This week was our school spring break, which allowed me to return to my childhood home and explore some of the books I read growing up. Most of them are pretty standard: the long list of Dr. Seuss, the “Guess How Much I Love You” book (and others just as sappy and sentimental), and lots of other classics. However, during this week at home, I discovered some special old books. Like, books from the 1800s! I found one particular book, intended for children, that describes and depicts children from different nations all around the world. The book, Children of Foreign Lands by Elizabeth F. McCrady, was published in 1937, and features 8 stories of children from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Mexico. The stories end with a short poem that captures the spirit of the preceding passage. There are also some fun illustrations on each page, and they alternate between color and black and white, which reflects some of the other children’s books from the period.
I remember reading this book as a child, and really looking into how I thought some people lived. Its focus on children allowed me to view what my life could’ve been like, but it tells a rather one-sided, exoticized story of children from around the world. Words like “foreign”, especially on the front of the book, indicate an othering and distancing of other cultures. Even when considering the book in its historical context, many of the cultures in this book are described as completely separate from others. While I understand that the only world that I’ve known has been this globalized, interconnected set of countries and places, I am reluctant to accept the fact that the world was so separate in the 1930s.
It is really difficult for me to say that this book is an example of misrepresentation in today’s world of children’s literature, as I really believe that the author’s intent in writing this piece was to provide a lens for American children in order to see that other cultures exist, and that there are even other children in those cultures. However, the outdated nature of this book makes me hesitant to use this as anything other than historical. I would more recommend using this book as a historical example of contextualized ethnocentric exoticism of different culture other than Judeo-Christian, white American.
One last thought: the end pages in the beginning and end of the book both have an illustration of all the children together. A previous (child?) owner of the book attempted to place all the children in order based on the sequence of the book! I thought this was a neat little piece of history, coinciding with some of our work at whole-story book reading.
Review by Hannah Baughn