Favorite Living Books about South and Central America

Good living books are a great way to get a peek into other lands and other cultures. It doesn’t matter if the books are thick or thin, picture books or chapter books—as long as they are living. A living book presents ideas that you can relate to, ideas that touch your emotions and fire your imagination, ideas that make that country come alive in your mind.

Today I’d like to share with you eight living books that will give you a peek into South and Central America. Some are for younger children, some for the older children, and some are for the whole family.

Let’s start off with my two all-time favorite books for learning about countries all around the world: Material World and Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel. These books are for all ages and feature compelling photographs that show families, their homes, their possessions, and what they eat. You will find descriptions of those families’ days, pertinent facts about their countries, and notes about their personal hopes, struggles, and dreams. For a focus on South and Central America, you can get to know the families in Ecuador, Brazil, Guatemala, Argentina, and more.

I gave more details about these two wonderful books in a previous favorite books episode, the one on “Books about the Middle East.”

Now let’s dive into some favorite titles specifically about South and Central America.

Elena’s Story by Nancy Shaw 

This sweet story details a day in the life of a young girl in Guatemala. She divides her time between schoolwork and helping her mother. Her father is away, working on a plantation. Elena struggles with reading, but at the end of the day she is able to read a book to her little brother, and her mother points out Elena’s special role in their family. 

Hands of the Rain Forest: the Embera People of Panama by Rachel Crandell 

The Embera people are indigenous to Panama, and this book offers a personal look into their way of life. In beautiful photographs and simple text, it focuses on how children and adults use their hands to prepare their food, create unique art, harvest rain forest crops, make beautiful and sturdy baskets, carve out wooden canoes, work on the river, and build their houses. Currently, this book is out of print, so check your local library or look for a used copy. (Parent Advisory: This book contains some National Geographic style nudity.)

A Mango in the Hand: A Story Told through Proverbs by Antonio Sacre 

You’ve probably heard the proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Well, you can find similar proverbs in different countries—proverbs that carry the same meaning but have been tweaked to fit the culture there. This book interweaves several such proverbs into a story about a boy who is sent to pick some mangoes. Your younger children will glean great ideas from hearing how the boy encounters obstacles and overcomes them with his father’s encouragement. Your older children will enjoy hearing the culture-specific proverbs and trying to figure out what, if any, similar proverbs they have in their country.

Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown

If your children have ever been to a library, they will be captivated by the idea of a library coming to them. That’s the story of the Biblioburro—a special man and his two burros who journey over mountains and through valleys to bring books to children in rural Colombia. How far would you go to get a book? How far would you go to give a book? Those are just two of the powerful living ideas tucked into this simple narrative. As with most of the books I’m sharing today, you will find Spanish terms sprinkled throughout the story. Though you can usually figure them out quite easily from the context, check in the back of the books for helpful definitions and pronunciation guides. 

Not Just Tacos by Shirley Solis

There is a wonderful variety to Latin American food, and this cookbook is a delightful guide  into the world of authentic Latin American cuisine. The author grew up in Ecuador and has a heart to share her heritage and that of her many friends through their food. The beginning pages offer a conversational explanation of Latin American geography, customs, and key ingredients and spices. Then you’ll find 22 different countries featured, each with a brief introduction to the country followed by recipes from it. Our Visits To geography series says, “Few things transport you to a specific place on earth like the taste of that region’s traditional cuisine.” And Not Just Tacos is a great resource to transport you to South and Central America. Currently this cookbook-and-more is available in a Kindle edition.

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdayl

A Norwegian explorer noticed many similarities between the people of South America and the people who lived in the Polynesian islands. But how might the indigenous people in South America have traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to get to Polynesia? Mr. Heyerdayl had a theory, and in 1947 he and five other men set out to try it for themselves. The book is subtitled “Across the Pacific by Raft,” for that is just what they did. This is the story of how they formed their team, traveled to Peru, found the right kind of wood, built their raft, and sailed on it for more than 100 days across the ocean to successfully arrive in Polynesia. They named their raft Kon-Tiki. Photographs of their voyage are included. One parent advisory: There is a little sprinkling of strong language throughout the narrative, but no cursing. Read it aloud (and edit as you go) or assign it to your students in the upper grades as an independent read.

Do you have other books that you enjoy about South and Central America? I’d love to know about them. Leave a comment and let me hear about your favorites.

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