*This post was first published in September 2012.
This was once my pet project, where I wanted to get to know a country better by picking up a book. Sadly I abandoned my book quest months later because it was starting to feel forced and some slots were seemingly impossible to fill; I didn’t think I’d ever find a good book about Uzbekistan, for instance. (I’d put The Railway on my list but never borrowed it.) Even hunting for decent Singapore stories was proving to be a challenge—perhaps we moms need to band together to write something meaningful!
But recently I’ve been coming across “Around The World” booklists again (here and here), and for tonight I’d like to add my top picks too, of books that go beyond cursory mentions of a country’s landmarks and history to provide some real insight into its heart and soul.
Update 2016: I’ve added in some recent discoveries too!
The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini): As I’ve mentioned before, these books made me want to open my home to every single kid in Afghanistan. Although both books falter towards the end with overly dramatic yet predictable twists (I was reminded of the long-running HK drama serial Kindred Spirit!), they do their job of creating awareness about the lack of safety and freedom in Afghanistan, and you do come away appreciating what you have.
Voices Of The Heart, Beyond The Great Mountains (Ed Young, picture books): If you like learning about Chinese characters and the pictures they supposedly represent, you’ll love these books for the artistry in the pictures and text.
The Wall (Peter Sis, picture book): I’d pick books like these over A-Z country fact books any day. Through his impressive drawings, Peter Sis tells the story of his childhood in Czechoslovakia under communist rule: “He didn’t question what he was being told. Then he found out there were things he wasn’t told.”
Shah Of Shahs (Ryszard Kapuscinski): I had to read this because it was the book that Mariane and Daniel Pearl bonded over, and in a way, it heralded the beginning of their love story. If you’ve read 1984, there are similar themes here, except this has real people and more feeling. It’s also on The Guardian’s list of 100 greatest non-fiction books (look under “History”).
Good Night, Commander (Ahmad Akbarpour, picture book): This one’s about an Iranian boy acting out a battle scene in his bedroom, as boys do. Except this boy has lived through a war and knows its price: he’s lost his leg, and his mother too. The story is framed within a normal life–the safety of a bedroom, a dad who pops in to check on him, dinner with the relatives later–which only adds to the poignancy. But his mother’s picture on the wall (and her voice in his head) is a reminder that some things can never be taken away from us.
The Librarian of Basra (Jeanette Winter, picture book), Silent Music (James Rumford, picture book): Both these books address the topic of war (how could a book on Iraq not?), and both books have an important message for their readers: In the Librarian of Basra, a library’s entire collection is in danger of being destroyed, and a librarian has to devise a plan to keep the books safe. (True story!) And in Silent Music, a child of war discovers that he can find solace within himself: “I filled my room with pages of calligraphy. I filled my mind with peace.”
Untangling My Chopsticks (Victoria Abbott Riccardi): A disenchanted New Yorker escapes to Kyoto to learn about tea kaiseki—a sequence of dishes served before a tea ceremony—and in the process unravels the mystery behind Japanese culture. “Through tea kaiseki I genuinely had come to believe that when you leave a meal, moment, or place not quite completely satisfied, you cherish it that much more because it was ephemeral and left you wanting.” It’s the Japanese way apparently, and I could definitely learn from this because I’m quite the opposite!
Grandfather’s Journey, Tree Of Cranes (Allen Say, picture books): These books offer a glimpse into Japanese culture, but they’re also about being torn between two cultures: “The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.” I suspect that’s how many immigrants feel.
Apples Are From Kazakhstan (Christopher Robbins): I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up this book–certainly not to fall in love with it immediately! Seriously, if this book were a person this would be my dream date, it’s totally smart and funny. The author meets everyone from regular folk to the Kazakh Beatles to the president, and Kazakhstan is now on my to-visit list.
How I Learned Geography (Uri Shulevitz, picture book): This offers a peek into another illustrator’s difficult childhood days in the city of Turkestan (now part of Kazakhstan). My girlfriends have asked me why I always pick such depressing picture books, but I think they’re uplifting because they have promising endings!
Dia’s Story Cloth (Dia Cha, picture book): The Hmong people have a tradition of embroidering their life stories onto cloth, and in this book, the author explains the story behind each section of one of her story cloths, from peaceful times in Laos to civil warfare, to her family’s eventual escape and resettlement in America.
Listen To The Wind (Greg Mortenson, picture book): A mountain climbing nurse named Greg Mortenson loses his way and lands in a village called Korphe, in Baltistan, Pakistan. To thank the villagers for their hospitality, he asks if there’s something special he can do for them. As it turns out, the kids need a school–and it does get built, with Greg’s help. At the end of the story, we’re treated to photos of actual people and places, and there’s a note by the artist about how the people of Baltistan inspired her to reduce waste in her own art processes. Best of all, the book tells kids how they can help other kids too!
#10 The Philippines
Cora Cooks Pancit (Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, picture book): We have Filipino friends and neighbours, so I picked up this book to help us learn more about their food culture. It’s a heartwarming story about a little girl who gets her first taste of helping Mama in the kitchen. She gathers the ingredients, helps shred the chicken, and checks that the noodles are suitably soft. At the end of the night, the family praises her as they sit down to enjoy their “pancit” (pan-SEET) together; it’s a popular noodle dish in the Philippines. What I like most about the book is the way it captures a child’s delight at working in the kitchen: “She watched the noodles somersault over the carrots and celery. She made the soft onions sway this way and that… A few mushrooms escaped from the pot. Oops.”