What are the best books about countries for children?

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.  ****


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.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

9 Responses to "What are the best books about countries for children?"
  1. Reply jengod December 12, 2011 02:25 am

    btw, did I ever tell you the WTM ladies recommend Mapping the World WITH ART over Mapping the World BY HEART? Just FYI.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 12, 2011 14:41 pm

      I don’t think so–very interesting!

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 12, 2011 15:09 pm

      Watched a video on the Mapping the World with Art site. It’s neat, but ultimately, I have the same reaction to it that I have to a lot of other educational projects: this teaches many things and might be useful for various purposes, but what it doesn’t teach very much of is geography. The map she demonstrates in this video is not especially accurate or detailed. I see a child coming away from it with, in order of effectiveness, (1) a better ability to draw with pencil and pen, (2) a better ability to follow art instructions, (3) a better ability to make maps, and finally (4) an acquaintance with (writing) the terms Mesopotamia, Iran, Turkey, Zagros Mountains, Babylon, Euphrates River, Tigris River, Baghdad, Persian Gulf, Ninevah, and Mosul.

      For purposes of geography, only (4) matters. The time spent learning (1) and (2) for geography might (for all I know) better be spent learning art with a “head on approach,” and is a waste of time for purposes of learning geography. The time spent on learning (3) according to the video’s instructions is definitely wasted, in my opinion, because it’s much more instructive to either copy or trace a map. (So far, I’m partial to tracing.) There’s very little in the way of accurate information conveyed in following someone else’s very rough hand-drawn map. Much more could be learned about the actual shapes of things by copying or tracing a real map (which could be a simplified map). As to (4), one could just as well take a blank map and add the labels on–the typical sort of geography activity we all did in school, no doubt.

      Now compare all this to what we do when studying a country. Right now we’re reading another book on Columbia, the National Geography “Countries of the World” book. This has four (count ’em) detailed maps. When we encounter any place name in the text, we look for it on the map. (And if it seems especially interesting, we’ll search online for a video or picture to go with it.) When we get to the map itself, we laboriously read every single piece of text on it, and frequently discuss it. I wouldn’t expect this to hold every child’s attention, but it does H.’s. In short, we treat a map as a “text” and we really try to understand and articulate the information it contains. Doing so, especially for four different maps, all by itself gives more information than drawing a single rough map. Of course, he won’t remember all that information, but he’ll remember the highlights, and much of the rest will become “background knowledge” for us (for me too!). Now, in addition, we read the text, which is about 50 pages, largish page size and medium-sized text and lots of pictures–in short, substantial, not something you can easily toss off, especially if you read fairly slowly and deeply as we do. We really study the books.

      H. has been very motivated to keep this up, too. We’ve tried map-making, but he’s no more excited about that than reading books. I’ve also offered to go more quickly through, skipping the smaller countries and reading longer books only about the big countries like Brazil, and he insisted several times that he wants to read about all of them. This is partly because he’s a bit of a perfectionist type (like me) but also, I’m convinced, because he is genuinely interested, and because we’ve gotten into the area, reading things like “the Andes extend all the way up into Venezuela” holds interest and significance for us, as they wouldn’t for someone who only read one book about South America, for a book report, because we have read lots about the animals, people, volcanos, etc., of the Andes. It’s like learning more about a friend.

      Bottom line: while we might not spend that much more time on geography than someone using Mapping the World with Art on CD, or other project methods, we will end up understanding the world MUCH more deeply.

  2. Reply rachel May 30, 2012 11:03 am

    I am looking into writing my own series of geography books for kids, however in a more “story telling” way rather then a facts way. Of course, I want it to be educational and to cover the facts at the same time. You mention some of the books you didn’t like spoke about topics such as “home” “food” and “clothes” which you didnt think were so important. What type of topics would you be interested/think are important in such books? Also, just out of curiosity, would you be interested in books about countries being written in a “story telling manner” compared to the average fact book? Any suggestions would be appreciated!

    • Reply Larry Sanger May 30, 2012 22:34 pm

      Rachel, that sounds great. I like the idea of “story telling” about geography. It depends, however, on what you want to tell the story of. For me, what I want my kids to understand is what makes each country unique. The food and clothes, well, OK–to some extent. But to focus on that to the exclusion particularly of religion, government, history, and national culture is to focus on part of the surface (indeed, a small part of national culture) and ignore the consequential.

      I can see two different kinds of “story books.” One kind of story book would be like The Story of the World. It would introduce the facts as parts of stories. National history lends itself to this; but other sorts of “stories” might involve a tour of government buildings (and what they supposedly do there–and what they really do there); how the country came to have the language(s), ethnicity/ies, and religion(s) it has (these lend themselves to historical treatment); and national culture might be explained through vignettes, especially from a child’s-eye point of view. A nice thing to do would be to introduce the physical geography of a country by following the flight of bird through the country, visiting the natural sights and describing the main bioregions. (This can often be dry when simply fact-stating, but if it were told with rich descriptive detail in narrative form, it could be made comparatively exciting.)

      Another kind of “story book,” not as much to my liking, would focus only on stories about children in the country, perhaps in different historical or geographical settings. To my mind this would risk getting old, as the author strains to make the children of the story anything other than excuses to explain the main event–a bit of history or nature writing. Even worse are the geography story books that follow just one type of child from a country through his or her quite idiosyncratic routine, which doesn’t say much about the country as a whole, and in other respects simply repeats platitudes, insofar as the lives of children around the world do bear substantial similarity to each other (see “Children Just Like Me”–fantastic book).

      I guess there might be another kind of “story book” that would not even attempt to make stories out of things that are not stories at all, but instead simply use the narrative structures and sensibilities in describing physical geography, language/culture/religion, etc. I might be most inclined to go this route.

      What’s most important in a geography book? Well, what is most important if we are to understand a country? There is no simple answer to this question, because a country is a complex, enormous thing. Anyway, I’d say: history, written in a way that allows the reader to understand how the country has become as it is today, i.e., with a focus on explanation and not just listing off events. Then I’d say language, ethnic groups, and national character–these are some of the most dominant, consequential facts about our identity. I think descriptions of the big cities and main landmarks and areas are important too. I actually think that the social aspects could be elegantly intermixed to make a readable, child-accessible sort of story. If you tell the story of how different people moved and conquered here and there, you’re telling history, but then you simply add details about their language and culture. This is sort of how “In the Land of the Jaguar” is written, but frankly we’ve found it rather disjointed, jumbled together, though otherwise the writing is good.

      Anyway, you asked!

      Good luck!

  3. Reply April October 22, 2012 10:15 am

    Thank you for this extremely informative review! I have been looking for a series of books of this nature. The National Geographic series you recommended seemed promising, but I was disappointed to discover that it only seems to cover about 30 countries (I could be mistaken, but there doesn’t seem to be an official list). I was wondering if you have looked at the Marshall Cavendish Cultures of the World series? They seem to be numerous at my local library, and they cover many many countries. Thanks again.

    • Reply Larry Sanger October 22, 2012 10:46 am

      I think we’ve read one of those “Discovering Cultures” Marshall Cavendish books, but I couldn’t tell you which and I couldn’t give you a review…sorry. Definitely the reviews above are not exhaustive.

  4. Reply Casey McCann February 9, 2013 09:45 am

    Thanks for this informative post! This is just what I was looking for. Your recommendations are where I will start my book search.

  5. Reply Sara June 12, 2013 13:59 pm

    Thank you for review. The books you recommended are great! Every summer my children and I learn about a new country each week. We have pretend passports,try to make one of their dishes and learn whatever we can about them. Now if only I could find a really good map…

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