For children adopted internationally, books can provide a meaningful window into the culture to which they were born. Here, adoptive mom Riann Schell shares a reading list of some of her family’s favorites — including those deeply rooted in and about the culture of the author, and those whose themes transcend culture, place and time.
“Please, just one more chapter?” This was the plea my mother heard as we gathered for a story before bed. We loved the adventures of Little Britches, cheered on the Ingalls family in Little House on the Prairie, and laughed at the cleverness of The Great Brain. Although read-alouds and chapter books defined the evenings, picture books filled the nooks and crannies of our days. When the library bookmobile came to town, we filled a bushel basket, and a long-distance aunt and uncle sent paper-wrapped parcels of secondhand books to our mailbox. Much of my childhood was defined by the stories in those pages.
My bookshelves today hold some of the same books, my childish handwriting inside the front cover. There are tattered paperbacks with thrift store stickers on the spine, antique editions of favorite classics, hardbound books bought during a stretch working at a bookstore in college, award-winning titles and pages yet unturned. Today, my family is nearly as diverse as the titles on those shelves, and I, too, hear the plea each evening, “Please, just one more chapter?”
Our children were born to us and brought home from Vietnam, Ethiopia and China. Our rural corner of Washington state is a beautiful place to raise a family, but connecting my children to their birth cultures in this quiet community is a daunting task. Although we now have a brick-and-mortar library instead of a bookmobile, it is actually the only brick building in town. Between the treasures on its shelves and the titles that stack and spill from mine, we are attempting to give our children a piece of their birth cultures, one page at a time.
My nine-year-old Vietnamese daughter loved reading Little Women, but she also knows the story of the Vietnamese sisters, Tam and Cam, from Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories collected by Tran Thi Minh Phuoc. We borrowed Ten Mice for Tet at New Year, and Water Buffalo Days: Growing up in Vietnam was a chapter book she (and her brothers) enjoyed recently. When You were Born in Vietnam is a book we have read aloud since she could sit for a story, and today she sings in Vietnamese, thanks to a book-and-CD combination that was added to our home library years ago.
When Moses came home from Ethiopia, the auntie that filled our mailbox when I was a girl began the hunt for titles that would bring diversity to our shelves. From board books like Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, to poetry in A Child’s Calendar, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, to titles like The Story of Ruby Bridges, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and Moses: How Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, our collection is more beautiful because of her curating. Jan Brett’s Honey, Honey, Lion has been enjoyed by all our kiddos, as well as Rachel Isadora’s wonderfully rendered retellings of fairytales. Ethiopian titles are harder to find, but Moses, age six, is now reading — on his own — E is for Ethiopia, Africa Brothers and Sisters, and The Perfect Orange.
The story of Red Riding Hood has a Chinese counterpart in Lon Po Po, and Yeh Shen is a beautifully illustrated Cinderella story, both titles on our shelves that our 5-year-old Chinese daughter enjoys. In the Snow and At the Beach, both by Huy Voun Lee, combine simple stories and collage illustrations to teach some basic Mandarin characters. Ruby’s Wish, Daisy Comes Home and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon are other titles spanning the genres of history, adventure and folklore. The Story about Ping is a familiar story from my own childhood, and our 9-year-old son from China has added that to his favorites list, which also includes the Monkey King comic books. One Year in Beijing is a picture book snapshot of a childhood in Milo’s birth city, although his life in an orphanage was very different than the story in its pages.
Soon my children will gather on couches, laps, pillows on the floor. Although I continue to build our collection of titles that will enrich their understanding of their birth cultures, I won’t read aloud tonight from a book set in China or Ethiopia or Vietnam. We are enjoying a title that my mom read when I was a girl, and the themes of courage, prejudice and family are themes that transcend culture. My children have already been begging, “Please, just one more chapter?”
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