Bamboo People

Children’s Novels That Teach Culture & History

While generally I have a weak spot for sci-fi reading, I’ve also noticed  I enjoy books that help you understand a specific culture or history. I think that’s one of the greatest joys of reading—better understanding part of life. Young adult and teen novels seem to be the best at this, since they’re usually more focused.

These sorts of stories may be a weak route to diversity, but they at least offer some. I’d also counter that understanding differing perspectives is the whole point of more diversity in our books, so that’s a big win.

So what are some good reads in that genre? I’m probably just getting started and missing the obvious ones, but since I do read a lot I realized I have quite a few to suggest.So here are some of my favorite children’s novels that teach culture and history:

  • Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins – Not only does it offer a unique perspective of child soldiers and refugees in Burma, but it asks  powerful questions about the lines we draw between enemies.
  • The Return by Sonia Levitin – Another very unique take, this time the Ethiopian Jews who were persecuted and driven out of Ethiopia in the 1980s.
  • Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate – A Sudanese refugee tries to adjust to a new life in Minnesota, struggling with survivor’s guilt and the bewilderment of all that is new.
  • A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park – A story of two Sudanese refugees, separated by decades but both impacted by the same ongoing conflict.
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan – The story of an aristocratic Mexican family driven to poverty and the grueling life of migrant workers in 1930s California.
  • Flygirl by Sherri Smith – This young woman only wanted to fly, but opportunities were limited in 1940s America, especially for black women. But light skin allows her to “pass” as white, offering a story that explores racism and sexism.
  • Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang – This two-volume graphic novel tells the story of China’s Boxer Rebellion from two conflicting perspectives.
  • Starfish by James Crowley – Two Native American children escape from their missionary school and try to survive on their own terms.
  • Rifles for Waite by Harold Keith – I remember reading this Civil War story back in middle school and still remember the way it made that history come alive.
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson – This is the story of an experimental slave in Revolutionary War times, and while the first volume is necessary, I think the second volume that takes place during the war is much more interesting (I wrote in more depth about it earlier).
  • Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood – The height of the civil rights movement in the heart of Mississippi is something that’s hard to get your head around.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank – I can’t think of a better way to give age-appropriate insight into the Holocaust (ironically, I didn’t read it until this year).

And that’s just to get started, I’m only scratching the surface. I suppose that last one opens the door for all kinds of classics, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Little House on the Prairie. I asked my wife for suggestions and she mentioned My Name Is Not Easy, We Were Here, One Crazy Summer and The Good Braider.

What are your favorite children’s novels that help you better culture or history?

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