I do not know if there are countries that are prouder of their cultural traditions than others, but growing up in Portugal, I was taught to be proud of what made us distinct from the rest of the world: our varied landscapes, food, our music, the hospitality of our people. As an adult, and an emigrant at that, I have learned that it is possible to be a critic of your own country, while still being proud of the things you grew up appreciating. In fact, I think that the right way to love a country — if there is one right way — is to be able to recognise its flaws and, as a society, work together to right those wrongs, to find ways to keep improving the country we love so much. Very few things give me as much pleasure as learning via fiction books about cultural differences and cultural quirks.
In Portugal, for example, we have what we like to call a “table culture:” we have good food, and we very much enjoy eating it, so when we make an appointment with someone — either personal or professional — we usually gather around the table. Meeting people is yet another reason to have great food, and our lunches and dinners can last for several hours.
I can admit that I like a lot of things about the country I am currently living in, but the so-called table culture doesn’t exist here as much. I have adapted to that, and I love that I don’t have to make meals that would feed three families each time I invite one person over for dinner, but I am still surprised at how matter-of-fact and easygoing Dutch people are about food, and in the end, food culture is still one of the things I miss the most.
Being here, I get to explore another culture first-hand, and since I work in an environment with several immigrants, it’s always fun when we start going on about the quirks and costumes of our own native lands.
We tend to focus on the differences, of course, and how funny they usually are, but there is also always a lot of common ground.
In the list below there are different fiction books for different ages which, with more or less spotlight, include cultural traditions. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.
Children Books About Cultural Traditions
More Than Enough: A Passover Story by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Katie Kath
This is a lovely story about a Jewish family preparing for their Passover Seder; going to the market to buy the traditional food and decorations, as well as dressing up, and getting ready to join family and celebrate it all together.
Across the book, you can hear the “Dayenu” refrain, which translates to “it would have been enough,” and refers to a Passover song.
The Nian Monster by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Alina Chau
The main character of the book is Xingling.
At the Chinese New Year, the famous Nian monster has returned, intent on devouring Shanghai.
But Xingling is clever, and she will use all of her skills to stop Nian from achieving his goal and save the city — and herself.
Not only is this book a good resource on Chinese New Year, but it would be also useful to introduce to children before a visit to Shanghai, since it depicts iconic places and dishes.
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
This book takes place in a school, on a day when the whole school gets together to celebrate Lunar New Year.
Several cultures and traditions sit at the table, and all are welcomed with open arms.
Festival Of Colors by Surishtha Sehgal and Kabir Sehgal, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
Holi is a Hindu Spring festival that celebrates new life and love.
In this book, siblings Mintoo and Chintoo are collecting flowers, which will then be turned into colourful powders, to be used at the festival.
When the day of the festival arrives, they celebrate with family, neighbours, and friends.
Once Upon An Eid by Various
The title says (almost all): this is a short story collection that compiles works by some of the best Muslim voices writing today, each story regarding Eid.
Although this book is sometimes seen in YA lists, the stories are more targeted to middle grades, making it perfect for younger audiences as well.
YA Fiction Books About Cultural Traditions
Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
Daunis Fontaine is a biracial, unenrolled tribal member, who finds herself in the middle of an investigation, after witnessing a shocking murder.
Between her hometown and the nearby Ojibwe reservation, Daunis is deep in the investigation, putting her own life at risk — with more and more doubts arising as new clues and information come to life.
A Curse Of Roses by Diana Pinguicha
This book is based on a Portuguese legend believed to have happened between actual real-life royals, King Dinis and Queen Isabel of Portugal.
In this book, young Yzabel is betrothed to Denis, but she has a secret to hide (several, really): her magic — which she considers a curse — turns everything she tries to eat into flowers. The country is experiencing a famine, and Yzabel only needs to find a way to reverse her curse to be able to feed all those who need to be fed.
Fatyan is an enchanted Moira released by Yzabel, and she tries to help Yzabel in her quest, but nothing is as easy as they would like it to be.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
This book has so many elements I love: a ghost acting like they’re just a regular alive human being, spooky vibes, and Dia De Muertos. There is a deep Halloween-y element to it, and I’m here for it!
Yadriel’s family has trouble accepting his gender, but he wants to prove that he is a real brujo, so he decides to perform a ritual by himself.
His intention was to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free, but it is not his cousin who shows up: it is Julian Diaz, the school’s bad boy.
Now Yadriel has no other choice but to help Julian figure out why and how he became a ghost, and to prove himself as a real brujo in the process.
The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
This is not your typical enemies-to-lovers story, because the main characters, Nishat and Flávia, actually get along at the beginning of the book.
But when they both have to create a business for a school assignment and Flávia decides to open a henna business, putting herself directly in competition with Nishat, things start to get heated.
And yet, amongst all the competition, what is this affection they can’t help but feel for each other?
This is an amazing YA novel that makes clear what cultural appropriation can look like.
Ready When You Are by Gary Lonesborough
Jackson is an Aboriginal boy, enjoying yet another summer school vacation, and avoiding the racist boys in his town.
Like every year, his Aunty and cousins from the city pay him a visit, but this time they bring along a boy with them. A boy who will give Jackson no other choice but to face who he truly is — even if that is not what he believes he should be.
From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos
This is a fantasy story filled with Jewish folklore and mysticism.
Hannah’s mother has kept Hannah and her brother always on the go. No roots, just a string of relationships and homes left behind.
On Hannah’s 17th birthday, she wakes up with golden eyes and long narrow pupils, so her mother leaves her and her brother, promising she knows someone who can help.
But as she fails to return, Hannah and Gabe realise it is up to them now to figure out what is going on, and do their best to fix it.
You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
This is a captivating YA novel that brings up themes like immigration, heritage, culture, and tradition, focusing specifically on the lives of an Indian American family.
It is a story that takes place across generations, with different members of the same family dealing with their own troubles and worries, from forbidden love affairs to the fear of a loss of identity.
Especially those with an emigration background will recognise a lot of themes in this novel, and how well they are approached.
Just Your Local Bisexual Disaster by Andrea Mosqueda
It is a Mexican tradition to celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday with a big party, called a quinceañera.
Maggie Gonzalez grew up in Rio Grande Valley, and she is happy with her life, in general. But her sister’s quinceañera is fast approaching, and she needs to find herself a date for the party.
As she wonders who to choose as her date, she realises this also means having to confront her past, and her own feelings.
Adult Fiction Books About Cultural Traditions
The Neapolitan Novels Series by Elena Ferrante
At this point, I believe everyone is familiar with Ferrante’s stories and how well accepted by the public they are.
The series is composed of four books, and although it is mostly centered on the friendship of two women and those who are part of their lives, they are acclaimed for the accurate portraits of the Neapolitan people and culture of the time, being often described as “the story of a nation.”
A Girl Called Rumi by Ari Honarvar
I love how this book evokes the poetry of Rumi and the power of stories, all the while being a history lesson in the Iran war and the trials of Iranian refugees who fled to the United States.
In this book, we see the 9-year-old main character grow up, being settled in the U.S., and then travelling to Iran with her ill mother and brother.
Past and present intertwining, and the perpetual conflict of being an emigrant (in this case a refugee), and the places where we belong.
The Discomfort Of Evening by Marijke Lucas Rijnveld
This is a book filled with sadness, and sorrow, and grief, about a young Dutch girl who loses her brother to an ice skating incident.
Although the story revolves around the ways in which the family deals with this loss, it offers a great look into the Dutch country’s daily life — and costumes — of the time.
Pachinko by Lee Min-Jin
Another story of immigrants, this time Korean immigrants who travelled to Japan and settled there.
This is an amazing book, a story that runs across several generations of the same family, and their struggles in a land that is not their own, and that holds so much prejudice towards their culture and traditions.
It’s a beautiful book, and it has taught me a lot about the Korean-Japanese conflicts.
The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson
This is a lovely historical fiction novel with a native Dakhóta woman as the main character.
The story follows the life of Rosalie Iron Wing, but past and present come and go, and we get to also see pieces and bits of her childhood and the ways her Dakhóta family had to flee.
Rosalie is put in foster care, and eventually marries a white man.
Much older, she returns to her family home, and we see glimpses of her life and how the women of her family have carried and saved seeds and Native traditions through generations.
If you have enjoyed this post on fiction books about cultural traditions, here are a few more you may want to read.