Through the Looking Glass

In response to our Going Global theme this month, I'm looking at the impact stories from other cultures can and should have on us as readers.

How does that affect the stories we create? And our approach?

And as usual, there's a suggestion or two for you ...

First of all, I shall exhort you to listen to David Almond's 'A World Beyond Alice' on Radio 4 if you haven't already. You could probably stop right there - who wouldn't want to hear that voice? Still, I'd like it if you read on.

The stories we experience - in whatever form - can be either a mirror, or a window. It's good to see yourself, and it's equally good to look outside your world and see others. Encountering tales from many cultures can do both.

We need diversity: children with various heritages need to see themselves reflected. Those in the mainstream, be they readers, illustrators or writers, can expand their creativity by venturing beyond their usual boundaries.

'That's the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.'
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

You know those sort of houses where there are strange and wonderful objects from all around the world, collected on adventures? Where the owner can recall the people met along the way and their stories - how interesting that is! Creative people need minds like that - not full of loot, tainted with cultural appropriation but with fairly traded goods. The wealth of storytelling traditions and material throughout the world is for sharing - not aggrandisement - so we need to treat our sources with respect.

"Storyteller Under Sunny Skies,"
a clay sculpture by Rose Pecos-Sun Rhodes
(Jemez Pueblo),
'In the particular is contained the universal.'
 James Joyce

Quite rightly, publishers look for books that have global appeal. They want works that speak to children and young people everywhere. That does not mean we should write or illustrate to some arbitrary international norm. I would argue that bland US High School look-a-likes, for example, fail.

Literary visitors to the UK from, say, China or America want the thatch of Thomas Hardy's Dorset, the drystone walls of The Brontës or the spa towns of Jane Austen. They don't want shopping malls and retail parks. The same with our writing. Let the specifics engage the reader and the underlying truth will create the global appeal.

A kamishibai artist in Japan.
Try this

  • grab an old National Geographic or some other source - from your local library, perhaps
  • research a culture utterly different to your own / in your work-in-progress
  • look at language, food, customs, beliefs - what could influence your work?
  • what would your characters love or hate about it?
Adding a dash of something different can bring a creative project to life - Shepherd or Shepherdess Pie is much improved with a dash of Henderson's Relish - with its tamarinds and cloves.

by K. M. Lockwood


  1. Thank you, Philippa! What wonderful images you conjure up. Great words and pictures - I'm off to find a national geographic. You've inspired a tired, Monday-morning mind.

  2. Some of my favourite books take me to other places, both real and imaginary. Exploring the unknown is one of the joys of reading :)


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