Tour the World — Destination: Central and South America

¡Hola!  Olá!   K’ulaj!

We’ve finally crossed the Atlantic and made our way to the Americas. Today we’re reading about life in Central and South America. But first — we have a winner in our West African book giveaway! Congrats to Jackie Lannin! Please e-mail me at to give me your shipping address.

There is incredible diversity within the vast areas of Latin America. A mighty gulf between the wealthy and the millions of street kids, for example. A swirl of ancestries and languages. Glittering cities, snowcapped mountains, dense rainforest, bleak deserts. Yet this diversity is not particularly well-represented in children’s literature.  

Santiago de Chile, Chile

By far the most common subject for books set in these countries — I thought for awhile it was the only thing I would find! — is Carnival.

An exuberant focus, to be sure. But I had to dig to find stories centered on other aspects of life. Given the richness of these cultures, I was frankly astonished by what was not available.

Except for Guatemala. What is it with Guatemala?! I found more books set there by far than any other location. Had to bump some of them out, just to keep things somewhat balanced. Curious.

Meanwhile, fasten your seat belt and we’ll start off in…


Hands of the Maya: Villagers at Work and Play, written and photographed by Rachel Crandell
published in 2002 by Henry Holt and Co.

There are many peoples within the Mayan population. This photo-essay shows us a group of Mopan Mayan from Belize.

Move through a typical day and see the many tasks keeping “the hands of the Maya” busy. Toting firewood, cooking up tortillas, roofing , sowing maize, scrubbing, weaving, carving, making music, and comforting children. Beautiful photography brings us right up close to the uniquenesses of this people and place. It’s a lovely choice for even very young children, ages 2 and up.


Rainbow Weaver, written by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri, translation by Eida de la Vega
published in 2016 by Children’s Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books

High in the Guatemalan mountains, a young Mayan girl named Ixchel yearns to be a weaver like her mother and grandmothers and neighbor ladies and their great-grandmothers before them. For thousands of years, Mayan women have woven magnificent cloth in vibrant colors and distinctive, intricate patterns on backstrap looms.

But there’s not enough thread to spare for a little girl like Ixchel. So, she improvises. And what she winds up with is quite a winning discovery! This is a sweet story, told in both Spanish and English, illustrated in a fetching Disney-esque style. An Author’s Note tells more about the Mayan weavers, and a pronunciation guide helps with the Mayan words. Like Ixchel, for example! Great read for ages 4 and up.

Abuela’s Weave, written by Omar S. Castañeda, illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez
published in 1993 by Lee & Low

Here’s another look at the weavers of Guatemala. Esperanza’s abuela is one of the most superb weavers around, whose tapestries could “pull the wonder right out of people.” But she fears that the new, machine-made tapestries will outshine her traditional, handcrafted ones, and Esperanza knows that her abuela’s birthmark has made some people begin terrible rumors about her.

That makes heading to market for the Fiesta de Pueblos in Guate a nerve-wracking journey. What special weaving have Abuela and Esperanze been working so hard at? Will customers be frightened by Abuela’s birthmark? Can their handwork stand out in that crowded marketplace?

This is a quieter story than Rainbow Weaver, but equally warm, with really lovely illustrations and more references to the culture and geography of Guatemala. If you can find a copy, share it with ages 5 and up.

Un barrilete para el Dia de los Muertos/Barrilete: A Kite for the Day of the Dead, written by Elisa Amado, Photographs by Joya Haris
published in 1999 by Groundwood Books

This fascinating photo-essay follows a boy named Juan  who lives in the small village of Santiago Sacatepéquez, famous for creating some of the largest kites in the world to celebrate the Day of the Dead on November 2.  Witness the construction of these extraordinary creations via the candid photos and lucid, respectful depictions of life in this small corner of the world.

Giant kites of Santiago!

I have to say that the cover does not prepare you for the elegant story within. I wasn’t expecting to love this, but I was smitten! Share it with slightly older children with patience for a slice-of-life photo essay. Perhaps ages 5 or 6 and up.

Mama and Papa Have a Store, written and illustrated by Amelia Lau Carling
published in 1998 by Lee & Low Books

In 1938, as the Japanese invaded their village in Guangdong, China, one young couple fled and settled in Guatemala City. There they established a dry goods store, selling everything from paper lanterns to perfume to rows and rows of colorful threads “arranged like schools of fish in glassy water.”

See what a typical day looks like from the vantage point of their little girl as the bean curd seller comes round with fresh tofu, Mama chops hot peppers for lunch, and her siblings wax the roof slates and slide down the slope on cardboard sleds! One of my favorite older titles, this won a Pura Belpré Honor for its exuberant, detailed watercolors. Ages 3 and up.

Sawdust Carpets, written and illustrated by Amelia Lau Carling
published in 2005 by Groundwood Books

A second story by this same author casts a spotlight on the astonishing Easter processions in Antigua, Guatemala including the creation of beautiful, elaborate tapestries created from colored sawdust which line the streets.

Carling again tells this story from the point of view of her Chinese immigrant family whose Buddhist heritage melds with the Catholicism of the Guatemalan people during this Holy Week. It’s a fantastic, appealing window onto a famous tradition. Ages 4 and up.

El Salvador

The Fiesta of the Tortillas, written by Jorge Argueta, illustrated by María Jesús Álvarez, translated by Joe Hayes and Sharon Franco
published in 2006 by Alfaguara

You’d better not be hungry when you read this book, I’m warning you.

In this apparently semi-autobiographical tale, Koki lives with his family in a house that holds a comedor as restaurants are called in El Salvador. The comedor bustles with aunts and cousins chopping, mixing, and frying mouthwatering tortillas, papusas, fried bananas, grilled beef, all so tasty that people keep coming back for more and more. I am not surprised! Yum.

There’s a strange little mystery going on in the comedor, though, that’s got everybody a bit hot under the collar just now. Honestly, the resolution to that mystery is a tad vague here, but the joy of family and the delicious Salvadoran cooking that sing in this story are quite enough to make up for that.

Spanish and English versions of the story are both here, along with colorful collaged illustrations. A great book to read with ages 4 and up, right before going out for some Salvadoran food!


Hands of the Rain Forest: The Emberá People of Panama, written and photographed by Rachel Crandell
published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company

The Emberá are an indigenous people of Panama whose lives have been intricately linked to the rain forest and its rich resources for centuries. Since the 1970s some have been displaced from the jungle by the government and resettled in villages along the Sambú River. Modernity has impacted their lives, yet many of their traditional skills are maintained.

Visit these villages, glimpse their craftsmanship, and gain more appreciation for the immense variety of homes and lifestyles loved by people on our planet. This is a respectful photo essay that will surely astound children ages 4 and up.


The Streets Are Free, written by Kurusa, illustrations by Monika Doppert, translation by Karen Englander
first published in 1981 in Venezuela; first North American edition 1985 by Annick Press

Based on the true story of the children of the barrio of San José de la Urbina in Caracas, Venezuela, who longed for playground space for themselves in the midst of the slum that engulfed them, this unusual story reveals the way rural areas degrade into urban shantytowns, the toll this takes on children’s lives, and the determined spirit of one particular group of Venezuelan kids.

Exceptional illustrations convey life in the barrio with respect and realism. Fantastic read for slightly older children, ages 7 and up.



A tropical-colored, true story of one book-loving man who goes to tremendous lengths to bring books to children in remote villages, far from any library. Heroic, beautiful, inspiring. My full review of it is here. A lovely read for ages 2 and up.

Juana and Lucas, written and illustrated by Juana Medina
published in 2016 by Candlewick Press

Pure delight, this short chapter book follows spunky Juana, a good dog, her warm family, and her grandfather’s special reward for Juana’s progress in learning that tricky language, English. This is an absolutely delightful read. 89 pages. Read it aloud or hand it to a stout reader who can handle a sprinkling of Spanish.

Saturday Sancocho, written and illustrated by Leyla Torres
published in 1995 by Farrar Straus Giroux

Chicken Sancocho is a mouthwatering stew prepared throughout Central and South America. In this story, Maria Lili and her grandparents find themselves without the money to buy sancocho ingredients. And that is a major disappointment!

Mama Ana has just the clever solution, however. With Maria Lili in tow, off they go to the market for a day of sunny bartering at one stall after another. By day’s end they’ve got a basket of all the right stuff — plantains and cassava, corn and carrots, tomatoes and cilantro and garlic and cumin; and yes, even chicken for the pot.

The sunny illustrations and delicious storyline here will make you determined to cook up some sancocho for yourselves, and there is a recipe in the book. Happy and lovely, for ages 4 and up.


Amazon Boy, written and illustrated by Ted Lewin
published in 1993 by Macmillan Publishing Company

I was really surprised how difficult it is to find books that portray contemporary Brazil. If any of you know of great stories depicting Rio or other Brazilian locations, please let us know in the comments!

This book is slightly outdated, and I’m not so fond of the title. Ted Lewin’s always-lovely watercolor work makes up for a lot, though. Pedro lives deep in the Amazon jungle with his family who make a living by fishing. This story recounts Pedro’s first trip downriver to the port of Belém. The incredible density of the rainforest and the bustle of the harbor, the flat out amazing fish and the unique life Pedro lives, all captivate and expand our understanding of the many ways people live in our world. As a plus, Lewin connects the way destructive environmental practices impact the lives of these jungle-dwellers. A fascinating story for ages 4 and up.


Up and Down the Andes: A Peruvian Festival Tale, written by Laurie Krebs, illustration by Aurélia Fronty
published in 2008 by Barefoot Books

In June, the city of Cusco, Peru hosts Inti Raymi, an ancient Incan festival honoring the Sun God, with thousands of costumed actors re-enacting the ancient pageantry. Journey along with children from up and down the Andes Mountains as they make their way by bus, mule, boat, and take their places in the celebration.

Short, rhythmic text; lively, spicy-warm illustrations; and backpages with more information on Peruvian festivals, history, peoples, and geography. Ages 3 and up.

Tonight is Carnaval, written by Arthur Dorros, illustrated with arpilleras sewn by the Club de Madres Virgen del Carmen of Lima, Peru
published in 1991 by Dutton Children’s Books

There are so many titles about celebrating Carnival (a number coming up in our Caribbean stop) that each one I’ve included had to earn its place! This one easily wins a spot on the to-read lists for its broader depiction of life in Peru and the extraordinary artwork that illustrates it.

Join one family living among the high Andes as they prepare fields for planting, tend llamas, spin and weave, harvest potatoes, go to market, and play the instruments that create the unique, lovely sounds we love from this region.

A cooperative of 35 women and 1 man quilted the fabulous pieces that illustrate this book. I have no idea if this cooperative is still at work. If someone knows, please tell us!

 You can read about the fantastic work they were about on the flyleaf of the book.  Great choice for ages 5 and up.

Maria Had a Little Llama, written and illustrated by Angela Dominguez
published in 2013 by Henry Holt and Company

An immensely charming, bilingual rendition of the old nursery rhyme, set in the Andes mountains, with illustrations to knock your socks off. Perfect for ages 2 and up.


Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, written by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Here’s a moving story about a population of children who live among the trash heaps in Cateura, Paraguay. Surrounded by garbage, noise, and stink, these kids and their parents still love the beauty of music.

Discover how kindness, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and hard work resulted in remarkable musical opportunities for them in this extraordinary, true account. Comport’s striking illustrations are a joyful, strong pairing for the story. An Author’s Note tells more of the details, and further exploration can be done via listed websites and videos. Inspirational, for ages 5 through adult.



This handsomely-illustrated story features a marvelous grandfather-grandson relationship in their home on the vast, clear pampas. What a life! There’s heartache when the boy has to move to the city, which is softened by his abuelo’s wisdom. This is an absolute stunner. Read my full review here.

On the Pampas, written and illustrated by María Cristina Brusca
published in 1991 by Henry Holt and Company

This delightful picture book memoir of growing up in Argentina follows María as she spends one summer at her grandparents’ estancia on the vast, flat prairies, the pampas. She and her cousin, Susanita, live an open-air, free, robust life, riding horses, swimming in the creek, learning to lasso from the gauchos,  bellying up to grandmother’s enormous noon meals, sneaking ñandú eggs from furious male ñandús!  

Oh my word — what a fantastic, adventurous time! Vivid watercolors set us in the midst of this hearty scene. Ages 3 and up.

Our next stop will take us just a bit north to the Caribbean and Mexico. I hope you’ll join us!

Here are links to our previous destinations:

Destination: West Africa

Destination: Central and South Africa

Destination: East Africa

Destination: Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa

Destination: Indian Subcontinent

Destination: East Asia

Destination: Australia, New Zealand, and Micronesia

A Sampler of Cultures

Buckle up for a World Tour

Musings: a world of swiss cheese