Around the World in 80 Books

I find upper school programming a delightful challenge, so this year I debuted a program for our upper school community to promote global reading. This year-long program–Read Around the World–started as a riff on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, encouraging students to read books from a curated collection of books from 80 different countries.

Why? Well, in 2019, according to Statista, the top 4 US publishing companies published 98,800 new titles–a mere 737 of those titles were published in translation, fewer than 1% (0.74%). Even among those works in translation, there is not nearly the diversity one might hope for. Though there were 52 original languages of publication, 79% of the titles translated were translated from a European language, 14% from Asian languages, 7% from Middle Eastern languages, and a mere 0.2% were translated from an African language. Think of all the books we’re missing out on!

I know I’m preaching to the choir when I claim that through reading we are able to work towards eliminating what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story” and the proliferation and reinforcement of stereotypes. The problem with a single story, she notes, is the way that it “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Furthermore, there are many stories that go entirely unheard when we read and engage solely, or primarily, with literature that is written by U.S. or British authors for American and British audiences in English.

That same data did make this program a challenge–to add exciting global literature to our collection that may not be readily found in our traditional lists, to read as much of it as possible, and to keep things equitable. To facilitate the latter, I selected a number of books from each continent proportionate to the number of countries within that continent.

To provide boundaries to the massive curation project that this otherwise could have become (it was big enough as is!) I gave myself the following criteria:

  • Works of fiction (most were novels, but there were some other formats too–poetry, short stories, graphic novels).
  • The author needed to be from the country and, when possible, currently residing there; there are certainly countries with extensive censorship and authors in exile. Ex-pat and immigrant authors will be another program for another time. I also preferred authors writing for their own country-folk as an audience, so I was often getting books in translation. Furthermore, in formerly colonized countries, I sought out indigenous authors.
  • They needed to be recent–most of the books were from the past few years. In a couple cases I had to dig deeper in time in order to meet my other criteria, but this was not the time for “classics;” I wanted students to be reading fresh works.

In the end, the list included 105 books from 81 countries, which allowed some elements of choice (some countries had 2 books to choose from) and permitted the inclusion of sequels. 

Digital Passport

Once I had the books, it was time to make it a program. For fun, I gamified it through our school’s LMS (Canvas) by creating a class for the program and badges for each country through Badgr, which allowed the process to be pretty automated once it was all built. In order to get students into the program “course,” they were invited to apply for a passport from the main library page through a link that added them to the program course. From there, they can get their passports stamped (with the badges) for each country from which they read a book. Badgr provides a dashboard so participants can see their badges/passport stamps, and what badges/stamps all other participants have earned. Students can also earn badges like “Globe Trotter” for getting a stamp from each continent and “Region Rover” for sweeping a stamp for every book in a continent. I’ll award prizes at random throughout the year by drawing a name from anyone who is participating, as well as at the end of the year to whoever reads the most globally. 

In addition to the gamification, the global books are on display all year organized by genre, with a rotating featured display each month of a particular region. This keeps the books visible while also allowing me to put fresh subsets in front of our community in new ways through the year so the program doesn’t get stale.

Europe books on a display. Covers from earlier displays (North America and Oceana) will be joined as the year progresses.

We’re only mid-year but I’m calling this one a success already. So far, books from the Read Around the World program have 66 checkouts. For one semester, I’m thrilled. Perhaps more tellingly, our global books account for a full 25% of all fiction checkouts so far this year (through January 1). I’ve also tried out new tools for gamification, acquired great books for our collection, and personally read books from Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, Barbados, Nigeria, China, and Vietnam. I have more regions yet to visit!

10 thoughts on “Around the World in 80 Books

  1. What an inspiring program! Well-done!

    I am currently planning a panel about this very subject with translators and publishers. We will be streaming it, so let me know if you are interested in checking it out.

  2. Wow! I love this idea. I’m tackling the challenge of connecting with Upper School readers and am always on the hunt for new ideas to spark some interest. I may give this a go next year. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I love this! I created a “Read Around the World” challenge for our middle school students this year, but don’t have the cool passport or badges. That part sounds really fun! I may have to step up my game and adapt some of your ideas for my kids.

  4. This is such a neat, global idea! I’ve considered doing something similar for our Lower School Library but am still toying with how to make it accessible to Kindergarten & 1st graders. Has anyone done it with a younger crowd?

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