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More Southwest children’s literature and activities


Books offer numerous opportunities for group discussion and learning activities. Books set in the Southwest are no different.

The books below, suitable for ages 4 to 8, feature Anglo, Spanish, and Native American cultures and can acquaint young readers with folk tales and legends.


The Three Little Javelinas (Los Tres Pequenos Javelinos) written by Susan Lowell and illustrated by Jim Harris.
Flagstaff, Ariz.: Rising Moon, 1992.


This Southwestern adaptation of The Three Little Pigs takes place in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, but it could be almost any dry area in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and northern Mexico. In this lighthearted version, the villain coyote huffs and puffs at a house made of tumbleweeds, one made of sticks from the saguaro cactus, and one made of adobe bricks, with predictable results.

Prepare for discussion by finding more information and photos of real javelinas. A good resource is a fact sheet from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, You can click to hear a variety of javelina sounds.


What’s a javelina (pronounced ha-ve-LEE-na)? As the story explains, a javelina is a wild, hairy cousin of pigs. The word comes from a Spanish name for the collard peccary.
Have you ever seen a real javelina? If so, where?
How big is the animal? About 2 feet tall and 3-4 feet long. Its weight ranges from 35 to 55 pounds. Compare this to the children’s size.
Where do javelinas live? Point out features of the desert that are illustrated in the book, such as saguaro cactus, large boulders, and sandy soil. The animal eats mostly vegetation such as agave, mesquite beans, prickly pear cactus, and roots.
What other animals appear in the pictures?
What’s the difference between wild and tame (or domesticated) animals?


Activity: Build a sturdy house
Here’s what you need:
dry leaves, plant stems
dirt or sand
cardboard scraps
plastic or wooden blocks
water sprinkler


1. Invite children to go outdoors and build miniature houses. Encourage children to work together in groups. The goal is not to compete but to learn about construction.
2. Allow children to choose a location in the yard and select a variety of materials. One group may choose flimsy natural materials such as dry leaves and plant stems, another group rocks and twigs, and another group dirt and water (mixed into mud).
3. As children work, ask about problems they may encounter in making the houses hold together. Use vocabulary such as foundation, frame, roof, floor, architect, carpenter, and stonemason.
4. When they have finished, ask how the houses will hold up in different weather, such as wind and rain. Children may take turns blowing on the different houses or sprinkling water on them.
5. Point out the different materials used in constructing your program’s building or your home. Ask: What makes the building sturdy?

Variation: Do an indoor activity using scrap paper, paper mache, polystyrene, cotton balls, cardboard, toothpicks, ice-cream sticks, and other materials. Offer glue, tape, and markers.


How the Stars Fell into the Sky: A Navajo Legend written by Jerrie Oughton and illustrated by Lisa Desimini.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992.


This picture book tells a Navajo folk tale about a native woman who begins to write “the laws of the land” in the night sky using stars. She accepts help from trickster Coyote. Finding the task too slow, he flings the woman’s blanket of stars into the night, leaving the people without clear laws and confused.

Before reading the story, talk with children about legends, stories that come to us from ancestors and are told to explain why something is the way it is. Legends often have magical happenings and a hero; they are not necessarily true and cannot be proved. Many cultures, including Native Americans, have legends.

Prepare for the discussion by finding images of a star-filled night sky on the Internet or in an astronomy book. Find pictures of flags and other objects that contain the common star shape, such as the flags of the United States, Chile, and the Philippines. (For national flags with stars, see


Who are the Navajo?
How do you feel about Coyote’s help?
What’s real and what’s magical about this story?
Do you believe this story tells how stars really came into the sky?
Compare the book’s illustrations of stars to images of real stars. What is the same, and what is different?
Where have you seen five-pointed stars like the one in the book? (U. S. flag) Have you ever seen stars with four, six, or more points?


Activity: A star design
Here’s what you need:
star stickers
construction paper (black, dark violet, or deep blue)


1. Invite children make a design of their own choosing, using star stickers and a sheet of dark construction paper. Some may wish to make a line of stars, form a geometric shape, write their names or initials, or simply scatter the stickers across the page.
2. Post the children’s work in the classroom.


Activity: Make a star shape
Here’s what you need:
playdough or clay
star cookie cutter
tempera paint


1. Invite children to use the cookie cutter to make the star shape out of different materials.
2. Let the stars dry in the sun.
3. Children may paint or decorate the stars as they choose.

Variation: Make stars out of wet sand or mud.


The Legend of the Bluebonnet retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola.
New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1983.


This legend begins with drought and famine in the land of the Comanche people. The shaman (medicine man) returns from seeking the Great Spirits with the directive that the people must offer a sacrifice. A little girl, whose family has died in the famine, sacrifices the only thing she has left—her doll with blue jay feathers. The next morning she awakens to find the ground covered with flowers.

In planning activities to accompany this book and the Indian Paintbrush book below, refer to the article about the buffalo in Summer 2016 issue. (See That article contains an art activity on using crumpled brown paper bags to represent buffalo hides that can be used for drawing pictures, much like the painting of a buffalo hunt in the book.


What is a drought? What is a famine? Why might the two occur together?
Who are the Comanche?
What is a shaman?
What is the name of the flower that covered the hillsides? Have you ever seen them? When and where?
What’s real and what’s magical in this story?
Do you believe this is how bluebonnets came to be?
How do you feel about the little girl giving up all she had?


Activity: Make a Native American shield
Here’s what you need:
wooden or metal hoop
brown paper bag
glue or tape


1. Point out the illustration of the shield hung from a pole in the opening of the book. (You can see another illustration of a shield about midway through the Indian Paintbrush book.)
2. Explain that Native Americans of the Plains originally made shields to protect themselves in battle, but as time went on, shields evolved to represent an individual as endowed by his creator. A young man, often with the help of a shaman and the whole tribe, made the shield from buffalo hide and decorated it with images of animals, birds, astronomical elements, and symbols that might stand for power and spirit, for example. Animal fur and feathers were fastened to the shields to bestow the individual with the creature’s abilities. Ask: Would you like to make a shield for yourself?
3. Invite children to look at authentic shields online by Googling “Smithsonian Native American shields.” Encourage them to plan how they will decorate their shields by thinking about their favorite animals, games, and colors.
4. Show children how to crumple the paper bag and then smooth it out to represent buffalo hide.
5. Lay the hoop on the paper and draw a line around the outer edge of the hoop. The images for the hoop will be drawn inside this circle.
6. After drawing or painting images on their shields, children will place the paper over the hoop and cut or tear about a 2-inch margin around the edges. Punch small holes around the edges—one for hanging the shield and two or more for fastening feathers.
7. Help children glue or tape the edges to the back.
8. Tie a loop of yarn through at the top for hanging the shield. Use yarn to tie feathers on the hoop through the holes at the bottom or sides.

For more information about Native American shields, see “Shields of the Plains: Individualism and Collectivism in the Native American Plains Shield Custom,” by David Owens and Dr. Lisa Seppi, State University of New York at Oswego, Nov. 20, 2013, at,%20David%20-%20Art%20History.pdf.


The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola.
New York: Putnam & Grosset Group, 1996.


In this story, a small boy uses his artistic gifts to paint buffalo hunts, people, and other images of his community. He wants to paint the sunset but cannot find the right colors of red, orange, and yellow. One night a voice tells him about a hilltop where he will find brushes filled with paint. He goes there and paints the sunset, and the next morning finds the hilltop covered in flowers.

Prepare for this activity by finding photos online of the Indian paintbrush. One good resource is the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, The Indian paintbrush is sometimes misidentified as the Indian blanket, another red and yellow flower also known as the firewheel. For photos of the firewheel and other common wildflowers, including the bluebonnet, see Texas Highways,

What do we call the flower that the people found growing on the hilltop? Have you ever seen one? When and where does it grow?
Why does Little Gopher use his artistic gifts instead of hanging out with the other boys?
Do you have dreams when you’re asleep at night?
What’s real and what’s magical about this story?
Do you believe the story tells how these flowers really came to be?
What do you like about the story? How does it make you feel?


Activity: Make a dream catcher
Here’s what you need:
a circular plastic bracelet or hoop, about 2 ½ inches in diameter
strips of cloth, 1/2-inch wide, or yarn in a neutral color, such as tan, brown, gray, or black


1. Review the references to “dream vision” in the book. Dreams and visions have been important to many cultures, including Native Americans, for ages. Explain that some Native Americans hung dream catchers near where their children slept, but the reason varies. Some believe the object snares nightmares, while others say it catches good dreams. Ask: Would you like to make a dream catcher?
2. Demonstrate how to wrap the cloth strips or yarn around the circle until it is completely covered. Glue or tie the ends to secure it.
3. Tie a length of string at one place on the circle and knot securely. Pull it to an opposite spot across the circle and knot securely. Repeat with four more strings to make a web inside the circle.
4. Tie a feather on a short length of string and thread beads on either side. Tie the loop to the bottom of the circle.
5. Tie another loop of string or cloth at the top of the circle for hanging the dream catcher.
6. Hang the dream catchers in the classroom. Some children may want to take them home.

Note: If you want to pursue the theme of wild flower legends, this book will be useful. Bloomin’ Tales: Legends of Seven Favorite Texas Wildflowers written by Cherie F. Colburn. Houston: Bright Sky Press, 2012.


Where the Buffalo Roam by Jacqueline Geis.
Nashville, Tenn.: Ideal Children’s Books, 1992.

Use this book to both introduce the traditional ballad, Home on the Range, and the clever six-stanza expansion with lyrical information on the plants, animals, wildlife, and geography of the region. Deep-toned watercolor illustrations include petroglyphs that hint at the ancient history of the area.

Prepare to share the book with a recording of the original song. With computer access, children can listen to the song in its original 1873 version and watch historic images at A version with read-along text and cartoon-like graphics is at

When the children are familiar with the tune, substitute the lines from Geis’ book:


Oh, show me a land / Where the tall saguaros stand / And the coyotes and jack rabbits run, / Where the Gila lies still, / As the green rat snake will, / In the warmth of the hot morning sun.


Activity: Group collage
Here’s what you need:
mural paper
discarded magazines with Southwest images
scraps of paper, fabric, yarn, and grasses


1. Cut a long sheet of mural paper and affix to a wall at children’s height. Write Southwest Range at the top of the paper.
2. Introduce the collage activity as one that will take several days to complete, a bit at a time.
3. Reread the Geis book and ask children to identify and describe each of the distinct Southwest features—the Gila lizard, saguaro cactus, javelina, prickly pear, and coyote, for example. Provide realistic photographs to help children distinguish the artist’s interpretation from the actual.
4. Make collage materials available and invite children to draw or construct two-and three-dimensional features to the mural.


Activity: Clay sun sculpture
Here’s what you need:
self-drying craft clay
rolling pins
plastic knives
small cookie cutters in basic shapes
plastic drinking straws
liquid tempera and brushes
spray acrylic sealant (for adult use only)


1. Introduce the activity by sharing pictures of folk art sun faces. Google search images, folk art sun for examples.
2. Talk with children about the artist’s intentions. Ask questions like, What does the artist want you to understand about the sun? Why did the artist use the colors or shapes represented? Is this what the sun really looks like?
3. Let the children to explore the clay freely before inviting them to create a sun sculpture. Working the clay will help soften it for the sculpting activity.
4. Place a lump of clay on the table and show the children how to use their muscles with the rolling pin to make a slab about the diameter of a small plate and about ¼-inch thick.
5. Use the knife to cut the desired circle shape; scraps can be used for facial features and sun rays, if desired.
6. Use the knife, straw, or cookie cutters to mold features—removing clay or adding it.
7. Use a straw to make a hole at the top of the sculpture so that it can be hung when dry.
8. Let the sculpture dry until hard—usually overnight.
9. Let the children use paint to highlight the sculpture’s features. Remember this is a process and experimentation is essential. Avoid directing or modeling.
10. Optional: Spray the sculptures with acrylic sealant. Make sure children aren’t around and that you have good ventilation; follow the can directions carefully.
11. When dry, hang the collection of sun sculptures in an aesthetically pleasing manner—indoors or out.