Do We Need "Bridge" Characters in Global Books for Kids?

When challenged by others as to why he focuses on stories about foreigners working in African countries, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof responds with the idea that "bridge" characters are needed to draw readers into a story.

The rules must be different in the world of global children's literature. Kristof makes two assumptions that don't work for me: (1) that readers won't be able to connect with stories unless you include an American, and (2) that his readers are American.

In three of my four books set overseas (Secret KeeperRickshaw Girl and Bamboo People), I didn't include "bridge" foreigners. Why? I trust young readers to connect with characters of a different culture. And since I grew up "between cultures," I never assume that my reader is staunchly in the majority culture. I like to ask how the story would be received by a child within that culture as well as by North American readers, and "outside saviors" seem to discourage rather than empower non-majority children.

Of course, this literary premise of needing "bridge" characters may be the reason why (a) global books don't sell well without a big gatekeeper push, and (b) I got rejected for years and years because I was submitting books without them.

What do you think? Does a "bridge" character in fiction draw you into a story? If books by authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Khaled Hosseini didn't have anything or anybody "American" in them, would they have won such wide cultural favor?

And who qualifies to be a bridge? In my novel Monsoon Summer, for example, Jazz is a biracial teen who goes back to India, and we see Pune through her eyes (thanks, John Bell, for reminding me of this.) With an Indian mother and a white American father, is she American enough to serve as a bridge character for American readers?


In considering stories set within or related to Native nations, this seems to be a popular presumption as well. The "Dances with Wolves" phenomenon.
As far as Jazz is concerned, I suppose she is a bridge character. She is "American enough" because America is a melting pot, and because her perspective is, at first, that of a foreigner in her ancestral homeland. It's all about perspective, isn't it? Cultural identity comes from identifying intimately, day to day, with place and tradition. Immersion in place and custom effects changes in a person. Whether that change is harmonious or whether it is acrimonious is up to the person. Optimism and openness has a lot to do with acceptance, growth, and transformation.
I personally think it's a load of bunk. I am drawn specifically to books that DO NOT feature so-called "bridge" characters (And yes, I am Caucasian). I watch my kids' reading choices... they do not need them either.
I love books where one character is suddenly immersed in a different culture, but it's not for the reason Kristof cites. I'm just happy to see a character from any culture (whether mine or not) encounter any other culture (whether mine or not). (Maybe because I moved a lot as a kid, I like this plot?)

But I don't think this is the only story there is. Of course great stories can be told from within a non-US culture.
J. L. Bell said…
Kristof spends the first minute of his video talking about stories he's written that don't involve any Americans, so I don't think it's fair to characterize him as saying such a hook is necessary. In the second minute he basically says that if he does such a thing, it's to catch New York Times readers' attention and bring them into problems that are far away from their homes and lifestyles. Basically he seems to be saying that temporary focus on an American is worthwhile if it gets a significant number of other Americans to pay attention.

I don't think that necessarily applies to children's books, but it does help to start with a character and situation that target readers can relate to. Maybe the character is an Indian child, but we see the Indian child at school, and schoolchildren in Canada or Sweden or Peru can relate. The more unfamiliar the setting is, and that includes the fantastic as well as the foreign, the more valuable it is to have a newcomer character for the reader to follow.
Asakiyume said…
I completely agree with both your objections. Both those assumptions--that a person won't be able to identify with someone different from them and that books should be aiming for an American [and within that, some sort of non-immigrant, European-heritage American]--are extremely frustrating. There are people all over the world reading English-language books--some 60 countries, including, for example, Nigeria, India, Malaysia, and Jamaica (just to give a sense of worldwide distribution) have English as a national language… so the assumption that the audience for an English-language book ought to be primarily the United States is a bad one. And then, too, people love stories about people not like themselves!

Which is not to say that stories with bridge characters can't be good too--just that they're most certainly not necessary.
Asakiyume said…
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