Friday, June 26, 2009

"If America Were a Village"

It's hard to wrap your mind around a number as immense as 306 million -- the current population of the United States -- but boil that number down to 100 statistically representative people and trends comes into focus.

We find, for instance, that our American village contains 15 people of German ancestry and only nine of English descent -- a big change from colonial times. Half the population lives in just nine states. Five of our 100 villagers own more than half the wealth. The village has 81 cars -- more than in any other country -- and 73 cell phones, by no means the largest number in the world.

David J. Smith used this ingenious conceit to good advantage in his 2002 bestseller, "If The World Were a Village," which was updated in 2008. He extends is beautifully in "If America Were a Village" (Kids Can Press, $18.95), an August release aimed at readers 8 to 12.

Both titles are part of CitizenKid, a new Kids Can Press collection that tries to encourage good global citizenry through exploration of biodiversity, microloans, water conservation and other relevant topics.

The two "Village" books are natural companion volumes. Similar in format, they both explore specific facets of daily life through attractive double spreads. "World" uses encyclopedic topic headings, such as "Languages" and "Nationalities," but the new volume strives for a more conversational tone, with headings that ask, "What are our families like?" "How old are we?"

While "World" ends with a two-page afterword titled "Teaching children about the global village," "America" offers a two-page afterword titled "Helping our children understand America."

The two volumes also have compatible visual styles, but illustrator Shelagh Armstrong has given each one a distinct personality. In "World," she used bold, black outlines to distinguish the people bustling through crowded, brightly colored parks and marketplaces. Cities and towns are viewed from above, as if the reader were looking out from a tall tower. This new volume has a softer, smudgier look than its predecessor, creating a tone of warmth and intimacy that children should find appealing.

In addition, Armstrong uses a closer lens in "America," focusing on scenes of cheerful domesticity. And America certainly is a happy place! Big smiles and laughter abound. (Of course, in Smith's pre-recession village, only five people are unable to find a job. That might explain it. ) A traditional New England town with white-steepled churches serves as the backdrop for the ethnically and religiously diverse population.

Smith's clear, understandable prose is a pleasure to read, and adults will find the book as intriguing as kids. Smith writes that the real point of the book is to show that Americans, while unique in many ways, have much in common with the rest of the world. He worries that our sense of community is fraying because "people see the issues that divide us rather than the ties that bind us."

"It is my hope," he writes, "that this book will enrich and improve that sense of community...and that kids will then be inspired to find ways to make their country and their world a better place."

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