There are a wealth of excellent storybooks appropriate for primary children which raise questions about people, their relationships with each other and the wider world.

Storytelling is a distinctive and universal human activity, one of the means by which we make sense of our world and communicate our understanding to others: both orally, and in written forms; through character, narrative, setting and symbol; within and between communities and generations.  It is therefore integral to our learning, and to our relationship with the world.

The following sections offer material to support in-school CPD on the use of story to open up the world for children and adds further support to the ideas explored in the handbook Global learning in primary schools [Tide~ 2008].

What makes a good story for opening up the world?

Is there something distinctive we are looking for?

As part of a staff meeting or CPD session, we suggest that teachers work in small groups to consider the question ‘What makes a good story to open up the world?’

The PDF What makes a good story for opening up the world? shares the thoughts from other teacher groups. How does this list compare to yours?

In debriefing the activity, you may find the following prompts useful:

  1. Many issue-based stories have a “moral” [eg about caring for the environment] – can this close down spaces for children to explore their own ideas?
  2. How critical is an element of dilemma in a story, and how can this best be used as a stimulus for children’s thinking, decision-making and creativity?
  3. Some of these qualities clearly apply to all good stories [and storytelling].  Is it more important that a story is a ‘good story’ than it is explicitly about global issues?  How might we recognise such themes, draw them out or develop them, with children?
  4. In other words, is ‘the global’ about looking at stories in a particular way, a ‘frame’ for our thinking?  Or is it about particular types of content

Books to open up the world ~ what do teachers recommend?

Tide~ teacher groups have explored a range of texts for opening up the world with children, bearing in mind the questions raised in section 1. As well as longer fiction texts, they have found it useful to identify picture books which offer a ‘way in’ to exploring issues, especially but not only for younger children. [Other articles offer more in-depth analyses on these resources]

Being a refugee

In their different ways the texts recommended here allow the reader to step into the refugees’ shoes and experience the confusion, fear, tears, friendships and hope that they find on their journeys.

Two longer texts are Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah and Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman.  The refugee boy is Alem, who through astonishing circumstances, finds his future is in the hands of social services and the Refugee Council.  Boy Overboard  takes us on a journey with Jamal and Bibi. When their mother’s illegal school in Afghanistan is discovered they must flee the country and head for Australia.  Both authors make these serious issues sometimes humorous and very accessible for upper Primary children.

There are excellent picture books with powerful and striking images for exploring empathy. The Arrival by Shaun Tan is so much more than a picture book and uses only images to tell the story of a man who must leave his family to find sanctuary elsewhere. The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman will support discussion about why children become displaced and how they feel when they have to start a new school in a new country. Passage to Freedom by Ken Mochizuki is based on the true story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania in 1940, whose offices are inundated with Jewish refugees seeking visas.


Growing up in different places

When selecting texts set in other parts of the world it is useful to consider how far they reflects the reality of life in that country. This is particularly the case with picture books and their visual as well as textual images of a place. There are, for example, picture books set in rural Africa but few set in African cities. 

An excellent exception is The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland, a 'quiet' and reflective story set in the hustle and bustle of Cairo.

Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges is one of the few picture books set in China.  Ruby is growing up in old China and it is her determination that enables her to fulfil her wish.  A useful text to use alongside it would be Yikang’s Day ~ From dawn to dusk in a Chinese city, by Sungwan So, from the excellent Frances Lincoln series, which can be used to raise discussion about life in China today and the commonality of children’s lives around the world.

For stories set in the Caribbean, teachers have recommended Hue Boy by Rita Phillips Mitchell and Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daley.   Older children, will find much to explore in Zlata’s diary, a child’s life in Sarajevo, which demonstrates how normal, family life can be turned upside down by major world events.

Travelling to another country

These books give space for children to explore the feelings and emotions associated with leaving a familiar place and arriving in the unknown.  Surprising Joy by Valerie Bloom tells the story of Joy, brought up in Jamaica, who finally gets the news she’s been waiting for that she can join her mother in England. 

Out of India is the true story of author Jamila Gavin, born to an Indian father and an English mother who says “I am truly a child of both countries and both cultures.”  A delightful book with stunning artwork is The London Jungle Book by Indian artist Bhajju Shyam who was commissioned to paint a mural on the walls of an Indian restaurant in London. It provides a brilliant visual portrayal of the feelings of trepidation and excitement that comes from travelling into the unknown.

Picture books about families that cross continents are Grandfather counts by Andrea Cheng and Grace and Family by Mary Hoffman.  A young girl’s world is turned upside down when her Chinese grandfather comes to live with her in Grandfather counts and Grace learns to adjust her ideas about 'family' when she goes to visit her father in The Gambia.

Exploring identity

All of the books recommended in this section lend themselves to activities and discussions about identity.  Others useful for exploring cultural identity are That’s my mum by Henriette Barkow, and An angel just like me by Mary Hoffman.  Both enable discussion about how people make judgements and assumptions about each other.  We are Britain! poems by Benjamin Zephaniah, include children from a variety of places and backgrounds living in the UK. The skin I’m in by Sharon G Flake and Bend it like Beckham by Narinder Dhami are longer texts for exploring these issues with more able year 6 children.

Quetta lends itself well to drama and a more in depth discussion about identity.  Set in 1890, this is the tale of the court case to determine custody of a young girl who loses her parents in a shipwreck.

3. Using story to open up the world

As teachers, we use stories in a wide variety of ways, including:

  • a focus for talk;
  • an opportunity to explore others’ perspectives [eg looking at the world through others’ eyes, or getting a ‘feel’ for unfamiliar environments and situations];
  • a ‘safe’ way for approaching emotionally and morally loaded issues;
  • a starting point for enquiry;
  • a focus for critical analysis [word, sentence, text, meaning, bias];
  • an approachable context for history, geography, citizenship/PSHE etc, or a stimulus for drama and art;
  • an entertainment or reward;
  • a scaffold or model for children’s own creative work.

The PDF Activities for using stories shares some lively ideas for using story with children.

As part of a CPD session you could:

  • Split up the activities among the group you are working with, so that each small group has two or three.
  • Taking a theme they would like to work on, ask each group to take a story from one of the lists above [or one they are already familiar with].

Ask them to try out two of the activities for using stories [at their own level], and feed back to the whole group about:

  • what they did;
  • some of the thinking processes involved in each activity;
  • how they would use the activities to stimulate thinking about issues.

They might also want to consider the use of drama and role play activities, using their story as an information base [for further ideas see Drama and role play – looking into an issue]

Further activities and recommended resources can be found in the Tide~ publications Start with a story for key stage 1 teachers and A different story for key stage 2.