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In Foreign Lands: Teen Life Outside the U.S.

by Tom Reynolds

*This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of RA News. Subscribe to RA News and any of our other newsletters.*

Teenagers recognize that they are part of a larger global community and they are curious about how teenagers live in other parts of the world, like Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In some of these places, traditional values and ways of life are threatened by rapid development, globalization, and violence, and grinding poverty, civil war, and environmental destruction shape everyday life. In the coming-of-age stories below, young people face incredible obstacles as they journey to find their place in a changing world.

Because many of the books listed here contain considerable violence, some books with wider ranging reading levels are included in the Older Teen section of the list.

The Appeal of Books about Life in Other Lands for Teens

Books about teen life in foreign countries help teenagers broaden their view of life in an increasingly interconnected world. Readers find teenagers who are grappling with their own search for identity and dealing with historical and cultural issues different from their own, while at the same time struggling with the impact of global economic and environmental disruptions.

The books mentioned here share three elements that will appeal to a teen audience: compelling and thought-provoking narratives, strong, resilient teenage characters, and a strong sense of place. Vibrant first person or dual character narratives contribute to the authentic feel of many of these books. The reality that young people around the world live as refugees, provide sweatshop labor, and are involved in ethnic and religious warfare is also reflected in these stories.

Middle School Books

  • A boy soldier and a boy refugee are at the center of Mitali Perkins' Bamboo People. Set in Myanmar, where war rages between the Burmese government and the Karenni ethnic minority, an injured Burmese fighter is captured by a young Karenni rebel who makes a fateful decision to keep his enemy alive.
  • Enticed by the promise of a well-paying job, Gopal finds himself trapped as a child laborer in a Mumbai sweatshop from which escape seems impossible in Kashmira Sheth’s moving page-turner, Boys Without Names.
  • Using the fast-paced, alternating narratives of its two main characters, Sharon McKay’s Enemy Territory follows the impulsive decision of one Israeli and one Palestinian boy to explore Old City Jerusalem, leading them on a journey that forces a reexamination of the ideas they have been taught about those they consider their enemy.
  • Richard Bernstein’s biography A Girl Named Faithful Plum: A True Story of a Dancer from China and How She Achieved her Dream, follows a determined and talented 11-year-old dancer from rural China in her efforts to succeed at the Beijing Dance Academy, and offers a vivid picture of Beijing life in the late 1970s.
  • Using moving dual narratives, John Bul Dau’s biographical Lost boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan follows the stories of Dau and his future wife as they become refugees trying to escape the civil war in Sudan.
  • The arrival of Israeli bulldozers to cut a road across her family’s land and begin construction of a new settlement endangers the only world a 15-year-old Palestinian girl shepherd has ever known in Anne Carter’s thought-provoking The Shepherd’s Granddaughter.

Older Teen Books

  • When a 16-year-old girl who becomes the housekeeper, nanny, and adopted sister for a local physician, she finds both new freedoms and temptations in Adwoa Badoe’s examination of middle class life in Ghana, Between Sisters.
  • In DarknessNick Lake’s gritty and disturbing 2013 Printz Award winner, follows a Haitian boy trapped when the hospital where he is recuperating collapses during the 2010 earthquake. He is haunted by the events of his violent life in the Cite Soleil slum, but finds a renewed will to live as he recalls the life story of the Haitian slave liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture.
  • Struggling to find an identity separate from that of her small mountain village, Sonia goes to the capital city to work, but is forced to return home when her brother disappears in Meg Medina’s moving and lyrical The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.
  • Aaron, motherless and abused by his step family, dreams of a better life in Anna Perera’s vividly descriptive novel The Glass Collector, yet strongly identifies with his close-knit Coptic Christian community of Cairo garbage collectors.
  • The 15-year-old Maya in Cathy Ostlere’s lyrical, complex, and compelling novel-in-verse, Karma, is a half Hindu/half Sikh Canadian struggling to understand the cultural differences that led to her mother’s suicide and that are mirrored in the bloody turmoil that breaks out after she arrives in New Delhi in 1984.
  • In Never Fall DownPatricia McCormick, known for her strong realistic fiction, paints a haunting picture of life in the Cambodian Killing Fields under the Khmer Rouge through the strong voice of one young survivor.
  • Deo and his developmentally disabled brother are running for their lives as they try to escape Zimbabwean soldiers in Michael William’ fast-paced, suspenseful thriller Now is the Time for Running. But wherever they go they find prejudice, fear, and mistreatment, and only Deo’s ability to play soccer seems to offer them the opportunity for a better life.
  • Laura Resau’s The Queen of Water is a complex, moving story propelled by the strong voice of its main character, an independent Querchua Indian forced to leave her rural home to work as a servant for an urban, middle-class mestizo family. There she faces abuse, battles against cultural stereotypes, and fights her own anger about being given away as she tries to set her life on a new course.
  • Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s Somebody's Daughter is an adult novel appropriate for teens. Sarah Thorson, an adopted Korean-American girl, returns to Korea to search for the truth about her biological family. In alternating chapters, the girl and her birth mother tell their separate stories as they move closer and closer to a possible reunion.

Other authors to read

Other authors writing strong fiction for teenagers about life in Africa, Asia, or Latin-America include: Isabel Allende, Ishmael Beah, Na’ima bint Robert, Wendy Guerra, Cynthia Kadohata, V.S. Naipaul, and Suzanne Fisher Staples.

Promoting books about teen life in foreign lands

A first choice for school assignments and assigned reading about life in other lands, these thought-provoking coming-of-age stories stand by themselves as good reads because they deal with a theme of universal interest to teens -- young people’s search for identity and independence. They may be fast-paced and suspenseful, or meditative and thoughtful, but all are about young people growing and changing as they face and overcome major obstacles. Teachers and librarians will find these books easy to booktalk and to recommend to individual teens. Make a reading list of these books for your blog, library website, or to post in your library’s teen area.

Tom Reynolds is a librarian, writer, the author of Teen Reading Connections and the novel Rudy Becker, Stargazer.