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Exploring the World with Literature (Grades 4-7): Asia

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Introduction to Continent

Asia is by far the world’s largest continent. Approximately 60% of the population lives in Asia. It is home to the highest mountain peak (Everest), the lowest point on earth (the Dead Sea, 424 metres below sea level), and fifty different countries. The Ural mountains, found in Western Russia, are generally considered to be the divider between Asia and Europe. Asian societies began to flourish long before Western cultures. Evidence of this heritage is found in architectural wonders across the continent.

The size and immense diversity of Asia is commonly approached by viewing the continent in terms of different regions (as outlined in the Further Reading tabs below). Representing Asia accurately in just a few titles is impossible, but the selections included in the Micro-Library attempt to capture the flavour of several Asian countries/regions. Most students will have some familiarity with China, but may associate it only with superficial knowledge of language, food, and industry. Shanghai Messenger will offer a brief look at a contemporary Chinese city through the eyes of a Chinese-American visitor. Southern Asia is represented with a look at India, in Going to School in India. As many Filipinos now make Canada their home, Filipino Children’s Favorite Stories was chosen as a way to highlight Southeast Asia and to celebrate folklore familiar to students with Filipino heritage. Folklore was also chosen to represent the Middle East. The Wise Fool: Tales from the Islamic World introduces Nasreddin, the central character in childhood tales well known across the Middle East and regions of South Asia.

The additional reading selections identify suggested texts that offer other views of Asia. The reality of poverty, oppression, and war is evident in some selections set in Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Israel’s unique place in the Middle East is acknowledged in a sensitive portrayal of Israeli and Palestinian children. The imposing landscapes of Central Asia are seen through stories set in Nepal and Mongolia. Asia’s spectacular historic architecture is also briefly introduced in a captivating look at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat Temple and the children who make the area their home. 

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Further Reading

Western Asia includes the Middle Eastern countries (with the exception of any African countries), as well as Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. This region is part of what is commonly called the Arabic world. 75% of Middle Easterners identify themselves as Arabs, owing to a common use of Arabic as the dominant written and spoken language. Other important languages include Turkish, Persian and Armenian, they identify distinct ethnic groups. Religion is also highly important in Western Asia. Islam is the most prominent religion in the region, followed by Christianity and Judaism. The birthplace of Judaism (and Christianity) is Israel, and the majority of Israel’s people are Jewish. Christians are found in each country, and Orthodox Christian religions are the primary religions in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh are generally grouped as South Asian countries. India and Bangladesh are among the top ten most populated countries in the world. Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations, and many people in India also live in extreme poverty, despite the recent boom in manufacturing and education for professionals. The Himalayan mountain range is found in South Asia, on the Northern border of India. Bhutan and Nepal are small countries found in the Himalayan region, and Mount Everest stands on the border between Nepal and the Tibetan area of China. To the West of India lie Pakistan and Afghanistan. In both countries the people come from a large variety of ethnic backgrounds and speak different languages, but most share the common faith of Islam. Bangladesh is also a primarily Islamic country. Other dominant religions in South Asia are Hindu (India and Nepal) and Buddhism (Bhutan and Nepal).

Geographically, Russia dominates Northern Asia (and also Eastern Europe). Most Russians live in the Western (European) region of the country, where the land is less harsh and rugged. Below Russia is Mongolia, a land of desert and mountains. Mongolians were traditionally a nomadic people, but most people now live in cities or on farms. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, all formerly under Soviet rule, are primarily Muslim countries with a variety of ethnic groups. 

China, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan are all prominent nations in Eastern Asia. China has the world’s largest population. 90% of Chinese people live in the Eastern half of China, where all the major cities and best farming land are found. Half the people live in villages, but many have moved to the large cities for jobs in factories. The Korean Peninsula lies between China and Japan. South Korea was also a traditionally agricultural country, but in the last 50 years has seen many Western influences and the development of large, prosperous cities. The island nation of Japan has about 126 million people living in a very small area. Like all East Asian countries, it has a rich history of ancient traditions and a unique culture. 

Below India and China is the southern tip of the Asian mainland, home to the countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and part of Malaysia. Island countries in Southeast Asia are Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Brunei, and the Philippines. A hot, tropical climate with mountainous islands and areas of dense forest characterizes most of the region. Almost half of the residents live in rural areas, but prosperous cities abound.