Intercultural Education Resource: If the World Were a Village

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Learning about the world is one of the most critical activities we can do, for a plethora of reasons: to understand other cultures, to learn about each other, to plan trips, and to explore our world, among others. I have found THE COOLEST book, entitled If the World Were a Village, by David Smith. It is classified as a geography book - and yet, it is more than a geography book - it is about world cultures, and poverty, and humanity, and race, and life. When we got this book in the mail, our daughter (6) sat down and pored over it. The illustrations are so beautiful and colorful, I had to join in. When we read the book together, it made SO much sense - it is about imagining the world as a 100-person village, and extrapolates the world from there. Clearly written in terms and concepts that even a 6-year old can understand, I was also intrigued. It is, truly, a book for the curious of all ages and cultures. Our daughter took it to her piano lesson with her 70-year old piano teacher; to different friends' houses; and now here to Thanksgiving, where everyone from age 6 through 91 has been entranced with the book. Yes, it is that good!

I was lucky enough to sit down and chat with the author of If the World Were a Village, David Smith. He's a former geography teacher, who now works with teachers worldwide, and runs a fantastic resource, Here's what he had to say...

WE: Please tell us about your book, If the World Were a Village...

DS: Briefly, it's a book I wrote over 20 years ago, that went through a large number of publishers who loved the book but couldn't find the right illustrator. I "sold" it to two New York publishers, who each kept it for three years and then said "we can't find an illustrator who can do the book justice; we're devoted to the manuscript, but we have to give it back to you; keep the advance, and find a publisher who can do right by the content..."

It was finally published by Kids Can Press in Toronto in 2002; since then they have sold about 500,000 copies in North America, and there are 19 other editions, in 17 languages, created by publishers all over the world. Publishers in other countries have published it in Spanish, French (both Canadian and European), Portuguese, Catalan, Greek, German, Dutch, Italian, Turkish, Arabic, and several more languages. My favorite, the one that really moves me, is the edition in Braille. The book has won numerous prizes, including the Hans Christian Andersen award for children's literature. You can read about all the editions, and the prizes, on my website,

If the World Were a Village

WE: What was the genesis of this book?

DS: I taught grade 7 for 26 years. One day in 1985, one of my students asked me whether he should take French or Spanish as a foreign language -- "which language is more important" is what he said. My reply was something like "they are both important, what do you mean...", and he said "well, if our classroom were the world, how many of us would speak French, and how many would speak Spanish". So we looked it up, and he took Spanish, because it is much more widely spoken than French, but that was where the idea started, simplifying world demographics by visualizing the big numbers in a small way. I put about 48 pages together, never thinking that it might be a book -- just something to use with my students.

But in 1989, my curriculum, "Mapping the World By Heart", got a lot of national attention. I even did an interview on the Today Show -- Bryant Gumbel interviewed me and some of my students. As a result of that, a lot of publishers contacted me and said "what else do you have that we might publish...".

Not a glamorous start, and certainly not a fast one. My wife likes to say that it took the book 20 years to become an overnight success.

WE: How best can parents and teachers teach an intercultural worldview and

DS: The back of the book has a section that parents and teachers tell me they find very useful; it shares some of my ideas on helping children become world-minded. Keep maps handy; talk about places; play world-minded games; find out what your neighbors' stories are; and so on.

The most important point, I guess, is that we all sit down together at the same table -- and it's important that we understand who our neighbors are.

WE: The illustrations in the book are stunning - can you please tell us
about the illustrator?

DS: Shelagh Armstrong had never illustrated a children's book before this book -- she did a lot of commercial illustration, and designed stamps for the Canadian government. But many people feel that her style is perfect for the content; I've even heard a comment that her images look like stained-glass windows.

WE: How can kids change the world?

DS: We all can change the part of the world we live in -- kids and adults. Change habits, change the way we use things and what we use, change what we waste and what we reuse, change how we get to places. I have a friend in Northern Ireland who says part of the problem is that we live in an ASAP society -- "as soon as possible" -- and she is trying to change that to "as sustainably as possible".

WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

DS: A second "If" book is coming out early next year, also from Kids Can Press. It will be "If The US Were A Village". I've also contracted with a publisher in London to do "If The UK Were A Village", and I'm working on a manuscript about the lives of children around the world. Visit, and stay tuned.

WE: Thanks so much, David! I plan on getting several copies of these books for holiday gifts, and recommending it to all of our local libraries. You've REALLY written a classic, that can help people understand that the world isn't ethnocentric, but teaches that we can all learn about each other.

To learn more about If the World Were a Village, please see: