To Canada & Mexico by Kathie Johnson

First Books

To Canada & Mexico

by Kathie Johnson

Last summer, for the ninth time, I had a reading game/contest in my children's library. Since we had finished reading our way through the United States the previous year, we read books set in Canada or Mexico. It was a rich experience. If you would like to try "traveling with books" this way, here are a few suggestions—as usual, only scratching the surface.

People & Animals

Books about notable people include Beyond the Sea of Ice, by Joan Goodman, which describes the voyages of the explorer Henry Hudson. It includes good maps and full-page pictures on almost every spread. A nice biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the beloved storyteller of Prince Edward Island, is by Alexandra Wallner, with many pictures. The artist William Kurelek, who grew up on the Canadian prairie in the 1920s and 1930s, has written several books about his boyhood and illustrated them with his own beautiful paintings. Among them are A Prairie Boy's Summer, A Prairie Boy's Winter, and Northern Nativity. Duncan Tonatiuh has written a book about the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and illustrated it with his own Rivera-inspired artworks. Another Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, is the subject of a book by Margaret Frith, which contains many of Kahlo's paintings.

Books about history and culture include The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, which tells of the Canadian Arctic expedition of 1913. Hill of Fire, an I Can Read book by Joan Sandin, is about a volcano that erupted in an ordinary Mexican farm field in 1943 (I remember hearing about this event as a young child). George Ancona's Fiesta Fireworks and The
Piñata Maker
respectively describe the making of these two traditional components of Mexican festivals. Books about the Alamo also fit the theme, since at the time of that battle, Texas was part of Mexico and the Mexican army was there. One good book is Voices of the Alamo by Sherry Garland, which introduces you to many of the characters involved.

There are a number of good books about wildlife found in Canada or Mexico. For Canada, you might want to look at Carol Carrick's The Polar Bears Are Hungry, a poetic story of the interaction between bears and people. A Salmon for Simon, by Betty Waterton, tells the story of a Canadian boy who wants to catch something from the sea, but when an eagle drops a salmon on the beach, he is conflicted about what to do. Maxine Trottier's There Have Always Been Foxes is full of lovely pictures showing how, through all the changes that have come to Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island since 1713, when the French founded a settlement there, the foxes have always remained. For better readers, there are the Farley Mowat stories, such as Owls in the Family and The Dog Who Wouldn't Be.

Butterflies are a good subject when reading about Mexico, because of the massive migration of Monarchs to winter there. The Great Butterfly Hunt, by Ethan Herberman, explains the mystery of this migration. For a fictional treatment, you might read Isabel's House of Butterflies, by Tony Johnston, about a poor family that has a "butterfly tree" on its land. When the crops fail, they have to consider selling the tree for lumber. Jami Parkison's beautiful book Pequeña the Burro tells of a burro that doesn't like her image, compared with that of horses, but later becomes a heroine with her ability to pull.

Notable Tales

There are many books of tales, including folk tales. For instance, Robert San Souci has done a version of Song of Sedna, an Inuit tale; others from Canada are The Eye of the Needle by Teri Sloat and Orca's Song by Anne Cameron. From Mexico, see Alma Flor Ada's The Lizard and the Sun, Tomie de Paola's Adelita (a Mexican Cinderella story), and The Riddle of the Drum by Verna Aardema.

One special tale is based in reality. Since 1531, an image of the Virgin Mary, with the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, has been revered in Mexico. Tomie de Paola has written and illustrated a nice children's version of the origin of the portrait. In The Lady of Guadalupe, he tells the story of Juan Diego, a poor Christian Indian, who sees a vision of Mary on a hillside. She tells him to go to the bishop and say that she wants a church built on the site. He goes and eventually gets to see the bishop, but is put off. He sees the vision again and is again told to see the bishop, but this time Mary gives him a sign. She has him gather roses—out of season—from the top of the hill into his tilpa (cloak). Juan brings the tilpa to the bishop, opens it, and the roses pour out. Then, the real miracle occurs, for a picture of Mary appears on the tilpa. The church is built. A note at the end of the book explains that Juan Diego's tilpa, made of material that usually deteriorates within ten years, is still perfect after 400 years, and that no one has been able to figure out how the picture of Mary was created, or how its colors remain unfaded.

More Books to Sample

Here are a few more picture book ideas. From Mexico, try A Dozen Angels by Ruth Thomson, Erandi's Braids by Antonio Madrigal, or Saturday Market, by Patricia Grossman. From Canada, you might read Ida and the Wool Smugglers by Sue Ann Alderson, The Magnificent Piano Recital by Marilynn Reynolds, or Arctic Son by Jean Craighead George.

For more advanced readers, don't miss the L. M. Montgomery books, beginning with Anne of Green Gables, but including many with other characters. For adventure, try James Houston's River Runners. For historical fiction, G. A. Henty's With Wolfe in Canada is a good pick. The always excellent Elizabeth George Speare's Calico Captive is set in Canada during the French and Indian War. For a book set in Mexico, try Jean Craighead George's Shark Beneath
the Reef

These, then, are a small sampling of books you can read to get a better understanding of our two neighbors. Reading about other places, peoples, and cultures can broaden your view of life. When there is something in the news (a serious earthquake hit Mexico near the end of our summer reading program), you may have more empathy for the people involved. 

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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