‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr – how to be kind to one another against all odds

This post is the next installment of our initiative to showcase some of the beautifully written or illustrated books for children.

We strive to highlight books on our website that will help create the next generation of global citizens by exploring these themes:

  • Generosity
  • Caring for others
  • Multiculturalism
  • Empowerment and perseverance

Although I see all four of these themes in Anthony Doerr’s award-winning novel All The Light We Cannot See, the importance of caring for others rings loudest. That the author can connect a young blind French girl with a young orphaned German boy growing up under Hitler’s influence, speaks to the power and possibilities of communication across geographic and political divides.

Doerr underscores this notion when he describes what his book is really about:

“Radio, propaganda, a cursed diamond, children in Nazi Germany, puzzles, snails, the Natural History Museum in Paris, courage, fear, bombs, the magical seaside town of Saint-Malo in France, and the ways in which people, against all odds, try to be kind to one another.”


Take a moment to watch the following video, in which Anthony Doerr talks in depth about the genesis of his book:


I find the book’s title very intriguing.  In an excerpt from his website, Anthony Doerr explains its meaning:


It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.


Is there a specific event that triggered the writing of this book?

In an interview with Scribner Magazine, Doerr explains that he was initially motivated to write the story by a visit to Saint-Malo, France (where a large part of the story takes place) and by a growing interest in the power of radio. He then goes on to say:


Ultimately, the novel became a project of humanism. I longed to tell a war story that felt new and to do that I needed the reader to invest as completely in Werner (the German orphan boy) as she does in Marie-Laure (the blind French heroine). In the war stories I read growing up, French resistance heroes were dashing, sinewy types who constructed machine guns from paper clips. And German soldiers were evil blond torturers, marching in coal scuttle helmets alongside barbed wire. I wondered if things might have been more nuanced than that. Could I tell a story about how a promising boy got sucked into the Hitler Youth and made bad decisions that led to terrible, unforgivable consequences, yet still render him an empathetic character? And could I braid his story with the narrative of a disabled girl who in so many ways was more capable than the adults around her? My attempt in this novel is to suggest the humanity of both Werner and Marie-Laure, to propose more complicated portraits of heroes and villains; to hint at, as World War II fades from the memories of its last survivors and becomes history, all the light we cannot see.


As Mr. Doerr stated there are so many things that cannot be seen (or that we don’t take time to see) but are revelatory.  This book shows the power to go beyond what we initially see, not make judgments so quickly, and take the time to relate and listen. This is a lesson for readers of all ages.


Anthony Doerr was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, the memoir Four Seasons in Rome, and the novels About Grace and All the Light We Cannot See, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Doerr lives in  Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons.

To learn more about this author, visit his website at Anthonydoerr.com


This blog was crafted by a Global Grandmothers supporter, Brooke Herter James.                     

Fighting for Literacy in Guatemala’s Highlands – Interview with Child Aid’s CEO, Nancy Press

Global Grandmothers President, Diana McDonough sat down with the CEO of Child Aid, Nancy Press, to get a sense of a non-profit which embraces the same values you do, and with your help, is putting them to work for kids.  

Diana interviewed Nancy in her Portland, Oregon office on August 29, 2017.  Child Aid is a Global Grandmothers recommended non-profit.


What does Child Aid do and where does it do it? 

We work in 71 schools – soon to be 100 – in Guatemala’s indigenous Central Highlands, helping thousands of children learn to read. Each school partners with us for a 4 year period. The teachers train in our Reading for Life program and the school receives a library.

I understand you are Child Aid’s co-founder. How did you get started doing this?

I was trained as a cultural anthropologist at Duke so I’ve long been interested in other cultures. Professionally I pursued this interest with post-doctoral grants from the National Institute of Health and others.

In the early 1990’s on a visit to Guatemala for an intensive training in Spanish, I visited public schools operating on a shoestring and met indigenous students with little chance for self-improvement. I had been wanting to do something to honor my father, a deep believer in education and a prime influence in my life who had died prematurely. In his memory, my husband and I decided to begin Child Aid, an educational program for Guatemala’s schools which we hoped would offer real opportunity.

What is unique about the students you teach?

In the indigenous highlands, the typical home language is of ancient Mayan origin — Kichée, Kaqchikel, or T’ztujil — all languages that are not written. Often school is the first place a student sees written language, or hears Spanish.

The government of Guatemala provides little training for primary school teachers and any innovations they develop rarely make it out to the indigenous highlands where Child Aid works. No surprise – more than 60% of the indigenous population is illiterate. Only 4 of 10 students reach the 6th grade. There is a subsistence economy. Life is hard and short. Parents pick coffee berries to earn a living, carry firewood on their backs, and send their children to school hoping to prepare them for something better.

What do the schools you serve need?

In school after school, there are very few textbooks or books of any kind. Often there is not even a piece of paper or whiteboard where words can be written. Typically teachers have a seventh-grade reading level. We wanted to change this, but in a way that made the change welcomed, useful, and replicable.

What does your program offer?

We work with schools where the leadership (superintendent, principal, etc.) want our training for their staff. 

Then we mutually commit to a partnership of 4 years. Our model relies on training and in-class practice. Each school receives two rounds of the following each year:

  • Day-long workshop for all teacher
  • Follow-up demonstration in each teacher’s class with a lesson taught by the Child Aid trainer to model the techniques
  • Second follow-up demonstration in each teacher’s class with a lesson taught by the teacher-in-training using the new techniques

The school also receives a library with books at the beginning of the 4-year partnership. The library is expanded each year so that by the end of the 4 year period there is an average of 7 books per student in the library.

Who leads your training?

We have 25 paid staff in Guatemala. Twenty-three of these are Guatemalan indigenous people themselves and they lead the trainings.

Are you seeing results?

Yes!  We just finished a case-control, independent evaluation which showed that students in Child Aid schools made 65% more progress in reading comprehension in one school year than similar students in non-Child Aid schools. We were very pleased.

How can we help?

Our program takes resources. Any donation you can make will help us change the lives of our wonderful Guatemalan students. Click here to learn more.