I have a definite soft-spot for books giving me a window onto other cultures.
Today I’ve got a raft of enticing stories that do just that, and I’ll be returning to this topic again later this fall with a second installment of culture-aware stories. I invite you to come explore this wonderfully diverse world with me!
I love that many of these titles come to us from smaller publishers carving out a distinct niche or taking risks on these important stories. I am grateful for them.
Leila in Saffron, written by Rukhsanna Guidroz, illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova
published in 2019 by Salaam Reads
The rich, saturated colors you see on this cover image are a foretaste of the culturally-rich story inside!
Leila, a Pakistani-American girl, is “on the look-out for parts of me that I like.” She finds joy in the beauties of her culture, family, and self during one delicious evening at her Nanna’s house. A warm, tantalizing read for ages 4 and up.
When Spring Comes to the DMZ, written and illustrated by Uk-Bae Lee
published in 2019 by Plough Publishing House
An utterly unique look at the DMZ from the perspective of one young South Korean boy and his grandfather.
Exploring the wonders of wildlife who make their home in the unpeopled DMZ through the turning of the seasons, as well as the contrasting militarization, and one dear grandfather wistfully visiting the area, gazing across, longing for the peaceful unification of these torn nations, it’s an insightful glimpse of an area much in the news, for ages 4 and up.
The Parrot and the Merchant, told and illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian, translated by Azita Rassi
originally published in Iran in 2013; this edition 2017 by Tiny Owl Publishing
This retelling of a Persian fable sings in jewel-toned, highly-patterned illustrations.
Mah Jahan’s favorite possession is a parrot she collected in India. The parrot, however, longs for its freedom. Can they both achieve happiness? An enchanting tale for ages 4 and up.
Cinderella of the Nile, written by Beverley Naidoo, illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian
published in 2018 by Tiny Owl Publishing
South African author Beverly Naidoo brings us one of the myriad Cinderella tales that have originated in scores of cultures around the globe and across time. This Egyptian version had its origins thousands of years ago!
Rhodopis, a red-haired, gentle beauty is captured by pirates and winds up in an Egyptian household where she is gifted a pair of rose-red slippers. Of course, these shoes play a pivotal role in her destiny as the Pharaoh’s queen. Vibrantly illustrated by Vafaeian, the similarities and differences of this tale to the more familiar one will fascinate ages 6 and up.
First Laugh — Welcome, Baby!, written by Rose Ann Tahe and Nancy Bo Flood, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson
published in 2018 by Charlesbridge
My recommendation on this book is to read the back matter first where you will learn about the First Laugh Celebration, a Navajo, or Diné, tradition. It sets the stage nicely for this beautiful story —
— a warmhearted glimpse of one Navajo baby immersed in the love of his family, both in his urban home and on visits to his grandparents on the lands of the Navajo Nation. This beloved baby is welcomed by one and all. A joyful, authentic Native read for ages 4 and up.
Where Are You From?, written by Yamile Saied Méndez, illustrated by Jaime Kim
published in 2019 by Harper
Hurrah for a book exploring the unique dimensions of multicultural, multiracial heritage, the special burden on children who don’t have a tidy answer to the question, “Where are you from?”
The child in this story doesn’t have an answer that satisfies her classmates, so her Abuelo explains in a lovely, lyrical, all-encompassing way the melange of cultures and threads, and the core element of love, that make her who she is. Brilliant for anyone with a beautifully complex heritage including TCKs, with their longing for belonging. Ages 4 and up.
Noni the Pony Rescues a Joey, written and illustrated by Alison Lester
first published in Australia in 2018; U.S. edition 2018 by Beach Lane Books
Alison Lester, an Australian gem, has written several Noni the Pony stories.
In this episode, Noni and her pals happen upon a lost wallaby joey and head off on a long, roundabout journey to deliver him back home. Meet all kinds of weird and wonderful Australian critters in this jolly, skippety story for ages 2 and up.
Ojiichan’s Gift, written by Chieri Uegaki, illustrated by Genevieve Simms
published in 2019 by Kids Can Press
Mayumi van Horton spends two months every summer in Japan with her grandfather, Ojiichan, where the two happily work together in the graceful, serene garden he’s created in her honor.
When Ojiichan’s health means he must move out of his home, thoughts of the abandoned garden sadden both of them. Mayumi’s clever, loving solution brings about a sweet resolution. Pristine illustrations, a bi-cultural family, the balm of nature, and an introduction to Zen gardens, all make this a treat for ages 6 and up.
Children of the First People: Fresh Voices of Alaska’s Native Kids, profiles by Tricia Brown, photographs by Roy Corral
published in 2019 by West Margin Press
This longer, fascinating read is a compilation profiling ten Native Alaskan children representing the 10 unique Native peoples who have called this region home for thousands of years.
The kids are all 9-12 years old. As they tell about their lives, both contemporary and traditional aspects shine through. This composite nature of Native life is immensely important for non-Native people to understand. It would make an excellent read-together book for ages 8 and up and their grown-ups. Especially as this area is being devastated by climate change, it’s vital that we learn about those who are profoundly impacted by our choices.