Discovering Our World With Smithsonian Book Sets

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Finding items that teach geography and natural science suitable for the ages of both my daughters isn’t always easy. These latest Smithsonian offerings from have been a big help. Image by Lisa Kay Tate.

My daughters are separated by seven years, and even though they both love learning about their world, they are at very different places in their learning experience.

The 5-year-old is still in the process of learning her states and state capitals. She is especially fascinated by the aspects of her home “states,” as we live one mile from the Texas/New Mexico border and she loves being part of both places.

My 12-year-old loves all things geography. She competes in map reading at Universal Interscholastic League Tournaments, but she wants to learn more about the natural science aspect of her planet, as well.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to check out two recent releases from Silver Dolphin Books suitable for each of these age groups, Smithsonian Young Explorers: 50 States and Smithsonian Discover: Earth.

Smithsonian Young Explorers: 50 States, by Ruth Strother with illustrator Sara Lynn Crumb, includes an alphabetical guide to each state, including official state flags, facts, symbols, famous natives, and fun trivia. It also includes a 130-piece floor puzzle of the United States and poster-sized map. Cost is $18.95, $14.82 on Amazon.

Smithsonian Discover: Earth by Dorothea DePrisco explores the planet from the inside and out in three parts: Amazing Earth, a look at the make up of the earth and its layers; Blue Planet guide to the Earth’s bodies of water; and Wild Weather, the science behind weather and natural disasters. Each section includes supplemental educational materials like a punch-out globe, double-sided map, and fact cards. Cost is $16.95, around $13 on Amazon.

Here are five of my favorite things I discovered about both these sets.

The Interactive Elements

The added elements to these items, particularly the maps, is what first drew me to these.

For the 50 States set, everything complements each other, and my daughter was using both the map and booklet as references, when assembling the puzzle. The initial thrill of opening up a book to find more than one item within was evident with my 5-year-old, almost as if she found a lost treasure map beneath the puzzle pieces. In a way, I guess she did.

The extra elements inserted at the start of each section in Discover: Earth were the first thing my older daughter went for, and she enjoyed the fact cards most of all. These had that collector-card vibe to them, as well as some beautiful images on each one. The map and the cards could be kept within the book in resealable plastic folders, and that made it even more appealing to me.

One thing I would like to have seen different on the Discover: Earth set is making the globe re-foldable, maybe by using slots and tabs rather than needing glue. My older daughter’s desk has a tendency to get pretty full pretty fast, and being able to store the globe flat when not in use, like the cards and map, would have been nice. It was still a wonderful part of the set, however, and even my younger daughter enjoyed finding her country on it.

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The puzzle in the Smithsonian Young Explorers: 50 States is the right size to challenge young minds, but still maintain their interest. Images by Lisa Kay Tate.

The Presentation

Even though we’re often warned against it, kids (and adults) still tend to judge books by their covers. A drab, boring exterior isn’t going to get them excited about learning anything. Both these items are eye-catching, right away.

If I were a fifth or sixth grader sitting down to a lecture or a new class, and Discover: Earth with its beautiful photo of the planet on the cover was the reference book sitting on my desk at school, I would be pumped for that class.

The boxed packaging for 50 States gave my youngest a similar feeling when she saw it, and even after doing the puzzle, she carried the book and map with her everywhere as if she were a lecturer with somewhere important to be. I often judge books and educational items for kids based on the response of kids regardless what I think. This simple puzzle and book kit certainly won on that level.

These seem like incidentals, when the actual contents of the books, maps, or puzzles are what matters, but you can’t overlook the importance of first appearances. If parents want their kids to open up a book or unfold a map, they have to find the item appealing enough to want to take that next step in the first place.

The Factoids

One of my pet peeves is when I run across images or facts that are just plain incorrect in young readers’ atlases or references books (saguaro cacti are found in Arizona, not Texas, for example). Little details do make a big difference, and it looks like the authors did their homework.

According the publisher, all the facts in both the 50 States fact book and Discover: Earth have been backed by museum professionals from the Smithsonian. That means these books have a reputation of excellence to defend.

In addition to feeling confident these facts are well researched, some of the facts in the 50 States fact book are there to be entertaining as well as educational.

Did you know Middlesboro, Kentucky, is the only city in the United States built inside a meteorite crater? Well, now you do.

The Easy Reference

Useful and interesting information and colorful pictures are only so helpful, if the user can’t find the information easily. This was particularly important to me with the Discover: Earth book for my oldest daughter. As a middle schooler who often seems bogged down with homework responsibility, the likelihood of maintaining interest in the water cycle or where the most active volcanoes are diminishes if she has to spend too much time having to hunt for the information. The book’s design with sections marked by color tabs gave her quick access to the answers to her questions.

The 50 States was set up in a consistent way, with state birds, flowers, and mammals being referenced by both illustration and words. The page design was fun and free, but not so much that the reader would have to hunt for what they want. If I had any criticism of its set up, I would have liked to have seen the state flag images a little bigger, as they tended to get lost in the page.

Both books include an age-appropriate glossary of terms in the back, and that is always appreciated.

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The Smithsonian Discover: Earth book has plenty of fun extras, but is also and enjoyable enough on its own for tweens. Images by Lisa Kay Tate.

The Parent-Child Opportunities

By far the best thing about both of these items is they seem to be tailor-made to get parents to sit down with their kids and look over everything together. And parents will want to do that. Discover: Earth, especially, lends itself to getting lost in the “Fast Facts.” Australia is flatter than Antarctica? I should have known that.

The paper globe is a nice addition to Smithsonian Discover: Earth. Image by Lisa Kay Tate.

The map and puzzle, which have identical images, can be used to turn a game of I Spy into an impromptu fun geography lesson. We also took advantage of the map as a way to look through the book. I would point at a state and say, “Find me this state bird,” and my five-year-old would match the image on the puzzle with that in the book. My daughter learned a little about looking up information sans computer, and I discovered those Mockingbirds and Western Meadowlarks are a couple of popular birds.

One bonus benefit of both these products is their staying power. Even after my daughter outgrows the recommended age for the 50 States puzzle, its companion reference book will still be something she will be happy to have with her as they begin to dive more deeply in United States history and geography in school.

The same holds true for the Discover: Earth book. The information may be written so kids as young as eight can easily grasp the information, but it makes it no less fun to look through, to “discover” more about our planet, no matter our age.

Considering the Blue Planet is 4.5 to 4.6 billion years old, we’re all still kids in comparison, anyway.

GeekMom received copies of these sets for review purposes.

Lisa Kay Tate is a veteran feature writer with 20 years experience in newspaper, magazine and freelance writing. In addition to serving as Associate Editor for her local arts and entertainment guide, El Paso Scene, she has been a regular contributor to the site and maintains her own blogsite at She and her husband, writer/photographer Rick, live on the edge of "New Texico" where they keep busy raising their two geeklings and sharing space with their dog, Sirius Black, and cat, Loki.