We ended up having our Africa unit based mostly around picture books. However, in the end, I feel like I found a nice variety of resources. I still lament that there are other resources that don’t seem to exist. I can think of a lot of African figures whose lives could make great picture book biographies, for example! But alas. I’m not unhappy with what I found.
In addition to the resources I’m listing below, which don’t represent every book I read, just the best ones, I found the book Amazing Africa Projects You Can Build Yourself by Carla Mooney to be a perfect resource. The projects suggested are just okay. However, the text of the chapters that go with it is actually what turned out to be the best part. It gives a nice overview of everything you can imagine – geography, ancient and recent history, animals, houses, music, dance, art and a number of other topics. It’s all very readable and accessible. Honestly, it turned out to be the best survey of Africa for children that I found.
We also found some other things very useful. We’ve had on the Pandora Afro-pop station and have enjoyed grooving to some Miriam Makeba and Zap Mama, among others. We’ve found several good nature documentaries about African animals, which is probably no surprise. However, the best video resource I found was the show Africa’s Child, which is available if you have Discovery Streaming. Each episode is fifteen minutes long and follows a different child (usually a young teen) in a different African country. A boy in rural Cameroon talks about his love of the rainforest, a girl in Ethiopia talks about her church festival, a girl in Ghana vies to get on a TV youth talent show with her traditional drum and dance troupe. It’s really a neat little show and very current as it’s only a couple of years old.
Nature and Animals
The Seven Natural Wonders of Africa by Mary and Michael Woods
This is a nice long picture book with lots of good photos that gives a nice opening survey of the highlights of Africa’s geography. Each of the seven chapters covers the natural wonder it discusses from different angles, so there’s a lot of history as well as geology and biology in there as well.
African Critters by Michael Haas
This National Geographic book has an almost conversational narrative style. I liked the way it delved into different kinds of animals from all over Africa, instead of only focusing on the “big ones.” The book design is also inviting for kids to browse. There were a few books about African animals that we found, but this one was both comprehensive and engaging.
A Story A Story by Gail E. Haley
Sometimes I’m a sucker for an old Caldecott winner and a bunch of woodcuts. I do love woodcut style illustrations. No unit on Africa would be complete without reading at least on Anansi tale. We read this version of the classic tale where Anansi gives people the gift of stories.
Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales
This book has stories from all over Africa. The illustrations are done by various people in different styles. I like the variety of stories in this book. It’s a nice storybook to own in general.
Ancient History and Culture
African Beginnings by James Haskins
This is a great short introduction to African history before colonization which I’m very glad to have found. I think I found it right as some kind reader suggested it! It covers several civilizations from ancient times, such as Axum and Meroe to early modern, such as Kongo. Each civilization has lush illustrations and one or two pages of text. The final pages describe the slave trade and colonization in short.
The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi
I loved the detailed illustrations in this book. It’s a story from the Yao people, who live primarily in Malawi. The story shows how a village manages to escape slavers based on their ingenuity and faith in the spirits their tribe believes in. It’s not specifically a history book, but we used it as a gentle jumping off point to look at how slavery affected the entire African continent. One needs only to find Malawi, far from the Atlantic coast, to understand how much slavers took from Africa. The author has several other titles about Africa which I’ve seen suggested more often. We took them out of the library too, but I thought this one was especially beautiful.
Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove
I know I picked on this book a little while back. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s actually a beautiful book, with amazing illustrations. Each page shows a different African ethnic group and describes a tiny sliver of their traditions. The groups are in alphabetical order, with one for each letter of the alphabet. Mushroom and BalletBoy don’t tend to retain much from these sorts of books, but I think this one gives an idea of the vast diversity on the African continent.
Stories of Everyday Life
Bintou’s Braids by Sylviane Diouf
This simple story about a girl who wants braids like all her grown-up cousins is very sweet with lively illustrations. It’s quite short, but it gives a small peak into village life, food, and customs in a way that most kids can relate to. Don’t they all want to be like the grown-ups sometimes?
The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela by Cristina Kessler
This story is about a girl who is determined to become a beekeeper, despite being mocked by the men of the village for her ambitions. She has to be inventive and persistent. I’ll admit that I’m not in love with the illustrations, but the story is wonderful.
My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa Mollel
This was easily Mushroom and BalletBoy’s favorite of the stories we’ve read. It’s about a boy who saves up his money to buy a bicycle to help his family. He doesn’t save quite enough, but there’s a happy ending.
My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me by Maya Angelou
This book by the famous American poet is poetically written in first person and illustrated by bright photographs and bold typography that echoes the art that the narrator’s mother paints on her house. This book inspired the best activity in our house, as we painted an enormous mural in the Ndebele style shown in the book.
The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Sisulu
This is a lovely picture book about an older woman who is able, not only to vote for the first time after the end of Apartheid, but also to go out of her own home in freedom. It’s told from the point of view of her granddaughter and captures a sense of hope.
Seeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson
There are a lot of picture book biographies of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. They all look good, but I ended up getting this one, with bright, batik-like illustrations. That’s right, I chose by the illustrations! However, the text is well done too, and has the inspirational feel that you would expect about a woman who overcame that much adversity and planted that many trees.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
I’ve recently run into several picture book formats of longer adult memoirs and nonfiction and I think it’s a really neat trend. There are many picture book biographies of Mandela out there, but I liked this condensed “in his own words” version. The illustrations are simple but add a lot to the book.