I glance into the bedroom and see my oldest curled up in a rocking chair by the window. Afternoon light falls across her shoulder and onto the pages of the novel she’s been devouring since morning. This kid has always been a reader.
When she was young, I carefully curated the books we read together. Then her brother and sister came along. Our family entered a long season in which I was slightly overwhelmed almost all of the time. Digital devices multiplied while print declined. The kids got Legos and games as gifts, not books. The breadth and depth of our reading suffered.
This summer when I was organizing the kids’ bookshelves, I found the usual suspects: Curious George, Eloise, Peter the Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and poetry by Shel Silverstein. I noticed that few of our books depict Asian, African, or South American people, environments, or cultures. It’s as if we’ve been reading in an American or British cul-de-sac, too comfortable in our familiar neighborhood to notice we haven’t ventured out.
I don’t want my kids to read in one corner of the world when it’s my responsibility as a parent to encourage them to leap across borders.
I wondered how our bookshelf became so narrow. I don’t want my kids to read in one corner of the world when it’s my responsibility as a parent to encourage them to leap across borders.
It’s not just our reading that has become insular. It’s also our praying. Our prayers have drifted local rather than expanding global. We’re forgetting to lift up the peoples of the world and to pray for God’s blessing to fall on them, for his salvation to reach them, whether they live in Poland, Vietnam, Sudan, or Uzbekistan.
There can be a vital connection between reading and praying. Reading is virtual travel. Kids ride the words of a book all the way to the heights of Kathmandu, the bazaars of Bangladesh, the Kenyan savannah, and to the mountain ranges of Chile. When they touch down in these new places, they encounter kids, communities, and customs that look a lot different than those they experience every day. Despite the differences, these characters often confront issues that are all too similar—bullies, loneliness, loss, jealousy, fear, forgiveness, love, and sometimes, redemption.
Learning to navigate the tension between the foreign and the familiar—between cultural diversity and the common character of humanity—is what makes reading about other cultures magical. As our kids identify with the stories of people living in far away places, they develop empathy and compassion. They begin to see underneath the skin of difference to the heart of likeness. Empathy can inspire heartfelt prayer for the peoples of the world who have yet to hear about a God who loved so much that he gave his only son.
Read and pray. Read and pray. That is a pattern I want to nurture in my family as we launch into a new school year.
I reached out to some parents serving overseas and asked them to recommend books that have been meaningful to their families. You’ll find their wonderful suggestions below, along with five steps to making reading missional.
5 Steps to Make Reading Missional
- Orient: Help your kids find the location on a map or globe where the story takes place. Help them identify the continent and country. What is the region like? Do they find deserts or jungles, mountains or coastlines? Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska is an inspiring resource that your kids will love.
- Observe: While reading, encourage your kids to watch for interesting details like local customs, dress, or food that may be different from their own. After you read, let them talk about what they noticed.
- Wonder: Ask open-ended questions that help your kids empathize with the characters. How would you have felt growing up in this environment? What would you have done in a similar situation? What about this story frightens or encourages you? How did you see the characters show love to one another?
- Pray: Pray for the people groups living in the country where the story takes place. If you know Christians serving in the area, reach out to them for specific requests.
- Experience: Help your kids experience the culture of the book by preparing a meal from that region or by visiting a local ethnic restaurant or grocery store. Encourage your kids to try flavors that may seem strange. Does your family know anyone from the area where the story unfolds? Invite them for a visit and to share about their home country.
Read Around the World: A Reading List for Missional Parents
Most of these books should be appropriate for kids aged four to ten. The books noted for older kids are best for eight to thirteen-year-olds.
- Boxes for Katje by Candace Fleming
Set in Holland after World War II, a Dutch and an American girl forge a friendship that ends up blessing both of their towns.
- For You are a Kenyan Child by Kelly Cunnane
From snacking on tasty bugs to playing games with a rag ball, this book invites kids to imagine what it would be like to grow up in an African village.
- Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher (for older kids)
Shahrazad captivates the Sultan with her artful stories, saving her own life and the lives of all the women of Persia.
- King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan
Malik competes in a traditional kite-fighting tournament during a local festival while facing threats from local bullies.
- The Story of My Life: An Afghan Girl on the Other Side of the Sky by Farah Ahmedi (for older kids)
An inspiring tale of survival, an Afghan girl loses everyone dearest to her but finds life on the other side of tragedy.
- Waterlife by Rambharos Jha
Rambharos Jha’s stunning illustrations depict memories from his childhood and reflect the traditions and legends of East India.
- Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
When a Bangladeshi girl’s attempts to earn money for her impoverished family go awry, can she find a way to save what’s been lost?
- Tales of a Korean Grandmother by Francis Carpenter
A collection of classic Korean folktales that have enchanted generations of Korean families.
- The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack
A little duck finds himself in the midst of an adventure on the Yangtze River in China when he gets separated from his family.
- Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi (for older kids)
An eye-opening story of the human spirit in an unjust world, Sookan lives through the brutal Japanese occupation and escapes North Korea during the Communist takeover.
- The Land I Lost by Quang Nhuong Huynh (for older kids)
A boy and his pet water buffalo navigate the dangers of the jungle while tending the rice fields of the Vietnam highlands.
- To Go Singing Through the World: The Childhood of Pablo Neruda by Deborah Kogan Ray
A child growing up in a troubled family seeks solace in nature and finds his own voice, eventually becoming one of Chile’s most celebrated poets.
We’ve created a lovely PDF of the reading list, including a bookmark featuring the “5 Steps to Make Reading Missional” to download and print. It’s a simple reminder to keep the nations in your prayers.
This list is only a beginning. You might also like, Give Your Child the World: Raising Globally Minded Kids One Book at a Time. This treasury of book recommendations, curated by homeschooling mom, Jamie Martin, lists hundreds of titles organized by region, country, and age range.
Feel free to share your family’s favorite reads with us. We’re always adding to our reading list.
Eliza Thomas is a writer for IMB. She lives with her family in Central Asia.