International travel makes the invisible visible. Even (or, perhaps, especially) if we define ourselves in opposition to many values from our cultures of origin, we have nevertheless absorbed them in ways we can only recognize when they stand out in contrast to something completely different. Reading internationally can perform the same function.
Conversations often turn to what we can learn from reading cross-culturally. On the one hand, there is the “how wonderful it is to learn about foreign cultures!” argument, and on the other, “we are really all the same on the inside!” There is an inherent tension between the two: The former runs the risk of exoticizing the Other, while the latter can erase important differences in the name of avoiding discomfort.
In reality, both are true: We are all fundamentally human in the most essential ways, but equally, there is splendid variety, from the minutiae of daily habits to the really big stuff, such as how we think about the self in relation to others. Traveling and reading internationally allow us to form deep bonds over our commonalities and to cultivate an understanding of differences, to know that we don’t need to be the same to be friends and to live peaceably together.
As Katherine Marsh so eloquently put it in her essay “Refugee Stories Are Just the Beginning: How Fiction Opens Children’s Minds,” “as I watched nativism and populism engulf the world, I became even more obsessed with the question of how to give American children, including my own, a global perspective.…[B]ooks can be magic carpets that allow kids to fly over borders and see themselves and their communities in more complex and challenging ways. The question is: Are we doing a good enough job of giving American children stories that expose them to the larger world?”
International travel is exhilarating because all your senses come alive—you cannot sleepwalk through the day as you can at home. International reading does the same for our minds. The bits that might be a little bit hard—the unfamiliar names or references you don’t recognize—are signs that your world is growing bigger in ways that will remain long after the story ends.
Go on—let Kagiso Lesego Molope introduce you to a South African woman grappling with family loyalty and violence against women in This Book Betrays My Brother (2018). Visit Damascus with Rafik Schami in A Hand Full of Stars (1990), translated by Rika Lesser, and learn how one teen lives under an oppressive regime. Meet a Japanese man struggling to come to terms with his late brother’s sexuality in My Brother's Husband (2017), translated by Anne Ishii. See Sweden through the eyes of a jazz-obsessed, biracial teen and her octogenarian best friend in Wonderful Feels Like This (2017) by Sara Lövestam, translated by Laura A. Wideburg. Get to know two young people living centuries apart in Ireland in Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child (2008). Head north of the border to find out what Canadians are doing to heal from the traumatic legacy of residential schools in Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith (2017). Explore the wilderness of post-apocalyptic Australia with Mark Smith in The Road to Winter (2017).
We need these books and more like them: They bring the richness of the world into our homes and our hearts.
Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.