Africa Unit Planning Frustrations

I’m in the midst of doing the planning for our Africa unit, which will last us for January and February.  In case you don’t know, we’re headed for a trip to southern Africa for most of March, so this is in educational preparation.  We’ll ditch our U.S. history studies for that time and pick them back up again once we’ve recovered in April.

I’ve found some wonderful books, especially some wonderful picture books.  The lists here and here were both very helpful to me.  Hooray for other homeschool bloggers sharing good information!  I’ll post up all the lovely children’s books we’re planning to use sometime in the next few weeks.  I even managed to find a nice projects book.

Mostly though, I’m still in the frustrations period.  Too many of the books I’m finding are like the one you see there, Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions A to Z.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a lovely book and one we’ll definitely read.  It’s a Caldecott winner, in fact.  And the information in it, not to mention the illustrations, are wonderful.

But…  But…  But…

When we start American history, we can use something similar.  Something like Lynne Cheney’s America: A Primer.  But then we can move to that and read lots other books – biographies, history books, folk tales, fiction stories in picture book and chapter book form.  Or when we start studying animals, we could begin by reading Bert Kitchen’s crisp and lovely Animal Alphabet.  But from there, we would move to big animal encyclopedias and animal stories and beautiful photo books about animals.

But with Africa, there’s nowhere to go in many cases.  When all the library has about Africa is books like Ashanti to Zulu, Count Your Way Through Kenya and a few Enchantment of the World books, then it’s crushingly limited.  And it makes the efforts in a fine book like Ashanti to Zulu feel less like the beginning of a path and more like a dead end filled with random, untethered facts.

Here’s what I have found.  There are African folktales enough.  There are African animals and biomes books enough.  There are some African picture books, though there should be more.  There are a scant few chapter books about Africa but not enough for a decent selection.  There are almost no decent books about African history and culture and almost no biographies of use either.  And there are no big, fat, overall geography books that are worth the time.  The few I found were outdated or dull or outdated and dull.

I’m so used to working off a spine for a unit, but this unit can have no spine.  There isn’t one worth using.


9 thoughts on “Africa Unit Planning Frustrations

  1. I hear you. Here are some of the things I’ve used. I don’t really “do” animal books. I find most books about (sharp intake of breath and dramatic pause) “Africa” tend to irritate me.
    For a picture book history, I have used “African Beginnings” by James Haskins and Kathleen Benson, and “Ancient Africa” (Part of the Modern Rhymes About Ancient Times series) by Susan Altman and Susan Lechner for historical information (both I bought used as they appeared to be OOP). These are all on ancient civilizations and in brief format. Maybe these are spine-like. There is also “Africa is Not a Country,” which gives an overview of children’s lives in several countries (including modern, urban life). My library also has tons of the hardback books about different countries, including some on kids in that country. I think Lerners publishes a lot of these.
    I recommend as a read-aloud the Anna Hibiscus books. Their author, Atinuke, who is from Nigeria, has also started a series with a boy in it. Alexander McCall Smith has some books about a detective called Akimbo. (His books tend to be set in Botswana but I’m not sure about this one.) These are chapter books. For picture books, the Elizabeti books by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen are quite cute, set in a generic East African location, modeled after her time in Tanzania. I love anything by Tololwa Mollel. The Feelings’ black and white alphabet books are classics in the old-school African education vein (East African), and A Is for Africa by Ifeoma Onyefulu is a West African version. The Gift of the Sun is a cute book, set in S. Africa, and Baba Wague Diakite has written some folktale books, and his daughter Penda Diakite wrote “I Lost My Tooth In Africa.” Niki Daly has written several others set there; the Jamila books are darling. “The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela” sounds interesting too, but I haven’t read it. I love “One Child, One Seed,” a counting/picture book in South Africa.
    The book “Tales from Africa” (Oxford Myths and Legends series) by Kathleen Arnott is used by one of those mythology competitions for the African myths section, so I bought a copy. “Misoso” (OOP), retold by Verda Aardema is another option, with pictures. There is a book of West African folk tales on Librivox ( ). There is a Scholastic DVD called “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears” (ISBN 043972533X) narrated by James Earl Jones with several of the folktale books animated.
    I supplement with the several picture books about Wangari Maathai. “Planting the Trees of Kenya” is the most “meaty” of them.
    My library has several of the Families of the World DVDs, including one on Ghana, Kenya, and also Egypt. “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa” is kind of interesting, although aimed at an adult audience (nothing scandalous, just potentially long winded!) but interesting “on location” shots of the relics of ancient African civilizations.

  2. If you get into human origins at all, the website from the Institute of Human Origins is good, and has a lot of content that would appeal to 7-year-olds. They focus on both south and east Africa (but just human evolution and how we study it, so not that helpful for later history and culture). I enjoyed the southern African (Great Zimbabwe and Swahili trade routes) episode of Lost Kingdoms of Africa mentioned above, but I’m not sure how well it would hold younger kids’ attention.

    I have yet to find a really good bedside-reading-type adult book or introductory college textbook on later African prehistory/early history south of the Sahara, so I’m not surprised the kids’ selection is small. If you find anything great for kids or adults, please mention it!

  3. I was also going to recommend Africa is Not a Country which won’t really solve your no spine problem but is a great book. I liked that it emphasizes the diversity of modern Africa.

  4. What about they poured fire from the sky? I don’t remember how old your kids are so it may be too much, but its a biography from three of Africa’s “lost boys”, Its a fantastic read and a good starting point for conversations about the turmoil and what its like to grow up in war torn africa.

  5. Thanks, guys! Many good suggestions – some I’d already found and others I hadn’t yet! And what a great resource that Africa Access Review is and I’d never seen it! I actually have a nice stack of 20+ books now from the library. I’m still just disappointed at the lack of scope and sequence to them though. Things like Africa is Not a Country *are* great, but when all the books are in that vein or are a few storybooks and myths, and that’s all there is… well… it’s sad to me. There should be more. What we took from the library was pretty much everything the library had that I found to be appropriate or with some merit for elementary age kids, and we have an incredibly well stocked library. It feels a bit paltry.

    We’re huge Anna Hibiscus fans here though! And we’re reading the Akimbo books now too. So… there are good things. And some of the picture books are lovely. African Beginnings looks especially good. I just want more. More!

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