Tag Archives: geography

The Book of Marvels

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You may know that some homeschoolers have a bit of a mania for old books. In a lot of circles, older = better. I’m not of that mindset entirely. For one thing, a lot of old books are riddled with racism, sexism, and incorrect or outdated information. Others just aren’t that great and never really were. But every once in awhile, we find a gem.

The Complete Book of Marvels by Richard Halliburton is such a gem. I picked it up to possibly read bits of as part of our geography unit this spring and I have fallen in love with it a little bit. Halliburton was a well known name back in the 1930’s when he was writing and traveling constantly. However, he disappeared (and almost certainly died) in an accident in the Pacific Ocean just before the US entered World War II and his name was mostly forgotten. Now, this book, a compendium of his greatest two-volume work, is tragically out of print.

The book covers several dozen “wonders” all over the world. Halliburton gives background or history about the place and then launches into a sort of second person plural voice, guiding “us” by saying where we step, what we see, what smells waft past us, and how we got there. He has based his telling on his own experiences, of course. The wonders themselves range from places of great natural beauty like Victoria Falls to modern cities like New York to ancient ruins like the Great Wall of China and famous castles like Carcassone. Many of Halliburton’s choices are unexpected. I have to admit that even as a pretty well-versed traveler, a few were basically unknown to me.

It’s a snapshot of the world between the wars. He visits the Soviet Union, colonial Indochina, and even meets Ibn Saud on the outskirts of Mecca. We liked looking at the chapter about our own city, seeing the Mall with just a few scant museums, the patches of trees that are long gone in aerial photos, and the general sense of the city of eighty years ago.

It’s important to note that Halliburton was a man of his time. He assumes a white, Christian, American audience. Multiple echoes of subtle racism pop up throughout. For example, the Europeans of Pompeii are “just like us” but the daily life of the Aztecs was “savage.” Non-white groups often get labeled with wilder adjectives in Halliburton’s writing. It’s something to discuss if you’re attempting to be a culturally sensitive reader but except in a few places, it was manageable as long as we could discuss it and the quality of the book overall offset my problems with it. However, there’s one chapter where I nearly lost my taste for his work. Don’t read the chapter on Timbuctoo. I pre-read it aghast twice. It’s a pretty bizarre tale that involves him alternately trying to indulge and beat (yes, hit) two children who are supposedly slaves (I say supposedly because while I’m sure slavery continued in Timbuktu even after the French outlawed it, I’m not sure if these children were really slaves or not given the story). It’s a pretty ghastly tale, not so much because anything extraordinarily bad happens (beyond the extraordinary evil of slavery in the first place) but because of the complete offhandedness and supposed humor with which he tells it. While he meets with Ibn Saud and marvels at the wonders of India or Japan or other non-white cultures, Halliburton comes off as open-minded and trying his (somewhat limited old time southern American) best to understand and respect the cultures he encounters. But when he goes to the heart of Africa, it all goes out the window and he’s baldly racist.

Luckily, the focus is mostly on the wonders themselves and, in the case of the architectural wonders, the civilizations that built them long ago. What does it feel like to climb Mt. Vesuvius or fly over Mt. Everest or emerge through the doors into Reims Cathedral? What does Angkor Wat really look like? What gives the spray from Iguazu Falls feel like? These are the sorts of questions that dominate the book and are definitely without issue. In those places, the text doesn’t feel old or stilted or out of date at all. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read a chapter only to have the kids say with wonder, “Can we go there?” It’s because he makes the reader really want to see these places. The language has made wonderful dictation and copywork passages as well. He is a great writer with such vivid descriptions. I can easily see why he became a celebrity at one time.

I know that as classics go, Around the World in 80 Days is a common one to tackle with a geography study. We did read that as well recently. However, this book has been more fun in many ways. It covers more places. And because it’s mostly episodic, we have skipped our way through it a little bit, not reading absolutely everything. Since the book is out of print, if you’re in search, I would say $40 is a steal (that’s about what I paid), but it routinely costs more than double that so check your library. It joins the ranks of other great vintage books we’ve discovered through homeschooling like Grammarland and Builders of the Old World.

Amazing Africa Picture Books (and a few other resources)

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

 African Critters (Hardcover) ~ Robert B. Haas (Author) Cover Art

The Seven Natural Wonders of Africa by Mary and Michael Woods
(entire continent)
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
(entire continent)
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.

Folk Tales

A Story, a Story (Paperback) ~ Gail E. Haley (Author) Cover Art Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales (Paperback) ~ Nelson... Cover Art

A Story A Story by Gail E. Haley
(West Africa)
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
(entire continent)
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 (Hardcover) ~ James Haskins (Author) Cover Art Village That Vanished (Hardcover) ~ Ann Grifalconi (Author) and ... Cover Art Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (Picture Puffin Books) (Pape... Cover Art

African Beginnings by James Haskins
(entire continent)
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
(Malawi?)
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
(entire continent)
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 (Paperback) ~ Sylviane A. Diouf (Author) Cover Art The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela: A Tale from Africa (Hardcover) ~... Cover Art My Rows and Piles of Coins (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor... Cover Art My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me (Paperback) ~ Maya... Cover Art

Bintou’s Braids by Sylviane Diouf
(Senegal)
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
(Ethiopia)
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
(Tanzania)
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
(South Africa)
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.

Recent History

The Day Gogo Went to Vote (Paperback) ~ Elinor Sisulu (Author) Cover Art Seeds of Change: Wangari's Gift to the World (Hardcover) ~ Jen C... Cover Art Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Hardcover) ~ Chris Van Wyk... Cover Art

The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Sisulu
(South Africa)
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
(Kenya)
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
(South Africa)
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.

Summer Geography

I am the map master!

We signed up for a postcard exchange with other homeschoolers this summer.  So far we’ve gotten postcards from North Carolina, New Hampshire, Missouri, Florida and Saskatchewan.  So, using the giant printable maps resources at Owl and Mouse, I printed us up a big U.S. map.  While we were at it, I labeled us with a star.  (Isn’t that perfect that we live in the place that’s usually marked with a star on maps?  I wonder if they’ll grow up thinking that means “you are here” instead of “capital.”)  Then I had them color in the states they’ve actually visited.  Then we found all the places on the map.  Then, afterward, when I asked them if I could take their picture with the map before sticking it up in the basement stairwell (site of important, large educational things in our house), they decided it would be best to wrestle in the picture.  Oh well, I guess it’s summer.

That'll teach you not to mix up Vermont and New Hampshire!