One of the great magics of reading is its ability to transport you to faraway places. Children’s literature is full of amazing books set all around the world that give amazing insight into a wide range of stories, issues, circumstances, and triumphs. All of which kids can learn from and learn new things about themselves.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, Eleanor Coerr
If you’re looking for a light, happy, easy-going read this is not it. Sorry in advance. This book does not pull any punches but still manages to have a beautiful heart to it. I was assigned this book in middle school and it was an incredibly memorable read.
The story is a fictional retelling of Sadako Sasaki, and follows her journey in the aftermath of WWII. Sadako is a young girl in 1950s Japan with big dreams for her life, but her world is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with leukemia as a result of radiation from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. After being reminded of a Japanese legend that says one who created a thousand paper cranes would be granted a wish, Sadako sets out to do exactly that with the support of her family and friends.
The book, which has achieved worldwide acclaim, is a stunning and poignant look into the suffering children experience at the hands of worldwide conflict. Where many authors seek to impress certain points or approaches, Coerr very eloquently lets the focus rest with Sadako herself and the personal nature of her journey. In doing so, the simplicity of the book speaks for itself and becomes an incredibly poignant and personal read for any child.
Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed
A book that could have easily been overburdened by its weighty subject material, Amal Unbound is a beautiful look into life in Pakistan while also addressing some serious issues that children face.
Amal is a young girl with big dreams of one day becoming a teacher. While her dreams sometimes clash with the needs of her family and the strain they are under, she is determined to push forward and make something of herself, but after a disastrous encounter with the highly influential and therefore ruling family in her town, Amal finds her dreams stripped away in an instant and herself moved into the family’s mansion to work as an indentured servant. As her dreams slip away, she is faced with the corruption of the family she now works for and wonders if there is any way to get back to the life she knew.
For such weighty subject material, Saeed masterfully keeps a strong grip on the age of her target audience and deftly navigates them through her storytelling. Yes, Amal’s situation is dogged by heartbreak and disappointment, and yet hope prevails time and time again as she refuses to give up on the dreams she holds most dear. Such a notion is an important lesson for any young reader.
The Bridge Home, Padma Venkatraman
This book was both beautiful and heartbreaking. Set in India, it highlights the struggles that many kids face in homelessness and attempting to provide for themselves.
The story follows two sisters Viji and Rukku as they try to make it on their own. Viji feels incredibly protective of her sister Rukku whose developmental disability leaves her vulnerable to the harshness of the world around them. When Viji realizes that things with their abusive father are only going to get worse, she runs away with Rukku to make it on their own. As they live on the streets, they team up with two boys to give themselves their best possible chance. As time goes on, they adapt to the ever-increasing challenges that surround them and try to carve a life of meaning out of the hardship they call home.
What’s special about this book is that while dealing with some incredibly difficult subject matter, it chooses instead to focus the majority of the story on the little kindnesses that help the kids along and the way they lean into each other to stay strong. There’s an incredible sense of dignity for Viji and her companions and the family they create with each other is so much more real and meaningful than anything they’ve left behind and a beautiful reminder to children of their own strength and support.
The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke
Where my other selections thus far have been a little heavier in subject material, The Thief Lord is very different. Set in Venice, this literature fantasy crossover is a whimsical journey through the canals and charm of this aged city.
The story follows two orphaned brothers, Prosper and Bo, who have run away from their cold, unfeeling aunt to create a life of their own in the city of Venice, a place their mother had always described to them as magical and enchanting. The young brothers team up with a group of street kids led by the mysterious Thief Lord. As time goes on, Prosper hopes he can build a life for him and his brother, but with an ancient mystery at hand and a persistent private investigator hired by their aunt hunting them down, Prosper might not find the peace he is hoping for.
The entirety of the story has a sweetness and a charm to it, truly showcased in the way this ragtag band of children cares for each other create their own meaningful (and sometimes overconfident) sense of family. Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the story for me was the unexpected focus on Victor, the private inspector hired to find the boys. Funke deftly introduces him not just as an adult character, but an adult character who is notably different from the others. Victor has a youthful understanding of the world that sets him in a class of his own and challenges the boyish defiance of the Thief Lord’s own self-importance. It’s a charming read and a truly whimsical escape into the world of Venice.
Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren
For our final book, we take a jaunt all the way up to Northern Europe and find ourselves in Sweden with the eponymous Pippi Longstocking. Many people are familiar with the spunky, wild-haired redhead and she’s just as vibrant on the page as she is in any other setting.
Pippi’s story is one of good-natured and joyous fun. Nine-year-old Pippi moves to Villa Villekulla, very much an independent, free-spirited girl having lost her mother in infancy and her father being missing at sea. When she befriends local siblings Annika and Tommy, the children find themselves along for all the raucous big spirited fun Pippi has in her being.
Pippi Longstocking is the perfect story for readers who want to enjoy a good-natured, episodic romp through fiction. The larger than life redhead is up for any challenge and her tall tales grown right along with her. As large as her personality is, her strength, wit, and forceful will are always matched in size by her heart, kindness, and generosity. In many ways reminiscent of Peter Pan’s reluctance to conform and grow up, Pippi Longstocking is a wonderfully confident salute to the wildness of youth while not losing sight of the importance of friendship and looking out for one another. Pippi Longstocking is a fun and fanciful read for readers of all ages.