The Children's Book Compass

Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491

Posted on: January 22, 2010

Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles C. Mann.  (2009).  Atheneum.  117 pages.  Grades 5 and up.  Nonfiction.

Do you know about the Mound Builders who built huge earthen structures that were bigger than Egypt’s Great Pyramid?  Theses people settled along the Mississippi River over 900 years ago.  Their town, Cahokia once stood near the present-day St. Louis.  It was home to more than 15,000 people.

This book is packed with fascinating facts and discoveries about the history of native people in North and South America before the arrival of Columbus.  I first picked this book up to give it a short perusal; however I was quickly captivated and read it carefully.  Mann writes with a clear voice and has organized his information in a most readable fashion with the answers to three questions:

  • How Old Was the “New World?’
  • Why Did Europe Succeed?
  • Were the Americas Really a Wilderness?

The answers to these questions are startling.  For example, the ancient natives of Mexico were genetic engineers who invented maize, or corn, over 6000 years ago.

The book is elegantly crafted with full-colored photographs, maps, archival paintings, sidebars, and detailed illustrations.  The narrative is enriched by the glossary, a list of resources for further reading and exploration of websites.  In addition there is a complete list of credits for photos and illustrations as well as an index.

This book can be shared in the classroom in a variety of ways.  First, read excerpts aloud to capture students’ interest.  Second, use the book to augment Social Studies texts that give brief coverage to the history of the Americas before 1492.  Third, the book can be utilized as a mentor text.  Guide students who are writing reports to consider the structure of the book with questions that provide an organizational framework for the in-depth information.  The book is an excellent example of how to use inquiry to discover new information.  Fourth, show students how text features in the book assist the reader in navigating through the text.

Before Columbus demonstrates one reason why we read – to learn and discover!

Connecting Books:

  • The Life and Times of Corn by Charles Micucci.  (2009). Houghton Mifflin.  32 pages.  Grades 2 – 6.  Nonfiction.

A comprehensive look at the history of corn, how it grows and is harvested and how it used in more products than any other grain.

  • Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving.  by  Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Greg Shed.  (2007). Voyager Books.  32 pages.  Grades 2-6.  Nonfiction.

A contrast with the information about Squanto offered in the Mann book.  The illustrations enhance the text. .


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Pointing the Direction to New Books for Children and Teens

Marilyn Carpenter, PhD.

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