(April 27, 2020)—This spring of “shelter in place” has brought many unexpected things. For some of us, time away from other activities has meant more time to read, and perhaps more time to explore interests that our busy schedules previously discouraged.
Here at Archaeology Southwest, a flood of recent online interactions suggests a lot of people want to spend some of this time learning more about archaeology. As I thought about this from my temporary workspace at home, one thin wall away from the dulcet tones of my daughters arguing over whose turn it was to use the computer, I thought about how many people would probably love to help the children in their lives cultivate their interests in the human past, as well. Especially with some reading time. Quiet reading time.
Many of the books I read over and over to my kids when they were younger tended to be about the past, as I naturally gravitated toward a subject I enjoy. Luckily, they enjoyed those books, too, and I was pretty excited when some of the information in the books we read for fun actually sank in and resurfaced when they recognized something like “the bone Lucy from a long time ago” in another context later on. (That was a three-year-old’s description of Australopithecus afarensis; what parent’s heart wouldn’t glow?) Now that they’re fourth and eighth graders, interesting books on archaeology and history left casually on tables are still likely to end up with a girl hunched over them eating cereal with one hand and turning pages with the other.
In the interest of promoting knowledge of the past and brief episodes of domestic peace, here are some of the history- and archaeology-related books my family has enjoyed the most. There are many other great ones out there; these just happened to resonate at my house (and to be accurate enough not to bother an archaeology-nerd parent). Children’s books seem to go in and out of print often, but most of these are still in print at the moment. If your local library doesn’t have the one you want (or is closed for now), used copies of everything here are still around at online storefronts.
The Butterfly Dance, by Gerald Dawavendewa
This story of a girl and her family preparing for a traditional dance ceremony immerses us in activities important to families in the Southwest for thousands of years. The author is a well-known Hopi artist, and his choice to depict the characters as the animals their clans are named for makes it extra appealing to animal-loving young kids.
Archaeologists Dig for Clues, by Kate Duke
This short, fun book packs in a lot of information about what archaeologists do and how we learn about the past. Paleoethnobotany, the difference between an artifact and a feature, mapping and note-taking, and lab work all make an appearance in a form short enough for older preschoolers and kindergarteners to enjoy.
Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story, by Lisa Peters
This book describes a short, simple version of major changes in life on earth over time that even very young kids can understand, emphasizing how all organisms are at least distantly related.
Temple Cat, by Andrew Clements and Kate Kiesler
This very simple story for young kids follows the journey of an Egyptian temple cat who longs to leave the god-symbol life and become someone’s pet.
Mammoths on the Move, by Lisa Wheeler and Kurt Cyrus
I enjoyed the funny, exuberant rhymes in this book even when I was asked to read it over and over. And how often do you see a book that makes preschoolers want to know more about seasonal migration and herd composition? The book is about mammoths, but it led to lots of interesting discussions about Ice Age hunters and mobile lifestyles at my house.
FOR ELEMENTARY SCHOOL KIDS:
Spider Spins a Story, by Jill Max
Each short story in this spider-centered collection of Native American tales was illustrated by a member of the tribe whose traditional story is retold here. The stories in this book have been told for countless generations by these tribes and come from all over North America, and the variety in illustration styles makes this a great story collection for kids to explore.
A Street Through Time, by Ann Millard and Steve Noon
My kids spent hours staring at this book, which uses a series of detailed illustrations to show the same street at intervals spanning 12,000 years from the Ice Age to the present. This imaginary street was part of a Neolithic village, a Roman city, a Viking raid, a Medieval town, and a town of the Industrial revolution, among other settings. Although it’s set in Europe, a similar book could be written about our hometown of Tucson—pick up a copy of the “Tucson Underground” issue of Archaeology Southwest Magazine, and some of the parallels are clear.
Gilgamesh the King, by Ludmila Zeman
This book and its two sequels hit the highlights of the long, mostly dark Epic of Gilgamesh in a more upbeat way for the younger set. Zeman’s illustrations are heavily influenced by Assyrian art, making the detailed pictures extra-interesting to look at. Although we enjoyed all three, this first volume was my kids’ favorite, as the end of the epic is a bit of a downer no matter how you present it.
Ancient Dwellings of the Southwest, by Derek Gallagher
This pop-up book seems to be at every visitors’ center at Southwestern National Parks. Detailed illustrations of major buildings in different parts of the Southwest (Chaco Canyon, Casa Grande, Bandelier, Mesa Verde, and contemporary Taos Pueblo) are full of informative text boxes and interesting little tabs to turn and pull. The text is short, but the book is too delicate for most kids under six or so.
FOR OLDER ELEMENTARY TO MIDDLE SCHOOL READERS:
Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold, by James Rumford
This retelling relies on words with origins in the Anglo-Saxon language in which this epic poem was first written down around 800 CE. Modern words with origins in Anglo-Saxon; Greek and Latin words already present in that language; and three Old Norse words we can’t do without make the story interesting for adults to read and easy for anyone to understand.
Black Ships Before Troy, by Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Lee
A retelling of The Iliad, this one is fun to read aloud if your older kids will let you; there’s a lot of drama in this epic, and you can really ham it up! It’s a long war story with plenty of violence, best for a slightly more mature and patient audience. The same author/illustrator team retold The Odyssey in another book, The Wanderings of Odysseus. These books also come in an unillustrated version for older kids, but we really enjoyed Alan Lee’s pictures.
A Cartoon History of the Universe, by Larry Gonick
My brother used this multivolume series to study for the world history AP exam in the mid-1990s, but they’ve aged pretty well. There’s a lot of information packed into these comic books along with some irreverence and off-color humor that appeals to middle schoolers.
We encourage you to reach out to your local library and independent bookstores to find these books. (Here in Tucson, Bookmans is temporarily closed, but Antigone Books is taking orders.) Let us know some of your favorite books about cultures, history, archaeology, and the past.