By Christabel Pinto
As I shelter in place in Oakland, California, I have never felt more connected with my human family around the world. Paradoxically, at a time when my physical interactions with other humans have come to a complete stop, I feel closer to them than I have ever felt before. COVID-19 exploits our human frailty with no regard for our backgrounds. Our shared physical limitations, fears, and aspirations are exposed as I join strangers around the world in covering my face and maintaining my distance. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that the differences between us, although superficial and circumstantial, affect whether we survive or succumb to a virus and its repercussions.
Storybooks set in diverse global contexts similarly serve as mirrors for our shared humanity and windows for our different experiences. Readers grow in knowledge and empathy for communities of people they may never encounter in real life. In doing so, they become global citizens who understand the wider world and recognize their role in making a difference in it. Global citizenship matters. A virus that originated in China changed the lives of most people around the world within a few months, showing how easily individual actions can affect the entire planet.
Books brought the world to me when I was a child. Ramona Quimby was my favorite character of children’s book author, Beverly Cleary. At the time, I lived in Tanzania, I had never been to the United States, and I would not have been able to identify Oregon on a map. What could a girl living in a bus factory on Mbozi road in Dar es Salaam have in common with one who lives in a house on Klickitat Street in Portland? We both inhabited worlds with rules that we had to follow and adults who did not understand us. We daydreamed and pestered our older siblings. She once took a single bite out of many apples, and I hacked a plant to pieces of “meat” playing a butcher; we both got into trouble. The vast differences in the specific circumstances of our lives did not prevent Ramona from being a relatable and beloved character. Stories, like a global pandemic, can transcend superficial boundaries.
The international nonprofit organization Room to Read trains book creators in contexts without developed children’s book publishing industries to address gaps in the market for locally developed books, particularly for emerging readers. Sometimes, these book creators may themselves have never experienced a high-quality children’s book. The resulting global book collection of 1,600 children’s books in 42 languages contains stories that are as diverse as the storytellers. These globally diverse storybooks enable children to learn about our differences through the lens of our shared humanity.
In Duyan Pababa Sa Bayan, a Filipinx children’s book written by Mary Gigi Constantino and illustrated by Claude Aranza, a little girl, Lyka, badly injures her leg. Lyka has to be carried in a hammock by her brother and father for many painful miles from her mountain home to the nearest hospital. With healthcare providers making a critical difference to our survival during this pandemic, it seems timely for children to be reminded that there are people around the world—including in the US—who cannot rely on accessible health services.
In Play With Me, a Jordanian children’s book written and illustrated by Tamara Qushha, Salma badgers her older brother, Saad, to join her on imagined journeys by train, boat, hot air balloon, and plane. Their play vehicles are made from items that can be found in the refugee camp in which they live: cardboard boxes and a water vessel. Many children have now experienced what it is like to not be able to go to school as they joined the millions of children, like Salma and Saad, for whom being out of school is a lived reality that is unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reading globally diverse storybooks with young readers expands the boundaries of their worlds even while their physical experiences have become confined to their own homes. Hopefully, having greater empathy for the diverse experiences of the wider human family will nudge us to pursue a world in which resilience to a global pandemic is not determined by individual levels of privilege.
Christabel Pinto is an educator who was born and raised in Tanzania and immigrated to the United States as an adult. As a global education specialist, she has traveled widely to teach children, facilitate teacher professional development, design education programs, and engage communities in Africa, Asia, and the United States. In her role as senior director at international nonprofit Room to Read, she leads a global literacy program with the goal of ensuring marginalized children around the world acquire both the skills to read and a deep desire to do so. At the heart of achieving this goal is publishing globally diverse books so that all children have access to locally created, delightful books in a language they speak. Christabel has an MS in Education from Bank Street College of Education and an MA in International Education Development from Columbia University. When she is not making use of her passport, she is tending to her house plants, baking biscotti, and tinkering on her ukulele at home in Oakland, California.