September marks #WorldKidLitMonth, a month to celebrate and explore new cultures and countries through global reading, to shed light on the importance of diversity, inclusivity and representation in children’s literature, to advocate for more translated tales, and to break borders with books. We’ve all seen the shocking statistics of BAME representation making up an increased (just 4% in 2017) but still lousy 7% of children’s books (CLPE Reflecting Realities 2019), so now is a more important time than ever to read the world, and read diverse.
But can middle graders travel to the furthest corners of the world entirely from their armchairs? And, how diverse would this booklist be? Well, I put it to the test. In true Phileas Fogg style, I’m travelling around the world in 80 children’s books. Will you join me?
I’m starting my travels in my hometown. Known as the city of dreaming spires, OXFORD is as famous for its architecture as it is for its writers, including the likes of Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. But there’s only one person I want to start my journey with and that Sir Philip Pullman and his bestselling series, His Dark Materials. Explore the Bodleian Library, seek out skulls with Lyra and Will in the Pitt Rivers and run wild through the beautiful Botanic Gardens. This destination is best accompanied with Pullman’s beautiful handbook, Lyra’s Oxford.
Next destination, LONDON. First I’m solving a murder with Nik, Norva and Sharna Jackson in High-Rise Mystery, then I’m roaming the labyrinth of magical tunnels beneath the city with Cecilia in The Tunnels Below by Nadine Wild-Palmer. From this I’m heading to King’s Cross Station. Not to platform 9¾ for the Hogwart’s Express. No, I’m jumping on the Highland Falcon and heading to Scotland with M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman in The Highland Falcon Thief. A thrilling journey across the UK aboard one of the world’s grandest trains with a jewel thief in tow, this is one stop you won’t want to miss! Whilst in SCOTLAND, it would be rude not to join Alice Mistlethwaite in an epic quest across the wild Scottish highlands in The Children of Castle Rock by Natasha Farrant, full of danger, adventure, and excitement!
Now, imagine a tiny island far out in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Scotland. On some days, you can hardly see where the sea ends and the land begins, everything merged in a blue-grey mist of sea spray and wind-blown sand. Nothing between here and America but vast amounts of ocean. Or is there… About sixty-five kilometres out to sea, one last remote outcrop of islands and sea stacks, with the highest sea cliffs anywhere in the UK, is the island ST KILDA. Distant, desolate, and difficult to reach, it’s the island at the edge of the world! A captivating setting for Julia Green’s glorious adventure, To the Edge of the World. Confident readers should check out the exceptional Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean.
With a quick but utterly imperative stop to Arranmore Island (IRELAND) also known as the magical Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle, my next reading adventure takes me to dazzling city of lights. But just before! For more UK travels check out Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth for WALES, Orla and The Serpent’s Curse by C. J. Haslam for CORNWALL, The Somerset Tsunami by Emma Carroll for SOMERSET, and The Ghost of Gosswater by Lucy Strange for THE LAKE DISTRICT.
Destination, PARIS. But you won’t find me walking the streets, rather, running across rooftops with Katherine Rundell in Rooftoppers, and soaring through the skies in Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll. From Paris I’m heading to the breathtaking, beautiful SWISS ALPS for some much needed rest and relaxation with Heidi, her grandfather and Johanna Spyri. From the gentle Swiss Alps to the perilous mountains of AUSTRIA in Flight by Vanessa Harbour to the streets of BERLIN in Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, Europe is already proving to produce quite the number of extraordinary reading adventures. Whilst in Germany I stop and take time with Judith Kerr’s Anna in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I retrace my footsteps – fleeing Germany, wandering through Switzerland, arriving in Paris before settling in England in an unforgettable, life-enhancing story of hope, courage and survival.
My next reading adventure takes me to the icy canals of AMSTERDAM in Hana Tooke’s spectacular debut, The Unadoptables. A daring adventure packed with lifelike puppets, curious clock makers and a sinister sea captain, there’s no one I’d rather explore the city with than with Egg, Lotta, Sem, Fenna and Milou. From Amsterdam I’m tucking into a thrilling Viking mystery in SCANDINAVIA, full of runes, riddles, and revenge! Janina Ramirez’s Riddle of the Runes is utterly fantastic, and shield maiden Alva is one of my favourite heroines in children’s literature.
Next destination, POLAND. Having travelled to Kraków last Christmas I was determined to read as many children’s books either set in Poland, or written/illustrated/translated by a Polish author, and I was so delighted by just how many books I found. For middle graders wanting to armchair travel to Poland, I couldn’t recommend Ewa Jozefkowicz’s Girl 38: Finding a Friend enough – two beautiful and thoughtful stories woven into one story of friendship, family and finding yourself. Another favourite that weaves together magic, folklore and history is The Dollmaker of Kraków by R. M. Romero. From Poland I’m heading to Budapest where I’m jumping onboard The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop. A riveting train journey that starts in Paris and travels through Munich, Budapest, Bucharest before its last stop in ISTANBUL, this is one night-time adventure across Europe you won’t want to miss. Departing at Istanbul, I make my way over to sunny ITALY and there’s no one I’d rather spend my stop with than with Caroline Lawrence and her epic Roman Mysteries series – think, Nancy Drew in Ancient Rome! The Thieves of Ostia, The Pirates of Pompeii, The Assassins of Rome, The Colossus of Rhodes, take your pick (there’s 17 in total)! Each story is as compelling and exciting as the last, and I recommend devouring them all. I’m making an essential stop at VENICE, as this is an enchanting setting for some of my all time favourite children’s books. You can go on a fantasy adventure in Anna Hoghton’s The Mask of Aribella, solve a magical mystery in Michelle Lovric’s The Water’s Daughter, or go on the run with Bo and Prosper in Cornelia Funke’s timeless classic The Thief Lord. After Venice I make a quick stop to explore the underground city of SIENA in Kiran Millword Hargrave’s stunning adventure, A Secret of Birds & Bones. There’s just so much travelling to be had in Italy! From Italy I’m boarding Captain Quint’s The Ship of Shadows in Seville, SPAIN and heading to MOROCCO in a spellbinding, swashbuckling pirate adventure by Maria Kuzniar. A fierce all-female crew, a legendary lost city, and copious amounts of cake, this adventure is all kinds of wonderful.
Next destination, AFRICA. Survive in the bustling shanties of Addis Ababa in ETHIOPIA with Mamo and Dani in The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird, whilst crossing paths with Solomon in Laird’s equally inspiring story, The Fastest Boy in the World. Explore KENYA and its magnificent wildlife in Warrior Boy by Virginia Clay, uncover magical secrets in SOUTH AFRICA with Lauren St John in The White Giraffe, and of course, Journey to Jo’Burg in Beverley Naidoo’s unforgettable classic. My next read takes me on an incredible adventure to EGYPT in Emma Carroll’s Secrets of a Sun King, where you’ll enter a mysterious world of Egyptian pharaohs and ancient curses! For fans of Robin Stevens’ award-winning Murder Most Unladylike series, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong’s ninth and final investigation takes them on an Egyptian cruise along the River Nile in Death Sets Sail.
From Egypt I’m travelling to the city of Beirut in LEBANON in Elizabeth Laird’s profoundly gripping story, Oranges in No Man’s Land. In the city torn in half by civil war, ten-year-old Ayesha embarks on a dangerous journey across no man’s land to reach a doctor who can help save Ayesha’s ill grandmother – this is truly an outstanding story of strength, courage, and human spirit. Also from Elizabeth Laird but set in SYRIA is A House Without Walls – a powerful and eye-opening story set amidst the refugee crisis. I also recommend A. M. Dassu’s exceptional debut, Boy, Everywhere, which chronicles a harrowing refugee journey from a comfortable life in Damascus, to a smuggler’s den in Turkey, to a prison in Manchester. Full of heart, humanity and hope.
Next destination, THE HIMALAYAS. A magnificent mountain range that connects countries and cultures, and reaches earth’s highest peak! There’s definitely magic in these mountains as the Himalayas are a number one travel destination in my eyes. There’s Jasbinder Bilan’s Asha & the Spirit Bird, a vibrant adventure of snow leopards, mango trees, and mountain temples, and Jess Butterworth’s extraordinary journey from Tibet to China in Running on the Roof of the World. Or, if you’re looking for something with a bit more chill, there’s Paul Mason’s The International Yeti Collective. Travelling to INDIA from the Himalayas, prepare to come face to face with the mightiest and most majestic predator in the Indian jungle in The Time Traveller and the Tiger by Tania Unsworth, or protect wild leopards in Jess Butterworth’s When the Mountains Roared. Next I’m heading to the bustling, beautiful city of Agra to join the circus in Robin Scott-Elliot’s The Acrobats of Agra. For a trip to BOMBAY read Anita Desai’s The Village by the Sea.
From India I’m island hopping around South Asia. From roaming the streets of SINGAPORE with old spirits in H.S. Norup’s The Hungry Ghost, to an enthralling voyage to return home to the PHILIPPINES in The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Erin Entrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Sea is beautifully immersed in Filipino folklore, as twelve-year-old Lalani adventures on a legendary quest and epic tests of the archipelago. There’s a glorious, fast-paced adventure through the jungle to be had in SRI LANKA in The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook, or perhaps you’d rather survive in the jungle in INDONESIA with Will and Oona in Michael Morpurgo’s epic Running Wild. There are even reading adventures to be had in AUSTRALIA, which is where I’m heading next. Bren MacDibble imagines a derelict, dystopian Australia where climate change has taken hold. In The Dog Runner, Ella, Emery and their doggos leave their starving city and travel across a dry, barren and dangerous terrain in an unflinching story of survival, resilience and human ingenuity.
Next destination, JAPAN. My go to read when I want to travel to this rich and fascinating country will always be Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series. An exciting, fast-paced, action-packed martial arts adventure that begins with a young Jack Fletcher shipwrecked off the coast of Japan after his father and crew are slaughtered by ninja pirates, left with the only hope of survival to become a samurai warrior – seriously, what’s not to love! Another favourite, which is a translated tale of a Japanese classic, is The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui. Featuring a magical miniature family’s adventure in wartime Japan, this story is as captivating as it is charming – think, The Borrowers living under the shadow of WW2. From Japan to CHINA, prepare to take the skies, riding a kite through the clouds and the spirits of the dead in Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Kite Rider. After, with my feet planted firmly back on the ground, I revisit an old friend, Chinese Cinderella – a powerful and inspiring autobiographical story by Adeline Yen Mah. From China I’m heading to the icy mountains in TIBET in Jamie Smith’s Frost Fire.
Next destination, RUSSIA. Like the Himalayas, Russia is home to so many enchanting and atmospheric adventures. You can travel across the snowy wilderness by wolves in The Wolf Wilder by Katharine Rundell, or alternatively, by Sophie Anderson’s The House with Chicken Legs – expect a bumpy but utterly exhilarating ride with this one! For a ‘must see landmark’ go to Cathryn Constable’s dreamy winter palace and learn of its tragic past and the secrets it harbours in her dazzling debut The Wolf Princess. After, I’m on a dangerous hunt for The Raven in Yulia Yakovleva’s The Raven’s Children. Next I head to the stunning city of ST PETERSBURG and join Sophie, Lil and Katherine Woodfine in their mysterious mission, Spies in St. Petersburg (this is the second book in Woodfine’s Taylor and Rose Secret Agents series). Then I’m joining Peter the Great’s Circus of Curiosities in The Tzar's Curious Runaways by Robin Scott-Elliot, before my final stop in SIBERIA with Katharine Orton’s gorgeous Nevertell.
Next destination, the USA. And where better to start than in NEW YORK CITY! First I’m exploring downtown with Amara in Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson, with a stop at the beautiful Metropolitan Museum of Art with E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and then later I’m joining Katherine Rundell’s wickedly exciting heist in The Good Thieves. From NYC I head to CHICAGO, where I take a step back in time to the 1960s in Mary Ann Rodman’s heartfelt classic, Yankee Girl. From Chicago to BOSTON in How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons, and from Boston to the swamplands of LOUISIANA in Swimming Against the Storm by Jess Butterworth. Next I’m jumping to SAN FRANCISCO to catch up with Harrison Beck’s latest train adventure in Kidnap on the California Comet by M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman. From California to the CARIBBEAN with James Berry’s collection of colourful short stories, A Thief in the Village, and Trish Cooke’s Tales from the Caribbean, before hoping over to JAMAICA to spend the summer with Kereen Getten’s When Life Gives You Mangoes.
Next destination, THE AMAZON RAINFOREST. There are so many incredible adventures to be had in Brazil’s beautiful jungle, starting with Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer, where a plane crash sees four children plunged into the green wilds, followed by Eva Ibbotson’s beautiful classic, Journey to the River Sea. Now that I’ve survived the Amazon wilderness, I head to PERU to lend twelve-year-old Flick a hand in uncovering her great sibling mystery in The Key to Finding Jack by Ewa Jozefkowicz. Next I make for the GALAPAGOS ISLANDS for a high-flying dragon adventure in Lindsay Galvin’s Darwin’s Dragon – think, How to Train Your Dragon meets Robinson Crusoe! After all this sun, I think we could head someone a little colder, don’t you?
Snowy icelands, frozen forests, and sparkling seas – make sure you’re wrapped up warm for these next Arctic adventures! First, I’m joining Stella Starflake Pearl and her fellow explorers in a daring expedition across the icy wilderness in The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club by Alex Bell. My next reading adventure is a magical mystery surrounding a magnificent polar bear in Cerrie Burnell’s The Ice Bear Miracles, before departing on my final treacherous journey to the North Pole in Catherine Johnson’s Race to the Frozen North.
And there you have it, around the world in 80 beautiful children’s books!
When you think of Ann Morgan’s Reading the World, I’m notably missing a lot of countries in my travel booklist, but the ones I do have are rich and riveting tales, that each in their own way bring to life exotic new locations and cultures and adventures, all to the comfort of your own homely reading spot. I do hope one day in the future there’ll be a children’s middle grade book for every country in the world, but until then I’ll keep reading and keep exploring.
NB: ⅓ of the 80 books featured represent BAME characters. THIS SHOULD BE BETTER. WE CAN DO BETTER. If you have any recommendations of BAME books set around the world please share them with me!