There have been a lot of books written about Third Culture Kids but not so many for them, especially for young TCKs. Swirly, written by adult-TCK Sara Saunders and illustrated by Matthew Pierce, helps remedy that. It’s a picture book that tells the story of a little girl, Lila, who moves with her family overseas, returns back to her family’s “home” country, and then lands at another, new, destination, all the while trying to figure out where she belongs.
Since 2012, when Swirly was published, I’ve seen it displayed at conferences and included on TCK reading lists, but it wasn’t until recently that I purchased a copy to read myself. I also shared it with my wife, and she read the last few pages to our college-age daughter, who’d grown up overseas. It brought tears to my wife’s eyes.
I wanted to hear more from Sara, so I contacted her, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions:
First of all, where are you from? Just kidding! Better question—Where have you lived? Tell us about your cross-cultural experience as a child.
I was born in the United States, which is my passport country and both of my parents’ passport country. We moved to Nigeria when I was almost 8-years old and lived there for ten years. But I was away at boarding school in Kenya most of the time from age 14-18. My parents were missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, serving in a mission hospital. As a young adult I have also lived and studied or worked in the United States, Thailand, Mexico, Nigeria again, Kenya again, Uganda, and now Lebanon.
When did you become aware that you were a TCK—that you had more than one culture swirled up inside you?
I was aware from early childhood that being an MK made me different from the local children where I lived and also different from American children in my passport country. But I did not become aware of the term TCK and apply it to myself until I was a high school student at Maxwell Adventist Academy in Kenya. When I was a junior, a speaker came from Interaction International to explain the concept to us and encourage us in our search for a sense of identity. This was empowering for me. In fact, this is when I first heard the poem “Colors” by Whitni Thomas, which later inspired me to write Swirly.
In her wonderful poem, Whitni writes about being “blue” and growing up in a “yellow” country:
Why can’t I be both?
A place where I can be me.
A place where I can be green.
I just want to be green.
In your book, Lila is a swirl of blue and yellow and “sometimes even blends of green.” Why did you choose this metaphor—of being a combination of several distinct colors—to describe what it’s like to be a Third Culture Kid?
I appreciated Whitni’s poem a lot just as it is, but I felt like I wanted to acknowledge that the different pieces of the cultures that form a TCK’s mannerisms and values can often be traced to where they came from and don’t all melt into one solid new culture. For example, I have a hard time calling my elders by their first name after growing up among the Yoruba of Nigeria, who have respectful titles for anyone even less than a year older themselves. But it is also important to me for the whole family—father, mother, children of all ages-—to eat their meals together, at the same time and same table, which is the Anglo-American way, not the Yoruba way. I would like to recognize and celebrate the different pieces of my unique culture and where they come from.
Though it’s aimed at young children, Swirly‘s message resonates with parents and adult TCKs as well. What kinds of responses have you received from readers?
Many people have told me that it helped them to understand and affirm their children, their friends, or themselves. I have seen adult men choke up when describing how it touched them. I’m really happy to know that it has helped others to conceptualize the TCK experience and a shared TCK identity with Jesus.
I’ve seen that you’re also wanting to create books for another group of cross-cultural children—those in refugee communities. Can you tell us more about that?
I am passionate about increasing access to books that are developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant for all children in the world. Many children have zero access to children’s books in which they can see themselves represented. In fact, many have zero access to children’s books of any sort. As I write, I am in Malawi working with university students here on a project to create children’s books which are in the local language, reflect the local culture, and teach good values. Two years ago, the university where I work in Lebanon also collaborated for a project with World Vision to create storybooks for refugee children in our region. Refugee children are trying to find their identity as cross cultural kids, and often are also dealing with discrimination from their host communities and grief, hopelessness, and depression in their homes. I hope to inspire others to fill in the gaps so that these children and all other children in the world can have reading material which helps them to become successful lifelong learners through strong literacy skills and life skills.