Book Review: Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles Mann

A Solid Choice for the History of the Americas

Dear Homeschool Parents,

Couple of weeks ago, I shared a book review of The Ancient American World by William Fash & Mary Lyons that I whole-heartily recommended and would LOVE to see reprinted. However, I understand the struggles of the homeschool family trying to formulate a book budget for high-quality history books that are, not only accurate, but their families can get a lot of use out of. Enter Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 by Charles Mann, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster). This particular book is an adapted version of Mann’s book for adults called 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and is the 2nd book I recommend using in my Parent Resource Guide. Here’s the breakdown: 

  • This book is also old, copyright 2009. And yet, it’s still more up-to-date than most homeschool books and children’s picture books about Latin America.
  • This book has 11 chapters, around 10 pages each but is formatted like a picture book, not the typical chapter book. I do have a chapter-by-chapter schedule in my Parent Resource Guide, which corresponds to a timeline entry like I do for The Ancient American World, but this book isn’t as easy to schedule on your own because it’s not chronological. The book is organized thematically, which TBH is very, very annoying, particularly to the busy homeschool mama trying to plan history chronologically. The grown-up version is the same. 😑 
  • This book does NOT use Maya & Mayan correctly and I don’t know why. Mann did so much research and yet, still uses “Mayan” as an adjective. It just goes to show how important it is to use archaeologists and historians, not just writers or journalists to write books about Latin America. IDK what the editorial process is for creating a book like this but I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that Simon & Schuster can’t afford to have archaeologists and subject-matter experts consult on children’s nonfiction titles. This history is sooooooo important. Let’s spend the money doing this correctly, for all our children! 
  • This book has nice maps and large color photographs. There are illustrations and the use of notable artwork. This works…most of the time. On page 16, which is a chapter all about corn, a portion of a mural by Diego Rivera was used, depicting Indigenous women making tortillas. One would think using artwork from an artist like Rivera, who was from Mexico and often depicted Indigenous people, would work, except two of the women are topless. Yup. Topless. In a children’s book. You might be thinking, “but Stacie, many art books for children show nudity in remarkable art, like Michaelanglo’s David. Isn’t this the same thing?” IMHO, nope. Too often, Indigenous peoples are represented as naked or almost naked in history books as a way to “exotify” them and depict them as primitive. In this picture, there are 5 women and 2 are topless. To me, the issue isn’t about whether Mexica women made tortillas without wearing shirts. I think the problem, for me, was likely that the publisher (artistic director, editor, whoever) wanted to use a Mexican artist, picked Rivera because his work is easy to find and use, found this picture that had corn, and thought, “perfect!” No people! This is still a children’s book. Call me a prude, but I used a Sharpie and colored in a top on these women and tried not to picture Rivera (known to have been a womanizer) using topless models. I also don’t like the photograph of the Chinchorro mummy on page 5 because I feel like it dehumanizes the person who was mummified. It’s a photo cut-out and layered on the side of the page. Again, IMHO, I think it is demunizating and may scare a sensitive child. Perhaps, now that I’m in my 40s and have had so many children, my heart is sensitive to depictions of dead persons, even mummies that are thousands of years old. My first thought is always, “that was a human being,” whereas when I was younger (especially a child), it would have been, “cool! A mummy!”
  • This book does give more attention to other peoples of the Americas and not just the big three (Aztec, Maya, Inca). I really appreciate this because there tends to be an assumption, especially in homeschool texts, that if you cover the Aztec, Maya, and Inca, that you’ve covered all of Latin American history. It’s endlessly frustrating and I do think that by adding just this book, you will have a more well-rounded view of history. 
  • This book is in print and easy to find wherever books are sold. It’s been recommended for all ages, but personally, I think that 3rd grade and up would be most appropriate. 
  • Is this book a “living book?” I think so. I have seen it recommended by Charlotte Mason homeschoolers. Although, I am no expert as I consider myself to be a “whatever works” homeschooler. 

Hope this book review has been a helpful one! Even if we disagree about the Rivera mural. It’s totally okay to disagree and have different opinions and I’m open to discussing it with any homeschool parent. I am just so thankful you are looking to include this history in your homeschool because I know how hard and exhausting homeschooling can be. It is my sincere wish that my Parent Resource Guide and providing these kinds of book reviews and Cringe posts makes your job as a home educator a little bit easier. Check out my Fb and Instagram for more pics inside this book. 🧡

With a hopeful heart,


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