Best Fiction for Third Culture Kids

by Jimmie

Third Culture Kids (or TCKs) face very distinct challenges. Reading fiction that deals with issues that TCKs often face -- identity and loss -- can be helpful for emotional health.

Favorite Novels for TCKs
Favorite Novels for TCKs
by Jimmie

What is a Third Culture Kid?

Abbreviated TCK

My daughter spent almost nine years in China, a blonde, fair-skinned child among a sea of Asians. From age 3 to 12, she lived in that country, speaking Chinese, playing with Chinese friends, and eating Chinese foods. Although she looks very American and holds an American passport, she is in many ways Chinese. 

But she is not Chinese. She is a TCK, or third culture kid. TCKs do not fully relate to their passport country nor their host country. They have elements of both cultures, but the unique mix makes them belong to something else -- a third culture.

TCKs face issues that many other children face, but they deal with them in a much more intense and frequent manner. Two big issues are:



In parenting my own TCK, I have identified some excellent fiction books that address those issues of identity and loss in a way that a TCK can relate to. Here are my top choices.

My TCK Daughter With a Friend
My TCK Daughter With a Friend
All Rights Reserved by Jimmie

Why Are You Here?

What is Your Interest in Books for TCKs?

Moccasin Trail

And How It Speaks to the TCK Experience

Jim is a pre-teen settler who runs away from home and is taken in by Native Americans after he is mauled by a bear. Living for many years among the Indians, Jim learns their ways and becomes accepted by the tribe, learning their language, style of dress, and customs.

Then he receives word that his parents have died and his brother and sister need his help to save the family farm. He returns to white civilization but faces great challenges in the transition. His identity comes under close scrutiny by others and even by himself as he struggles to make choices between two ways of life.

Jim's conflict between his original culture and adopted culture is exactly what TCKs face. TCKs will easily grasp the anguish of Jim's choices, the pain of being judged, and the sacrifices he must make to fit in.

Moccasin Trail

by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Moccasin Trail (Puffin Newberry Library)
$8.99  $19.0

Young Fredle

by Cynthia Voigt
Young Fredle
Knopf Books for Young Readers
$5.58  $50.93

Young Fredle

And How it Speaks to the TCK Experience

I chose this book as part of the Amazon Vine program, not knowing how perfectly it would fit into the TCK experience. 

Fredle is a house mouse who leaves his "culture" and explores the world outside. He encounters cellar mice as well as field mice. As he adjusts to new mice communities, he questions the way things were done back at home. When we finally returns home, he sees that his adventures have radically changed who he is and his perspective on life.

Fredle finds ways to accept what is good about the various cultures he encounters while maintaining his identity as a house mouse. Fredle is a third culture mouse.

Of course, the bulk of the story is an adventure of survival for Fredle, but the moments of insight that Fredle has will resonate clearly to a TCK reader.

This book is excellent for many different TCK experiences because the "cultures" are within mice society. Using animals as her characters, Voigt has created a story that can apply to any nationality or TCK situation.

Esperanza Rising

And How it Speaks to the TCK Experience

Esperanza grows up as a pampered daughter of wealthy land owners in Mexico. But her life is turned upside down at age 13 when her father is murdered and the family home is burned. Esperanza and her mother flee to America to work in the agriculture industry and build a new life.

Basic life skills such as how to sweep, cook a meal, and change a baby's diaper are all new to Esperanza who always had people to serve her in the past. In America, she is faced with a new social structure -- one where she is at a disadvantage because of her lack of practical skills.

Esperanza slowly comes to grips with the new culture around her and grows in the process.

There is a strong theme of family and friendship in this hopeful and often poetic book. It is those close relationships that give Esperanza the hope to keep working when life is so difficult.

Many TCKs experience this kind of role reversal when they travel between cultures. Maybe they are rich in one country and poor in the other. Possibly they are welcomed almost as celebrity in one country and ignored or ridiculed in another. These sudden shifts are part of a TCK's life, and Esperanza Rising addresses them beautifully.

Esperanza Rising

by Pam Munoz Ryan
Esperanza Rising
$5.34  $9.0

Can Books Really Help a TCK?

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Yes, fiction can give TCKs a chance to process & talk about their emotions.
WordCustard on 08/03/2011

I'm sure it is a good start, and books have a way of reaching out to children who don't feel comfortable or don't have the words to discuss their feelings.

ohcaroline on 08/03/2011

Sometimes it's easier to relate to your own circumstances when you can experience similar ones in a book.

Jimmie on 08/02/2011

TCKs often feel weird and alone in their situation. Reading a book that echoes what they feel or think is comforting.

Additional Notes

About Young Adult Fiction for TCKs

I do not recommend these commonly suggested TCK books:

Homesick by Jean Fritz

This book is dreary and does not in any way reflect my daughter's TCK experience. In the book, the narrator, Jean, lives a mostly secluded life from the Chinese locals. She attends a school full of English speaking expatriates and cannot even speak the local language. It was not at all a helpful book for my daughter. She disliked the main character and could not understand the distant relationship between Jean and her mother.

Child of the Owl by Laurence Yep

This book has many adult themes (gambling addiction, negligent parenting, etc) as well as occasional profanity. There is a strong thread of animism/spiritualism/Buddhism.

The main character, Casey, is Chinese American but has not grown up with an understanding of her Chinese roots. In the book, she goes to live with her grandmother in Chinatown where she connects with her heritage. Casey finds strength through her grandmother's spiritualism to face her identiy crisis. 

This book may mirror the experience of some TCKs, but it doesn't match my daughter's. Although Laurence Yep is a great author, this is one book that I can't recommend. 

A TCK Book Has to be a Good Book Foremost

Just because a book includes a character who moves to another country doesn't mean that the book will speak to the TCK experience. And some books get too preachy about being a TCK and the story is therefore weakened.

Young adult fiction that helps TCKs has to first, be good literature (a living book) and to secondly address the issues that TCKs face such as identity and loss.

And, of course, every TCK will have different taste in books and different life experiences. 

Updated: 10/28/2011, Jimmie
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tpearce on 12/17/2012

There's a great teen novel about tcks. It's called The BuddhaPest and you can find it on Here's the trailer.

WordCustard on 08/03/2011

I had always thought of the benefits for a child belong to two cultures, and see now that it can also mean feeling like you belong to neither. It was interesting to learn to see these children as a third culture with the advantages and disadvantages that brings. Books are the perfect way to let kids know that others have had similar experiences (and emerged stronger and wiser).

ohcaroline on 08/03/2011

Good job tackling a very unique situation. Not a topic most can relate to.

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