Kids Corner: Learning about Africa through Picture Books

Somehow, in our “school at home” this summer, we missed reading any interesting picture books about Europe. We did an activity together and learned about the geography and countries via an atlas and a puzzle, but we didn’t read picture books about it. Do you have any suggestions for fiction or interesting nonfiction about Europe? Raisin has decided that Italy is his favorite country because it’s shaped like a boot.

On the other hand, we moved on to Africa. Our study focused on learning the basic geography of the continent as well as general habitats (i.e., dry desert, Savannahs, and rain forests) and the animals in each habitat. Raisin is well into early readers these days (more about his favorite fiction in the future) and we enjoyed finding a few nonfiction early readers that he enjoyed about Africa.

The Sahara: The World’s Largest Desert by Jil Fine is a good example of nonfiction for an early reader. I found a number of great books about deserts and savannahs, but in general, they had far too much text for a youngster to be able to sit through. This book, which features photographs, provided a nice background for kids about how the Sahara desert is unique in the world for its sheer scope and its extreme weather.

Oh Why Oh Why Are Deserts Dry? by Tish Rabe is a “Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot about That!” book, which means it told in (slightly irritating) rhyme and yet still manages to contain valuable information about a nonfiction subject. I like the approach of this series because it is truly nonfiction (the cat is simply explaining how things work) but it’s written like a fun adventure with a familiar friend: The Cat in the Hat. Although this particular volume was not specific to Africa, it was still a valuable book to read in context of the deserts of Africa. It addressed how people live in the deserts of the world and how animals and plants survived on very little water. It also introduced concepts such as a mirage and oasis in the desert.

I searched for early reader nonfiction about the African savannah and the African rain forests without a lot of success, but I did find some fun fictional stories, with animals at the center, that helped provide a context for African wildlife in context. Jan Brett is a genius of children’s books, due to both her illustrations and her original stories.

Some of you may claim this story is not original: after all, Three Little Dassies is a retelling of the “Three Little Pigs” tale. However, I feel that only Jan Brett is able to retell a familiar story like that in a completely new setting and convey new (factual!) information to the young reader. Set in the Namib desert, Jan Brett’s story takes three dassie sisters (truly adorable creatures) and place them in a setting at the bottom of an eagle-inhabited mountain. The house of grasses doesn’t stand up to the eagle, nor does the house of branches. But the rock house is successful in protecting the sisters! The story ends with an explanation of how dassies in Namibia live in rock houses to protect themselves from the eagles. I loved how she made the way things really are into a folk story, much like Rudyard Kipling does in his Just So Stories! The art is truly fantastic, as only Jan Brett can do: the textiles on the anthropomorphic dassies follows traditional Namibian patterns, and the hats and dress styles fit modern-day dress of the local inhabitants as well.

Likewise, Jan Brett’s illustrated version of a Botswana tradition, Honey — Honey — Lion! lavishly gives credit to all the animals of the African savannah. The entire bush is alive with the tale of what happens when the badger does not share his honey with honeyguide bird. My son loved the story, which follows the same kind of rhythm as that of a “bear hunt” chant, and I personally loved the illustrated animals of the savannah, from the warthog to the giraffe and lion. Gorgeous!

Those two African books by Jan Brett have sent me on a hunt to read Jan Brett’s entire backlist. Her illustrations are so gorgeously executed, and I love how I leave each of her stories having glimpsed an otherwise unfamiliar tradition or setting of the world. What Jan Brett book do you enjoy the most?

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. My daughters and I haven’t read the Jan Brett books set in Africa, but we love “The Hat” and “The Mitten” and several others I can’t remember that all seem to be set in a Scandinavian setting of some kind. Her illustrations are so gorgeous! I also love her art and retelling of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, it is beautiful and fun.

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