Who Was First?

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  But there’s more to the story.  As Columbus Day approaches, take a new look at the explorer in Russell Freedman’s “Who Was First? Discovering the Americas.” 

By the time Columbus and his sailors dropped anchor in the Bahamas, they had endured five weeks of travel without sight of land.  What they found on the island Columbus named San Salvador were the Tainos, described in his log as “very well-built people, with handsome bodies and very fine faces.”  Several weeks later he returned to Spain laden with gold and gifts, still believing he had reached the shores of Asia, and soon planning his second voyage.

But as Freedman states in the very first paragraph, “we now know that Columbus was among the last explorers to reach the Americas, not the first.”  He recounts the visits by Leif Eriksson to present-day Labrador and Newfoundland around 1000 A.D., and paints a startling portrait of the Americas in the sixteenth century.  Rather than the vast expanse of wilderness that most of us picture, the continent was inhabited by more people than in all of Europe.   Explorers and missionaries described the “bee hive of people” and the “great towns,” some bigger than any European cities. 

Freedman even covers the controversial theory that the Chinese explored the west coast of America in the early fifteenth century.   Though Gavin Menzies’ theory is pooh-poohed by most historians, Freedman treats his ideas even-handedly, along the way showing middle schoolers how historians must carefully build their cases for what they think happened in the past.  Dozens of illustrations, maps and quotes from the explorers enliven a thought-provoking look at the story everyone knows – or thinks they know.

Betsy and Giulio Maestro tell a similar story for younger readers in “The Discovery of the Americas.”  With full-page watercolor illustrations and maps, the Maestros start their story when Stone Age hunters cross into the New World from Asia.  They also refer to theories that Japanese fishermen and Phoenician sailors might have traded in the Americas more than two thousand years ago.  They include a tantalizing page showing the similarities between objects like fishhooks and children’s toys found in both the old and new worlds.

Kathy Pelta explains how we know what we know about history in “Discovering Christopher Columbus: How History is Invented.”  She starts by asking the kinds of questions kids themselves would ask.  “How can we find out what Columbus looked like, or what color his hair was? Did he have brothers and sisters?”  Despite the lack of written records, Columbus’s own reticence about his family life, and the many legends that grew up around him, historians have pieced together quite a bit of information.   Kids reading this book will be intrigued with the combination detective/librarian skills that it takes to get to the bottom of a five-hundred-year-old mystery.

“Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus?” is Jean Fritz’s lively look at the man and his voyages.  She includes just the kinds of details that kids love, such as the “curiosities” that Columbus found on the islands: hanging beds (hammocks), mermaids (really sea cows) and rolled-up leaves that men lit and stuck up their noses (tobacco leaves).  Her direct and conversational style and the plentiful illustrations will appeal to explorers aged nine and up.