Read Around the World:
Children’s Books Set in South America
by Miranda Rosbach
My first international trip was to Mexico when I was 25. There’s something wildly exciting about taking your first trip to another country. Beyond passport acquisition and airport security, there’s a palpable energy—a mix of excitement and trepidation—about what awaits in unfamiliar territory.
Of course, not everyone longs to leave the comforts of home. The expense alone makes international travel inaccessible to everyone, making books the perfect alternative. This reading list delves into the wonders of South America; its rich culture, heritage, and people live on the pages of these books.
Since food is a significant part of travel, I suggest pairing these readings with an outing to a local restaurant that serves Colombian cuisine or any other traditional South American fare. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try your hand at cooking some international dishes at home. Your kids will love it!
Nosotros Means Us
“If I were a sheep, you would be a lamb.” A mother sits with her young child on her lap. She talks to her little one about the animals she could be (a horse, a fish, a bear, a mole) and how her child would be the equivalent little version of the same animal. One day, the child grows big enough to hop away. As the seasons change, the child returns, but they are different. The mother also changes, as is the natural course of life. However, no matter how much they change, they will always be mother and child. They will always be Nosotros.
Baby Touch and Feel Llama
In this fun and interactive board book, babies can explore a range of textures including fuzzy llamas, shiny objects, and bumps and grooves, helping to spark their early development in different ways. Bold, bright images will keep you little animal-lover entertained and the sturdy, padded book is ideal for little hands.
Rio de Janeiro
This bright onomatopoeic board book is a sensory experience that would pair nicely with an introduction to Bossa nova music. Delve into Brazil with the BOOM of a Carnival drum. Savor the sounds of jaguars and exotic birds in a tropical rainforest. Clap and shout at a soccer match and WHOOSH down the cableway at Sugarloaf Mountain. Finally, rest on Ipanema Beach as the waves CRASH on the sunny shore.
La Princesa and the Pea
A lone prince longs for a wife, but his picky mother will not accept any young maid for her dear son. When a young lady rides into town, the prince determines to marry her. However, the queen-mother devises a plan (20 mattresses with a pea at the bottom) to determine if the lady is worthy. Villagers clad in traditional Peruvian alpaca cloaks gather the mattresses for their royal highness. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, the young lass passes the test, and we discover the prince had a hand in making his dreams of marriage come true. Spanish words sprinkle the text with gorgeous illustrations depicting traditional Peruvian weavings and feral guinea pigs as part of the natural landscape.
Early Readers & Chapter Books
Waiting for the Biblioburro
Without books at home, Ana concocts magical tales to tell her brother. One morning, she sees a man riding into town with two donkeys and a sign that says Biblioburro. The village children gather around the librarian and his two burros (Alfa and Beto) and bask in the impromptu storytime. The librarian invites the children to take a book and keep it until he returns. Ana passes the time by creating a book of her own. Inspired by actual events, this hopeful tale takes me back to the bookmobile of my childhood.
Digging for Words
In a small barrio in Bogotá, young José rides his bike to school, plays fútbol, and does his chores—while longing for Saturday. In the same neighborhood, Señor José goes on his nightly garbage truck route. He travels through the affluent areas, scanning the sidewalk for discarded books. Some appear in neat piles; others he digs for. At the end of the evening, he balances a sizable stack of books in his arms and takes them home. The neighborhood children run together on Saturday morning, bound for a book-filled Paradise—Señor José’s home. Nestled on bookshelves and stacked in corners, piles of books await children of all ages. This touching tale tugged on my librarian heartstrings. Don’t miss the under-the-dust-jacket (case cover) surprise.
Zonia's Rain Forest
This call-to-action story is dedicated to Peru’s Indigenous people (and thousands of animal species) impacted by deforestation and development. Zonia wakes up in her home every morning, surrounded by a lush forest of greenery and growth. She follows the gentle glide of a blue butterfly into the beckoning, wild rainforest. Wandering through vines and swamps, she encounters giant anteaters, two-toed sloths, blooming lotus flowers, and a family of coati (her favorite). Headed home from her morning adventure, she halts, mystified by a barren portion of land. Zonia applies paint to her face and reaches for courage as she prepares to fight for her beloved natural habitat.
Juana and Lucas
Juana loves drawing, brussels sprouts, reading, Astroman, and Bogotá—the vibrant city where she lives with her Mami, abuelos, and furry friend, Lucas. At school, Juana dislikes her scratchy uniform and learning English. Juana asks the adults why she needs to learn English, especially when it is so hard. Her aunt insists she’ll be able to sing more songs once she knows a new language. The shop owners around the corner say Juana can translate their signs into Spanish and English for their customers. Her Abuelo says that she’ll have the world at her fingertips and that she can talk to Astroman when they (surprise!) travel to America for an upcoming vacation. Intermittent Spanish words and thoughtfully developed characters make this book (and the other two Juana books) a true charmer!
Alma and How She Got Her Name
Juana Martinez-Neal is a modern picture book master, and I encourage you to search out all her books. Alma has a long name, which means it never fits on her school papers. She complains about it to her daddy, who then teaches her the history behind the six names that compromise Alma’s beautifully unique name. She was named after a grandmother who loved books and flowers, a great-grandmother who hoped to travel but never did, a grandfather painter who loved the Peruvian people, a great-aunt who kept rituals to remember departed ancestors, and another grandmother who marched for the rights of her people. After she learns her name’s story, Alma beams with pride, determined to add her story to those of her ancestors.
Late Lunch with Llamas
Jack and Annie spot a condor circling their house, so they head into their tree house to search for answers and find a travel guide to the Andes mountains. They get transported back thousands of years and find themselves clad in heavy wool ponchos and bright caps. They follow airy music and meet a local family whose llama has been stolen. Determined to help, Jack and Annie set off on a mission across a rickety bridge and into a cloud forest, where they must acclimate to altitude sickness and avoid venomous snakes. Once in the Secret City, they find the Emperor of the ancient city Machu Picchu and locate the missing llama. With the llama restored, the siblings return home in time for dinner.
The Quest for Z
Born in 1867 in Devon, England, Percy Fawcett became an explorer at an early age. After his military service, he joined the Royal Geographical Society in London, where he studied plants and insects, learning survival skills that would serve him on future expeditions. His first venture took place in 1906, and for nearly two decades, Fawcett took different crews into the unforgiving Amazon Rainforest, which covers nine South American countries. Warding off a giant anaconda and losing fellow crew members, Percy faced danger relentlessly. His logs and journals depict many new plant and animal species. Still, his true fascination was finding a hidden city that he named Z. Fawcett became a household name in 1925, when he ventured into the Brazilian jungle and never returned. Told with incredible detail (a bibliography, authors note, and glossary) and mixed media illustrations, this nonfiction picture book will captivate readers long after the last page.
Eyewitness The Amazon
This book, a part of the DK Eyewitness series, introduces tweens to the wonders of the Amazon rainforest. Nestled mostly in Brazil, with some parts touching Peru, Columbia, and other South American countries, the Amazon is home to a diverse population of plants, animals, and people who call it their home. This book is perfect for young explorers looking to learn about the largest tropical rainforest in the world.
Who Is Pelé?
Growing up in a poor family in Brazil, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé) watched his father play soccer. Pelé gathered rags and put them in a large sock to play soccer with his neighborhood friends. Later, when they collected enough stamps of famous soccer players, Pelé purchased a real soccer ball to share with his friends. At 15, Pelé mastered the bicycle kick and moved 200 miles from home to play in Santos, Brazil. Pelé scored over 1,200 goals and played in several World Cup tournaments during his career. He became an ambassador for soccer health clinics and always thanked God and his fans for their continued support. This slim 100-page middle grade biography is ideal for sports-loving kids ages 8-12.