Best Books for Kids

The best books on Third Culture Kids

recommended by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White Raven
by Elizabeth Wein


At its core, every young adult book is about figuring out who you are and what your place in the world is, argues Elizabeth Wein, author of numerous books for children and young adults. She introduces the concept of 'third culture kids'—children who are at home both everywhere and nowhere.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White Raven
by Elizabeth Wein

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Before we get to the books themselves, it might be helpful for our readers if you define the term ‘third culture kids’.

Well, here’s some personal background to start with. I grew up as the child of an educator who was sent, when I was three years old, to organise early childhood education programmes in England. I was born in New York, and both my parents were American. I started school in Manchester, in England, and was there for two years, and then my father was sent to Jamaica to do the same kind of thing in Kingston. The programme was called Head Start, it’s still running now. So until I was nine years old I lived abroad as an American, and no one I knew had shared this cultural experience. Because I married an Englishman and moved from the USA to England and then Scotland, my children have grown up with this kind of dual heritage as well. They grew up spending two months a year in the US with their American family. They don’t have Scottish accents but they don’t have American accents, they’re kind of in the middle. They are in this fluid state of feeling at home wherever they are, and always being a little bit homesick for somewhere else.

I discovered only recently, having written maybe 15 books in which all the characters experience the same sort of displacement, that there is a name for this and it’s third culture kid, or TCK for short. It’s a term that was coined in the 1950s to describe the children of American diplomats who were living abroad, who went to international schools and never really were settled. The place that they might consider home they may never have actually lived in. It might be their grandparents’ house or it might be the place where their parents grew up, or one of the places where they had been most comfortable living. This term is more in common parlance now as people begin to be aware of it, and also because there are refugee crises throughout the world so there are kids who are growing up in this kind of changeable situation for different reasons. The loose definition of a third culture kid is that they are growing up in a culture that is not the culture of one of their parents, but you can add to this. They often have more than one nationality, sometimes they’re growing up in a culture that belongs to neither parent.

When I first came across the term third culture kids, I thought it meant that you have parents from two different cultures, and that you are growing up in a third place. But it’s the kids themselves who form a kind of third culture.

Like you, I thought the third culture is the new culture that the children are growing up in. But that’s not the case. The first culture is that of their parents. The second culture is the place where they’re actually growing up. And the third culture is the culture that they share with children like them, or young adults like them, throughout the world. I was fascinated that my son, when he moved into a flat at university, lived with two young men who were also third culture kids. Neither of them had the same background as him, and yet they shared that kind of global community. So, yes, the third culture is actually the culture that people in this situation share with each other.

Belonging is such an important theme at any age. If you are a bit rootless during your formative years it’s bound to have a big impact on your sense of identity.

Yes, and I think it is all about identity. That’s what I really think is at the heart of writing for young adults, what every single young adult book is about at its core: figuring out who you are and what your place is in the world.

Let’s talk about your first book pick, The Arrival, which is perhaps more about the immigrant experience than about third culture kids. It has won a raft of awards, including the American Library Association best book for young adults. But it’s not only for young adults, is it?

I did try to come up with books that have different kinds of cultural experience. Part of the reason I’d like to talk about The Arrival first is because I wanted to differentiate between children of immigrants and third culture kids, because they’re not necessarily the same.

Definitely. When a third culture kid settles down it is most likely temporary, whereas an immigrant might put down roots and stay long term.

The Arrival is a graphic novel, and it’s completely wordless. It’s a big tome. You have to pay attention to follow what the story is, but anyone can read it. It can be in a library in any country in the world, and anyone who knows how to look at pictures and interpret what a picture might be telling is going to be able to read this book and make sense of it. That is really a remarkable achievement! Anybody looking for home and looking for their place in the world will relate to it. It is a fantasy kind of novel that takes place in a world that’s like ours, but it’s not quite like ours. It’s about a young father who leaves his vaguely Eastern European country in vaguely the early 20th century, to make a new home in what is vaguely New York. After he’s established himself, he sends for his wife and child. That’s pretty much the story, but there are so many other elements to it.

This book has a wonderful balance between everyday details and fantasy elements.

Yes, and the incredible everyday details make the book. One of the things that the author did was to look at hundreds of photographs of people in that big wave of emigration in the late 19th and early 20th century to the US. The story he tells is about finding your place in the world. One of the images that I love from it is at the very end, where his young daughter is showing a new immigrant child how to do something, so she’s now feeling comfortable where she is.

This is a book that I think any kid who does a lot of travelling will relate to, because things are so different. A lot of the content of the book is the young man listening to the stories of fellow travellers and finding out what their experiences are. Everybody has some complicated and sometimes terrifying backstory of why they had to leave their home country – war or famine or flood or whatever that has made their place of origin so hostile. Because this is a fantasy book, the country that this man comes from appears to be plagued with enormous dragons. People live with them, but they’re not nice to live with. There’s a lot of metaphor going on. Throughout all the different threads there’s plenty for different people to relate to. One of the charming things about it is that one of the features of this new world, when he finally gets there, is that everybody has a little companion, a little weird creature that’s sort of a cross between a dog and a cat and a tadpole that goes with them everywhere they go. When he gets his first apartment, his little companion is sitting on his bed when he gets there. The book is so open to interpretation, you can read into it what you want.

Let’s move on to the second book you’ve picked about third culture kids, In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. The author has won many awards, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights.

This is a semi-autobiographical novel that was published in 1984, and it is the story of a Chinese family that immigrates to New York City in 1946.

They arrive as expats because of her father’s work and then become immigrants when the revolution takes place in China and they decide not to go back, is that right?

Yes. The story starts in China. We have a little girl who is 10 years old, living with her extended family. She appears to be very middle class. Her father is in the States working when he sends for them. It’s really about her learning to assimilate in the US. She’s thrown into year four of primary school in Brooklyn with no English, and she has to learn. The reason Jackie Robinson is in the title is because the way she makes friends is through baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers, the local baseball team, is making it to the World Series and the school and the whole neighbourhood is baseball crazy. They’re listening to the games on the radio, they’re playing baseball, talking baseball and trading cards. This is how she makes her own place in the world because she’s also crazy about it.

The book is all written in English. The English that the book is written in is fluent when she speaks to her parents and when she’s thinking in Chinese. But it becomes very awkward when she’s speaking to her classmates, and she can’t pronounce things right. The transliteration of her mispronunciations is funny, but with today’s sensitivity I think they may strike a slightly sour note because it feels a little bit like we’re making fun of her pronunciation. I don’t think that’s the case; this is the author’s experiences and language acquisition is a big feature of this story.

As she becomes fluent in English, does she worry that she is losing her Chinese?

She’s very close to her family at home in China, and she writes to them. It is mentioned that she’s losing her Chinese characters, and she stops writing so frequently because it’s so much effort for her to write in Chinese. But it’s a very upbeat book. She does get bullied quite a bit in the beginning, and she’s very, very lonely as she’s trying to make her place for herself. I, too, as I was coming back to the United States at the same age as this character, used to get beaten up because I had a weird accent. Again, anybody who moves around can relate to this, trying to figure out how things work in the local school where you don’t know the rituals. It’s not even that you don’t know the words, it’s that everything is alien. But I would say that you don’t get a huge sense of regret at her losing the language, she’s really very much ready to move on. This book is an interesting contrast with Jean Fritz’s book, they make good companion pieces.

So tell me about your next book pick about third culture kids, Homesick: My Own Story, an award-winning memoir about the author’s childhood in Republican period China.

This is also a semi-autobiographical story. Whereas Bette Bao Lord was a Chinese girl who emigrated to the United States, Jean Fritz was an American girl who was born and grew up in China and then emigrated to the United States. Jean Fritz was very prolific as a historical fiction writer for young people in the latter part of the 20th century. This is a bit of a departure for her. She said that she tried to write a chronological kind of diary story and it didn’t come out well, so she turned it into a novelisation.

It was published in 1982 but the focus of the story is 1925-1927.

The author was born in 1915 in Hankou, where her parents were missionaries. There was a lot of history that I didn’t really understand when I read it as a teen, such as the territorial concessions which European nations, the USA, and Japan had carved out. When I reread this book I was stunned at the politics, because what I remembered most clearly was how this American girl was going to a British school and had to sing the British national anthem every morning and how much she hated it. Living in Jamaica, my best friends had been born in Guyana, of very mixed heritage. They knew the Guyanese national anthem and the British one, and we all knew the Jamaican national anthem, but I didn’t know the American national anthem, which is one reason why I really related to this story. Actually, most of the action of this book takes place during fighting between Nationalists and warlords and Communists and there is a lot going on in the background. Jean and her family are hiding in their house while American gunboats are shooting at people on the docks who are rioting, and they have to get out.

It seems Jean and her family left as the Chinese Civil War was starting. I read that the book has an afterword that explains a bit of the historical context.

The backmatter in this book is brief but very clear. There’s also a copy of a letter that Jean wrote to her grandmother, who I don’t think she’d ever met until she moved to the US. And there are a whole lot of photographs of her and her friends and the local people that she hung out with. It’s fictionalised, but it gives a taste of what it was really like.

It’s really interesting to see that history from a child’s point of view. She doesn’t actually seem that scared. Rereading the book recently I was expecting there to be some sensibility issues that would keep it from living up to the higher standards that we have today. I was surprised at how sensitive the book actually is. She does understand, even as a 12-year-old in 1925, that the Americans aren’t supposed to be there. That’s why they have these gunboats sitting in the port in case something happens. It’s a weird situation, and she knows that. When she gets to the States, the kids in her school say “Chink Chink Chinaman” to her and she tells them not to use insulting language about Chinese people. She is like a little ambassador, because that is where she grew up. In In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Shirley is told by her parents that she’s “China’s little ambassador” going to the school. So the kids’ perspective, having actually been in these places, is broader and more realistic than the perceptions that their contemporaries at home have.

I haven’t read this book yet but reading about it I was struck by how homesick Jean seems to have been for a country she had never been to.

Again, when I was younger and read this, I did not relate to any of the panic and chaos of being shot at as you leave. But what I really did understand was how desperately she wanted to go to school in America, to roller skate and pledge allegiance to the flag and wear a winter coat, because growing up in Jamaica I wanted to do that too. I had an unreal vision – based on books – of what it was like to go to school in the United States, and I could relate to that desperate homesickness for a place you’d never been, and never lived in. It really is weird, but that’s because your parents are telling you about this place. I, too, had a grandmother that I wrote letters to when I was eight years old, who sent me books. You have this tie to your past, and some people have to break that tie and others cling to it because it does give you a sense of identity.

It can be difficult when you finally go to that place, and the reality is probably not how you thought it would be. In this book, when Jean finally does go to the US, does it make her realise how much China is part of her, too?

I think she realises that as she’s leaving China. There’s a moment on the ship to San Francisco when she stands looking back at China as the land is growing more distant. She has this sense not that she’s steaming away from it, but that it is rolling away from her. She realises that this is the only place she’s ever known, and that there are people there that she loves. There is one woman who is a very close confidante. They give each other presents when Jean leaves and she’s thinking that she is never going to see her again. Jean is fluent in the language, it is her place. I think she realises that she’s got this home that she’s deeply connected to, even though she’s heading towards the place she thinks of as home. She has this sense of belonging to two places, and I don’t think that changes when she gets to her grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania where she spends her teenage years. Right away you see in her interactions with the other kids in Pennsylvania that she has a different perspective on China to theirs.

Let’s talk about your next book pick about third culture kids, Praire Lotus, by a Newbery medal-winning author.

Linda Sue Park’s heritage is Korean American. The heroine of Prairie Lotus, Hanna, is the child of a Korean Chinese immigrant woman and a white American man. This book takes place in 1880, and it is inspired by The Little House on the Prairie books. What she says in her author’s note is that she loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when she was a kid. She did all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to insert herself in the narrative, because she wanted Laura to be her best friend. Essentially, that’s what this book is: Laura Ingalls Wilder fan fiction in which Hanna becomes best friends with the Laura character who is called Bess. Wilder experts will know that Elizabeth was Laura’s middle name and that she was actually called Bess for a lot of her life. I love that Hanna’s father is actually a character in the books, who readers will recognise as Mr. Edwards. Linda Sue Park has taken a character from the books and given him this fictional daughter.

The reason Prairie Lotus works is because it isn’t a straightforward celebration of Wilder, but carefully interrogates the issues that come up in those books: colonialism and racial prejudice and manifest destiny and all the uncomfortable implications that has, and how the American government dispossessed the Native Americans. This book really looks into that. At the same time, it appreciates the adventure and the characters of the books that Wilder has given us. The author actually spent time on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, learning some of the Lakota language and their ways which she incorporated into the book, so it’s very respectful. And then there’s also prejudice against this young character who doesn’t fit in because she is of Asian heritage, in this white settlers’ town. Ultimately, it’s a book with a happy ending, but there is a lot of introspection and adventure along the way before we get there.

Your final pick of books on third culture kids is the award-winning Nowhere Boy.

It’s an absolutely fabulous book published in 2018. It explores the third culture kid experience as well as immigration and refugee status. It is about a Syrian refugee named Ahmed who has lost all his family. He’s made it to Brussels in Belgium and ends up in the garden of an American expat family. The young boy in this family, Max, hides Ahmed for several months and feeds him and becomes friends with him. They have a basement where Ahmed manages to stay out of the way of the rest of Max’s family. There are all kinds of strands that come into this book.

The story takes place in the aftermath of the Paris bombings and terror attacks in Brussels, so there is a great deal of prejudice against the Muslim population. We get to see the viewpoints of both child characters. Max is struggling in school because he’s going to a French language school and he only speaks English, so there are ways in which he relates to Ahmed even though he hasn’t had the terrible experiences that Ahmed has had. One of the other threads that comes into it is a policeman who chases them across Europe. Coincidentally it is this man’s grandfather’s house they are living in, and Ahmed has been taking care of the grandfather’s garden. There is a reconciliation there at the end.

It’s a great adventure story, and it makes us think. There are interesting connections between characters, and the supporting characters are very sympathetically painted, even when they’re the bad guys. There’s also a connection to World War Two. There is a moment when Ahmed comes across a monument to resistance women who were imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The kids have a conversation along the lines of “the Germans used to be the bad guys, didn’t they”? “Yeah, but now they’re the good guys”. Our perspective changes, but we have to keep fighting against injustice and try to make a better life for ourselves. This book is very European in its outlook. The author is American but she lived in Europe, and the story builds a sense of what it is to be a citizen of the world. I think it’s easier to do that when you are displaced than when you are at home surrounded by people like you.

What age of reader would you say these books are for?

A 12 year old could pick up any one of these books and appreciate it, and so could a 15 year old with most of them. In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson is the only one that is a middle grade novel rather than a young adult novel, so a reader as young as eight years old could appreciate it. With The Arrival you don’t even need to know how to read. Homesick is a little different because it was written by a woman of an earlier generation. It is not as fast paced as we now expect our books to be, and – my copy at least – has got tiny print. But the voice is lovely and very relatable. It rolls along and it’s not hard to read. They are all great books.

Is there anything you want to add about any of the books, or how the topic of third culture kids relates to your own work?

Many of the books I’ve recommended here seem to be related to the Asian experience. That is a coincidence. I picked them because they really resonated with me.

I want to underline that third culture kids are not always immigrants. We’ve talked a lot about immigration, but third culture kids are not necessarily forced out of another country and often don’t think of themselves as immigrants.

We haven’t even mentioned statelessness, which is a topic in my most recent book, Stateless. Black Dove, White Raven, which was published in 2015, is much more a classic third culture kid experience. It takes place in Ethiopia in the 1930s, during the invasion. It’s about two American children. One has an Ethiopian father and an African American mother, so he can fit in when he dresses like an Ethiopian, as long as he doesn’t open his mouth. His sister, who is half American and half Italian and white, is more adept at the language. So the pair of them have different experiences in the same culture and it explores how they feel at home there yet can never wholly be at home there. It was based very much on my own experience in Jamaica. And there is the language issue. I’ve lived in Scotland for over 20 years, but as soon as I open my mouth everybody knows that I am American and ask me how long I am staying. The one place where I can be anonymous is in Pennsylvania, and I am a total stranger there – it’s moved on and I’ve moved on.

Everybody’s experience is different. There are the same sort of issues about language, home and identity, but if you’re a third culture kid there’s nobody who has the same story as you.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs, Children's Editor

October 4, 2023

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Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein has written numerous novels for children and young adults, including the New York Times number one bestseller Code Name Verity, which is set in World War Two. She has a pilot’s license, and many of her books feature young protagonists who fly.

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein has written numerous novels for children and young adults, including the New York Times number one bestseller Code Name Verity, which is set in World War Two. She has a pilot’s license, and many of her books feature young protagonists who fly.