a world of swiss cheese

I’ve been on a self-appointed task these past months: Find picture books that open windows onto the dazzling array of places people call home, the umpteen ways of life that feel as ordinary and only as skin to someone, while at the same time as stiff-in-the-wrong-places as fancy dress costume to another. Human cultures are fascinating.

Amazigh women; Morocco

As with any book search I throw myself into, this one has become somewhat of an obsession for me. Okay, not just somewhat. Within my small sphere, enlarged to hopeless proportions by the Internet, I’ve been overturning rocks like a gold miner, certain that just a few more feet downstream I’ll discover a gem that would be a crime to miss. Surely, if I look just a bit longer I’ll find a story set in Angola. Why does no one tell us of Angola?

Mundimba girl in one of the giant baskets used for grain storage; Angola. Photo by Eric Lafforgue


I haven’t always found that gem I hoped was out there, but I have run into lots of interesting questions and thoughts because of my searching.

It’s been interesting to observe the evolution in books over the decades. Diversity and multicultural awareness may seem like a contemporary push but honestly, there were a great many books published post-WWII when the world exploded and young men and women from Podunk, Nebraska and Backwater, Alabama fanned out to Fiji and Casablanca and Antwerp to save civilization and then trooped back home. Those early books have unmistakable titles, sticking out like tamales on a Swedish smorgasbord. Matti, Boy of Lapland. Elena, Girl of Spain. They sound like labels on a set of microscope slides. Slice of Earthworm. Paramecium: View A.


Newer stories tend to be more dynamic and personal rather than merely representational. Their text and artwork are as enticing as a pineapple-coconut cooler on a tropical beach. Come! Try a sip! We have come a long way since the days when we presented Others to children as specimens of curiosity. That’s progress. In other ways, we’ve made surprisingly little headway.


The world has changed for most of the Mattis and Elenas of the world since 1948. Glancing at publication dates as I scan lists of titles, I think about how far back to dip. The 70s don’t sound so long ago, but that’s only because I’m a child of the Sixties. The 90s – that’s only as far back as the birth of my children. That’s current enough in some cases. For many tucked-away communities, like those where we lived in West Africa, life has not changed a whole lot in twenty-odd years with the exception of ubiquitous cell phones. Their stories will stand up to the passing of a few decades.

For others, 1948 was the cusp of an entirely new era. And 1990 earthquaked much of Europe into new landscapes yet again with the end of the Cold War. Massive upheaval, altered paradigms, not to mention transformative technology have utterly changed the fabric of many societies. To see inside those cultures now, we need new stories.

Sadly, this is one area in which the children’s lit world has not kept up. Take, for example, Germany. Do you know how difficult it is to find a story set in Germany that doesn’t have WWII as its subject? Almost impossible, even among titles published in the past 10 years. Ditto for a vast swath of Europe, to my shock and great disappointment. Just do a search of Denmark, Poland, Norway, in the children’s literature section of your library. Aside from folk tales, almost every title I could find was about the impact of WWII on these communities.

a scene from Denmark

WWII and the Holocaust in particular are profoundly important subjects for our children and I have done a week-long blog series devoted to them. But how is this the only narrative our children know about Europe, especially Germany?!

When my daughter was about 6 years old, we were talking one day about how much I would love to visit England. She was scandalized! Weren’t those Redcoats our enemies?

What revelations come to us through a child’s questions! No, dear. The British have long since ceased to be our enemies. They are some of our dearest friends.

You would have to excuse the entire population of children in the United States, however, from thinking that Germany was still a Nazi state. I’m sorry if that sounds raw and harsh, but really, the lack of children’s stories reflecting the Germany of today is appalling.


my daughter’s home for a time, the village of Holzen

This same daughter of mine lived in Germany for three years after graduating from college. From her I learned of the fabulous autumn festivals held in small towns dotted around the Black Forest region, rich with freshly-pressed apple cider, vats of gorgeous newly-harvested-pumpkin soup, overflowing with pottery from artisans around the countryside. And the lavish Christmas markets, streets twinkling magically, trays of gingerbread, flowing rivers of mulled wine, booths trimmed out with intricately crafted wooden crèches and ornaments to make your heart sing.

These charming festivals are but one tiny embroidery stitch in the vast tapestry of Germany, a nation that encompasses alpine meadows, historic rivers, fairy-tale castles, brilliant artists, modern cities, stunning museums, and has emerged as one of the key leaders of the free world. Is there a single picture book available to U.S. children that paints for them a portrait of contemporary Germany? I could not find one.

Other European nations are equally disguised; our shelves are bereft of contemporary views. Eastern Europe. The ethnic diversity in France. Modern Scandinavia. Or what about Rome? Is it possible to find a story set in modern Rome, rather than one where charioteers are racing round the Circus Maximus?


Rome traffic — definitely not a chariot race

Which brings me to my next discovery — cultures unfortunate enough to have inherited past glory. The ancient fame of Egypt and Greece, for example, fairly eliminates contemporary views, as though these cultures ceased to exist when the wand of time moved along in the great course of Western Civilization. Just try to find a story set in contemporary versions of these ancient cultures. I found only one or two.

Boys in Cairo; no pharaohs anywhere near

Then there are the countries who have been embroiled in recent wars. These are the countries whose names are familiarly in the news here in the U.S.: Iraq. Afghanistan. Syria. And as far back as the Lebanese Civil War throughout the 1980s. The narrative for these nations in the children’s literature I could find is nearly entirely of war.

Again, it is tremendously important that stories illuminating the impact of war and the flood of refugees be told, and I have done multiple blog posts covering such titles. But war is never the only narrative of a culture. Here again, you can understand why an American child might wonder why anyone would even want to live in these homelands.

Where are the windswept plains and snowcapped breathlessness of the Zagros mountains in Iraq or the Pamirs in Afghanistan? What of the maqam singers? The buzkashi tournaments? The poetry and dances. The hospitable cups of coffee and tea? Will we relegate these entire cultures to a story of destruction? I want to see them in their beauty.

Besides the problem of singular narratives, I also had to eventually resign myself to the fact that some places just fare better in the Kids’ Lit World Cultures Popularity Contest. Kenya beats out Djibouti. Guatemala scores, while Uruguay is neglected. Some countries are wonderfully represented. But it’s a world of Swiss cheese, with holes everywhere. Peoples, cultures just entirely missing from the shelves. It gave me such a desolate feeling when I had to wave my white flag and recognize defeat while searching for a particular homeland. I want the children of Libya to have their day in the sun. To know what brings joy to a household in Kyrgyzstan. Instead, we will likely get one more book meandering the streets of Paris. And I love Paris! But what happens when entire regions or peoples are unknowable for our children?

gathering water — rural Tajikistan

That’s the question, really. Why does this even matter? What difference does it make if my child never becomes acquainted with life in Central Asia, or doesn’t realize that Norway is not fighting Germany any longer…hasn’t been for quite some time as a matter of fact. 

It is very easy for children living in a country like the U.S. – large, powerful, so vast that one could easily spend a lifetime just exploring this one nation – to develop an insular mindset. To lack an accurate perception of the rest of the world. To not value the rich, human stories of others nor the consequences to them of a gamut of world events. The tragically ethnocentric America First mindset has become a badge of honor for many recently, contributing to a growing deficit in desire to understand and concern ourselves with others.

Yet a sense of common brotherhood, a growing understanding and appreciation for other ways of  life leads to a spirit of care, mercy, willingness to sacrifice for others — vital qualities that contribute to the peace and well-being in our world I believe most of us truly desire.

The best remedy for hearts ambivalent to the value of other cultures is cross-cultural friendship. Sharing a meal, a sorrow, a celebration. Simply living alongside one another in this ordinary, messy world. Second best is to seek out windows of understanding into our world, and that’s where books come in. As you read globally with young children, you help establish a mindset from a young age about how big the world is, who their neighbors are, and why we long for their good. That’s why we need more good books about the real lives led by people around the globe, and why I’ve worked so hard – obsessed is surely the right word! – to bring you titles that will help you do just that with your kids.