So many great books for children take place in other countries or time periods, and I think it’s great to use living books as a way to talk about how other people lived or live. Even if your lifestyle doesn’t include jetting around the globe with your toddlers (and if it does, more power to you!) you can still expose them to other cultures by using books as a starting point. A few of our favorites are below.
The Mitten is a folk tale about the principle of “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” but Jan Brett set her version in the Ukraine. I love the pictures in this book, with the great views of how a Ukrainian cottage might have looked, style of dress, carving and tole painting, and the like. This book also comes in a board book if you have very young toddlers.
The Cow Who Fell In The Canal might not be in print in the US. Amazon is only carrying third party copies (see link above) but this book is one of our favorites and well worth having if you can find a copy. My dad brought one back from a business trip he took to the Netherlands. The book tells the story of a cow who dreams of going to town, and how one day she fell in the canal and went floating down into the marketplace. The pictures are bright and fun and show great detail about the canal, windmills, and Dutch architecture.
Honey… Honey… Lion! is another Jan Brett book, this time about Botswana. The story follows a badger who works with a honeyguide bird to find honey, but gets greedy one day. Along the way the book is filled with great pictures of African wildlife and terrain.
The Story of Ferdinand is a fun book about a bull from Spain who doesn’t want to be in a bull fight. As Ferdinand is taken to Madrid to be a reluctant performer, the pictures show great detail about bull fights (matadors, picadores etc) and people in traditional dress. The story is great and I love the black and white drawings. The picture at left is in color, but our book is in black and white, so I hope they didn’t color it in in the more recent printings, but if they did I’m sure it’s still a good book!
Always Room For One More is a Scottish folk song full of all kinds of fun words and phrases like “Och come awa in” and suchlike. If nothing else this book will teach you and your child a lot of interesting Scottish vocabulary! The book also has a good message about showing hospitality and welcome to other people, and the pictures are really fabulous pencil line drawings. If you like to talk about art and drawing with your kids you’ll enjoy talking about how the illustrator used the little lines and hatch marks to make the pictures.
The Story about Ping is one of the classic childrens stories of all time and tells a fascinating story about life on the Yangtzee River in China. The pictures are detailed and the story is wonderful. We love Ping. You will too.
Tikki Tikki Tembo is another story about China. This folktale purports to explain why the Chinese do not name their children very long names by telling the story of a hapless little boy whose long name, Tikki Tikki Tembo No-Sa Rembo Hari Bari Ruchi-Pip Peri Pembo nearly got him drowned. It’s a funny story and has interesting illustrations that you will enjoy.
Daisy Comes Home is the story of a chicken who gets lost on the Yangtzee River, meets up with all kinds of trouble, and eventually finds her way home. Again, Jan Brett’s illustrations are fantastic and detailed, the story is fun to read, and you’ll learn about a Chinese market among other things.
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain is a phenomenal book about Kenya that I remember from my own childhood. If you watched Reading Rainbow maybe you remember James Earl Jones reading this book out loud. Josh still imitates James Earl Jones when he reads it! The story has great rhythym and the pictures show African wildlife with great detail.
Wee Gillis is one of my most favorite childrens books ever. It is the story of a little boy whose mother was from the lowlands and whose father was from the highlands and how his relations fought over where he would live until he decided to live half way and become a fabulously talented bagpipe player. I love the illustrations of the Scottish relations – they are very detailed and animated – and I think the story is funny and unique.
The Paddington Bear books are of course about England, and Paddington is such a loveable bear that you will surely enjoy his stories even if you don’t learn a great deal about Great Britain. In any case the stories mention tea and marmelade and I’m sure you can figure out how to stretch that into a culture lesson if you feel a deep seated need to do so.
Madeline is another classic book, and although it doesn’t hit you over the head with facts about France, the illustrations do depict quiet a few landmarks that you can point out. I do think it’s valuable to point those things out to kids, to help them understand that the world is a big and interesting place to learn about. These little things do sink in and become part of the child’s understanding, I think. For example last spring Hannah was over at my in-law’s house and my father-in-law was headed out the door. Hannah followed him and asked where he was going. He told her and asked where she was going, “I’m going to Paris!” she said. If you like Madeline, you might also like the rest of the Madeline Books.
How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World tells about quite a few different countries and the foods they are well known for. You can read more about the book and how we used it as a springboard for other activities in my post about making an apple pie.
The Umbrella is a story about the Costa Rican rainforest and the fascinating animals that live there. This book was illustrated by Jan Brett so you know the pictures are colorful and detailed and worth looking at even if you don’t read the story. But of course you WILL read the story, because it’s interesting. Once after a long string of too little sleep I attempted to read this book and instead of pronouncing “hola” like the Spanish word meaning hello, I said “holla” like the hip hop shout out. That anecdote is irrelevant to this review, but I thought I would share it anyway, in case you were running low on things to laugh at me about.
Crictor is not really going to teach you a lot about France, but it’s such an amusing story about an old French lady and her brilliant and brave pet boa constrictor that I wanted to include it so you might be encouraged to read it. The illustrations are great and the story is really fun. You can read it with an exaggerated French accent if that helps you feel like it’s more educational. It will entertain your kids if nothing else.
The Tiger Who Came to Tea was written, I think, by an author from New Zealand, so by some stretch perhaps you can call it a book about another culture. Certainly you can call it a unique and fun story and your kids will probably love it. It’s by the same lady who wrote the Mog books, which are also excellent. Also did I mention that it’s about a tiger, and as you well know tigers are excellent animals and make the very best team mascots. No offense to people whose team mascots are things like train engines.
The Story of Little Babaji is a cute book about a little Indian boy who outwits a group of tigers. What? Outwit tigers? Never! But perhaps tigers from India are not as bright as tigers from New Jersey. (Ba dum CHA!) In any case, this is one of Jack’s favorite books and he likes to sit on the big stuffed animal tiger we have and say, “Yook! I Babaji!”
Under the Cherry Blossom Tree is a folk tale from Japan about a mean landlord who grows a tree out of his head, removes the tree out of spite, raises carp in the hole in his head, and finally jumps in to the pond never to be seen from again. It’s a little strange, but makes an interesting story. My mom gets thrown off by the part where the landlord is sitting under a flowering cherry tree and eating cherries, because she says it’s not realistic for trees to be flowering AND producing fruit at the same time. I overlook that, because you don’t want to get started listing what’s unrealistic in a book about a guy who grows a tree out of his head and then raises fish in the hole left after he uproots the tree. I’m just saying.
I promised there would also be history, but this post is getting really long, so I will leave you with Ox-Cart Man , one of our favorite books about early American life. The pictures are great, the story is great, and you’ll learn a lot about the way life was in New England two hundred years ago.