Geography, Part 1

Trav­el far, pay no fare…a book can take you anywhere.”

 Anne Mor­row Lindbergh

Part 1: A Trip across the U.S.A

Many Amer­i­cans are woe­ful­ly igno­rant of geog­ra­phy. Almost three-quar­ters of eighth grade stu­dents test­ed below pro­fi­cient in geog­ra­phy on the 2014 Nation­al Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tion­al Progress – also known as the Nation’s Report Card. In a report to a Sen­ate sub­com­mit­tee, data showed eighth grade teach­ers spend less than 10% of their social stud­ies instruc­tion on geog­ra­phy, and most states don’t require a course in geog­ra­phy in mid­dle school or high school (GAO, Octo­ber, 2015). When the assess­ment was admin­is­tered again in 2018, stu­dents scored even low­er (The Nation’s Report Card, 2018).

In his 2009 Calde­cott Hon­or book How I Learned Geog­ra­phy, young Uri Shule­vitz explored the world through a large wall map. With GPS embed­ded in our phones and cars, maps may seem obso­lete today. But might every class­room, library, and home ben­e­fit from hav­ing maps and globes promi­nent­ly dis­played? Trav­el­ing is one way to learn geog­ra­phy. But if we can’t actu­al­ly trav­el the world, we can vis­it places through books. Many pic­ture books have anony­mous set­tings, but some include authen­tic land­marks iden­ti­fy­ing loca­tions that can be pin­point­ed on a map. Trav­el­ing from west coast to east coast, sev­er­al Calde­cott Award books fea­ture set­tings in the Unit­ed States, and we can become arm­chair trav­el­ers through the illustrations.

Pedro the Angel of Olvera Street

We begin our trav­els in Los Ange­les on Olvera Street, the set­ting for Leo Politi’s Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street, a 1947 Calde­cott Hon­or book in which Pedro leads the Christ­mas pro­ces­sion La Posa­da. Olvera Street is also the set­ting of Politi’s 1949 Calde­cott Hon­or book Juani­ta, in which Juani­ta par­tic­i­pates in the Bless­ing of the Ani­mals cer­e­mo­ny at East­er. Politi’s books were the first Calde­cott Award books to fea­ture Mex­i­can Amer­i­can char­ac­ters. His love for the Lati­no peo­ple, espe­cial­ly chil­dren, is reflect­ed in his col­or­ful tem­pera illus­tra­tions (ALSC, 2017). Poli­ti and his fam­i­ly lived on Olvera Street (Riley, 2002). Known as the “birth­place of Los Ange­les,” it is a block-long Mex­i­can mar­ket­place in El Pueblo His­toric Park with ven­dor stalls, cafes, and a plaza amidst his­toric build­ings (Trausch, n.d.). Though more mod­ern now, Olvera Street still retains its his­tor­i­cal charm depict­ed in Politi’s books. A repli­ca of the orig­i­nal ornate­ly carved wood­en cross found in Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street stands at the entrance to the street.

Olvera Street cross
A repli­ca of the orig­i­nal ornate­ly carved wood­en cross found in
Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street stands at the entrance to the street. 
Leo Politi, Pedro, Angel of Olvera Street
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Leo Poli­ti, the mar­ket­place
and the cross in Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street

Near the cross, Politi’s mur­al “Bless­ing of the Ani­mals” appears on a wall in the Bis­cailuz Build­ing. Paint­ed in acrylics between the years 1974 – 1978, Poli­ti chose the Bless­ing of the Ani­mals cer­e­mo­ny for the mur­al because he felt the parade was about chil­dren, ani­mals and flow­ers, which were sub­jects he paint­ed best (Sev­er­al, 1998).

Leo Politi Blessing of the Animals mural
Politi’s mur­al “Bless­ing of the Ani­mals” appears on a wall in the Bis­cailuz Building.
Leo Politi The Blessing of the Animals
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Leo Poli­ti, The Bless­ing of the Ani­mals from Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street

Fly High, Fly LowMov­ing up the coast of Cal­i­for­nia, we reach San Fran­cis­co. Here Sid and Midge, a pigeon and a dove, nest in the low­er loop of the large let­ter “B” of the Bay Hotel in Don Freeman’s 1958 Calde­cott Hon­or book Fly High, Fly Low. From the van­tage point of their nest high up on the build­ing, they have a panoram­ic view of the city includ­ing Union Square, the icon­ic cable cars, and the Gold­en Gate Bridge. Free­man repli­cates the inter­na­tion­al orange col­or (Gold­en Gate Bridge, 2021) of the bridge using red, orange, and yel­low col­ored pen­cils (ALSC, 2017).

Viking Books for Young Read­ers reis­sued Fly High, Fly Low in 2004 (Schmitz, 2004), and Puf­fin Books pub­lished a 50th anniver­sary paper­back edi­tion in 2007.

Golden Gate bridge, Don Freeman
illus­tra­tion © Don Free­man, the Gold­en Gate Bridge fea­tured in Fly High, Fly Low
Golden Gate Bridge
the Gold­en Gate Bridge, San Fran­cis­co, California

Grand CanyonTrav­el­ing east, we arrive in Arizona’s Grand Canyon Nation­al Park. In his book Grand Canyon Jason Chin plays with time, past and present, to tell the sto­ry of a father and daugh­ter hik­ing out from the Col­orado Riv­er to the rim of the canyon. His note about the illus­tra­tions states, “Each illus­tra­tion in this book depicts a loca­tion along spe­cif­ic trails and if you vis­it the canyon you may be able to find the very spots that I includ­ed” (Chin, 2017). The front end­pa­pers are a map of the Col­orado Riv­er snaking through the canyon. An insert on the map shows the loca­tion of the park in Ari­zona. The four-page gate­fold panoram­ic view of the canyon cre­at­ed with “pen and ink, water­col­or, and gouache” (Bird, 2017) is a sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion to the trek. But this is more than a sto­ry of a hike. Infor­ma­tion about the his­to­ry, ecol­o­gy, geol­o­gy, plants, and ani­mals of the canyon are inter­spersed through­out the sto­ry, on page bor­ders, and addressed in end­notes. In addi­tion to a 2018 Calde­cott Award Hon­or, Chin earned a 2018 Robert Sib­ert Infor­ma­tion­al Book Award.

Grand Canyon
The four-page gate­fold panoram­ic view of the canyon cre­at­ed with “pen and ink,
water­col­or, and gouache” is a sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion to the trek.

So You Want to be PresidentOn the way to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. with Judith St. George and David Small’s So You Want to Be Pres­i­dent, we pass by Mt. Rush­more in South Dako­ta. Wash­ing­ton, Jef­fer­son, Roo­sevelt, and Lin­coln appear more jovial on the book jack­et than they do on the actu­al mon­u­ment. The book opens with a dou­ble-page spread of Franklin and Eleanor Roo­sevelt enjoy­ing tea on the lawn of the White House. Small worked as an edi­to­r­i­al artist for the New York­er, the New York Times, and the Wash­ing­ton Post (Small, 2001). His “water­col­or, ink, and pas­tel chalk” (ALSC, 2017) illus­tra­tions reflect that car­toon­ing style and humor­ous­ly cap­ture St. George’s enter­tain­ing facts and triv­ia about pres­i­dents from Wash­ing­ton through Clin­ton in this 2001 Calde­cott Medal book. The book has been revised twice: once in 2004 to include George W. Bush, and again in 2012 to include Barack Obama.

So You Want to be President
Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt and Eleanor Roo­sevelt hav­ing tea on the White House lawn,
illus­tra­tion © David Small, from So You Want to Be Pres­i­dent, writ­ten by Judith St. George

From Wash­ing­ton, D.C. we enter New York City through the bor­ough of Brook­lyn to vis­it Mo Willems’ neigh­bor­hood that he depicts in his Calde­cott Hon­or books about Trix­ie, her par­ents, and her stuffed toy Knuf­fle Bun­ny. In illus­tra­tor notes for both Knuf­fle Bun­ny: A Cau­tion­ary Tale, a 2005 Calde­cott Hon­or, and Knuf­fle Bun­ny Too: A Case of Mis­tak­en Iden­ti­ty, a 2008 Calde­cott Hon­or, Willems describes his art­work as hand drawn ink sketch­es, dig­i­tal­ly col­ored, meld­ed with dig­i­tal pho­tographs of his Park Slope neigh­bor­hood shad­ed in sepia tones. Tourists may not find the exact loca­tions of the laun­dro­mat or Trixie’s school, but there is no mis­tak­ing the arch in Grand Army Plaza where Trix­ie and her father and Sophie and her father meet late at night to exchange mixed up bun­nies. You can bare­ly see the father/daughter pairs as they approach the arch from the far left and right.

Knuffle Bunny
Knuffle Bunny
illus­tra­tion © Mo Willems, Grand Army Plaza in New York City, from Knuf­fle Bun­ny, Too

Nana in the CityNow we cross the Brook­lyn Bridge to Man­hat­tan with a lit­tle boy who vis­its his grand­moth­er in Lau­ren Castillo’s 2015 Calde­cott Hon­or book Nana in the City. Castillo’s vibrant, warm water­col­or images (ALSC, 2017) are out­lined in bold black lines. The sub­way, a spa­cious park, and busy streets with tall build­ings could be any city. Castil­lo nev­er names it. But her illus­tra­tions of the Brook­lyn Bridge and of the Empire State Build­ing place this set­ting square­ly in Manhattan.

In inter­views, Castil­lo said, “Cityscapes, dogs and cats are some of my favorite things to draw, so I find ways sneak them in to my art when­ev­er pos­si­ble” (Marple, 2014). Of her book about Nana, “It’s real­ly a love let­ter to the city” (Sax­on, 2014).

Brooklyn Bridge Castillo
illus­tra­tion © Lau­ren Castil­lo, the Brook­lyn Bridge, from Nana in the City
Brooklyn Bridge
the Brook­lyn Bridge, New York City, New York
New York City skyline Castillo
illus­tra­tion © Lau­ren Castil­lo, the Empire State Build­ing,
from Nana in the City
Empire State Building
the Empire State Build­ing, New York City, New York

Anoth­er famous New York City bridge, the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge, is fea­tured in Tar Beach, a 1992 Calde­cott Hon­or book by Faith Ring­gold. Cassie, the 8‑year-old pro­tag­o­nist of the sto­ry, con­sid­ers the bridge her “most prized pos­ses­sion” and wants to “wear it like a giant dia­mond neck­lace.” As she explains, her father helped build the bridge, and that places the set­ting in the late 1930s Harlem where Cassie lives with her fam­i­ly in an apart­ment building. 

Tar Beach
illus­tra­tion © Faith Ring­gold, the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge, from Tar Beach
George Washington Bridge
the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge, New York City, New York

Their “tar beach” roof pro­vides a place for the fam­i­ly to cool off on hot sum­mer nights. The pic­ture book is based on the first sto­ry quilt in Ringgold’s “The Woman on the Bridge” series that is part of the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of the Guggen­heim Muse­um (Spec­tor, 2020), and the text of the sto­ry is found near the top and bot­tom of the quilt. The quilt bor­ders on the bot­tom of sev­er­al illus­tra­tions in the book add to the folk style of the “acrylic paint­ings on can­vas paper” (ALSC, 2017, p. 117).

Tar Beach
a pho­to of the actu­al quilt by Faith Ring­gold
on dis­play at the Guggen­heim Museum
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold

HarlemHarlem is also the set­ting of Wal­ter Dean Myers’ trib­ute to the neigh­bor­hood in which he grew up. His son Christo­pher Myers illus­trates the 1998 Calde­cott Hon­or book Harlem: A Poem using “ink, gouache, and cut-paper col­lage” (ALSC, 2017, p. 111). The poet­ry and bold tex­tured images work togeth­er to cel­e­brate the cul­ture and his­to­ry of the peo­ple who lived there, and the illus­tra­tions also update the neigh­bor­hood. Locat­ed in Upper Man­hat­tan, the north and south bound­aries of Harlem are gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered West 155th Street and West 110th Street. West 125th Street was renamed Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Boule­vard in 1984.

Harlem Street Signs
illus­tra­tion © Christo­pher Myers, street signs,
from Harlem, writ­ten by Wal­ter Dean Myers
street signs in Harlem
street signs in Harlem, New York, City, New York

Make Way for DucklingsFrom New York City we pro­ceed north to Boston where Mr. and Mrs. Mal­lard are search­ing for a place to build a home in Robert McCloskey’s 1942 Calde­cott Medal book Make Way for Duck­lings. The Mal­lard pair fly over Bea­con Hill with the State House and Louis­burg Square, and final­ly set­tle on an island in the Charles Riv­er not far from the Pub­lic Gar­den. While liv­ing on Bea­con Hill as a young man, McCloskey walked through the Pub­lic Gar­den reg­u­lar­ly on his way to art school, and he was quite famil­iar with the archi­tec­ture of the build­ings in the city (Painter, 1968). He cre­at­ed the real­is­tic flu­id lines of his art as mono­chrome lith­o­graphs on zinc plates inked in sepia (Mar­cus, 2012). This brown hue was a close match for the feath­ers of the moth­er duck and her babies. Though it may be dif­fi­cult to see, the license plate on the car in the icon­ic illus­tra­tion of the police offi­cer stop­ping traf­fic for the duck fam­i­ly to cross the road has a “41” on it. This dates the set­ting, but it is a time­less story.

Make Way for Ducklings
illus­tra­tion © Robert McCloskey, the duck­lings stop traf­fic, from Make Way for Ducklings

Boston has cer­tain­ly changed since the 1940s, but the land­marks in McCloskey’s book are still there to vis­it. McCloskey said Make Way for Duck­lings has “…. been an intro­duc­to­ry book to Boston for many peo­ple” (Mar­cus, 2012, p. 149). Prob­a­bly the one place read­ers of the book vis­it most is the bronze sculp­ture of Mrs. Mal­lard and her eight duck­lings cre­at­ed by Nan­cy Schön with McCloskey’s per­mis­sion. They stand in the Pub­lic Gar­den near the cor­ner of Bea­con and Charles Streets (Isaac, 2004).

Heidi Hammond
Hei­di Ham­mond vis­it­ing the Pub­lic Gar­den in Boston, Massachusetts

Robert McCloskey and his fam­i­ly lived on their own small island near Deer Isle in Penob­scot Bay, Maine dur­ing May through Sep­tem­ber (Painter, 1968). That is the set­ting of three of his Calde­cott Award books: Blue­ber­ries for Sal, 1949 Hon­or; One Morn­ing in Maine, 1953 Hon­or; and Time of Won­der, 1958 Medal.

Blueberries for Sal
One Morning in Maine
Time of Wonder

In Blue­ber­ries for Sal and One Morn­ing in Maine McCloskey used lith­o­graphs as he did for Make Way for Duck­lings, but instead of sepia, the ink col­or is a dark blue, a con­nec­tion to the water sur­round­ing their island. Time of Won­der is full col­or done in casein, a water-sol­u­ble paint (ALSC, 2017).

These are fam­i­ly sto­ries that fea­ture his own fam­i­ly: his wife Peg­gy (the sto­ry­teller and author Ruth Sawyer’s daugh­ter), his two daugh­ters Sal­ly and Jane, and their pets Pen­ny, an Eng­lish set­ter, and Moz­zarel­la, their black cat (Painter, 1968). In One Morn­ing in Maine, father, who looks a lot like Robert McCloskey, rows his daugh­ters to Buck’s Har­bor to go shop­ping for gro­ceries. They stop at Condon’s Garage where Mr. Con­don serves the girls ice cream cones. The Condon’s Garage busi­ness has since moved up the road, but the build­ing is still there. Peo­ple like to vis­it the vil­lage of Buck’s Har­bor to enjoy the locale of the book (Abby, 2012).

Buck's Harbor, Maine
illus­tra­tion © Robert McCloskey, Con­don’s Garage
in Buck­’s Har­bor, Maine, from One Morn­ing in Maine
Condon's Garage
a pho­to of Con­don’s garage in Buck­’s Har­bor, Maine

Many illus­tra­tors are prob­a­bly inspired by real loca­tions for their set­tings. The above illus­tra­tors have named or por­trayed the set­tings of their sto­ries so accu­rate­ly they can be vis­it­ed and com­pared to the pic­tures in the books. Plot them on a map, and you can learn or refresh your geo­graph­i­cal skills!

Picture Books Cited

Chin, J. (2017). Grand Canyon. Roar­ing Brook Press.

Free­man, D. (1957). Fly high, fly low. Viking Press.

McCloskey, R. (1942). Make way for duck­lings. Viking.

McCloskey, R. (1949). Blue­ber­ries for Sal. Viking.

McCloskey, R. (1953). One morn­ing in Maine. Viking.

McCloskey, R. (1959). Time of won­der. Viking.

Myers, W. D. & Myers, C. (1997). Harlem: A poem. Scholas­tic.

Poli­ti, L. (1946). Pedro, the angel of Olvera Street. Scribner.

Poli­ti, L. (1948). Juani­ta. Scribner.

Ring­gold, F. (1991). Tar beach. Crown.

Shule­vitz, U. (2008). How I learned geog­ra­phy. Far­rar, Straus, Giroux.

St. George, J. & Small, D. (2000). So you want to be pres­i­dent? Philomel.

Willems, M. (2004). Knuf­fle Bun­ny: A cau­tion­ary tale. Hyperion.

Willems, M. (2007). Knuf­fle Bun­ny too: A case of mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty. Hyperion.

Photo Images

Abby. (2012). Con­don Garage. The Lupine Librar­i­an.

Bariscale, F. B. (2007). The bless­ing of the ani­mals.

De La Cruz, R. (2021). Gold­en Gate Bridge.

Elisa. (2017). Grand Canyon gate­fold. Staff picks. Deer­field Pub­lic Library.

Glob­al Jet. (2021). NYC icon: Brook­lyn Bridge.

Mikul, B. (2021). Empire State Build­ing.

NYPD 28th Precinct. (2019). W 125 St Dr Mar­tin Luther King Jr Boule­vard. Twit­ter.

Ring­gold, F. (1988). Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach. Guggen­heim Muse­um.

South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Region­al Rail Author­i­ty. (2021). Mod­ern Olvera Street cross.


Abby. (2012). “One morn­ing in May” day. The Lupine Librar­i­an.

Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC). (2017). The New­bery and Calde­cott Awards: A guide to the medal and hon­or books. Amer­i­can Library Association.

Bird, B. (2016). Grand Canyon. Call­ing Calde­cott.

Gold­en Gate Bridge-High­way & Trans­porta­tion Dis­trict. (2021). Bridge fea­tures.

Mar­cus, L. (2012). Show me a sto­ry!: Why pic­ture books mat­ter: Con­ver­sa­tions with 21 of the world most cel­e­brat­ed illus­tra­tors. Can­dlewick Press.

Marple, J. (2014). Illus­tra­tor inter­view – Lau­ren Castil­lo. Miss Marple’s Mus­ings.

Painter, H. W. (1968). Robert McCloskey: Mas­ter of humor­ous real­ism. Ele­men­tary Eng­lish 45(2), 145 – 158.

Riley, P. (2002). Poli­ti, Leo. In A. Sil­vey (Ed.), The essen­tial guide to children’s books and their cre­ators (p. 362). Houghton Mifflin.

Sax­on, A. (2014). Q & A with Lau­ren Castil­lo. Pub­lish­ers Week­ly.

Sev­er­al, M. (1998). The bless­ing of the ani­mals: Back­ground infor­ma­tion.

Small, D. (2001). Calde­cott Medal accep­tance. Horn Book Mag­a­zine, 77 (4), 411 – 419.

Spec­tor, N. (2020). Faith Ring­gold. Woman on a bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach. Guggen­heim Muse­um.

The Nation’s Report Card. (2018). The NAEP report card: Geog­ra­phy.

Schmitz, T. (2004). Many hap­py returns. Horn Book Mag­a­zine, 80 (4), 477 – 490.

Trausch, J. D. (n.d.). His­to­ry.

Unit­ed States Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­i­ty Office (GAO). (Octo­ber, 2015). K‑12 edu­ca­tion: Most eighth grade stu­dents are not pro­fi­cient in geog­ra­phy.

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David LaRochelle
3 years ago

Thanks for giv­ing us this arm­chair cross-coun­try tour!