Exploring the USA …


With the US Presidential elections coming up, now is a good time to think about doing some American-themed stuff with your family. Just before the summer holidays my elder daughter’s class topic was Roadtrip USA so we embraced all things stateside.

I would have loved to take them to the American Museum in Britain for their American country fair to celebrate 4th July and we very nearly went but it’s a pretty long drive from where we live, my younger daughter gets car sick and in the end we decided to postpone the trip until we were going to be in the area anyway. Instead, we held an American Day at home.

For breakfast we tried ‘PB&J’ sandwiches, something my children had never had before. One of them loved them and the other loathed them. Next, we made American flags from painted lolly sticks. Ours were a more basic version of these. We just painted the sticks rather than layering to get the blue corner rectangle and we used pens to draw on a few stars rather than using a star hole puncher. Then we learned a bit about Pop Art and especially Wayne Thiebaud. Firstly we used some pastels to do our own versions of one of his layer cake pictures and then we tried it again but this time, inspired by Dilly-Dali Art, imag1554_1we used icing as paint! Aleacia at Dilly-Dali Art used tempura paint thickened with cornflour but we just mixed up a load of icing sugar and water icing and chose colours to add to the different bowl, so our attempts are rather…flatter than the piped creation in the link. We still had great fun and some of us thought adding cake sprinkles to the finished product was the most fun part of all! We then had a go at making some pop art collages using pictures cut out of catalogues and magazines.imag1558_1

After that we tried some American ‘candy bars’ I picked up at the supermarket. Most large supermarkets seem to sell a selection of US products like Jif peanut butter, Hershey bars, Lucky Charms and Reeses Pieces. However, you can also go for something as simple as Oreos which are often on special offer in the shops. We tried a BabyRuth and an OhHenry! bar and then headed out for some much-needed fresh air advertised to the children as a traditional American bike ride down the block, stopping at the ‘gas station’ for ingredients for ouimag1561_1r Pretzel Rolo Bites (the recipe is from Thriving Home). Unfortunately, the gas station didn’t sell Rolos so we made do with Cadbury’s Caramel Nibbles, which worked nearly as well. (We tried it a few weeks later with the Rolos and they were better, to be honest.) Basically, you put a Rolo on each pretzel and place them in a warm oven for a few minutes, then whip them out and pop an M&M on each Rolo. Then they go in the fridge for an hour or two to cool down and harden. Delicious eaten with American kids’ TV via Netflix!

Because we like any opportunity to read we also got hold of some good books about the USA. My daughter already had a copy of Lonely Planet’s Definitely Not for Parents USA: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know  which is a compendium of facts, stories, photos and general information. It’s an easy and entertaining read with lots of little text boxes and pictures. We also re-borrowed the New York City book in the same series from the library. I bought a copy of The United States of America: A State-by-State Guide by Millie Miller and Cyndi Nelson which was okay for basic information but is very slim and not the most exciting read. What I should have bought in the first place was the absolutely fantastic 50 States: Explore the USA with 50 Fact-Filled Maps by Gabrielle Balkan and Sol Linero, which is a huge coffee-table piece of a book with detailed, bright and colourful maps and lots of fascinating snippets of information. I found researching books to buy quite frustrating because I didn’t find this on Amazon or other bookseller sites when I started looking and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of choice in any case. In retrospect, what I probably should have done was go to Amazon.com and searched there. I have now also found a brilliant-looking book which is now on my mental wish list; it’s called My America and is an anthology of fifty poems about the different states of America.

My daughter was also interested in finding out about Native Americans. For homework she made a totem pole out of recycled materials (only we were still recovering from the making a Roman villa from a cardboard box homework so we went with air-drying clay and acrylic paint, instead!) and we watched the BBC Four two-part documentary Masters of the Pacific Coast: The Tribes of the American Northwest although this was on after the term, and topic, had finished. Having borrowed it from the library we invested in our own copy of The Encyclopaedia of the Ancient Americas by Jen Green, Fiona MacDonald, Philip Steele and Michael Stotter which is four books in one and covers the Aztecs and Mayans; Incas; Arctic peoples; and North American Indians. It has lots of information and photographs, covering the groups of people very fully.

And of course, no project would be complete for us at Breathing in books without a few piles of fiction books. Obviously, the US has produced many, many piles of fiction books so you are spoilt for choice and all sorts of tastes will find something they like. Below is a by-no-means exhaustive list to get you started. I have tried to include books that give a flavour of the history, geography and story of the USA and the people who live there rather than suggesting classics from all genres.

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. First published in the 1870s and 1880s respectively but set in the 1830s these are full of adventure and tricksters. They paint a vivid picture of an American South pervaded by racism, religious hypocrisy and class divisions.I haven’t read these with my children yet but am looking forward to doing so in a couple of years’ time.
  •  Little Women and the rest of the March Sisters books by Louisa May Alcott. My elder daughter loves this story of four sisters living with their mother while their father fights in the civil war. Together they face and overcome many moral and practical problems as they anxiously await their father’s safe return.
  • The Little House in the Big Woods, The Little House on the Prairie and the rest of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. These books are about a very simple, but hard pioneer life for a family working for their every need in the woods and prairies of the Western USA. The contrast between their lives and those we live now is startling. My children couldn’t believe what the children receive for Christmas, for example. There are some passages that I had to edit for my squeamish children (pigs are butchered, bears are skinned, and so on).
  • Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink. This is another book about frontiers-people in the 19th-century based on a real girl’s childhood in the 1860s. Caddie’s large family are settled and apparently you can still visit their cottage in the USA. Caddie is a tomboy frustrated by the limitations of being a girl. Her family is a lot less harmonious than Laura Ingalls’ so there are more tensions within the household. The book explores race relations and the struggles between the native people and the frontiersmen. Some of the expressions and ideas used to discuss these issues seem clumsy and tactless to a modern reader and may be something to discuss with your children. My elder daughter really loved this book.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. Another story set on the prairie. A  widowed father advertises for a wife and step-mother for his children who eagerly await the city-dweller Sarah’s arrival. This book is about how they get to know each other. There are several other books in the saga.
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Calpurnia lives in a large family of brothers in Texas at the turn of the twentieth-century. She hates piano practice and conforming to her parents’ expectations of her as a girl in high Southern society. She gets to know her grandfather better and he starts teaching her about science, the natural world and Charles Darwin. Soon she has her own scientific notebook and a new world is opening up to her. I read these aloud to my daughter when she was eight and skipped a few allusions to reproduction. There are some squeamish bits, too. The author is now publishing books about ‘Calpurnia Tate: Girl Vet’ for younger readers which begin with Skunked.
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. Based on a true story, this has some very sad parts but by daughter loved it when she read it just before she turned nine. It is about a Native American girl in the early 1800s whose father is killed, her tribe displaced, her brother drowned while escaping and who survives alone on an island for eighteen years. It sounds like early-misery-lit but is a fascinating read.
  • Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.The first in a series of books about Julie, a girl in Alaska who returns to her ancestors’ way of life on the tundra and is protected by a pack of wolves.
  • Gentle Ben by Walt Morey. Following his brother’s death, Mark is living a lonely existence in the Alaskan wilderness until he makes friends with a brown bear called Ben who is soon under threat from the townspeople.
  • What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge. The famous story of a girl in a large motherless family whose accident and subsequent time spent bedridden changes her attitude to her brothers and sisters. In the second book she and her sister, Clover, go away to a strict girls’ boarding school which is fascinating in the way it differs not only from schools today but the English school stories of the 19th-century.
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin. An often-overlooked classic about a feisty girl who leaves her large family to go to live with her two aunts.
  • Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. This is an epistolary novel written in letters from a college girl whose education is funded by a mystery benefactor whose patronage plucked her from a children’s home and set her in the academic world of the early 1900s. The condition of the financial support is that she must write him a letter every month updating him on her progress but she is never to expect a response from him. A fascinating picture of life at an American girls’ college in the years well before Sweet Valley University, Freshman Dorm and so on.
  • The Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart Lovelace. These are the first four books in the Betsy saga (in later ones she grows up and gets married) and tell of an American childhood at the turn of the century.
  • Starring Sally Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume. My favourite Judy Blume book, this is the story of a ten-year-old girl growing up in post-war America. Her family moves to Miami Beach after her brother’s illness and it’s full of the sort of everyday details I found fascinating as a child. Perhaps my favourite parts of the Judy Blume books are the references to going to the ‘Y’, sodas and creamsicles at the drugstore, cheerleading try-outs, Schwinn ten-speeds, and so on.

What I realise is missing from this list are books that explore the race struggles of segregation and civil rights in the US. For older readers Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred B. Taylor is a great introduction to these issues. It’s often a GSCE set-text for probably not suitable for younger primary children.



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