As I prepared last year to launch Street of Storytellers, I asked teachers, school librarians and bookstore people to suggest middle-school and YA novels that, like Storytellers, place an American main character in another culture or country. This is a strong way to connect American young readers with diverse cultures — plus, I’ve always liked reading novels like this.
From the recommendations that came in, I selected and read 10 novels. Here are the top nine, from my most favorite on down — with summaries of what I thought:
1. Endangered (Congo), Eliot Schrefer. No realism is spared in this gripping story of an American girl at a bonobo sanctuary that’s brutally overrun in a spasm of civil war. A powerful narrative, vividly written, with mind-opening honesty about what two species of primates (bonobo and human) are capable of.
2. Nowhere Boy (Belgium), Katherine Marsh. A privileged American and a desperate young Syrian refugee meet in a most unexpected way — and the American’s life finds a purpose. This is a rare achievement: a novel with moral intent that’s also a strong and honest story.
3. Laugh With the Moon (Malawi), Shana Burg. A girl closed to her own grief opens up to the village world where she has to be for a summer. I loved this book.
4. Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Iran), Adib Korram. Awkward, unconfident Darius travels with his family from their U.S. home to Yazd, his mother’s hometown. This is not a novel of dramatic events, but as Darius gradually makes personal connections in Yazd, the story grows deeper and more meaningful on the inside.
5. Habibi (Israel), Naomi Shihab Nye. This 1997 novel’s narrator has a Palestinian dad and an American mom, and one day her family relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized Jerusalem. At first focused on conveying the Palestinian side of heavy-handed Israeli rule, the novel opens up into something broader and deeper, yet still challenging.
6. Listen, Slowly (Vietnam), Thanhha Lai. The cultural immersion here is richly detailed and engaging. The story itself, about an American-born Vietnamese girl enlisted in the search for a grandfather lost in the war, isn’t quite as strong, but it's a rewarding read even so.
7. Escape Under the Forever Sky (Ethiopia), Eve Yohalem. An American ambassador’s daughter is kidnapped — then escapes. In this thrilling adventure deep into a totally different world, the human spirit pushes through stark dangers and striking cultural differences.
8. Small Damages (Spain), Beth Kephart. A pregnant high schooler is shipped secretly, and reluctantly, to rural Spain to have and then give up her baby. The storytelling can be confusing, but it makes us think and feel. I’d love for all boys to read this.
9. Elephant Run (Burma), Roland Smith. I wanted to like this WWII yarn, about a colonial planter’s son caught by the Japanese invasion in a community of elephant drivers, more than I actually did. An inventive plot, but flat storytelling and characters.