United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4: QUALITY EDUCATION

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

[Kris Feller, Anglo-American School of Moscow, Russia]

Education remains an inaccessible right for millions of children around the world. In fact more than 250 million children globally, or roughly 1 in 5 of all young people, are not in school. These children find themselves either on the margins of or completely unable to participate in the educational system and therefore, they do not benefit from the learning that is vital to their intellectual and social development. 

This post features some books for students that show excellent examples of children and teens striving for the quality education that we all deserve.

Maurice and His Dictionary by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Enzo Lord Mariano (2020) / Canada

This memoir depicts the WW2 journey of author Cary Fagan’s family as they migrated as Jewish refugees from Belgium to Portugal and then on to an internment camp in Jamaica. All along, Maurice holds onto his dream of going to a university and completing his education. His dictionary is his most prized possession and becomes a talisman on his road forward. The format of this book is a graphic novel but the size is that of a picture book so it makes a terrific one-sitting read. Along with the peril of the journey, there are many humorous moments as Maurice fights to achieve the quality education which he knows he deserves. 

Running Shoes by Frederick Lipp, illustrated by Jason Gaillard (2008) / USA / Cambodia / Translated into Khmer and French

This story opens with Sophy, a girl living in a simple Cambodian village with no doctor, no hospital and no school. Most days for her seem to be very much the same, helping her mother around their home and small garden. The monotony  is lifted when the Number Man (the local census employee) comes to the village. He spends a little time with Sophy asking how her family is doing after the loss of her father the year before. Sophy compliments his running shoes and at first the reader may believe this is only because she is interested in his novel footwear. Instead Sophy sees the shoes as a means to pursue her dream of getting an education. Her determination in following this dream is beautifully presented here.

Author Frederick Lipp founded the Cambodian Scholarship Foundation (CSF) in 2001 to support girls’ education in Cambodia. Many of his picture books are available in French, Khmer, and English via Open Book, a non-profit library and publishing enterprise in Phnom Penh.

Nasreen’s Secret School: a true story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter (2009) / USA / Set in Afghanistan

This book was commissioned by The Global Fund for Children and is based upon the life of a student who attended a school supported by their network. The pre- and post-Taliban educational statistics in Afghanistan are quite telling. Before the group took control of the country, 70% of teachers were women as well as 40% of doctors and 50% of university students. After Taliban laws were enacted, girls were forbidden from going to school or from working outside of the home. The story of Nasreen and her grandmother is told beautifully in this picture book with minimal text and evocative illustrations. 

“Windows opened for Nasreen in that little schoolroom…. [and] the soldiers can never close the windows that have opened for my granddaughter. Insha’Allah.”

Dear Malala, We Stand With You by Rosemary McCarney (2014) / Canada

This deceptively simple yet poignant picture book addresses the global issue of education scarcity for many children. Simple text accompanies full-page photos from around the world of children (often girls) both pushing for education and in situations where their education may be in jeopardy such as early marriage, poverty, and discrimination.  (NB: The famous Malala Yousafzai has now graduated (in June 2020) from Lady Margaret Hall, one of the historical women’s colleges, at Oxford University.)

The author, Rosemary McCarney, was the Canadian head of Plan International, one of the oldest international charities (founded in 1937) working with people around the world to end global poverty and inequality. Click here for an educator’s guide to the book.

Education Equality - HC
Education Equality by Heather C. Hudak (2020) / Canada

The “Get Informed – Stay Informed” series was developed by Canadian publisher Crabtree. Many of books have terrific connections to the SDGs and Education Equality fits goal #4 perfectly.  Best for grades 4-6, the book is filled with information, graphs and images. Chapter 1 focuses on global issues including the “fundamental right of every child to access education so that every one of them can achieve their full potential; the importance of equality; what happens when inequality occurs in the system.”

In the Land of Unlearned Lessons: a magical adventure by Liya Geraskina (1966) / Translated by Akhan Almagambetov (2020) / Russia

This Russian classic from the 1960s, recently released in English, depicts a young boy who did not bother learning all of the curriculum while in school and now it all comes back to haunt him when he is swept away along with his cat, Kuzya, to the Land of Unlearned Lessons. In order to return home from this magical and dangerous place Viktor will have to solve grammar, math and other challenges which he previously ignored in school. If you know a Russian, then they have read this book and will recommend it to you fondly.

Totto-Chan: the little girl at the window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi (1981) / Translated by Dorothy Britton (1984) / Japan

A Japanese classic memoir about a girl’s unconventional education during World War II at a school that encouraged thinking outside the box. The author, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, grew up to become an actress, television personality and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. The book has been translated into over 30 languages.

No-one chooses to be a refugee": Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed on When  Stars are Scattered | BookTrust
When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (2020) / USA / Memoir of co-author Omar Mohamed from Somalia

This memoir was my favorite graphic novel of 2020 and it’s been a fabulous text to share in connection with refugee units, graphic novel units and it fits in perfectly with more than one of the UN SDGs, most especially Quality Education.

Omar Mohamed and his brother Hassam live in a Somali refugee camp in Kenya. Their most basic needs are met in terms of shelter and food but they have only the slimmest path forward to a secure future. Omar’s situation is additionally complicated  because he is the primary caregiver for his younger brother who is mute due to severe PTSD. The bulk of Omar’s days are spent gathering provisions, caring for his brother and occasionally playing with other young people in the camp. Then one day a community leader takes an interest in Omar’s situation, gives him a pencil and notebook and presses him to find a way to go to the school. Though many obstacles arise Omar does continue with his education and even excels in his studies. Education becomes his joy, his passion and indeed his path out of the camp.

An excellent side-story is depicted concerning Omar’s two school friends who are girls and the limited futures that are prescribed for them.

Tiger Daughter by Rebecca Lim (2021) / Australia

A recently published #ownvoices coming-of-age novel set in Australia which follows the paths of two Chinese immigrant teens.

Wen Zhou is the daughter and only child of Chinese immigrants whose move to the lucky country has proven to be not so lucky. Wen and her friend, Henry Xiao – whose mum and dad are also struggling immigrants – both dream of escape from their unhappy circumstances, and form a plan to sit an entrance exam to a selective high school far from home. But when tragedy strikes, it will take all of Wen’s resilience and resourcefulness to get herself and Henry through the storm that follows.
[Blurb taken from the publisher’s website]

Rebecca Lim was born in Singapore and her family emigrated to Australia in the 1970s. She is one of the founders of Voices from the Intersection, an initiative set up in 2016 to support the creation of Australian YA & Children’s Own Voices stories through establishing publication & mentorship opportunities.

The Cat I Never Named: a true story of love, war, and survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan (2020) / USA / Bosnian memoir

A wonderful book about the author’s experience as a Muslim teenager living under siege for almost four years in the northern Bosnian town of Bihac, which is full of heart and a beautiful read all the way through. Amra’s great ambition throughout the entire story is to pursue her education. The book opens with her returning from Sarajevo after sitting for the national high school examinations even though the train is filled with Serbian soldiers who now regard her ethnicity with hostility. She faces discrimination from many of her teachers in high school even though she is the top student in her city. Once the siege of Bihac begins in earnest, school is cancelled for all students for weeks. Later a building next to a UN outpost is requisitioned for the students though they are only able to meet periodically.

This is a fascinating snapshot of time in the late 20th century and a story that is about the pursuit of education despite all obstacles. (For young adult readers)


Kris Feller has been an international librarian for 23 years. She is currently working at the Anglo-American School of Moscow as a PK-12 librarian. Before that, she worked at schools in Venezuela, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Slovakia and Moldova. Quality Education is currently a huge personal topic in her home as her 17-year-old daughter prepares to select a university.

Note: all the books highlighted during this month of SDGs can be found on this GLLI Goodreads shelf.

What are your favorite books for SDG Goal 4: Quality Education? Please share them in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation and work on the goal together.

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