UN SDGS: Gatekeepers, allies, enablers, persuaders

[Nadine Bailey, Western Academy of Beijing, China]

While the global goals set absolute numerical targets that are tracked as discrete targets, no matter where our country of origin or residence is on the continuum of individual goals the wonderful thing is how they tie us together as part of our common humanity.  

As educators, librarians and individuals our it is important that we can maintain motivation and momentum through our actions and thought leadership by banding together in initiatives such as this series of blogs. What roles can and do librarians and educators play?

Moving from Gate-keepers to Gate-openers

There are a number of arenas in which we can choose to be gate-keepers or gate-openers. Firstly in how we curate our collections and choose to spend our budgets. Pursuing books out of the narrow range of BANA (British, Australian, North American) publishers, heavily promoted through advertising and promotion the usual channels takes extra time and effort. It’s the librarian equivalent of trying to find rare cult and indie movies, and then promote the heck out of them to your geekie like-minded library friends – something like what we’ve been doing in the past month through these blog posts. Sometimes it feels like playing a never-ending super-Mario obstacle course – even if you identify suitable resources, you may not be able to source them in your country or school as they may only be available in a narrow geographic area due to arcane publishing and territorial rights.  

Another consideration is ethical purchasing by avoiding big companies with poor employment or environmental records and changing to suppliers through consolidators such as Ethical Revolution.  


Once the books are part of our collections how do we ensure they get noticed and used by faculty and students? Sometimes the style of writing or illustrations are not what our community is used to – something like trying new foods, it’s important from a young age that our readers develop a sophisticated multi-cultural palette.  

Finally, we’re beginning to realise that unless the goals are embedded at all levels of the curriculum rather than being an option “add on” they are not taken as seriously or could even be avoided completely. What role can we play in embedding themes into the curriculum? Do we have persuasive currency with the curriculum coordinators or a voice at the planning tables with teachers?

Sometimes all it takes are a few examples from other schools or programmes to get ideas.   


One of the organisations that comes to mind in curriculum development for the very young is ThinkEqual’s programme which addresses 10 of the 17 SDGs in 3 levels of tangible, easy to implement, step-by-step teacher guides for ages 3 to 6.

Each level of the programme includes 30 original books, associated resources, and 90 lesson plans. These are all given free of charge on condition that the programme is comprehensively and sequentially implemented.  

The IB’s PYP and MYP programmes are ideally structured to allow flexibility in content around the subject groupings in Transdisciplinary Themes or Global Contexts.

At WAB, where I currently work, the SDGs are explicitly embedded in the PYP Exhibition, as part of the human rights inquiry in Grade 6, in Earth Science and Individuals & Societies in Grade 8. Looking at progress data could be part of a mathematics inquiry, and any literature units could include diversity in texts.

Allies and privilege 

Often it takes a few passionate people and their allies in order to make a difference. The Neev Book Award was started in 2018 “to find and showcase great children’s books from and about Indian lives.”

As a jury member since initiation, I can attest to the value of being an ally to this initiative where I can use my background and privilege to read, select and promote the books. It has also given me an insight into the difficulties for authors to “break out” of their geographical regions and reach a global audience. 

Similarly, the Feng Zikai Chinese Children’s book award was set up to “acknowledge distinctive original Chinese picture books to encourage the publishing and reading of Chinese picture books”   

Libro.FM, utilizes their platform “to highlight a diverse and inclusive selection of audiobooks for everyone. Each month, we curate lists of free audiobooks for educators, librarians, and booksellers. When curating these lists, we include at least 50% BIPOC authors in order to help distribute these books to classroom, library, and community bookshelves.” 

In the two countries where I’ve been a member of the librarian selection panels for School Book Awards (Red Dot Book Award and Panda Book Awards) discussion and criteria of diversity and inclusion have been explicit in the book choices. 

Red Dot Awards — the ISLN (Singapore international school librarians network) annual book award

The Panda Awards — the annual book award run by international school librarians in China

Authors partnership  or author / illustrator partnerships can result in a wonderful combination of access and voice  thereby bringing stories to a wider audience such as: 

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (and Salva Dut) / Highlighted in the blog post on SDG 6

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (2020) / Highlighted in the blog post on SDG 4

The girl from Aleppo by Nujeen Mustafa with Christina Lamb / Highlighted in the blog post on SDG 5
I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb (2012)
[Photo source]

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (2016) / Upper elementary/middle grade novel
[Photo source]

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan (2020) / Middle-grade novel
[Photo source]

I See the Promised Land by Arthur Flowers, illustrated by Manu Chitrakar (2010)

This graphic novel version of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement is an exciting dialogue between two very different storytelling traditions. Arthur Flowers – African American writer and griot – tells the story in lyrical prose, while the text is illustrated by Manu Chitrakar, traditional Patua scroll artist from Bengal, India.

The artist allows the tale to resonate in his own context, translating it into the vivid and colourful idiom of Patua art. In the process, King’s struggle transcends its context, and becomes truly universal (SDG 10).

The Courage of Elfina by Andrew Jacob, illustrated by Christine Delezenne (2019) / Canada

This sophisticated picture book by Canadian professor and Swiss graphic designer tells the story of twelve-year-old Paraguan orphan Elfina sent to live with an aunt by a well-meaning grandmother. She’s then taken to Canada where she is  kept as a domestic servant by the family, denied education and has inappropriate advances made at her by her uncle (SDG4).

What What What? by Arata Tendo (2017) / Translated into English by David Boyd / Japan

A story of a young boy who doesn’t stop asking questions about how people are feeling and where they are, leading to helping a school mate in danger. (SDG3 – mental health) – sophisticated picture book could be used as a companion book or provocation for Monday’s not coming” by Tiffany D. Jackson. 

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith and Rachel Wade (2019)

This book is a collaboration between Canadian author Smith and Japanese-Cantonese immigrant Wada (SDG 13; SDG 3) inspired by the true story of the wind phone in Otsuchi, Japan, which was created by artist Itaru Sasaki. He built the phone booth so he could speak to his cousin who had passed, saying, “My thoughts couldn’t be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”

The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 destroyed the town of Otsuchi, claiming 10 percent of the population. Residents of Otsuchi and pilgrims from other affected communities have been traveling to the wind phone since the tsunami. 

This is a lushly illustrated long form picture book which tells the tale of the author’s history with activism weaving in themes of equality, colonialism, education, poverty. He also manages to bring in movements from all around the world, although the book itself is set in Indonesia. (SDG 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 8; 9; 11; 12; 15; 16)

If you buy one book this year, this should be it, along with the companion A is for Activist which is on my ordering list.  

Youth to Power – Your voice and how to use it by Jamie Power (2020) / Foreword by Greta Thunberg 

Jamie presents the essential guide to changemaking, with advice on writing and pitching op-eds, organizing successful events and peaceful protests, time management as a student activist, utilizing social media and traditional media to spread a message, and sustaining long-term action.

She features interviews with prominent young activists

Nadine Bailey is an international school Teacher-librarian and Technology Integrator currently working at the Western Academy of Beijing. A Dutch/South African former Chartered Accountant with Masters in Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation), Information Studies and Business Administration. She has lived in Africa, Europe, South America and Asia including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Beijing.  Her passions include language acquisition and bilingualism. Online​ ​she​ ​uses Informative Flights (https://intlnadine.org/) ​as​ ​her​ ​blog​ ​and​ ​her Twitter​ ​handle is @intlNadine

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

What are your favorite books that relate to the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Please share them in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation and work on the goals together.

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