Originally, when finding books about children traveling from the United States to other countries for Crossing Cultural Borders’ Stranger in a Strange Land, I was looking for the arc where the mainstream American travels abroad for the very first time and must redefine her own American identity while immersed in a foreign culture. The breadth of experience lends itself better to the novel format than the picture book format, and a safe foreign setting for a young female protagonist is a boarding school, where the character does not need travel around but stays in one place.
Blow out the Moon by Libby Koponen is the first book that fits under the criteria. Based on the author’s own experiences in a London boarding school, this book stars a spunky American girl named Libby who initially struggles with conforming to English culture but eventually adapts and learns proper English etiquette. Great photos of actual letters, book illustrations, and objects of the author’s childhood related to the trip add another layer of depth to the reading experience. My favorite aspect of the novel is how the girl Libby is steeped in literary references. For instance, when she first learns how to ride a horse, she keeps thinking of scenes in Black Beauty. She falls in love with the archness of Pride and Prejudice, and she has a discussion with her British friend about which character she would be in Little Women. Connecting to new experiences as a child through reading is something I can deeply understand, especially since these were also some of my favorite childhood books.
The other example I want to highlight is Bloomability by Sharon Creech. After her sixteen-year old sister became pregnant and her older brother was jailed, Domenica aka “Dinnie” is “kidnapped” with her mother’s encouragement to go the Switzerland boarding school run by her uncle and aunt. Though her family tells her it’s a wonderful opportunity, a homesick Dinnie’s struggles to learn how to speak Italian with a smattering of Japanese and how to ski. After growing through her lessons and friendships with students from Spain, Japan and America, Dinnie leaves Switzerland with a strong sense of hope and seeing bloomabilities wherever she goes. Also, while learning Italian at boarding school, Dinnie discovers her grandmother originally was born in Italy. Therefore, this story also has an element of reclaiming one’s cultural heritage, which aids in her discovery of self.
It’s interesting how the young female protagonists are sent to boarding school against their will. Why are they all going to boarding school? One answer would be that the authors themselves have experienced attending boarding schools and are simply writing what they know. Addressing it on a story level, for the child protagonist to really come into her own and truly face the otherness of a foreign culture and herself, she must experience the country without the safety buffer of her parents. A boarding school is a great setting that gives the child a social structure and protection without the need for the parents to be physically present. Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library wrote a great post about American girls at English boarding schools. Also, special thanks to Alvina Ling for providing recommendations on the original blog series.
Next post in the Crossing Cultural Borders series: American Boys Abroad