When I was fifteen, we moved under the shadow of a dormant volcano so my father could offer medical care at a remote clinic tucked amongst the coffee plantations of Guatemala.
My mother had wisely packed an extra suitcase full of classic novels to keep me company that year, and when immersed in those books—with parrots squawking overhead or rain beating upon our tin roof—my mind traveled across Europe and South Africa, throughout India and The Middle East. That year, living amongst the descendants of the ancient Mayans, I discovered two things: a love of literature and a fascination with the unique and varied cultures of the world.
This fascination only continued to grow through later life experiences: traveling across Europe, knowing refugees and immigrants, working at an international boarding school, and teaching non-Western literature. All of these experiences taught me that simple human connection has the ability to break down perceived boundaries. Once we know a face and a story, and our shared humanity becomes evident, it is difficult to return to vague notions of a country and its people. For me, this is an important idea to embrace while now raising daughters of a global generation.
Of course, our differences often present a striking contrast, making it difficult to find a shared experience, especially when we have few opportunities to interact with people from other cultures.
This is where literature often becomes the conduit of empathy and connection. As C.S. Lewis explained, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself … I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see.”
Such as during our recent “Read Aloud Time.” We just finished a lovely book called The Courage of Sarah Noble that tells the story of an eight-year-old girl and her father traveling to their newly-purchased land to set up shelter before the family comes to settle there. The fear of neighboring “Indians” remains a constant thread throughout the book; Sarah is curious, excited, and nervous about how the Native Americans will receive her family once they settle on the adjacent land that they purchased from the tribe. When she asks her father, he assures her that the “Indians” there are good, and then tells Sarah, “In our home all will be treated with kindness—always, Sarah. The Indians, too, and they will not harm us.” As can be predicted, Sarah eventually befriends the Native American children, later defending them to her mother once she arrives to the settlement, “They are not savages. They are our friends, and Tall John’s wife takes good care of her children.” Sarah’s father agrees with her, “Indeed, that is true,” even adding the playful reproach, “Tall John’s wife is almost as careful as you, Mary.”
This scene illustrates how simple connection—knowing a face, a person, and their story—breaks down barriers and helps us to see our shared humanity. Tall John and his “squaw” wife were not so different from the white settlers after all. And through the power of narrative, this idea is now blossoming in my daughter’s mind, which is likely why she spent half the afternoon dressed as a settler, and the other half, scantily clad as a Native American girl, complete with a little “papoose” tied to her back. The story has taken root in her imagination.
Of course, the desire to celebrate the beauty found in diverse cultures is at the forefront of contemporary children’s literature, and it has birthed some fabulous new stories, such as one of our favorite picture books, The Girl with a Brave Heart. (I discuss this book and several other multicultural gems in this previous post.)
Yet thoughtful children’s writers dealt with this topic long before it was trendy. Such as the book I mentioned above, The Courage of Sarah Noble, or Eleanor Estes’s timeless Newbery Honor, The Hundred Dresses, or any of the wonderful D’Aulaire biographies. It seems that children’s literature has a long tradition of rendering empathy to its young readers. One only needs to think of Dickens or Burnett to consider this concept.
As my girls mature, and they are ready for the weight, we will grapple together with heavier global issues through the masterful storytelling of writers such as Athol Fugard and Nadine Gordimer, and through the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman. But today I am content to read stories of kindness and to play our favorite matching game, I Never Forget a Face, calling out the names that we have given to each child—the Albanian boy we’ve named Sajmir after my former student—and teaching them to be global neighbors who care about children different from themselves.
Maybe someday, like my parents, I too will be able to travel with my children, allowing them to experience the richness of other cultures. I must admit that I often daydream about this when scrolling through my Instagram feed and catching sight of “World Schooler” Kirsty Larmour’s stunning images. Seeing her two daughters, blond braids draped down their backs, exploring a street bazaar in Turkey or a mosaiced mosque in Kazakhstan, it reminds me of that dark-haired girl who climbed the side of an ancient Mayan temple in Tikal and got lost amongst the open market at Lago Atitlán.
Yet even if I never board an international flight with my children, I’ve learned a secret about human connection, a secret passed down from generations of explorers and humanitarians alike—no one really needs a plane ticket to travel; all one ever needs is a library card.