Growing My World Through Books

Summer school is in session, and I recently had the opportunity to dig into the contrast between ‘global’ and ‘diverse’ youth literature with elementary education students. While descriptions of what is global, international, diverse, or even young adult exists, there are no clear definitions of any of the terms. I know there have been times when I’ve clamored for definitions, I’ve come to prefer the fluidity of these concepts, the ability to reconceptualize how young adult literature, for example, can adapt to more inclusive ways of being. The terms are also useful in marketing and sales; books are a commodification of stories and readers are consumers. Market forces can demand changes of these terms that result in higher sales more than in a deeper way of addressing the literacy of the age group.

Same with ‘global’, ‘international’ or “diverse” literature; these terms from a publishing perspective have more to do with how books are sold to consumers. As an educator and as a library, even as a reader, I consider these books as way to extend a reader’s worldview. Before I visit a country, I like to read travel books, news articles and works of fiction about the place. It’s not the same as being there, but it begins to prepare me for a new experience.

In my work as a reviewer, I approach global and international books in the same way I approach books by or about marginalized people in the US and that is to begin by looking at the author, getting a little information on their background including where they’re from, how they identify, what sort of education or training may inform their writing, and why the wrote this wrote the book I’m about to read. This prepares me for how the book may attempt to position me. Knowing an author’s geography, where they are living or have lived, informs me as to whether I’m reading a global/transnational or international book. What these concepts provide for me are insights into the different ways authors can contextualize stories.

Global books are typically books written by authors who immigrated to the US and are set in their home countries. Their eyes are not the same as someone still in that country. I would say ‘typically’ immigrated because I would consider Eric Gansworth’s writing transnational because he’s a US citizen, a member of Eel clan, enrolled Onondaga writing about his experiences growing up in the Tuscarora Nation. Same with Esmeralda Santiago and Micol Ostow writing about Puerto Rico which we all know is not a country (we know this, right??) but it maintains its own cultural and historic identities. We’re looking at geographies that originally developed and sustained cultures outside white, hegemonic spheres of influence. Mitali Perkins, Randy Ribay, Roshani Chokshi and Tomi Adeyemi are writing global literature when they choose to write stories based in their ancestral homelands or its culture. I would at the same time consider this to be marginalized literature because they write from inside the US.

Marginalized? I’m done calling it ‘diverse’ or even ‘multicultural’ because the terms allow us to evade the oppressive forces that marginalize Black people, Latine/x/a, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, LGBTQIA+ or Indigenous people as well by people with disabilities. It erases ableism, racism, homophobia, and misogyny. The overused and misused terms don’t require us to consider how race has been created to divide and distract us and more important, they inaccurately describe books by people who aren’t white, aren’t abled-bodied or aren’t cishet. Diverse books for me is inclusive of books by Laurie Halls Anderson, Candace Fleming, Jeff Zentner and A. S. King as well as G. Neri, Zoraida Córdova, Kyle Lukoff, Ann Clare LeZotte, L. L. McKinney, Axie Oh and many, many others.

International books can be written by anyone living anywhere who may or may not have visited or researched the country in which their book is set. This would be books like Lyn Miller Lachmann’s Gringolandia, The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick. If the book is written outside the US, if it’s a translated book or an imported book, it’s an international book. In one sense these are books written by outsiders who may have written stories on second or third hand knowledge or they may be books written and edited by people born and living in that land. These would include translated books. One of the best international books I’ve read recently was The Words in My Hands by Asphixia. There’s also When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina, the Aya series by Marguerite Abouet, translated by Helge Dascher, and Moribito by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathey Hirano.

A lot of thought can go into this type of categorization and it can feel very technical. Is there really, always a difference between ‘global’ and ‘international’? I think these classifications help me most by highlighting some of the different types of experiences that authors bring to their work that I may not have previously considered. And, that’s useful when want to know a person’s relationship to the place and culture they’re writing about. Even though I lived in Taiwan for a year, I was always an outsider there and anything I wrote about that country would be from a very limited, outside perspective. I never spoke the language, attended schools, or recognized many local customs without first comparing them to my own.

In trying to do a review based in critical multicultural literacy, it helps me understand how a book is working to position me if I know the political, historical, and cultural context behind the story and that means having a geographic context.

Worlds of Words, Skipping Stones, IBBY, Words without Borders and TeachingBooks are all good places to find out more about global, international and marginalized books. These organizations offer journals, interviews, awards lists, and book reviews. TeachingBooks will even help with name pronunciations. Much of the information I discussed here is from Exploring International and Intercultural Understanding through Global Literature.