Favorite Living Books about North America

I really enjoy sharing good books with you. It’s almost like introducing good friends. And the books that I want to tell you about today will give your child a great introduction to different regions of North America—north to south, east to west, and some in the middle.

Let’s start in the upper northwest, in Alaska.

The Great Serum Race by Debbie S. Miller

When a deadly outbreak of diphtheria hit Nome, Alaska, in 1925, the nearest antitoxin serum was far away in Anchorage. This is the story of how twenty teams of sled dogs braved blizzard conditions in a desperate relay race to save lives. Your child will learn about the indigenous people groups, the winter weather, and the cherished tradition of sled dog teams. I recommend it for grades 1–3. And remember, if you have older children, you can always ask them to read the book to their younger siblings.

Hey Canada by Vivien Bowers

Nine-year-old Alice takes a road trip across Canada with her Grandma and her cousin Cal. You can follow their journey—with its starts, stops, adventures, and mishaps—through every province and territory. The book is a collection of blog posts, tweets, photographs, and cartoon narrations. There is a map in the beginning that shows the route they take and an index in the back to help you find specific locations. Be aware that the book does contain a few evolutionary comments, but they can easily be edited while you’re reading aloud. Check your local library for this out-of-print title. I recommend it for grades 1–6.

Song of the Swallows by Leo Politi

All right, let’s come down the west coast to California and read about the Song of the Swallows. This story by Leo Politi is all about the famous yearly return of the swallows to the Mission San Juan Capistrano. It centers around young Juan and the old bell ringer at the Mission, who tells Juan the story. Juan then prepares his own small garden, hoping that a family of swallows will nest there when they return. The book includes a song about the swallows and is a wonderful introduction to California’s Latino heritage and Mission culture. I recommend it for grades 1–3.

Family Pictures by Carmen Lomas Garza

This bilingual book in Spanish and English is like looking through the author-artist’s family picture album. The illustrations are quite detailed, and the artist simply narrates what is happening in each picture; but as you look and listen closely, you learn about Mexican American culture. Perhaps most importantly, you learn about family love and caring across cultures. The book is simple enough for grades 1–3, but older children who are learning to read Spanish could practice reading the Spanish paragraph and learn a lot too.

If You’re Not from the Prairie by David Bouchard

Now let’s move to the middle of North America. As I was reading this poetic book the first time, and marveling at the exquisite pictures, I was thinking of the summers I spent in Nebraska at my grandparents’. “This is it,” I thought. “This is just like I remember it.” Then I got to the end and read the short notes about the author and illustrator. They’re both Canadian. And that’s when I formed a relation; I made a connection in my learning. The prairie doesn’t end at the border. It extends across the border and looks surprisingly similar in both Canada and the United States. That fact seems so obvious when I say it, but this book helped make it a living idea of my own. And for that reason, I recommend it for all ages.

Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling

As we move eastward, we come to the Mississippi River. Holling is a wonderful way to learn about the geography of that river. Minn the Turtle hatches at its source and travels all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way you meet different people and animals and even learn about the history of that part of the land. The book contains a few evolutionary comments that you can edit or use to start discussions. Detailed maps are given in the margins as well as sketches of different animals, transportation, and constructions. It’s a great mixture of nature, history, and geography. And so is the next book . . .

Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling

Also by Holling C. Holling, this story is about a Native American boy who makes a toy canoe and carves into the bottom these words: “Please put me back in water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.” His dream is that the canoe will travel across the Great Lakes and arrive at last at the sea. So the book follows the travels and adventures of the canoe, as it is found by different people along the way and helped on its journey. Be sure to check the back of the book for a map that traces Paddle-to-the-Sea across the Great Lakes. This book is shorter than Minn of the Mississippi, but I recommend both for all ages.

Surrounded by Sea by Gail Gibbons

And since we’ve arrived at the sea on the east coast, let me introduce Surrounded by Sea by Gail Gibbons. This simple book walks you through one year of life on a New England fishing island—from getting things ready in the spring, to welcoming tourists in the summer, to preparing for cold weather in the fall and winter. Your child will learn about different types of boats and be encouraged to consider what it might be like to live in a different place. I recommend it for grades 1–3.

Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds by Cynthia Rylant

Let’s finish our little tour with Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds by Cynthia Rylant. Appalachia is a cultural region that extends from southern New York down to northern Georgia, right along the Appalachian mountains. This book gently and poetically describes the people who live in that region—their hard work, their living conditions, crafts, customs, seasons, and cycles. The author-illustrator grew up there, and her love for that area is shown through the words and pictures of this beautiful book. It’s simple enough for younger children but would be enjoyed by all ages.

For those of you who live in America, as I do, let me throw in a bonus title. You’re most likely familiar with the song America the Beautiful. This book by the same name takes that poem by Katharine Lee Bates and mixes it with paintings by Neil Waldman. And each two-page illustration is identified in the back of the book, where it tells each region of the United States that is pictured. The book focuses on the first stanza of the song, but the final page contains the music score and all four stanzas. It’s a great way to summarize the vast diversity that covers this land.

And for all of you, if you want to show your children the vast diversity that covers the globe, be sure to check out my two all-time favorite living geography books, Material World and Hungry Planet both by photographer and world-traveler, Peter Menzel. 

If you would like a ready-to-go guide that mixes these books with simple map exercises for an enjoyable year of study, check out Visits to North America.