Go Visual-Spatial with Maps and Middle Grade Books

I came across the phrase “carto-literate” in an article last week. The author was referring to geography skills, but it made me think of all the cool map-based activities one can offer readers of middle grade books. Maps, globes, and online mapping tools maintain a strong role in the study of history, geography, science, and math; however, the great benefits of using maps as learning tools can be extended to the reading experience, as well.  If you haven’t thought about utilizing map activities for literature selections in your classroom, home school, or library, consider these awesome benefits:

  • Maps immediately call up the use of Visual-Spatial skills, and might engage readers who are not quite as Verbal-Linguistic as others.
  • Maps promote flexible, creative thinking through the use of to-scale renderings and symbols.
  • Maps directly connect to math, science, technology, and research skills, and they promote discussions on cultural topics of inclusivity and acceptance. They also encourage an understanding of history, as borders and place names change over time due to migration, conflict, and political transition.
  • Maps also inspire the imagination with the notion of travel and adventure; after all, it’s easy to envision yourself as an explorer or treasure-seeker when you have a map in hand!

These activity ideas involving maps might inspire a more fulfilling reading experience, and will promote thinking and discussion on these and other titles.

1. Using a world map, locate and mark the literary settings of books that might be new to your library or books on suggested or curricular reading lists. Settings can be approximate or specific; sometimes, while specific names of roads or towns are fictionalized, the state or region is identified—giving students just enough context to pinpoint the setting on a map. For example, these recent MG books have specific or general settings that are “mappable”:

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman (Chennai, India)

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (Northern CA)

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Medieval France)

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Chicago, IL)

North to Benjamin by Alan Cumyn (Dawson, Yukon)

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (South Florida)

2. Use Google Maps to explore a realistic, named setting and discuss plot conflicts in terms of the story’s geography. Students can zoom in on locations, study city layouts, and even “drive around” neighborhoods in Street View. For example, when reading Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ninth Ward, students can investigate through Google Maps the geography of New Orleans, and make connections to the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

3. Pinpoint the settings of books that share a historical time period on a map, and consider the ways in which location and culture impacted the plot and characters. For example, on a map of the world, mark the literary settings of books like these that take place in the time of WWII:

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli (Warsaw, Poland)

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (London, England and vicinity)

The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff (Rockaway, NY)

 

4. Maps can help promote comprehension and increase the emotional value of a story when used in conjunction with the travels of a character. For example, readers can use a world map to trace the journey of Ebo, a refugee from Ghana, in Illegal, a graphic novel by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano.

 

5. In an exploration of their own world-building skills, readers can create maps for middle grade fiction with geography context clues. For example, readers can use close reading skills, logic, and imagination to draw a map of locations in Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, or for works that have a fantasy or purely fictionalized setting. Many MG fantasies showcase beautiful maps of the story’s settings, like Jaleigh Johnson’s The Door to the Lost. Readers can use these already-created maps to note plot points and trace the paths of characters.

6. A start-of-the-year icebreaker I’ve tried with success involves a world map, displayed in the classroom: each student shares the location farthest from home to which he or she has traveled and pins a marker on the map. Put a literary spin on this idea, and have readers share the book title they’ve read with a setting that is farthest from home. Each student can mark the map with the book title and author. A longer project idea might involve individual student presentations of plot summaries or book reviews.

Perhaps you’ll find a map activity here that suits your reader or students! Good luck to parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and readers of MG as we all head back to the classroom this school year.

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Jenn Brisendine
Along with her MUF posts, Jenn can be found at jennbrisendine.com, where she offers free teaching printables for great MG novels along with profiles of excellent craft books for writers.

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