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!

Global Connections

As librarians, the world can be “our oyster”.  We are privileged to not be constrained by borders when it comes to excellent books for our students. In fact, many of our schools are adding to their missions some type of “world citizen” plank intended to make our students aware that there is more to this world than their town, state or even country.  Lucky for us, there are resources and events that allow us to help support that tenet, allowing us to lead the way to the abundance of world riches around us. Following are a few resources to start finding your way on your journey to be a citizen of literature without borders.

The United States Board of Books for Young People (USBBY): Whether you get involved in the International Children’s Book Day or use their excellent curated list of of International Books of the year, USBBY is a great resource for dipping your toe into the world of books from all around the world. Their mission is “Building Bridges Through Children’s and Young Adult books.” They are the United States section of IBBY, The International Board on Books for Young People.  Both organizations are an incredible resource in not only finding out which is the best of international publishing for youth, they have opportunities to collaborate with fellow colleagues beyond our borders.

Taking a cue from “one book, one school/town/university” initiatives, Global Read Aloud, “One Book to Connect the World” features books for several different reading levels.  You are welcome to sign-up any time before September 30th, when Global Read Aloud kicks off.  Since 2010, over four million students have participated in this program. It’s a great entry into the international community, with support from the organizers along the way.

What does radio sound like in other countries?  Well, you could try a shortwave radio or you can go to Radio Garden and listen to radio stations from all over the world.  While there’s not the interaction with others that you can find in some of the following websites, Radio Garden is a free resource allowing immersion into a culture that may be different than your students. 

If you are interested in helping create connections with other classes and students around the world, you can try Kidlink Global Education Projects. As Kidlink explains it, they “ make it easy for students and teachers to participate in the numerous collaborative projects by creating web pages in an independent and extremely simple way. Kidspace allows you to integrate in the page other tools like e.g. Google Drive, Padlet”.  While the initial website looks dated, the treasures are found in the both the teacher’s room and student works.

Ready to try something bigger?  Penpal Schools bills itself as the ‘world’s largest collaborative community.” With over forty projects and the ability to create your own, your students (and your teachers!) might enjoy one of their self-contained projects that include video, an article and questions to answer which in turn will be turned into a discussion among the penpal students. Librarians might be intrigued with lessons on “Fake News” or “Digital Literacy”, while one of your teachers might be interested in using “The Human Body” or “Homes around the World” written by Oxford University Press.

Epals have been connecting classrooms around the world for many years. While it can be used for something as basic as pen pals, you can also collaborate with teachers from all over the world.  What about a battle of the books with a school across the US or across the world? Share book reviews with another classroom in another country? Epals can help you with that.

One of the Scholars’ Door at the Bodleian

If these programs excite you, maybe it’s time for you to fly away and experience international travel first hand.  The United States supports international teacher experiences through the Fulbright’s Global Classrooms Program,  Short Term Projects or their Semester of Research Abroad. Teaching Traveling has a list of teacher opportunities all over the world.  I’ve personally been abroad going through Oxbridge Academic Programs. Imagine spending a week at Oxford visiting behind the scenes of the Weston, the Bodleian, various college libraries and the Oxford University Press.  It was a pinnacle experience for me, and the other librarians with me

Christ Church, Oxford

No matter what our stated mission is, as librarians we want our students to become responsible world citizens.  What better way to introduce them to the world outside with not only literature representing others, but actual experiences writing to or working with students like themselves that live in other parts of the world? If you have a favorite international resource, please pass it along in the comments below. Have a great and informative September!