Teaching Geography with Children’s Literature: Madlenka

“In the universe, on a planet, on a continent, in a country, in a city, on a block, in a house, in a window, in the rain, a little girl named Madlenka finds out her tooth wiggles."  In her tiny corner of the globe, Madlenka finds that she can travel around the world by visiting her multicultural neighbors on a New York City block as she tells them about her big news. Madlenka by author-illustrator Peter Sis shares a common human experience that everyone can relate to, regardless of where they came from or where they presently live.

As she talks to each of her neighbors and they greet her in their native tongue (“Hola!,” “Buon Giorno!,” “Guten Tag!”), Madlenka tells the readers what she knows about their cultures and countries of origin.  When she greets Mr. Eduardo, the Latino greengrocer, for example, she imagines a tropical landscape full of animals and luscious fruits.  As you turn the page following each interaction with a neighbor, we see how their stories take flight in Madlenka’s imagination as she envisions herself immersed in their culture.  Her trip around the block entices young readers to explore different cultural experiences in their own backyards, and helps communicate the complimentary ideas of commonality and uniqueness among people.

This book makes learning geography a more intimate and accessible journey for young children.  A small red dot pinpoints Madlenka’s exact location on the world map, a map of Manhattan, and a neighborhood map in the introductory pages.  A world map at the end of the book grounds the lesson nicely by showing children precisely where Madlenka’s neighbors came from.

Curriculum Connections
This vividly detailed picture book would be suitable as an introduction to geography for kindergarten and first grade students.  For kindergartners, it provides a basic introduction to world cultures and will help them understand and use simple maps and globes (K.4, K.5, 1.4).  The book’s playful treatment of world cultures and language would allow first graders to better comprehend the diversity of American culture (1.12c) while reinforcing basic geography lessons and the locations of continents on a world map.

Additional Resources

  • Peter Sis’s personal website features information about the author and illustrator, as well as games for children, including a Madlenka matching game which asks users to link her neighbors to the multicultural greetings used in the book.  It also mentions a follow-up book entitled Madlenka’s Dog in which Madlenka revists her neighbors.  A teacher’s guide is provided and would prove a valuable resource in further lesson planning.
  • National Geographic Kids “People and Places” is a perfect website for students to learn more about the cultures and countries mentioned in the book.  Facts, photos, videos, maps, and national flags are all easily accessible.
  • PBS Kids Big Apple Historyis a fun resource for older students, but use of this site would require advanced reading skills and/or direct teacher supervision.  A great section that could be adapted for use with younger students is the activity entitled “Neighborhood Portrait,” where educators could guide a discussion about the special qualities of a neighborhood:  the people, the cultures, the physical environment and structures, and the “feel” of a community.
  • As an artful lesson component, a kindergarten map activity can guide students as they create a “community collage” and discuss where they live in their community.

General Information

  • Book:   Madlenka
  • Author/Illustrator: Peter Sis
  • Publisher:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
  • Publication Date: 2000
  • Pages: 48
  • Grade Range:  Kindergarten and First Grade
  • ISBN:  0-374-39969-7

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