Native Americans and Explorers — A Few Picture Book Reviews

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We have been “officially” doing unofficial kindergarten at home for a little over a month now. I’ve been teaching Raisin at home for much longer, of course, but I had to call it official at some point.1 I decided we would learn about American History this year, and I feel it’s definitely time to report on some of the wonderful books I’ve discovered in this year’s journey.

A Basic Intro to Native North Americans

We began with a week-long study of the Native Americans. This is a difficult subject in which to find “living literature” or even nonfiction that was geared toward very young children. North American Indians by artist Douglas Gorsline (first published 1978) was one we read. It was okay. It provided good information without overwhelming the young reader. It also was written so that a strong early reader could take over the reading.

Although it is somewhat dated in its approach, the illustrations were well done. Further, the focus on the different Indian groups provided some context for how the different tribes lived differently in various parts of the country. It also emphasized the complexity of pre-Columbian society by explaining how different tribes communicated through sign language. Still, I was not very satisfied with this book.

The First Americans by Jane Werner Watson (first published 1980) was similarly an okay book for introducing children to the various tribes, containing similar and somewhat dated information in how it was presented. My son did not like the pictures in this one, however, so we didn’t read all of the book together. I also cannot find a cover image for it, so apparently it’s no longer in print!

We did find one more book to celebrate Native Americans: Many Nations by Joseph Bruchac and lavishly illustrated by Robert Goetzl (published 2004). An ABC book, Many Nations celebrates Native Americans, native culture, and the beauty of the natural world by cycling through the alphabet. From “Anishinabe artists making birch bark bowls” to the Eagle and beyond, it is lovely and relevant. It reveals another side of Native American life, namely that some of the cultures have survived until today.

Although it seems that Native American culture is a topic that is covered in detail in various books that study each individual tribe, there seem to be few books for early readers celebrating the entire existence of Native American Indians. It is a gap that seems rather difficult to fill, as I want my young son to learn the basics this year but I know he is not old enough to comprehend the intricacies of the complicated society that was America before Columbus arrived. Nevertheless, he gained a general understanding of the various types of tribes throughout the country as we learned about the various types of homes they’d make. (See my Native American Homes study at Line upon Line Learning.)

Explorers to America

There seem to be a variety of ways of approaching explorers to America. So, although I’m not keen on focusing on the colonial aspects of American history, it is important that my young kindergartner get some type of overview of the various explorers who brought Europe and America together.

D’Aulaires Historical Biographies

We learned about Leif Erikson next. I have to say that I may be one of the most unusual homeschooling/classics reading/living books-loving moms out there for this reason: I really do not like D’Aulaire’s book about Leif Erikson (Leif the Lucky). And this is not just the case with Leif Erickson. The more of the other D’Aulaires historical books I read (Pocahontas, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln) the less I like them! I grew up loving the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, so I feel horrible about hating their historical books.

The pictures are scary looking and distorted, the text is far too long to keep a young child’s attention, and the facts and stories they tell are extraneous and somewhat boring at times. I even question the validity of some of the claims in the stories. My son did not want to keep reading them either: he was not a fan. As a result, I really did not have any good books about Leif Erikson and the Vikings at this time, other than the Maestro text (more on this in a moment).

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus, on the other hand, is a celebrity that is easy to read about. There are picture books, early readers, and chapter books about him, and my son loves him. This is odd since the majority of the books I chose to focus on with him are decidedly anti-Columbus. I have strong feelings that Columbus does not need to be deified, and even my little guy needed to know how horrible a person he was.

First came Stephen Krensky’s early reader Christopher Columbus. This was just what an early reader needs for nonfiction: easily accessible text, just enough information, and not too many pages. My son (who is already a strong reader for kindergarten!) even read this aloud to his little sister at one point (she is nine months old, by the way).

Then we read aloud Pedro’s Journal by Pam Conrad, a fictionalized middle-grade novel from the perspective of a young cabin boy who attended to Columbus on the voyage.

My son really liked this book because it seemed like a fun adventure. He loved the chapter when young Pedro sank the ship! He also inexplicably found Columbus and Pedro to both be rather nice “because they took some natives home to Pedro’s mom.” Ok, so he has a little bit of trouble understanding the complexities of this issue at age 5.

The book obviously shows Columbus as rather a paranoid and insensitive man. He liked him anyway, even though he realized that taking the natives from their homes was not a nice thing to do. At any rate, this read-aloud was a wonderful success! It formed the bulk of our week of studies. Raisin did not want to do any of the craft projects I found, but he did want to read more of our chapter book.

Because the book does present a somewhat unkind view of Columbus, I did not have qualms about reading it to my son. I imagine that the next time we read it or the next time we discuss Columbus, he’ll understand a little more that Columbus was not a nice person. We start at his level and go from there.

After we read Pedro’s Journal, I read the picture book Encounter by Jane Yolen and illustrated by David Shannon. This showed the arrival of “strangers” on an island, from the perspective of a dreaming young boy who forebodes danger for his people. It’s clear that the strangers are Columbus and his crew: the boy touches the sword and slices his hand, just as a native boy did in Pedro’s Journal.

The picture book has a sense of foreboding and does end with a dark message. The young boy has grown old and is pondering over his changed life after the arrival of the strangers. I thought it was a nice book to show the different perspectives of the natives from that of the ship’s crew. Raisin says he didn’t like it because it was “too sad.”

Other Explorers

After Columbus, we began learning about some other explorers, just a few.

In addition to these “living books” we’ve been reading, I also read The Discovery of the Americas by Betsey Maestro and illustrated by Giulio Maestro, the first book in a nonfiction picture book series about the history of America.

Exploration and Conquest is the second book, and we read portions of it to learn about a few more explorers and make an Explorers game.

The American Story series is fantastically written. The books currently in print only cover American history until 1815, but I believe that subsequent history books are in progress.

I’ll have to circle around and discuss these books again sometime. While I don’t believe we’ll be using all the books in the series (they are geared toward upper elementary readers), I plan on having them on hand for my own reference!

What wonderful children’s books (board books, picture books, early readers or chapter books) have you found to help you teach about early America?

  1. I am not legally required to track his schooling in my state until he is 7 years old.
Reviewed on October 9, 2012

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.

  • Just wanted to say I’m enjoying your posts, it’s great to see about all the great books out there for kids in all these subject areas. I have two kids (ages 6 and 4) and although I’m not homeschooling, I’m always on the lookout for quality books for them. It’s helpful to read your thoughts on each one. Keep up the good work!

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