South of the U.S. by Kathie Johnson

First Books

South of the U.S.

by Kathie Johnson

For the last several years, I've had a summer reading game in my library. It's always based on geography. After working our way through the states and then doing Canada and Mexico, last summer we did all the rest of the countries south of the U.S.: Central and South America and the Caribbean, and even Antarctica. That includes a lot of territory with a great many environments, and it made for a rich reading experience, opening up new awareness and learning for those who took part. I'll share here just a few of the many books set in these areas that can be read with pleasure.

Interesting People

As usual, there are lots of interesting people to read about. There is Columbus, who did not find mainland America, but discovered many islands in the Caribbean. We had books on other explorers, too, such as Magellan, Vespucci, Balboa, and others, but the one who became the favorite last summer was Ernest Shackleton, who led expeditions to the Antarctic in the early twentieth century. His amazing story of leadership and survival in the Antarctic is told for better readers in the wonderful book Endurance by Alfred Lansing. A good book about this explorer for younger readers is Trapped by the Ice! by Michael McCurdy, which is full of dynamic illustrations and short, information-filled paragraphs.

Other good people to read about include Jim Elliot, a twentieth-century missionary to the Amazon Indians, whose story is told in Jim Elliot: A Light for God, by Renee Taft Meloche, with bright illustrations and rhymed text. The story of Cuban singer Celia Cruz is told in Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa, by Veronica Chambers, with lavish illustrations. My Name Is Gabito, by Monica Brown, tells the story of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the book's colorful, magical illustrations reflect Marquez's writing style. To Go Singing Through the World, by Deborah Kogan Ray, tells of the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Among political figures in this part of the world, Simón Bolivar, who is called "the George Washington of South America," is a good one for children to learn about. David Adler's series of biographies of notable figures (all titled A Picture Book of . . .) includes a nice volume on Bolivar.

Animals & Plants

Almost all the kids in the reading game read books about penguins, and there are many informative books about these birds to choose from; one of them is Martin Jenkins's The Emperor's Egg. But the penguin books that everyone loved best were fictional ones: the stories of Tacky the Penguin as told in a series of books by Helen Lester. A bit silly, these tales made people laugh.

There are many books about the rainforests of Latin America. One for middle readers is How Monkeys Make Chocolate, by Adrian Forsyth. It is filled with information about the animals and plants of the rainforest, including how the native peoples use them and how the rest of the world is learning to appreciate the riches of this environment. A lovely simple picture book is just called Rain Forest, by Helen Cowcher. The Great Kapok Tree, by Lynne Cherry (which has a few more words), tells of a man who sets out to cut down a jungle tree but gets tired and falls asleep. Animals and birds come to him in dreams to explain how important the tree is to their existence, and when the man wakes up, he changes his mind.

One more book to mention is When the Monkeys Came Back, by Kristine Franklin. Set in Costa Rica, it tells of a girl who grows up in a forest with howler monkeys, until her father is given money for the trees and they are cut down. Bereft of their habitat, the monkeys depart. Years later, after the girl has grown up, she asks for land and begins to plant trees, eventually bringing back the monkeys.

Fables, Tales & True Stories

Tales from this area abound. A nice collection is contained in When Jaguars Ate the Moon, by Maria Brusca. This book has a variety of tales featuring the plants and animals of the Americas, many of them "how and why" stories. Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun, by Jane Kurtz, tells of an Incan prince who falls ill and of the strong, young peasant girl who faces great obstacles to bring him healing. As in many other cultures, there are numerous "trickster" tales common to Latin America. Gerald McDermott's Jabuti the Tortoise tells a trickster tale from the Amazon.

A few special books tell true tales. Maria Brusca's autobiographical books about life in Argentina—On the Pampas and My Mama's Little Ranch on the Pampas—are among these. Jeanette Winter's Biblioburro tells the true story of a man in Colombia who transported books on burros to small villages to share with children. The Little Painter of Sabana Grande, by Patricia Markun, tells the true story of a young Panamanian boy who loved to paint, but had no paper. So he began to paint on the walls of his house, first inside, then outside. A Pen Pal for Max, by Gloria Rand, tells of a boy in Chile who begins corresponding with a girl in the U.S. When an earthquake in Chile causes great damage, the girl's classmates gather supplies to send to the boy's school.


An especially beautiful book is Lost City: The Discovery of Machu Picchu by Ted Lewin. The rich illustrations invite you in on the journey of discovery. The same author/illustrator's Market! covers markets in several cultures, beginning with a colorful one in Ecuador. Still a third book by Lewin is When the Rivers Go Home. This book describes, mainly through pictures, a special part of Brazil—the Pantanal. Part of the year it is flooded, with forest islands; the rest of the year it is dry, but with ponds interspersed. There is an especially rich variety of animals and plants here.

A Gift of Gracias by Julia Alvarez tells a legend similar to that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This story is set in the Dominican Republic, where a family is about to fail on their small farm, until the daughter has a dream of a beautiful lady who tells her to plant oranges. The orange trees develop quickly and produce a rich harvest. The image of Our Lady of Altagracia (thanks) appears on a blanket.

For Older Readers

Books for older readers include two by G. A. Henty: Out on the Pampas and The Treasure of the Incas. Ann Nolan Clark has a well-loved book, The Secret of the Andes, in which a boy learns about his family's past. The popular series The Royal Diaries includes Anacaona: Golden Flower, set in Haiti in 1490, when Spaniards invade. The Amethyst Ring, by Scott O'Dell, follows the journey of a Spaniard who travels with the conquistadors from Mayan country through Panama and eventually to Incan country. Madeleine L'Engle's Dragons in the Waters has a Venezuelan setting. Although I haven't read these longer books, they are all by authors I like and trust.

As usual, these suggestions just skim the surface. There is much rich history, ecology, and culture to experience through reading about Latin America and the Antarctic. 

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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