Geography – that study of the Earth’s phenomena – hills, mountains, oceans, rivers and plains – should get children super excited. Imagine knowing more about the various beautiful land and water forms that make our planet. Instead, most of the time children have a glazed look while the teacher motors on about peninsulas, creeks, and bays.
The study of geography need not start only in grade 6 or 7. Emily Gravett’s Meerkat Mail is a superb first book about geography told in the best way possible – through a story. Not just any story mind you but one of a meerkat, a small carnivore that belongs to the mongoose family and can be found in the Kalahari desert, a sandy savannah in Southern Africa.
“Sunny lives in the Kalahari Desert.
It is VERY dry and VERY hot.
Sometimes Sunny thinks it is…
What is Kalahari? What is this animal? Africa? Savannah? What are these? Where are they? Meerkat? Is it a cat? It looks like a mongoose. Is it a mongoose? Why is hot and dry in Kalahari? These are some of the questions the story teller can expect from little listener(s). Geography lesson 1.
The author Emily Gravett knows quite a bit about geography and traveling. She left in a bus at 16 with her partner Mik travelling. For eight years Mik and she worked as farm casual labourers and attended festivals. In her twenties, she had her baby Oleander, but no ‘fixed’ home and not for the lack of trying. She found herself living in an unusual state. An article in The Guardian noted:
The family lived in their bus on an old railway line; even going to the loo was an ordeal. The baby used disposables, but if Emily needed to respond to a call of nature, it meant dressing Olly to go out, carrying her in her car seat, propping her up on bricks, and digging a hole to use as a toilet.
Meerkat Mail almost seems like a throwback Emily wrote and illustrated to those years on the road in her search for a brick and mortar home. Using a pencil and wash style, Gravett takes the little reader through various landscapes with accompanying postcards for each location visited. She also explores the idea of the restive heart and our relentless search for a place we can call our home, not just the one we are born into.
Sunny, the protagonist finds his mob (yes, that’s what a group of meerkats is called) too cloying. After all the mob motto is ” A meerkat alone, is on its own. Stay, safe, stay together! (And stay away from jackals). Sunny wants to see the world, know more about it and so off he goes promising his mum to stay with his extended family.
His first stop is with his uncle Bob, a dwarf mongoose. Sunny stays in the sandy dune, eating scorpions and enjoying the sunny weather. In his postcard, he says that they are warned by the African Red Hornbill about approaching danger. A beautiful postcard with the Hornbills picture and fun facts about the Dwarf Mongoose can be found on the underside. Geography lesson 2.
In lesson/story 3, Sunny now spends time with his cousins Scratch and Mitch, the banded mongoose who eat termites.
More lessons disguised as stories follow or is it vice versa?. Through farm, marsh, and rainy forest, through day and night, Sunny meets his cousins. Each page is a good place to stop and discuss the place Sunny is at. The postcards are captivating and fill each page with a feeling of adventure.
As an added benefit there are family pictures of the extended mongoose family in the book.
This book is as much about geography as it is about family and home. Yi-Fu-Tuan, the pioneer of human geography (the study of human interaction with space, physical and social environments) so aptly said,
“Geography is the study of earth as the home of people”
Meerkat Mail is an essential item in every bookshelf and travel bag, one that will be relished for a long, long time.
Age Range: 4 – 8 years
Grade Level: Preschool – 3
Lexie Reading: 520L