As I explained in an earlier post, my older son (age 5) and I are reading through books about most of the countries of the world.  In the last few months we’ve gotten through books about Peru, Columbia, Bolivia, and now Ecuador.  I gave him the option, not long ago, of stopping this and going back simply to reading through more general introductions to world geography, and reading separate books only about the really big, important countries.  He was quite adamant that we should continue reading about individual countries.  I’m glad, because I think this is really an excellent way to learn about geography and about the world generally.

I am already a kids’ books aficionado–not an expert, but I know more than the average bear.  Now I am getting to be something of an aficionado of kids’ geography books in particular.

A few months ago I started looking for reviews of series of children’s books about countries.  I couldn’t find anything.  So I thought my fellow homeschoolers, and maybe even some teachers and librarians, might be able to benefit from my amateur insights into various geography book series.  These remarks are based only on a few examples in each series.  But the various geography series I’ve encountered so far are consistently good or bad.  For what it’s worth, here goes.

Top choices

National Geographic Countries of the World (based on two selections)
Reading grade level: 4-8
Length: 60 pages, quite a few words per page; on the longer side, but not the longest
From what I’ve seen of them so far, I love these books.  They are well-written, which is rare among geography books.  They aren’t for early elementary students (unless yours is reading at an advanced level…) but they are also not especially challenging or “difficult” to read above that level.  They feature many excellent photographs, as you would expect from National Geographic.  The presence of not just one or two, but several maps of each country (physical, vegetation, historical, etc.) is a fantastic feature that really makes these books stand out.   They also, unlike so many other series, do not follow a cookie-cutter outline.  Finally, they are done completely professionally, with good editing, many features, and plenty of thought put into everything.  *****

True Books (Scholastic) (based on many selections)
Reading grade level:  2-4
Length: 40-50 pages, not many words per page; on the short side
True Books are a great series on all subjects, not just geography.  They are less demanding than the National Geographic books in terms of reading level and length, but in terms of writing quality they’re on a par.  They are not always a great pleasure to read, but they tend to make the most of the sort of material that elementary school curricula apparently require.  The only problem I have with these books is that they are short.  This makes them more readable, to be sure, but they do leave out quite a few salient facts.  There are also quite a few countries in this series, so if you were starting to read about the more important countries of the world, as we are, and you wanted to read just the True Books about the countries (I’d start with the continent books first, though), you wouldn’t go far wrong.  *****

Enchantment of the World (Children’s Press) (based on browsing many selections)
Reading grade level: 5-9
Length: 140+ pages
These are among the most advanced children’s geography books reviewed here and, as a series, also apparently the most complete.  (Frequently, they are the only books in my local library system about certain countries.)  My star rating below is based on reading a chapter and skimming of several volumes, so it is tentative.  For what it’s worth, Amazon reviewers tend to like them as well.  But my distinct impression is that these are well-written, well-researched, and thoughtful books that go into considerable depth, with plenty of coverage of core topics like physical geography, cultures, and history.  My ambition is to go through these systematically once we’ve gone through easier books like the True Books series–but not for a few more years, at least.  ***** (tentative)

Discovering South America (Mason Crest Publishers) (based on Chile)
Reading grade level: 5-9
Length: 60
Mason Crest also publishes similar series about other continents, under names like “Ask About Asia” and “Africa: Continent in the Balance.”  I can only guess that they’re similar to this series.  I skimmed one book, but what I saw, I liked.  The writing is readable, not “encyclopedic.”  There’s nothing really wrong with the book, it just lacks some extra features, such as multiple maps (only one here), especially attractive pictures, and other thoughtful touches that the five-star books have.  Definitely worth a look for more advanced elementary and middle school readers.  ****

Also-rans

Rookie Read-About (Scholastic) (based on many selections)
Reading grade level: K-2
Length: 30 pages, very few words per page, lots of pictures
This is for the younger set.  With this series, there’s good and there’s bad.  On the good side, the books feature lots and lots of nice, big pictures.  More space is devoted to pictures than to words.  On the bad side, the writing is generally uninspired.  I understand that the authors have to work with limited vocabulary, and low word count, but still.  Anyway, because they’re so short and you can toss them off in 10 minutes and get a broad, child-friendly introduction to something, they’re worth a look, if your student isn’t too old.  Just get them from the library, don’t buy them.  ***

Faces and Places (The Child’s World) (based on reading one and browsing another)
Reading grade level: 2-5
Length: 30 pages, moderate number of words per page, but lots of pictures
The writing in this series is OK–not inspired, but not as bad as in the “not recommended” books.  They are brief introductions, comparable in content and grade level to True Books.  There are many pictures, of a large size, so that is a strength.  There are quite a few books in the series.  We’ll read books from this series (they are easy to understand, but not too easy for H. right now) when there isn’t a True Book available on a country, which will be possible considering that there are at least 50 books in the series at present.  ***

…in Pictures (based only on Chile in Pictures)
Reading grade level: 5-9
Length: 75 pages, quite a few words per page, not so many pictures (!)
This series is around the same level as Enchantment of the World and the Mason Crest series.  In all it’s not nearly as bad as some, but it suffers from the common problems of somewhat weak writing (far from unreadable, though) and following a “check off the topics”-type outline.  It’s also quite misnamed.  At least the volume I have actually has relatively few pictures compared to many others in reviewed here, and I noticed that about one or two others in the series I saw at the library.  ***

Not recommended

Countries of the World (Gareth Stevens Publishing) (based only on Ecuador and glancing through another)
Reading grade level: 4-8
Length:  90 pages, moderate number of words per page; one of the longest
We actually read most of the Ecuador book in this series, and while we learned a lot, it ultimately bothered me quite a bit.  The writing is boring–typical of library geography books meant for book reports.  The worst aspect of the book is its organization.  It is organized by putting an “overview” in the first half of the book–which would be nice, if all and only the important information were in the overview.  But it’s not.  Things like “arts” and “food” are in the overview while more important topics like the Galapagos Islands, Guayaquil, and dollarization are in the “Closer Look” section.  The “Closer Look” section is basically a mini-encyclopedia; its topics are organized alphabetically, and not tied together.  This is lazy.  There’s only one map, and it isn’t very detailed.  (Well, there’s a reproducible outline map for students to copy and fill in, but that doesn’t count.)  On the plus side, the pictures are plentiful and pretty good, and the book does contain a fair bit of information.  **

Welcome to My Country (Gareth Stevens Publishing) (based only on Welcome to Colombia)
Reading grade level: 3-5
Length: 45 pages, not many words per page
Based on my perusal of this book this afternoon, I can’t recommend it.  It features the typical boring sort of writing of library geography books.  There are sections that are more or less stand-alone, not connected together, making it read like a dry encyclopedia article–obviously, fodder for fourth grade country reports.  **

A Visit to… (Heinemann Library) (based on A Visit to Brazil and two similar books about continents)
Reading grade level: 1-3
Length: 30 pages, very few words per page, lots of pictures
These could be worse.  The writing, as with others in this “not recommended” section, is pretty dull.  But there are some good pictures, and in these respects, they are similar to Rookie Read-About books.  But what bumps it down to two stars is that these books feature relatively pointless “geography book” topics like “homes,” “food,” “clothes,” etc.  Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not saying that such topics are entirely pointless, but filling up a book with them, instead of things that are truly consequential and distinctive about a country, is very annoying to me. **

First Reports (Compass Point Books) (based only on Bolivia)
Reading grade level: 2-4
Length: 45 pages, not many words per page, lots of pictures
The writing in this selection is decidedly subpar.  In the final section, students are informed, “Bolivia has a long and fascinating history.  It is a fun, safe, and interesting place to visit.”  It’s not all this vapid, but generally the writing is uninspired, boring, and in need of extensive rewriting.  The pictures are fine.  *

Series not yet reviewed

Highlights Top Secret Adventures — I’ve got one here, on Argentina, and it looks pretty good.  Not likely to end up in the “not recommended” section.

Lands, Peoples, & Cultures — I did skim a few of these once, and they actually looked good.  There are, strangely, three books about each country, covering the material and about at the same level that Enchantment of the World covers.  Not likely to end up in the “not recommended” section.

A to Z (Children’s Press) — just skimmed a few at the library, not terribly impressed.