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Finding fiction that encounters other cultures through an American kid's eyes

The new Voyages Issue of the New York Times Magazine has a profile of Rick Steves, host of a public TV series on traveling in Europe. The article’s subhead is: “The travel guru believes the tiniest exposure to other cultures will change Americans’ entire lives.”

I believe that too; it was true in my life. And right now in the world of middle-grade and YA fiction, there’s strong and growing interest in exposing American young readers to novels that create this sort of cultural exposure through a story. I myself think one especially strong way to do that is by finding and sharing good novels, for young readers, that transport an American main character into another country.

To encounter another culture through the eyes and emotions of someone like yourself — that’s a bridge that is relatively easy and inviting to cross. So I have a project. Last weekend I emailed my mailing list of over 400 teachers, librarians, principals and others that I’ve worked with in schools, and I asked this question: Can you recommend a good middle-grade or YA novel in which an American main character encounters another, preferably foreign culture?

I got quite a few responses — and from them I whittled down the list to recommended novels that fit this specific profile. I left off one or two that looked to be using a foreign locale as just a stage setting for a romance. That’s fine to do, of course, but it’s not what I’m looking for.

I will read these books, over the coming weeks — and I will blog about each one. Here is my list:

Moving Target, Christina Diaz Gonzalez (Rome)
Small Damages, Beth Kephart (Spain)
The Astonishing Color of After, Emily X.R. Pan (Taiwan)
First Descent, Pam Withers (Colombia)
Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa, Micol Ostow (Puerto Rico)
Wanderlove, Kristin Hubbard (Central America)
Love and Gelato, Jenna Evans Welch (Tuscany)
Laugh With the Moon, Shana Burg (Malawi)
Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram (Iran)
Elephant Run, Roland Smith (Burma)
Endangered, Eliot Schrefer (Congo)
Listen, Slowly, Thanhha Lai (Vietnam)
The Carnival at Bray, Jessie Ann Foley (Ireland)
Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye (Palestine)

If you have a title to add, please email me!

 

"Picture a troubled teen quietly removing this book from the school library shelves, then sitting down ... and devouring it."*

Prince front cover high res

He pitched forward, and yanked me after him so hard I stumbled into a couple of high school guys, who put their hands out. “Whoa — easy, man,” they said, but I was already getting jerked pastthem, like a bad dog on a leash.
    He didn’t say a word, just kept this grip clamped on my arm as he stomped forward and hauled me along. People were jumping out of the way, everyone turning to look: high school kids, little kids staring with wide eyes, kids my age whispering and giggling, grownups drawing back with faces like masks.
    Tara was gone. Everything was gone. I was stumbling, stunned, seeing the faces in flashes and trying to keep my balance after every angry jerk on my arm. I tried to say something, but nothing came out. I couldn’t make words. I didn’t know any words except “Dad ... please,” and those I couldn’t say.

* from Foreword Reviews

Download “This important story invites honest discussion": Educators on The Prince of Denial"