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Exploring International Children's Literature

Thursday, March 10, 2011
Exploring International Children's Literature
 Ashley Bryan’s cover art for
  Bridges to Understanding:
  Envisioning the World Through
  Children’s Books
There is a wealth of literature for children written by authors throughout the world. Yet American students typically pick children’s books written by American authors, missing out on varying perspectives, styles and cultures. OU’s Linda Pavonetti, Ed.D, whose new book, Bridges to Understanding: Envisioning the World Through Children’s Books is due out in September, noticed this preference and became curious about it. Her interests led to a fellowship abroad and her her involvement with the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY).

Dr. Pavonetti has been instrumental in populating the ERL's International Children's Books collection. The Eclectic Mix recently had an opportunity to talk with her about her work.

EM: How did you become interested in international children’s books?

LP: I think it was art. From the beginning of my academic career, I have been interested in the art of children’s books – everything from the effects of the cover art to page turns, the artist’s decisions in choosing color, and figure placement. I was fascinated by the illustrations.

When I came to Oakland, I noticed that, given the chance, many of the children’s literature students selected American books over books published in other countries. I was curious about this and wanted to know more.

In 2003, the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Regional Conference, sponsored by the USBBY, was held at Chautauqua, NY. I attended and met Dr. Susan Stan, a professor at Central Michigan. She had just returned from the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany researching international children’s literature. She encouraged me to apply for their fellowship so I could investigate my questions about why American teachers might be uncomfortable with children’s books from other countries. As a result, I was able to live and work in Munich for three months.

EM: What do international children’s books offer as a tool for teachers across the curriculum?

LP: Since international books are published in many genre and formats, they offer the same benefits as American books. They can be integrated into science or social studies units as easily as books by Seymour Simon or Candace Fleming. There are added benefits, however, because the authors and illustrators may have a different perspective on a topic. For example, authors who live in Malaysia could have insights on the danger posed by certain threats to their own ecology that no amount of research might suggest. However, I believe that the greatest benefits accrue from introducing fiction—both picture books and novels—from abroad.
       Bak Mumme bor Moni,
       illus. by Svein Nyhus

Let me offer a few examples: One of my favorite picture books from Norway is called Bak Mumme bor Moni by Gro Dahle and illustrated by Svein Nyhus (Dahle, 1992/2000). The artist’s style is expressionistic, so there are no rosy-cheeked cherubs or comic line drawings. Instead we see a child who is obviously angry, in a way that most American adult audiences would not appreciate.

A second picture book, entitled ‘S Nacht (Erlbruch, 1999/2000), written and illustrated by the 2008 Hans Christian Andersen award-winner from Germany, is an example of surrealistic art. Relatively few books for children that were originally published in the US during the late 20th century and early part of this decade employed these artistic styles. Lane Smith’s illustrations, such as those in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Scieszka, 1992), is one of the few that ventures as far into abstract realms as either Erlbruch or Nyhus.

     ‘S Nacht by Wolf Erlbruch
On the other hand, novels provide a lens into societies that most American classrooms ignore, especially since state-mandated testing drives so much curriculum. One example is the conflict over settlements in Palestine and Israel. Outside of newspapers and magazines, students seldom delve into the issues involved in this conflict. Several books, that I think are excellent, work well as a set for book clubs, i.e., book discussion groups, in a classroom (high intermediate to middle school levels). They are A Stone in my Hand (Clinton, 2002 ), The Shepherd’s Granddaughter (Carter, 2008), A Little Piece of Ground (Laird, 2006), When I was a Soldier by Valerie Zenatti (2005)—the nonfiction account of her mandatory service in the Israeli army, and Naomi Nye’s poems such as 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Nye, 2002) and her novel Habibi (1997), which details a teen’s emotional roller coaster when her father moves his family from the Midwest to Palestine to live with his mother and extended family for one year.

There are similar books about the Lost Boys of Sudan, the African AIDS epidemic’s devastating toll on children—I could go on for quite awhile, but you get the idea. These are topics that we can introduce in our classroom and allow the students to read as independent recreational reading.

EM: What is the most important thing you learned from your research on international children’s books?

LP: I think that my greatest epiphany was to understand that American books, although they may offer extremely high quality, are not the “best” in the world. Iran’s illustrated books are phenomenal. The young adult novels coming out of Australia are edgy and ingenious. The rest of the world realizes that children are exposed to many situations that are not perfect and the authors and illustrators create books that tackle the emotional, physical, and mental turmoil that dominate children’s lives. And they do this without being didactic or sentimental. There are no taboo topics and authors and illustrators have fewer problems with censorship, except in repressive regimes.

EM: What do you hope to accomplish with your new book?

LP: The book, called Bridges to Understanding: Envisioning the World Through Children’s Books will be published by Scarecrow and all royalties will go to the USBBY. Ashley Bryan, one of Oakland University’s dearest friends, created the cover art. It is the fourth volume in the series all of which are available in the ERL. The books have essays about translated books, imported books, and highlights of important authors and illustrators from outside the US. However, the bulk of all four books are the reviews of the books we think are the best available for American audiences. The books are listed by geographic regions; each includes a summary and major topics, suggested ages, and awards. Most of the reviews also provide information about the authors and illustrators. These books are excellent for finding and then integrating new authors, illustrators, topics, and world-views into our curriculum and expanding our students’ minds.

Dr. Pavonetti is a past president of the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) and serves as Vice-President of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). She has just been nominated to represent the American Library Association and IBBY on the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Literacy and Reading Section Committee. A faculty member of the Reading and Language Arts Department at OU since 1997, Dr. Pavonetti teaches classes in children’s literature, young adult literature, qualitative research methods, and during the summer, brings the “Authors & Illustrators, Art & Craft” class to campus. She also co-curates, with Dr. Jim Cipielewski, the art displays on the third floor of Pawley Hall.


Carter, A. (2008). The shepherd's granddaughter. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Clinton, C. (2002). A stone in my hand. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
Dahle, G. (2000). Bak mumme bor moni (S. Nyhus, Illus.). Oslo: Cappelen.
Erlbruch, W. (2000). 'S Nacht. Wuppertal: Peter Hammer.
Laird, E. (with Sonia Nimr). (2006). A little piece of ground. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Nye, N.S. (1997). Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Nye, N. S. (2002). 19 Varieties of gazelle: Poems of the Middle East . New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.
Scieszka, J. (1992). The Stinky Cheese Man and other fairly stupid tales. (Illus. by L. Smith). New York, NY: Viking.
Zenatti, V. (2005). When I was a soldier: A memoir (Trans. by A. Hunter). New York: Bloomsbury Children's Books.