Global Literature to Teach Global Understanding

Global Literature To Teach Global Understanding This spring, several new books that foster global understanding for childhood audiences have been released that are written and illustrated by international authors and illustrators. While these works of global literature certainly stand on their own, collectively they offer classrooms an opportunity for students to grow deeper understandings of […]

Global Literature To Teach Global Understanding

This spring, several new books that foster global understanding for childhood audiences have been released that are written and illustrated by international authors and illustrators. While these works of global literature certainly stand on their own, collectively they offer classrooms an opportunity for students to grow deeper understandings of the world. At the Classroom Bookshelf, we recognize that there is no single story that can support students to broaden their understanding of the world and the diversity of people within it. When read together, these stories invite young students to think, wonder, and notice details that they may overlook in a single reading of a single book. In this post, we review three books and provide teaching invitations that can work across these and many other works of global literature. We hope that this post helps teachers consider the importance of introducing children to a range of cultural stories, worldviews, and the histories of people and places through the use of global children’s literature.

imgresMarwan’s Journey

Written by Patricia Arias and Illustrated by Laura Borràs

Published in 2018 by Minedition

ISBN: 978-988-8341-55-9

Grades K-6

Book Review

“I walk…and I don’t know when I will get there, or where I am going.” In this fictional picture book, the uncertainty and hope of refugees is eloquently captured through the story of a young boy named Marwan. Using first person narration, Marwan’s voice poetically explains the journey from his homeland to somewhere unknown but safe. Using clear, vivid details, Marwan explains what he carries with him (including a photograph of mommy who is not with him) and how he hears his mother in his dreams encouraging him to keep going and keep walking. Marwan uses the simple language “I remember” to explain the warm memories of his home as well as the night darkness came. Using repetitive refrains, Marwan’s Journey invites young readers to consider the refugee crisis through the eyes of a child. Ink and color wash illustrations by Laura Borràs have a child-like quality to them further supporting young readers to understand the humans stories of the refugee crisis. Originally published in Spanish as El Camino de Marwan and honored at the Bologna Ragazzi Awards in 2017, Marwan’s Journey will foster compassionate conversations with young audiences about the experiences of refugees around the world.

room-in-your-heart-cover_grandeRoom In Your Heart: A Folktale from Bhutan

Written by Kunzang Choden and Illustrated by Pema Tshering

Published in 2018 by KitaabWorld

Grades K-6

ISBN: 978-0-99954-762-5

Book Review

To the east of Thimphu and west of Trongsa, somewhere among the mountains, an old woman lived in a little house.  A monk in red robes is the first of several visitors standing at her door asking, “Neypo shong gna? (Is there room for me?)” As each subsequent visitor beckons for her help, she welcomes them into her tiny home including two men and a donkey who are squeezed in. In the end, the visitors ask her how she managed to fit them all into her small house. The monk answers for her: “There will always be room in your home, as long as there is room in your heart.” Kuzang Choden’s lyrical language creates a poetic effect that will appeal to young audiences learning about Bhutan through the generous spirit of the woman in this original folktale. Pema Tshering’s transcendent watercolor and pencil illustrations offer readers a visual connection to Bhutan’s mountainous landscape as well as the cast of characters. A Note on Bhutan provides helpful information about the Kingdom of Bhutan through fascinating facts such as the country’s measurement for prosperity–the Gross National Happiness index. This endearing story offers young readers more than an introduction to Bhutan–it offers a memorable story that can serve as a touchstone text for opening room in your students’ hearts throughout the year.

**Room In Your Heart is the first book published by KitaabWorld, an advocacy group and online bookstore that specialize in building awareness about South Asian culture through children’s literature.**

bhimrao-ambedkar-the-boy-who-asked-why-englishThe Boy Who Asked Why: The Story of Bhimrao Ambedkar

Written by Sowmya Rajendran and Illustrated by Satwik Gade

Published in 2018 by KitaabWorld

Grades 2-6

ISBN: 978-0-995476-0-1

Book Review

“As a child, Bhim knew that the world he lived in was like a ladder. Different groups of people made the different steps of the ladder. Bhim knew that he belonged to the lowest step.” In India in 1891, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born an “Untouchable”, or member of the lowest caste. As explained in the book, this meant that people above his caste did not eat with him, drink water from the same well as him, offer him help in times of need, treat him kindly in school, or even touch him. Details about his life journey are explained in chronological order including how he won a scholarship to study in America and later studied law in London. He came back to his home country of India to demand equality for all castes and went on to write laws that helped frame the Constitution of India. Throughout the text, the single word “Why” is set off from the page to signify Ambedkar’s relentless pursuit of justice by questioning. Satwik Gade’s watercolor and ink illustrations heighten the feelings of injustice Ambedkar faced as he witnessed the joy of others and felt the pain of displacement. Backmatter includes a timeline of Ambedkar’s life as well as a glossary and additional resources.  The Boy Who Asked Why is a picture book biography with the potential to ignite in young readers their own questions in the pursuit of justice and the inspiration to read more about the lives of other influential leaders from around the world.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:

Becoming Cartographers: Books as Maps to Global Understanding. Using these or other books that build global understanding from sources like the Outstanding International Books List, The Notable Books for a Global Society, or the Global Literature Language Arts column, support students to make connections across texts by giving them the identity of cartographers or mapmakers. Before reading each book, use a globe or world map to find the global locations where the characters come from. Encourage students to consider the ways that as readers they can become cartographers by understanding more about the world and the people in it. Then, help students make connections across global literature to build global understanding by noticing similarities in storylines, overarching themes, point of views represented, cultural information shared, and how different genres shape different understandings. Consider using shared or interactive writing to create a mind map of the word(s) global or global citizen before reading the books. After each reading, have students add new thinking to the mind map to see how far students can stretch their ideas through these and other global stories. You can guide student thinking by having them share what they see, think, wonder, or feel when reading each book. After each reading, consider asking questions that guide students to make connections across the texts to build global understandings such as: What do you notice about how Bhim expanded the hearts of others in his country by writing new laws? Likewise, why do you think the woman in Room in Your Heart open her heart and her home? What do their stories teach us about their respective countries of India and Bhutan? How do the places we live influence the things we believe and what we experience? How does Marwan help us understand challenges people around the world are facing as refugees? What do you think he hopes to find in a home?

Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors: Connections, Disconnections and New Opportunities. Using Rudine Sims Bishop’s (1990) metaphor of how books are like mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, support students to use this metaphor to guide their response as readers to global literature. In what ways do the characters and their life situations feel like mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? Mirrors are connections we have to characters and their experiences such as the ways we may also open our homes for others like the woman in Room in Your Heart or the emotions experienced from feeling different like Bhim in The Boy Who Asked Why. Children that come from or have family ties to India, Bhutan, or are themselves refugees may have important cultural connections to these and other global stories that they choose to share. As readers, we experience window moments when we notice disconnections we have to characters and their situations. What do students learn about people from around the world and the places they are from that they didn’t know before from these global readings? Finally, books often offer sliding glass door moments when what appears to be a window becomes a mirror. Consider creating a class mural display on how these and other works of global literature create for students mirror, window, and sliding glass door moments that others can learn from.

Welcoming Newcomers: Taking Action. While these books encourage deep thinking, new learning, and emotional connections, they also encourage us to take action in our own lives. One common thread throughout the books is the treatment of others, particularly those that are initially strangers to us. Use these and other works of global literature to consider the ways we can boldly take action in our communities by welcoming newcomers. With upper elementary and middle school grades, explore this theme further in novels like Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney,  Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai, and One Good Thing About America by Ruth Freeman. How do each of the characters experience feelings of welcoming and belonging or the lack thereof? Create a class action plan on how to welcome newcomers in your school or in your local community that may include questions to ask to get to know someone, ways to invite others to play, and messages of kindness that encourage feelings of belonging.    

What’s in the Character’s Heart: Character Mapping. You may already use heart mapping (Heard, 1999) as a technique to support students to write from their hearts. These and other works of global literature offer opportunities to map the hearts of the characters and figures from the books. What do the individuals in these books care about? How do you know? Who are the people that matter to them? What objects are important to them? What about their homelands is a part of their hearts? After each reading have students create heart maps for each of the main characters or figures. Have students share their heart maps with a peer or small group to notice similarities and differences in their maps. Encourage students to add things to their heart maps if they choose to. Finally, have students compare the heart maps they made for the characters to their own hearts. In what ways do they care about the same things as the characters in these global stories?

Watercolor Exploration. Each of these books uses watercolor as a medium for visual expression. Consider with students why that medium may have been chosen for the illustrators. What effect does watercolor as a medium create in these books? How does watercolor create the feeling of spontaneity? Why does a medium that encourages endless and sometimes unintended possibilities complement these stories? Have students create their own watercolor paintings about something from their own lives or from their imaginations. Encourage them to share what they think about the medium and how it encourages us to be more comfortable with uncertainty. Hang student paintings in your classroom and build in time for a gallery walk for students to compliment one another’s pieces.  

The Power of Asking Why. In The Boy Who Asked Why it’s visibly clear that Bhimrao Ambedkar was a figure who asked why intentionally and consistently throughout his life to change the systems of inequality under India’s laws at the time. The word why pops off the page in key moments of his life. Additionally, the visitors in Room in Your Heart ask the woman why she opened her home to them. And in Marwan’s Journey, Marwan has many wonderings that could lead students to compose why questions if they were Marwan. Asking why can often be the hardest kinds of questions to ask. Let your students know that you will be on the lookout for when they ask why so that you can compliment them. Consider creating a We Ask Why board that documents the why questions your students ask throughout the year.

Life Journeys. The Boy Who Asked Why is a chronological biography that explains key moments in Bhimrao Ambedkar’s life journey. While Marwan’s story in Marwan’s Journey is fictional, it represents the journey many refugees experience when they are forced to leave their homelands. Gather other books that explore journeys including those of refugees such as Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margariet Ruurs, Journey by Francesca Sanna, and My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo (see Further Investigations below for more titles). Consider having students work in small groups to create life journey timelines for characters they meet in global literature. What is important to include in life journey timelines? How will a fictional character’s timeline be visually different than a historical figure’s timeline? Encourage groups to choose artistic media that complement the message they want to send about the lives of people they read about. 

Critical Literacy

Power: Who Has It and Why? Many works of global literature implicitly explore the question of who has power and why. Explore this question with students through global literature as well as other fictional and historical texts throughout the year. In what ways do each of these characters give us models of hope for how to support those that are powerless to become powerful? Encourage students to think about who has power in their lives and the ways that they can feel powerful in their everyday lives. Have students create their own I Am Powerful When _____ signs and take photos of students holding their statements. Encourage students all year long to notice the ways they are powerful and to provide support to those that seem disempowered.

Challenging Publishers. Gather a variety of works of global literature for students to explore. Investigate where these books are published and have a discussion about what students notice and wonder about the locations of the publishing houses that regularly publish works of global literature. Consider sharing our list of books in the Further Investigations below. Compare and contrast the books published in Canada with books published in the United States. Research the immigration policies from the United States and Canada that might contribute to what gets published in each country and why. Consider using shared or interactive writing to write to publishers to thank them for their contributions to global children’s literature or to challenge them to publish more of these important works.

Further Investigations

Online Resources

KitaabWorld Site

Outstanding International Books List from the United States Board on Books for Youth: School Library Journal

Notable Books for a Global Society

Global Literature Children’s Book Reviews Language Arts Volume 90 Number 1

Book Riot: Around the World in 10 Books

Children’s Books Exploring the Refugee Crisis Publisher’s Weekly:

Heart Mapping Handout by Georgia Heard

Mirrors, Windows, Sliding Glass Doors by Rudine Sims Bishop


Argueta, J. (2016). Somos como las nubes / We are like the clouds.  Toronto, Canada: Groundwood Books.

Buitrago, J. (2017). Walk with me. Toronto, Canada: Groundwood Books.

Christopher, D. (2017). Putuguq and Kublu. Toronto, Canada: Inhabit Media.

Del Rizzo, S. (2018). My beautiful birds. Toronto, Canada: Pajama Press.

Freeman, R. (2018). One good thing about America. Holiday House.

Fullerton, A. (2017). When the rain comes. Toronto, Canada: Pajama Press.

Hohn, N. (2017). Malaika’s winter carnival. Toronto, Canada: Groundwood.

Hong, N. (2017). Days with Dad. Brooklyn, NY: Enchanted Lion.

Lai, T. (2011). Inside out and back again. New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Leatherdale, M.B. & Shakespeare, E. (2018). Stormy seas: Stories of young boat refugees. Toronto, Canada: Annick.

McCarney, R. (2018). Where will I live? Toronto, Canada: Second Story.

Phi, B. (2017). A different pond. North Mankato, MN: Capstone.

Pinkney, A.D. (2014). The red pencil. New York, NY: Little Brown.

Redding, L. (2016). Calling the water drum. New York, NY: Lee and Low Books.

Ruurs, M. (2016). Stepping stones: A refugee family’s journey.

Sanna, F. (2016). The journey. London, England: Flying Eye.

Schwartz, J. (2017). The town is by the sea. Toronto, Canada: Groundwood.

Senzai, N.H. (2018). Escape from Aleppo. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Wild, M. (2018). The treasure box. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

Young, R. (2016). Teacup. New York, NY: Dial Books.

Works Cited

Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

Heard, G. (1999). Awakening the heart: exploring poetry in elementary and middle school. Portland, ME: Heinemann.

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