Tag Archives: social studies


I have a love-hate relationship with children’s atlases.  They are useful for referencing of course, but all my imaginings of earnest children poring over this information with wide eyes of incredulity and wonder… have come to nought.  Still, I have some sort of fascination with maps of all sorts and just assumed I’d satisfy that idiosyncrasy with adult pictures, maps and images.

Until now. If you haven’t seen it yet, Maps is a phenomenal and useful and drastically interesting reference book by someone with a heart of whimsy.  Give it to a child on the beginning of a road trip and see what happens.  It’s large, detailed and delightful eye candy. It’s wonderful.  Because of their resounding success, the authors have also developed an activity companion book!


Pick of the Week: Somewhere In The World Right Now

Somewhere in the World Right Now by Stacey Schuett is a beautiful book that introduces the concept of time zones and geography and what’s happening at any given moment around the world. The art is superb. In fact, it’s one of those excellent books where it is almost obvious that the author had to be the illustrator as well… because the marriage between word and picture is so complete and so congruent. The book would be an excellent study for any child studying the world-at-large or time zones in particular. I also think it pairs nicely with the excellent On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World’s Weather as they both give an instant glance at the larger cultural/sociological picture of life. I sigh a happy sigh when these types of educational books are executed in a way that the educational attempts of it are not so orchestrated and obvious… but flow seamlessly and beautifully within the book. Well done indeed!


Loving Lessac

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the work of a wonderful author and illustrator—Frané Lessac.  Her style is deceptively childlike: at first you see her paintings and think Psssh! My 8 year old colors like that! I guess anyone can illustrate children’s books. Then you look a little closer or turn a few pages and realize that her folk art is absolutely filled with thoughtfulness and detail… color and feeling.  This is more than what most children can do— Lessac has a bright ability to make stories come alive with innovative attention to detail.  And every new book I see illustrated by her, I inevitably love.

She spent part of her life living on the Carribean island of Montserrat and this has influenced her work heavily.  The story My Little Island  was the first encounter I had with her and I was struck with how fitting her style is with summery, beachy, island themes, similar I guess to the way that Jan Brett really shines brightest in her Scandinavian themed books.  The flavors of island life practically jump from the pages in My Little Island.  And they do this as well with Drummer Boy of John John which is a fun story about the upcoming festival of Carnival featuring lots of foot stomping, hand clapping onomatopoeia.

The next time I stumbled across Frané was when I picked up On the Same Day in March at the thrift store.  What a gem! I really love LIVING social studies books and this one immediately went into my homeschooling basket for my 2nd grade and under crew. It examines different parts of the world at the exact same time of year.  It is so fun to see the differences in weather and lifestyle!

Next I found Monday on the Mississippi at the library and marveled at how beautifully the text and pictures complemented each other.  This book takes the reader from the headwaters all the way to the Gulf of Mexico… I immediately pegged it as a great companion to Minn of the Mississippi and any other studies of this river or rivers in general.

I really loved Lessac’s illustrations in Queen Esther Saves Her People by Rita Gelman also.  I think it can be a challenge to translate many Bible stories into children’s books while retaining the story element. But this one absolutely brings the fantastic story alive and wonderful to kids while remaining faithful to the story of Esther.

Lastly, I want to highlight the best World War I picture book I’ve seen so far: The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I.  How do you bring the horrors of war into a picture book without horrifying young children?  I think the answer to this is in the art of storytelling and the way the pictures fill in the blanks.  For example, while Patricia Polacco’s highly acclaimed Pink and Say is a moving story taking place during the Civil War, I removed it from our collection.  I just had an aversion the graphic depiction of blood even if it was couched in beautiful sentiment.  But the Donkey of Gallipoli is balanced beautifully.  There are war scenes to be sure and the story doesn’t avoid the topic of death.  Yet, the folk style of Lessac really helps to soften the harshness of what is being read and the lovely story really is one that all children will enjoy.  The ending leaves us thoughtful and hopeful… not scared or disturbed.  Highly recommended!

Frané Lessac is a wonderful artist whose style is a refreshing and quirky change on my bookshelf of classic artists.  There are many other books she’s collaborated on not listed here which I am eager to get my hands on… and I understand she has many more in the works so keep your eyes open for her vivid bursts of delightful art.


From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World

Every now and again, a really, really special biographical picture book comes along that makes me giddy.  By now, you know I love this genre of picture books best of all and I wanted to highlight one really excellent book that was just published last month: From the Good Mountain: How Gutenberg Changed the World.  What makes it great is the delicate balance it has mastered in a genre where so many others fall short– bringing the subject alive without weighing us down with facts and details.  See, some non-fiction picture books seem to be written as little more than textbooks with pictures.  Boo.  I appreciate the effort, but children’s books ought to contain stories first and foremost and if the author can’t manage to create a story out of his subject, he ought to exit the children’s book world.  That said, there are many fantastic living, story books out there.  I am so happy to add From the Good Mountain to the list.

The text is poetic while still staying informative and grounded.  It is rhythmic in a most satisfactory way.  James Rumford (the same author who brought us the wonderful Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs) wrote this book as a series of riddles: “What was made of rags and bones, soot and seeds? What wore a dark brown coat and was filled with gold? What took lead and tin and a mountain to make?” The pictures are superb; all the little characters from medieval Europe come alive with vibrant colors and details.  Such a delight to hold and read.

Perhaps best of all, is the fact that the author resisted any temptation to get into biased or spurious historical tales about the printing press and its relevance to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Church.  The book, even down to the informative footnotes, sticks to the aim of honoring this wonderful achievement with a clear and focused story.  Another excellent point about this book is that Rumford created a companion guide to go with it.  The guide offers even more details on the printing press machinery and times and would make for excellent “living history” reading for anyone studying the late Middle Ages.  Click to see images from inside the book on amazon’s site, especially on the hyperlink “Surprise Me” to give you an idea of what you can expect.


The Children of China

The Children of China is a beautifully unique book; I don’t suppose it could be considered a traditional picture book since there isn’t a central story per se. Rather it’s an account of an artist’s journey through remote regions of China, painting gloriously along the way. So each page features a beautiful piece of art and the opposite page is sort of a narrative about both what’s going on in the picture as well as memories of his personal experience growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. This would make an excellent, excellent supplement to any kind of unit study on China as it features many of the lesser known ethnic groups in China. This is also the type of book that makes for perfect “strewing“… and that’s what I did in my own family.  Like so many other books left alone to be ‘discovered’ this one found the rapt attention of a nine year old…

Some pieces of the book to delight you; Zhang’s art is stunning.  Click to enlarge the images:



The Arrival

The Arrival by Shaun Tan is in a class of its own. This is what is called a ‘graphic novel’ (not a comic book) and you’ll not find it in the picture book section. The difference between a graphic novel and a picture book is that the former is closer to a cinema experience than anything else. The author/illustrator has to focus especially on the continuity in between images to make the whole piece ‘flow’ really well. It would be in the young adults section at your library.

I spent the better part of an hour reading this book. Reading might be the wrong word– let’s say feasting. There are no words at all; it is a picture journey that makes it accessible from the very, very young all the way through adulthood. Truly a book for all ages. This artwork is stunning.
The story is about an immigrant who is making his way in a new world and its told in the setting of fantastical, surreal creatures, buildings, foods and skylines. Seems there’s a lot of meaty symbolism in there too… the shadow of a dragon’s tail over the city could mean so many different kinds of physical, political, or spiritual threats. You get a haunting and satisfying feeling that this experience is what true immigrants must’ve felt like back in the day when everything was foreign to them.
Shaun Tan grew up as a half Chinese man in Western Australia and he worked on this book for four years, gathering anecdotes from immigrants, doing research and of course the laborious artwork. His website is an interesting place in and of itself… turns out he also worked as a conceptual designer on the movie WALL-E. You know, I’m not generally a big fan of surreal art; Salvador Dali never did much for me, but Tan’s work on this particular book really makes me want to seek out his other work for a taste of more…

It occurred to me that photo albums are really just another kind of picture book that everybody makes and reads, a series of chronological images illustrating the story of someone’s life. They work by inspiring memory and urging us to fill in the silent gaps, animating them with the addition of our own storyline. -Shaun Tan


I’m not sure when I became the consultant for friends who’d ask “Do you have any recommendations for ____” but honestly, it’s feeding my ego: this pretended children’s librarian authority. As it were, Lindsay is doing “origami week” with her little ones and asked if I had any books to recommend that reflected Japanese culture. Here are my picks:

Crow Boy by Taro Yashima is the first that comes to mind. It’s a super tale about a boy being different… but valuable. Japanese culture is written all over this book. We’ve used this book as a spine to build an entire Japanese unit on once.
Right after that, I thought of Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells. Not only does this actually show the delights of origami, it’s a sweet story about grandparents and a grandchild staying connected, no matter the countries (or states, in Lindsay’s case) between them.
Then there’s the classic Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say. It’s a fascinating and beautiful story of the plight of an immigrant and would be appropriate for older children as well as younger. Allen Say has a number of other beautiful books relating to Japanese culture as well.
Little Oh by Laura Krauss Melmed might be a perfect fit too. In this one, an origami doll comes to life and goes through all sorts of adventures before parental love wins. I also happen to love the illustrator Jim LaMarche who has done art in many other books I adore.
One on my shelf is The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson. A tale of cleverness, compassion and love. And it shows traditional Japanese culture on every page.
Then, I saw this book on Amazon.com, Fold Me a Poem by Kristine George. I’ve not had a chance to review it yet, but it looks absolutely lovely and perfect for a week of origami or Japanese culture study…
Of course I wouldn’t let this opportunity to go by without also putting in a plug for the wonderful, essential Children Just Like Me book. Anybody who does any kind of social studies work with children ought to have a copy. My children love to compare and contrast their own lives to those of children all over the world and this book makes that information very visual and accessible to them.

So there’s that. There are many more books based in Japan out there, but these are the main ones I know of that are great books, lovely and worthwhile… which after-all should be exactly what we strive for now, shouldn’t it?