Friday, April 1, 2011

Guest Blog: The Importance of Understanding Geography and Cultural Differences

This week's post comes from our first Guest Blogger - Linda Williams, of the Connecticut State Library. Enjoy!

As a librarian serving children’s and teen librarians in Connecticut, and a staunch believer in the power of stories to teach, entertain, and generally broaden perspectives, I often find myself compiling lists of books that I hope will be used to this end.

I also serve as a co-representative to the Collaborative Summer Library Program, a collaborative of 49 states which plans and administers a theme-based library summer reading program. This year’s program for children, “One World, Many Stories,” has a global/multicultural theme. A-hah! A perfect opportunity to bring forth geography based lists of books for children and teens.

I often hear that school kids are studying “Africa.” And they don’t mean the ~54 countries of Africa. Do Americans know that Africa is not a country? I’m not the only one disturbed by this. Nigerian blogger, Molara Wood, posts: “It baffles me, this stereotype of an indistinct Africa. An Africa whose separate entities are not worth recognising or getting to know.” With Egypt and Libya in the news, can we assume Americans even know where these countries are? Highly doubtful given the news that “after more than three years of combat and nearly 2,400 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map.” Even high level politicians don’t even seem to recognize that Africa is not “a nation.” This begs the question: Is it important in an increasingly global and connected society, to understand geography and cultural differences?

If we think it is, how are we teaching African geography here in the United States? Notice I didn’t say “here in North America.” Do we stress the diversity of African countries and cultures and are children getting it?

There are well-meaning lists and instructions out on the internet (example), but I haven’t yet found another one, like the lists of Africa – Picture Books and Africa – Fiction, posted to our summer reading planning blog, that are subdivided by country.

What I learned in compiling these lists was that many African countries are not represented by name at all in children’s books. The majority of books set in the countries that are represented are historical (a few) or are about Americans working or vacationing in that country. Where are the books about life in modern day Togo? Or hey, with all that’s going on in Libya, do you think I could find you a story that takes place there? According to the excellent searchable Africa Access database, there’s one – set a century ago.

Herein lies my plea to publishers. Please publish more books set in present day African nations. Our kids need interesting stories about native people and cultures in the separate countries of the African continent.

If you don’t think it’s important, look at this map. And test your knowledge - how fast can you do this Africa puzzle?