Picture-Perfect Geography

by Anastasia Suen

When I taught fifth grade in the early 1980s, we always began our year in social studies with a geography unit. For two weeks, we talked about landforms and bodies of water. The students cut, painted, and glued cardboard to make physical relief maps. Then we moved on to history, leaving geography behind, or so I thought. It wasn’t until last year when I wrote two geography books (one about bodies of water and another about historic U.S. routes) that I realized that my fifth-graders and I had actually been talking about geography the entire year.


What changed my mind? As background research for the historic U.S. routes book, I looked up the National Geography Standards (see sidebar on p.46). Twenty years later, I now see that geography isn’t just maps, it’s how people move on those maps. I had always thought of human movement about the globe as history, but landforms and water have influenced how we could move from place to place, making it geography as well. Studying landforms and bodies of water is physical science, but studying how people move on land and water is social studies. Like the middle of a Venn diagram, geography is where physical science and social studies overlap.


Picture books are an excellent way to explore both physical geography and cultures. So much information can be conveyed through art, whether illustration or photography. With the addition of nonfiction elements, such as diagrams, charts, and graphs, even more information can be incorporated. Because we cannot take our students to visit all the places we are studying, visual literacy is a vital part of any study of geography.

Lower-Elementary Titles


Caseley, Judith. On the Town: A Community Adventure. 2002. 32p. Greenwillow, $15.95 (0-06-029584-8).

K–Gr. 2. Charlie’s homework is to study his community, so he visits place after place with his mother and makes notes in his notebook. This idea can be used as the basis for a mapmaking project when studying community helpers.


Cuyler, Margery. From Here to There. Illus. by Yu Cha Pak. 1999. 32p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-3191-X).

Gr. 1–3. As she writes her return address on an envelope, Maria Mendoza tells the reader her name, address, city, county, state, country, continent, hemisphere, planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe. This book can be used to combine letter-writing with a geography lesson.


Fanelli, Sara. My Map Book. 1995. 32p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (0-06-026455-1).

K–Gr. 3. There is very little text in this colorful book of maps. Each spread features a new map about a different concept, including a “Map of My Day” and a “Map of My Tummy.” The maps look as if they were drawn by a child, so that children themselves could easily imitate them and create their own maps.


Hartman, Gail. As the Crow Flies: A First Book of Maps. Illus. by Harvey Stevenson. 1991. 32p. Aladdin, paper, $6.99 (0-689-71762-8).

Gr. 1–3. Follow five animals as they travel by land and air and see a map of what they see. The concluding map from the moon’s perspective shows the entire region where the animals have traveled, giving readers the big picture. Use this book to show why different maps are created. Hartman’s As the Roadrunner Runs (Bradbury, 1994) provides a Southwest-inspired exploration of mapping.


Hollyer, Beatrice. Wake Up, World! A Day in the Life of Children around the World. 1999. 48p. Holt, $16.95

Gr. 1–4. From Russia to Brazil to Ghana, a photographer follows eight children from around the world on a typical school day. Published in association with Oxfam, the book begins with a map of the world showing the children’s homes and can end with students writing about their own school days from morning until night.


Leedy, Loreen. Blast Off to Earth! A Look at Geography. 1992. 32p. Holiday, $17.95 (0-8234-0973-2); paper, $6.95 (0-8234-1409-4).

K–Gr. 2. Aliens fly to Earth and learn facts about the five oceans and seven continents. The continent maps show the various ecosystems found there. After sharing this book, children can make their own “alien visitors book” with maps and geographic facts about their neighborhoods.


Rockwell, Anne. Our Earth. 1998. 24p. Harcourt/Silver Whistle, $13 (0-15-201679-1); paper, $6 (0-15-202383-6).

K–Gr. 2. Simple sentences explain the formation of landforms and bodies of water. Several ecosystems are also defined. In addition to a geography study, this book could be used for an Earth Day unit or as an introduction to a discussion of habitats.


Schuett, Stacey. Somewhere in the World Right Now. 1995. 32p. Dragonfly, paper, $6.99 (0-679-88549-8).

K–Gr. 3. Time zones introduce geography in this narrative about what can happen at a single moment around the globe. Paintings of people and animals are laid over maps showing where they live. The sun rises and sets as the reader travels around the globe visiting different ecosystems and habitats. As children read this book, invite them to use map clues to find each picture location on the globe.


Singer, Marilyn. Nine O’Clock Lullaby. Illus. by Frané Lessac. 1991. 32p. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-443319-6).

K–Gr. 3. Hour by hour this book travels from night in Puerto Rico around the globe and back again. The time is shown with a clock, making this book a natural for a unit on telling time. Also see Singer and Lessac’s On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World’s Weather (HarperCollins, 2000), a poetic exploration of latitude and weather.


Sweeney, Joan. Me on the Map. Illus. by Annette Cable. 1996. 32p. Dragonfly, paper, $6.99 (0-517-88557-3).

K–Gr. 2. Starting with “me,” a girl maps her room, her house, her town, her state, her country, and the Earth, and then comes back again, map by map, to “me.” For classroom study, have students make a classroom map and then compare it to the maps in the book.

Upper-Elementary Titles


Jenkins, Steve. Hottest, Coldest, Highest, Deepest. 1998. 32p. Houghton, $16 (0-395-89999-0); paper, $5.95 (0-618-49488-X).

Gr. 2–5. Go to extremes with statistics as you discover the hottest, coldest, highest, and deepest natural wonders on Earth. Map insets on every page extend the text by locating the feature on a political and a world map. Diagrams also show the natural wonder in comparison with like items for scale. The art is done in cut-paper collage, so send your students to the Web to find photographs of the real thing.


Johnson, Sylvia A. Mapping the World. 1999. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16.95

Gr. 3–6. From a clay tablet found in Babylonia (modern
Iraq) to the Landsat photographs, the history of mapmaking is chronicled here. Full-color photographs of histosric maps show how our view of the world has changed over the years. Making a three-dimensional globe from flat paper after reading this book will illustrate how difficult a cartographer’s job is.


Kindersley, Barnabas, and Anabel Kindersley. Children Just Like Me. 1995. 80p. DK, $19.99 (0-7894-0201-7).

Gr. 2–6. The Kindersleys traveled the globe to create this book for the fiftieth anniversary of UNICEF. Photos show a slice of children’s everyday lives, including their homes and schools and the geographical features of where they live. This book could inspire an e-mail and neighborhood photograph exchange with a school in a different climate region of the U.S.


Knowlton, Jack. Maps and Globes. Illus. by Harriett Barton. 1985. 48p. HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-446049-5).

Gr. 2–5. The story of maps, from the era of cave dwellers to today, is explained with one idea per spread, making this a good choice for reluctant readers. Different types of maps and their functions are shown, as well as the markings used. As an accompanying activity, go on a treasure hunt around the school and see how many different kinds of maps you can find. (Don’t forget the 912 section of the library!)


Lasky, Kathryn. The Librarian Who Measured the Earth. Illus. by Kevin Hawkes. 1994. 48p. Little, Brown, $16.95 (0-316-51526-4).

Gr. 2–5. Long before there were satellites, a librarian in ancient Egypt figured out a way to measure the circumference of the Earth, and modern-day measurements show his numbers were off by only 200 miles! This picture-book biography relates what the life of Eratosthenes, the Greek geographer and astronomer, might have been like. Combine this with a math lesson by looking up the current measurement for the circumference of the Earth and estimating Eratosthenes’ measurement.


Leedy, Loreen. Mapping Penny’s World. 2000. 32p. Holt, $17
(0-8050-6178-9); Owlet, paper, $6.95 (0-8050-7262-4).

Gr. 2–4. Lisa’s class is making maps with a title, a key, symbols, scale, a compass rose, and labels, so Lisa decides to make similar maps about her dog Penny’s life. See where Penny buries her treasures in the yard, the route Penny’s dog friend takes to come visit, and more. Use this book as a springboard and have students create their own scale maps.


Lewis, J. Patrick. A World of Wonders: Geographic Travels in Verse and Rhyme. Illus. by Alison Jay. 2002. 32p. Dial, $16.99 (0-8037-2579-5).

Gr. 2–5. Twenty-six poems cover historic travelers and explorers, as well as natural wonders and geographic concepts. Mnemonic devices and riddles are also included. Perfect for National Poetry Month in April, this title could inspire students to write their own geographic poetry.


Morrison, Taylor. The Coast Mappers. 2004. 48p. Houghton, $16

Gr. 3–6. The Gold Rush of 1849 brought many ships to the Pacific Coast, but no one had yet mapped that shoreline. Step-by-step, George Davidson and his team overcame great obstacles to map the coast, using telescopes, sextants, protractors, mirrors, and flags. Use your own protractors and map an area of your school for a lesson in geometry and geography. Call the department of public works and invite a surveyor to come and visit.


A former teacher, Anastasia Suen is the author of 65 books for children, including Subway (Viking, 2004).