realistic story with issues of racial violence, drug abuse, and illegal immigration in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Tempered with human emotions, this story involves the reader with characters in ways that are compassionate and uplifting as street soccer becomes a life changing game. Under the Persimmon Tree begins with a family torn apart by bombings in Afghanistan and follows the journey of a young girl to a refugee camp in Pakistan. There she develops a friendship with an American woman who began a school for the refugees. The relationships and resiliency described bring the reader into the lives of the characters but also raise issues of authentic portrayals of Muslim women.
Other contemporary portrayals of people affected by conflict within their homelands found in previous WOW Review issues include Saving the Baghdad Zoo (Kelly Milner Halls with Major William Sumner), Wanting Mor (Rukhsana Kahn), and A Little Piece of Ground (Elizabeth Laird with Sonia Nimr).
As teachers work to prepare young readers in a world where technology continues to shorten the path between global cultures, these titles point to the role of literature in preparing future citizens who will be expected to build relationships and make critical decisions within an international context.