One of the best ways for kids to walk in the shoes of people in other countries and cultures is to read their stories. Fiction set in other countries will help even the most reluctant reader get a taste for life beyond their back yard. That’s the reason many library systems all over the U.S. have this theme–“One World, Many Stories–for their summer reading club this year. From Ireland to Russia to North Korea and beyond, the books listed below will take young readers on a multi-cultural carpet ride around the world.
Year of Impossible Goodbyes, by Sook Nyul Choi. It’s 1945 and 10-year-old Sookan’s homeland of North Korea is occupied by the Japanese. Her father, a resistance fighter, hides in Manchuria, while her older brothers toil away in Japanese labor camps. Sookan watches as the Japanese commit cruel, humiliating acts against this once-proud and hopeful family. When they can no longer live under the oppression of first the Japanese and then the Russians, Sookan, her mother and young brother make a harrowing attempt to escape and cross the 38th parallel to safety. Based in part from the author’s own experiences, Choi shares an incredible story of the love and determination of her family.
Nory Ryan’s Song, by Patricia Reilly Giff. Life has always been tough for poor Irish potato farmers, but 12-year-old Nory Ryan and her family have always managed to scrape by and, most importantly, stay together. That us until the great potato famine of 1845-1852, later known in history as The Great Hunger. Seemingly overnight, the foul smell of rotting, diseased potatoes lying in the field fill the air. Hunger quickly closes in. The farmers and their families are reduced to eating seaweed and grass. As her community falls apart, Nory scrambles to find food for her family. Increasingly, the lure of plenty in America tears families from each other. Young readers may have heard of the Irish Potato Famine, but they won’t truly understand it until they see it through Nory Ryan’s eyes.
Listening for Lions, by Gloria Whelan. It’s 1919 in British East Africa, and 13-year-old Rachel has lost her missionary parents in the influenza epidemic that’s ravaging the world. With no family, Rachel is sent by the conniving neighbors to visit an elderly man in England. They want her to convince him that she, Rachel, is their daughter and his granddaughter. With no other options, Rachel agrees to this plan and crosses the ocean to England. Rachel and the frail old grandfather develop a strong bond as she relates to him in loving detail stories of the world beyond his sick room, most especially her beloved Africa. This old-fashioned story of an orphan who finds her place in the world is sure to appeal to fans of The Secret Garden.
Madame Pamplemousse and the Enchanted Sweet Shop, by Rupert Kingfisher. This is the second book in the thoroughly delightful and charming Madame Pamplemousse series. It’s winter in Paris and Madeleine is having problems at school with a new girl who is bullying her. She’s too embarrassed to ask her steadfast friends, Madame P. and Camembert, but she’s befriended by Madame BonBon, owner of the sweetshop. At first, Madame BonBon’s sweets make Madeleine feel stronger and confident enough to confront the bully at school. But soon, the sweets take her to a world much scarier than school! If you’re looking for a charming read for the younger middle-graders that has a bit of a mystery to it, this is a tres bon pick!
Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis. Written shortly before 9/11, the author takes the reader into the oppressive rule in Afghanistan by the Taliban, as seen through the eyes of the 11-year-old girl, Parvana. Parvana has rarely been allowedoutside of her family’s one-room house after the Taliban took over. After her university educated father is hauled away, Parvana realizes it’s up to her to support the family. To do this, she must disguise herself as a boy in order to go to the market to get food for her mother and siblings. Parvana also discovers she can make some extra money for the family by providing a reading service for those who can’t read–something she could never do if she were not disguised as a boy. This topical novel explores the realities of life for both boys and girls in modern day Afghanistan.
Angel on the Square, by Gloria Whelan. We return to another book by Whelan in this evocative, absorbing look at the tumultuous period in Russian history during the Russian Revolution of 1913-1918. A young girl, Katya, and her widowed mother have gone to live with Tsar Nikolai II so her mother can serve as the Empress’s Lady-in-Waiting. The Tsar and his family become like a second family to Katya, and for the first time, her life seems idyllic. But after a time, Katya begins to question the Tsar’s treatment of “his people”. As the world outside the palace walls begins to thrust its way into Katya’s and the Tsar’s sheltered world, Katya and all of Russia’s life is changed forever. Whelan’s balanced and sensitive treatment of both sides of the Russian Revolution is amazingly accessible.
Bobbie Pyron is the author of The Ring (WestSide Books, 2009), A Dog’s Way Home (Katherine Tegen Books, March 2011) and the upcoming Mercy’s Bone (Arthur A. Levine Books, Fall 2012) which is set in Russia.