The Power of Foreign Young Adult LiteratureGretchen Schwarz
Reading makes immigrants of us all -- it takes us away from home, but, most important, it finds homes for us everywhere.
--Hazel Rochman, Against Borders (p.15)
Young adult literature from other countries offers teachers and students a powerful resource for learning. Although it can be difficult to locate foreign YA literature, the benefits of using these books are significant. Foreign YA literature can open up the world to American readers, creating new understanding of and appreciation for other cultures. This literature is also a natural way to teach across the curriculum, connecting good literature to history, geography, politics, or science. Moreover, foreign YA literature is often demanding to read, appealing to older adolescents for whom much of American designated YA literature may not be challenging enough. The field of young adult literature is enriched by works from other countries.
One of the disturbing results of the Oklahoma City bombing was the initial rush to blame foreign terrorists, and Arabs in the U.S. were universally condemned by many citizens, even threatened. Discouraging prejudice towards other peoples, as well as minorities within America, remains an important task in our increasingly interconnected but fearful world. Young adult literature can help students feel more at home in this world. Rochman (1993) explains the power of stories in Against Borders:For example, the story of the Ahmad Abd al-Jawad family in Palace Walk will strike a chord of sympathy with any reader. This novel, first published in Arabic in 1956 and written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, reveals the daily life of a middle class Moslem, Cairo family of two daughters and three sons. The young people struggle with sibling rivalry and community respectability, the love of their nurturing mother and the fear of their authoritarian, ill-tempered father, among the sounds and sights of modern Egypt. Although their religion or houses may seem strange and the place of women in their society alien, the thoughts and feelings of this sympathetic family struggling to get along, find mates, establish careers are universally human. Likewise, A Hand Full of Stars by Rafik Schami, translated from German, manizes the face of the Middle East in the story of one teenage Damascus boy who keeps a diary detailing his growing involvement with an anti-government newspaper. The reader learns that Syrian teenagers enjoy the same kinds of friendships and have the same kinds of misunderstandings with their parents as American teens. After reading such books as Palace Walk and A Hand Full of Stars, one must be less inclined to fear and hate all Arabs.
Books can make a difference in dispelling prejudice and building community: not with role models and literal recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others. A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person--flawed, complex, striving--then you've reached beyond stereotype. Stories, writing them, telling them, sharing them, transforming them, enrich us and connect us and help us know each other. (p. 19)
Other titles that can promote understanding across national boundaries and eliminate stereotypes include Crutches by Peter Härtling, translated from German, and The Man from the Other Side by Uri Orlev, translated from Hebrew. Holocaust literature has become readily available to young adults, but there are few titles that show either the Germans or Poles of World War II in a positive light. It is all too easy to pass judgment on other nations for their past atrocities and crimes. Crutches is the story of a young German boy, Thomas, separated from his mother at the end of the war. He is befriended by a legless German soldier, Crutches, who is helping a woman survivor of the Holocaust aid Jewish orphans. Not all Germans are vicious Nazis, and the German people suffered under the Third Reich, too. Likewise, some Polish people aided the Jews as in the story of young Marek, himself half Jewish, in The Man from the Other Side. Marek, following his mother's example, rejects the anti-semitism of other Poles and helps his stepfather get Jews out of the ghetto through the sewer system. At the end of the book Marek barely escapes death during the Warsaw Uprising. People can overcome the prejudice of those around them; good exists in every society.
Other titles that create understanding by involving the reader with engaging characters include The Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta. The Bride Price, written in English like most Nigerian works, tells the story of Aku-nna, a young Ibo girl caught between traditional tribal culture and new European ways of living. Forced by her father's death to return with her mother and brother to her old village and plotting uncle, Aku-nna is caught up in a doomed love affair with Chike, a descendent of slaves. The culture is foreign, the details rather explicit, but the story is as familiar as Romeo and Juliet. Another example, Shizuko's Daughter, was written in English by Kyoko Mori, a woman born and raised in Japan but now residing in America. This ALA Best Book for Young Adults traces the struggle of Yuki, whose mother Shizuko kills herself, to create a life free of her cruel father and stepmother, a life in which she can learn to love and be loved again. Shizuko's Daughter offers insights into Japanese schooling and culture, but, most of all, it makes the reader care about a young Japanese girl. As Stover notes in her 1990 piece on using young adult literature from other cultures, such literature is concerned with many of the same developmental tasks as those identified for American adolescents by researchers like Havighurst. Stover adds as follows:Another strength of foreign YA literature is its applications across the curriculum. Stover and Tway (1992) observe:
And I have been pleased with the response of students who read these works and exclaim, `The Russians (Japanese, French, Germans, Africans) are just like us!' Using young adult literature from other countries . . . should provide a common ground from which to build the tolerance and appreciation of cultural diversity so needed in our world today. (1990, p. 2)The differences are equally educational. For example, Stover with Karr (1990) describes the use of a Russian novel, Likhanov's Shadows across the Sun, with seventh and eighth graders. These students began library research on various topics related to their social studies unit on the Soviet Union, and their topics grew out of their reading of the YA novel. Stover says of this experience:
Just as these novels from other countries point out the similarities of developmental tasks and issues which exist in many cultures, they can also be used as a springboard for discussing the role of one's cultural heritage in making decisions and for pointing out differences that exist among cultures. (p. 141)Foreign YA literature can be used to explore almost any subject area. For example, social studies students may come to a better understanding of apartheid in South Africa by reading British author, Norman Silver's No Tigers in Africa. Selly's family unravels as does his own life after they move from Johannesburg to England.
They wanted to investigate the governmental structure of the Soviet Union, wanted to examine the educational system, wanted to learn more about Russian literature and language and music and art because they were introduced to these topics within the context of a good story about characters they wanted to understand. (p. 49)
Not until his girlfriend helps Selly face up to the guilt he feels over the death of a black boy back in South Africa can the teenager come to grips with his inheritance of apartheid. Likewise, The Abduction by Mette Newth, translated from Norwegian, deals with injustice and oppression. The Abduction recounts the brutality with which early explorers treated the Native people in Greenland.
Not only history but current events can be examined through YA literature, and students may learn how complex are the differences which often divide people in the world. The conflict in Israel is a good example, and The Yellow Wind by Israeli David Grossman, translated from Hebrew, sheds light on that turmoil. Although not written for a young adult audience, The Yellow Wind is suggested by RochmaninAgainst Borders. A series of interviews with Israelis and Palestinians, The Yellow Wind divulges the awful irony of modern Israel, a nation created by dispossessed freedom fighters who now keep virtually imprisoned thousands of dispossessed Palestinians. These true life stories are as engaging as fiction. A great companion book is Jerusalem Mosaic by New York writers I. E. Mozeson and Lois Stavsky. Jerusalem Mosaic, written for young adults as a series of interviews with contemporary Jerusalem teenagers -- Jews, Moslems, and Christians -- is more optimistic than The Yellow Wind.
Other books that lend themselves well to interdisciplinary teaching include The Place of the Lions by Eric Campbell, who spent most of his life in Papua, New Guinea, and East Africa and now lives in England. The book is a gripping adventure/survival tale about a twelve-year-old British boy, Chris, who saves his father and the pilot after a plane crash in Tanzania. The Place of the Lions paints a beautiful portrait of Africa, its land and animals, making one want to get out a map and see where these places are. Moreover, ecology is central to the book with its theme of man's ravages of this grand continent. A scene of poachers slaughtering elephants is particularly powerful. Human relationships to the land, the colonial past, and current social conditions are explored in The Roller Birds of Rampur by Indi Rana. The story of Sheila's return from England to her family home in India to find herself, the book offers a tantalizing glimpse into the culture of India, its foods, caste system, politics, and even language. The book has a glossary at the end which includes slang and Hindi words. Similarly, Among the Volcanoes by Omar S. Castaneda, an American citizen born in Guatemala, begins with an explanation of the three languages, in addition to English, found in this story of Isabel, a girl who wants to be a teacher despite great economic and cultural odds. Foreign YA literature offers an entrance point for students to learn about languages and linguistics among other subjects.
Books from other countries can spark interest in science as well as the humanities, as evidenced by The Place of the Lions, which reveals much about lions and African ecology. Another example, Green Days by the River, a Caribbean Bildungsroman by Michael Anthony, depicts the plants and animals of Trinidad. One might well want to know more about the biology of this lush island with its cinnamon trees and exotic birds. Foreign young adult literature brings the world with all its variety and all its concerns -- whether narrative and personal or economic, historical, and religious -- to life. The whole curriculum can be enriched.
Finally, foreign young adult literature offers more reading choices to young people, especially high school students who seldom read American YA literature aimed mostly at middle school and junior high students. It is important for teachers to remember what Nilsen and Donelson (1993) maintain throughout their text -- young adult literature is whatever young adults read. There is an indication that some foreign YA literature is more demanding in its use of language as Laina (1991/1992) demonstrates. Laina observes, "The main difference is the simplicity of the language in the U.S. books [in comparison to British], not only in vocabulary but in sentence length, narrative style, and simpler and shorter plots" (p. 327). Other nations may produce harder books, as well. Palace Walk, discussed above, as an example, is longer than 200 pages typical of YA books; it is nearly 500. Many high school and even younger students think nothing of reading a Stephen King novel that long, however. American students are ready for more demanding books dealing with young people, books that are still not the "classics."
American young people are ready for more complicated plots, too. For example, Green Days by the River, mentioned before, is challenging to read, not because of its vocabulary or length, but because of its ambiguity. The story is told through the point of view of the fifteen-year-old narrator, Shell, a confused young man who has to grow up quickly. By the end of the novel, Shell is still confused, and his confusion makes it impossible for the reader to make simple judgments. The story is full of contradictions as when Shell sees the cruelty of Mr. Ghidaree, his future father-in-law, but then feels very close to him and fond of him. The complexity of the human condition with no simple resolutions or epiphanies is made apparent. In a similar way, the gentle nuances and ironies and the poetic language of the short stories in The Leaving by Budge Wilson, recipient of the 1991 Canadian Library Association's Young Adult Book Award, demand more sophisticated reading skills. American readers have these skills.
In addition, foreign YA literature may offer other kinds of intellectual challenge. The Roller Birds of Rampur explores the meaning of the Hindu worldview as Sheila struggles to establish her identity. Not only family relations but questions of religion and politics and history are considered. British writer, Gillian Cross has written a novel easy to read but intellectually engaging, New World. New World is an exciting mystery/horror story about Miriam and her involvement with a virtual reality-computer game. Miriam straightens out some emotional problems in the process, but the reader is also left wondering about the impact of virtual reality and such new technologies. One more example is Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, originally written in Norwegian. A long and complex book, Sophie's World is a history of Western philosophy told within a charming narrative framework. Sophie, an average fifteen-year-old school girl, comes home one day to find an odd note in her mailbox asking her "Who are you?" and she becomes involved with a mysterious philosophy teacher. Within the story of Sophie the reader also learns about philosophy from Plato to Marx and Freud. Any young person who is interested should have the opportunity to find an intellectual home with books like Sophie's World.
The benefits of foreign YA literature are significant in teaching tolerance, in teaching across the curriculum, and in challenging adolescent readers. Teachers may have to do some hunting to find many of these books though. Rochman's Against Borders offers many fine suggestions, and one can contact the American Library Association for their Mildred L. Batchelder Award Books list. Crutches and A Hand Full of Stars have won this award, given annually to the most outstanding children's book originally published in a foreign language in a foreign country. Finding titles is easier than obtaining books, however. Especially books in translation may never come out in paperback, and they go out of print very quickly. One needs to look out for small publishing companies and university presses and pounce quickly when finding something useful. Nevertheless, finding good books is worth the effort.
After 13 years as a high school English and German teacher, Gretchen Schwarz now teaches YA literature and methods courses and supervises student teachers at Oklahoma State University.