Book Article

Chris Craft

Christopher Columbus for children -- We review some books that retell the story of the explorer with different approaches

Christopher Columbus for children

As the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World sails into view, historians are debating the importance of the discoverer as never before. The seven-hour PBS series Columbus and the Age of Discovery is airing this month, and more and more authors are weighing in with kids' books devoted to the intrepid mariner. So far, in children's books, Cristobal Colon remains a hero, not the despoiler seen by revisionists. Here are four notable titles about him.

I Discover Columbus
Robert Lawson
Here is the whimsical story of Columbus' 71-day odyssey across the ocean as narrated by Aurelio, a multilingual parrot with an attitude. Blown off his tropical perch in Central America by a hurricane, Aurelio is serendipitously deposited in Spain as a dispirited Columbus strolls by. The homesick Aurelio hatches plans to get back to his roost on the other side of the ocean by getting Columbus into the pilothouse of the Santa María. The sweet-talking bird convinces Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to finance the voyage, and Admiral Aurelio takes over, steering sulky, seasick, haughty Chris-topher through troubled waters to the New World. Lawson's brainy parrot, and the author's droll pen-and-ink drawings, deftly turn the standard Columbus story on its head and shake loose some laughter in the process. B+

Meet Christopher Columbus
James T. de Kay; illustrated by John Edens
This is a nonfictional cold handshake of a book about the self-proclaimed Ad-miral of the Ocean Sea for kids who have outgrown picture books but who aren't ready to wrestle with a coffee-table version yet. De Kay diligently avoids Columbus as heartless colonizer and overzealous missionary in favor of a righteously packaged, almost saintly biography. For instance, Columbus' habit of keeping two ship's logs — one with a record of the true distance traveled and another, falsified, version intended to assuage the frightened crew and prevent a mutiny — doesn't even evoke a wince of disapproval from the author, who rushes to raise the curtain on the next chapter. The story line isn't buoyed by the gray, expressionless drawings. In fact, the emotion in this book (and it's rare) is conveyed through exclamation points, not character development. C

If You Where There in 1492
Barbara Brenner
From kindergarten on, kids are drilled in the cliched heroics of Columbus. Brenner, however, refreshes grade-schoolers' interest in the oft-told story of Genoa's favorite son by giving us not the icon but a walking, talking Columbus who sups on simple food, showers irregularly, and speaks in standard English. Surely kids could wrap their minds — and curiosity — around this guy. A text cousin of the old You Are There TV series anchored by Walter Cronkite, the book takes the reader to late 15th-century Spain and provides a detailed mosaic of the period. Brenner's matter-of-fact reminders about the hardships of ex-ploration (the crew was sometimes plagued by lice and other vermin and slept on deck even in squalls) and the primitive tools used to navigate the unknown only heighten the drama of Columbus' accomplishment. B+

Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus
Peter Sis
This is a Columbus story stripped of frippery and platitudes — just Christopher and his dream of traveling to the Indies. The lushly detailed, imaginatively rendered, true-to-the-period illustrations capture a 15th century circumscribed by walls of superstition and naysaying. We watch a young Columbus nurture and eventually realize his vision. The minimal prose evokes a quietly courageous Columbus, and the illustrations are a tribute to a man who forced cartographers to recast their maps for good. B

Originally posted Oct 11, 1991 Published in issue #87 Oct 11, 1991 Order article reprints
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