We Recommend: the Whole Wide World Edition

Hey voters (you DID vote today, didn't you?), it's We Recommend, in which readers write in to ask for help in choosing just the right book, and we oblige them (with a whole lot of help from the comments). Looking for help in finding the right book? E-mail us with the particulars, and we will do our darndest.

This person is writing in with a mission to make the rest of the world more real to the children in her life. As you can see:

I'm about to move out of the country, and I'm looking for books to explain things to my 4-year-old goddaughter–not so much the move, but about the world and what life is like outside her (fairly homogenous) suburb.  Even just stories set in other countries would be good–she has Madeline, of course, but I'm hoping for something a little more "cultural" than that.  Her parents are pretty conservative, so I'm not looking for anything too beat-you-over-the-head hippie liberal; I'd rather be a little sneakier than that.  :)  Basically, I'm looking to introduce a 4-year-old to the idea of different cultures and multiculturalism.

Anyway, she loves Knuffle Bunny, the first Eloise book, and kind of "science-y" things, with even pretty detailed explanations of wildlife and technology.  I got her a globe for her last birthday, and she's been very interested in it, so I think she has the curiosity and interest.  I've just not had very much luck finding things that aren't simply children's stories maybe set in another country, but with the setting very much in the background, not really explored or explained at all.
So I thought about this, and what I thought about (because I was trying not to just fall for the first thing that popped into my head, which of course turned out to be a losing battle) was stories, nice fictional narratives, because those are the sorts of things I go for. I thought of The Story of Ping, which seems both culturally different and obscurely racist (though maybe is this more because it features a China envisioned in the 1930s as unselfconsciously "other," which is sort of not really done now, not because it says anything negative). It's the story of a duck that gets lost on the Yangtze river, and the family that lives on the boat there. It could be sort of excellent.
But really, what seems to fit the bill for this curious-sounding and data-oriented goddaughter is this (and it's timely, as it's published in partnership with Unicef, if your kids somehow forgot to bring the box out on Halloween):
It's a country by country presentation of kids, ages 3 or 4 to about 14, talking in a very goofily honest way, about their lives: what they eat, their favorite toys, what they play, their friends' names. It's pretty amazing (and sort of sobering; it was published in 1995 so all the kids are now adults, which is a little freaky for the adults reading it, but that's something else entirely). But it really truly does give kids a sense that people do live differently from how they live, in other places with other clothes, food, etc, but they're still kids that they can connect with.
Over time, favorite kids change (both my girls were partial to the Russian girls who went to the Bolshoi Ballet school for while, but then other countries/kids superseded these). It's amazing, really, watching them get a sense, even if it's only a child's-eye-view one, of the rest of the big giant world.
But what if she's not into nonfiction? What if she really does want a story? Or something else? If you've got an idea, put it in the comments.

15 thoughts on “We Recommend: the Whole Wide World Edition

  1. When Africa Was Home: http://www.amazon.com/When-Africa-Home-Orchard-Paperbacks/dp/0531070433/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1288720687&sr=8-1
    It is marvelous, with gorgeous pictures. Little Peter lives in Africa with his parents, spending his days with his best friend and his nanny (only he calls her his second mother, or something similar). Then his parents take him home to Pittsburgh, and he’s in for some serious culture shock until he can get back to Africa, where he finally feels at home again.


  2. I thought of the same book you did, and the one about celebrations that is kind of a “sister” book to it showing kids around the world and telling about the celebrations. But, the FIRST book that came to mind was “Wherever You Are” by Mem Fox. I love that book. LOVE.


  3. I know this book. We saw an exhibit based on it at a children’s museum several years ago. It was interesting and let the kids dress up in lots of clothes and go into the recreated bedrooms of other kids.
    I don’t have a specific title, but I would also suggest that at such a young age one of the best ways to introduce kids to different cultures is through folk tales. As in, don’t just read Cinderella and Rapunzel – read Mulan and Ananzi tales and so on as well.


  4. We have a book that’s just called Fairy Tales, but each of the fairy tales comes from a different culture and they are pretty fascinating to read.


  5. I like the book you recommended, and it’s companion Celebrations book, as well. But the first one I thought of is “Wonderful Houses Around the World.”


  6. I’ll second If the World Were a Village. It doesn’t really have a plot but it has a ton of easy to understand information and stunning information. Also, what about a collection of folk tales from around the world? That might give a subtle clue into different cultures, especially if you can find one around a theme.


  7. The nights of the world by Corinne Albaut. Probably have to get through someone who sells remaindered books but it is excellent for a 4 year old. The routines of day and night are shown across five regions in this book lushly illustrated by Arno. The common rhythms of day and night are illustrated in each locale.


  8. The first that came to mind is my daughters’ current favorite: Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy World. It’s a collection of short, funny stories set in countries around the world, and the drawings accurately show famous landmarks, etc. My 5 and 3 year olds always want to look up the places on our globe and have a bajillion questions about each one afterward.


  9. My first thought was Peter Spier’s People (let’s see if I can link correctly!), which is like the Dorling Kindersly book but ends up by pointing out how dull things would be if everyone was the same.
    Also, Jambo Means Hello and Moja Means One, which are beautiful books.


  10. I’m very fond of Elizabeti’s Doll, by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen. It’s a picture book about a little girl in… I think Tanzania?…who makes a doll out of a rock, and carries it around on her back, like her mom carries her baby brother, etc. It even has a plot, when the doll/rock (whose name is Eva) gets lost, and then found. Great illustrations, too.


  11. I have three that I love:
    Somewhere in the World Right Now by Stacey Schuett
    This is the Way We Go to School: A Book About Children Around the World by Edith Baer
    and the totally awesome and amazingly illustrated: People, written and illustrated by Peter Spier. An oldie but a goodie.


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