Neither Hogwarts nor Camp Half-Blood
September 10, 2010 6:07 PM   Subscribe

What books can I read aloud to my kids (ages 7 and 10) that expand their horizons - to other countries, other cultures, history - and are also compelling?

We've finished all of Harry Potter (which they adored) and we're now reading Percy Jackson, but I'd love to get them fascinated with something other than fantasy/science fiction, and preferably something that expands their horizons beyond their fairly standard American suburban existence. I'd like our next book or series of books to be set somewhere that actually exists but is different from what they know. It could be contemporary or historical, fiction or non-fiction, but it's got to be fun - good plot, fun characters, and offer a jumping off point for conversations.
posted by Sukey Says to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Little House on the Prairie?
posted by Duffington at 6:16 PM on September 10, 2010

Upon reading the rest of your question, I realized that this isn't quite what you're looking for, but when I was around that age, I loved this book: Children Just Like Me.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:25 PM on September 10, 2010

Have you read any Kipling to them? Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The (PRE-DISNEY) Jungle Book, that sort of thing? Not exactly up to date, but definitely great literature for youngsters. Both are set in India.
posted by Ys at 6:27 PM on September 10, 2010

I love children's literature about New York City which was realistic when it was written, but now seems wildly improbable, as kids go wandering all about the city on their own:
Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden (the sentient animals are fantasy, but the human characters and setting are realistic)

If you do Kipling, be prepared to edit out some N-words on the fly if you are so inclined.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:45 PM on September 10, 2010

I'm a big fan of 'Where the Mountain Meets the Moon' by Grace Lin. It has fantasy elements (dragons!) but incorporates elements from Chinese folklore. Beautiful...and plenty of things to discuss about life and choices.
posted by ladymonocle at 6:55 PM on September 10, 2010

Response by poster: I probably should have emphasized the international part of my question more. We've read much of the standard Western canon of children's lit (if that's what you'd call it), including Little House, From the Mixed-Up Files..., The Secret Garden, Peter Pan, Roald Dahl. I'm hoping to get a little further afield.
posted by Sukey Says at 6:57 PM on September 10, 2010

Myths from around the world are great (Greek, Norse, Chinese, etc) and there are lots of good versions of them out there. Adventure, love, trickery, the works.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:12 PM on September 10, 2010

Best answer: I remember liking Lloyd's Alexander's The Iron Ring. It's fantasy, but it draws from Indian mythology similar to how his Prydain books draw from Welsh mythology. Alexander also has a book set in China (which I haven't read and so can't speak to, butI always enjoy his stuff), The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen.
I also have very vague memories of enjoying Katherine Paterson's The Master Puppeteer, set in 18th Century Japan (the "Customers also bought" selection on this page looks like it might have some stuff of interest to you too). I don't remember anything about it, but you can't go wrong with Katherine Paterson (if you didn't cover Bridge to Terabithia or Jacob Have I Loved in your tour through the Western kids/YA canon, go back and do so).
Not so exotic but fab is Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, set in World War II Denmark. I read this at a very young age (7-8?), and I still remember being inspired by the bits about the Danish Resistance, King Christian standing up for the Danish Jews, etc.
Pam Munoz Ryan's Esperanza Rising seemed to be making the rounds in my younger siblings' schools a few years back, and I haven't read it but it looks interesting - Mexican immigrants in California, labor issues, etc.
I can't think of anything else at the moment but I will likely be back with more.
posted by naoko at 7:36 PM on September 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

The Greeks; A Great Adventure — Isaac Asimov
posted by ifandonlyif at 8:02 PM on September 10, 2010

I think the Magic Treehouse books are wonderful, but my son enjoyed them at age 7-8. Might be a bit simple for the older child.
Sometimes I think just reading iwhat they like is enough for children. You're a great parent for reading to them!!
posted by littleflowers at 8:05 PM on September 10, 2010

Myths! My mom read to us from this book, which I loved: Classic Myths to Read Aloud.
posted by everybody polka at 8:06 PM on September 10, 2010

Catherine, Called Birdy; The Midwife's Apprentice; and Ella Enchanted all center on female characters in feudal-ish Europe (or at least, historical Europe) -- as a young girl, I found them captivating.
posted by aintthattheway at 8:52 PM on September 10, 2010

Some "international" or "multicultural" books I have seen read are:

A Samurai's Tale
The Sign of the Chrysanthemum
The Adventures of Ulysses
The Egypt Game
Catherine Called Birdy
Detectives in Togas

Honestly though, they don't really compare to Potter and Percy in terms of readability.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 8:58 PM on September 10, 2010

When I was that age I loved One Thousand and One Nights. I ripped through them at age 9.
posted by Kattullus at 9:47 PM on September 10, 2010

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a lot of historical fiction aimed at children. The most famous is probably The Eagle of the Ninth, which is set in Roman Britain (if it helps, there is a movie version currently in production, though the book was written in the 50s).

I have read some to my own kids who liked them. They are fairly accessible and exciting, but are definitely a view of a very different world than our own
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:10 PM on September 10, 2010

Here are some books with non-US settings that I enjoyed as a child:

The Golden Goblet and Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Eloise Jarvis McGraw (historical fiction set in ancient Egypt)
Homesick, Jean Fritz (a fictionalized memoir of the author's childhood in 1920s China/US)
The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, Nancy Farmer (sci-fi set in Zimbabwe of the future)
The Rainbow People, Laurence Yep (a collection of Chinese folktales)
Old Peter's Russian Tales, Arthur Ransome (a collection of Russian folk tales — the full text is available from Project Gutenberg)
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (graphic novel memoir of the author's childhood in Iran after the revolution) — I didn't read this as a kid, but I imagine it'd be appropriate for children.

I'll second The Iron Ring and The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen.

And this list of YA books looks like it might help you:

Contemporary World Fiction for Young Readers
posted by gg at 10:17 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

In addition to Old Peter's Russian Tales (mentioned above) Arthur Ransome wrote many books for children about a group of English kids having adventures in sailboats, all of which are fabulous.

Also British, and maybe a bit more sci-fi-y than you'd like, but really smart and maybe a good follow-up to Harry Potter: the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.
posted by dizziest at 10:39 PM on September 10, 2010

We've finished all of Harry Potter (which they adored) and we're now reading Percy Jackson, but I'd love to get them fascinated with something other than fantasy/science fiction, and preferably something that expands their horizons beyond their fairly standard American suburban existence.

I'd like to encourage you to ignore the urge to "teach" to your children through their casual reading, and particularly to resist the common line of thought that fantasy/SF is just escapism. Science fiction and fantasy, particularly for children, is often a place where authors explore really provocative philosophical questions while also exploring other worlds--it's pretty literally going to expand "their horizons beyond their fairly standard American suburban existence." And catering to their tastes, rather than resisting them, is a great way to nurture a genuine love of reading. Make family reading too didactic, or not to their tastes, and you risk turning them off to the entire act.

To that end, if your boys are interested in SF/F, I'd recommend The Deepwoods Chronicles (really fun, lavishly illustrated), just about anything by Edward Eager (his books are very close in tone to the early Harry Potter books, and are set largely during the turn of the century in the US, though some were contemporary at the time of their writing), The Giver and its sequels, Suzanne Collins' The Underworld Chronicles, The Redwall Chronicles, and Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children series. For your older son, I'd also recommend The Dark is Rising Sequence, the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce, and the first three novels in Madeline L'Engle's Time Quintet. Any of these have the potential to start some really interesting discussions.

Barring those suggestions, I'd second Catherine, Called Birdy, and also recommend The Door in the Wall, The Whipping Boy and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle as decent historicals (though, hell, anything by Avi is great. I've heard good things about his Crispin books, though I haven't read them).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:39 PM on September 10, 2010

Older child, rather.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:40 PM on September 10, 2010

Boy, do I miss reading aloud. I know what you're getting at, we looked for the same kind of things in books. Here's some that come to mind:

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis. Wikipedia gives a pretty good description, it is very readable and perfect for bedtime as it is very episodic. It looks old and dated but it was probably one of me and my kids' favorites.

THe Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke Really fun and exciting set in Venice.

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke followed by Inkspell and Inkdeath - Plot moves between Germany and Italy

And for slightly older I can't recommend highly enough the His Dark Materials trilogy
posted by readery at 10:45 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ooh, another one I liked at that age that meets your criteria (although as a side note I will say that PhoBWanKenobi makes a good point and awesome recommendations) is Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark, about an Inca boy in the early 20th century.
posted by naoko at 11:06 PM on September 10, 2010

And tagging along on PhoB's comment, I second anything by Avi - lots of adventure-y fun to be had there. I especially remember liking the Beyond the Western Sea books about Irish immigrant siblings (they're in England in book 1 and the US in book 2, I think) - plot twists, villains, general Dickensian-style fun.
posted by naoko at 11:25 PM on September 10, 2010

This isn't international, but the Great Brain series is set in the late 1800s in Utah, and it's hilarious. Basically, a younger brother writes about his older brother, who has a "great brain" and a "money-loving heart" and is always coming up with brilliant schemes to make money. I absolutely loved it as a kid (and I still do).
posted by cider at 3:20 AM on September 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the recommendations - too many to favorite. We'll definitely check them out. My younger one enjoys Magic Tree House, but I can only handle so much of those. And PhoB, I totally agree that it has to be interesting first - the older one reads a lot on her own already so I think I've nurtured that. I have nothing against fantasy/sci fi, but it's been a huge portion of what we've read - we've also read some Cornelia Funke, the Grimm Sister series, Peter and the Starcatchers, and I'm sure we'll get to others, including your recommendations. It's just time to explore our own world, and if we can find some fun, readable books that are also realistic I'm ready for a change.
posted by Sukey Says at 4:56 AM on September 11, 2010

This is not international either, but is a nice counterpoint to the Little House series. It's called The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich and it follows a young Ojibwa girl through various adventures in 1847. Sequels include The Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year.
posted by fancyoats at 6:37 AM on September 11, 2010

My 9-year-old is really enjoying the Howard Pyle Robin Hood right now (get an edition that has Pyle's own illustrations, if you can). I thought the language might be challenging for him, but he is taking it in just fine. My son doesn't care to talk about books, but boy if you had a kid who did there's a lot in this book you could jump off from, in terms of the history and culture of the time.
posted by not that girl at 6:44 AM on September 11, 2010

It's just time to explore our own world, and if we can find some fun, readable books that are also realistic I'm ready for a change.

I understand the urge to change reading topics if the material isn't to your tastes (for my own part, I made my mom read me like 2 years of Baby-sitters Club novels as a kid); just be careful. I know that as a kid, almost the entirety of my elementary school reading in my language arts classes were books with a multicultural or historical focus (often particularly on the Holocaust) and it turned me off to books of that sort for a long time.

Anyway, piggybacking off of not that girl, when I was ten, I stumbled across The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley. It's a version of the Robin Hood story where Maid Marian turns out to be the awesome archer--like the Alanna books, I'd easily recommend it for any adventurous girl.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:02 AM on September 11, 2010

Side note on Rudyard Kipling (wikipedia link here). I do not specifically remember that kind of language in his writing, but I have no trouble believing it is there. Kipling lived from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, and the n-word back then was about as offensive as saying someone is "African-American" today. Word meanings change over time, and I hope this is not the only thing people know about this wonderful author. He was born in India to English parents & his work includes a number of beautiful children's stories, set in India, a culture he loved and knew well.
posted by Ys at 7:38 AM on September 11, 2010

Oh, I wasn't meaning to knock Kipling, who is wonderful. I was just brought up short by an "n-word" when reading the Just So Stories to my child, because I had loved them so much as a kid and had no memory of that being there. When he was 4 or so I edited it out, at age 7-10 I'd probably read it as written and add some cultural context.
posted by Daily Alice at 8:49 AM on September 11, 2010

Two books that I really enjoyed which center on African American experiences are Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Burmingham, 1963 -- both shed some light on African American history/discrimination and are also just really fun books.

You might also just check out the Newberry Award books... I devoured those as a kid, and loved them. Most of the winners tend to offer pretty mature (as in advanced, not inappropriately adult) messages for kids, and tend also to be very well-written and imaginative.
posted by aintthattheway at 9:35 AM on September 11, 2010

Colin Thiele is an Australian author I read a lot of when I was a kid. My Place by Sarah Morgan is a powerful book about growing up as an Indigenous Australian, though 7 might be a bit too young.
posted by kjs4 at 7:57 AM on September 12, 2010

I haven't read it, but have heard good things about "When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit" by Judith Kerr.
posted by kjs4 at 8:00 AM on September 12, 2010

Astrid Lindgren was my favourite at that age. I liked Emil of Lönneberga, Pippi Longstocking and Ronia the Robber's daughter the best.
posted by furisto at 1:56 PM on September 12, 2010

Response by poster: Furisto, Funny, my son (the 7 year old) is reading Pippi Longstocking at school and loving it. And The Secret Garden's opening scenes, set in India, made me do some language scrambling/explanations myself, so I will be on the lookout for that in Kipling as well - thanks for the recommendation for him (one of our favorite poets) and the warnings. And I will check out the Newberry books - I know we've read some of them. But I wanted to see what else Mefites could recommend, as I often favorite others' book questions myself for future reading. We'll be set for a while now! Thanks again everyone.
posted by Sukey Says at 3:29 PM on September 12, 2010

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