Children’s books about the Southwest


Southwest children's books, Coyote, Gerald McDermott
When my boys were small, a friend in the Midwest would frequently call and say, “The Weather Channel said it was 116 (or 118, 122 … whatever) in Phoenix today. Why on Earth would you live in a place like that? Have you lost your mind?”

By August, I would be nodding: “Yes, yes, I have well and truly lost it.” But come November, I’d smile, renew her subscription to “Arizona Highways” and buy her children copies of the same Southwestern-desert books that my kids loved.

Then, sitting out on the back patio with a glass of wine, watching the sun set in a glorious blaze of violet, blood orange and pink, I’d raise a toast to her, knowing it was 33 degrees and pouring icy rain in Michigan.

Did her kids enjoy the books? Dutiful thank-you notes aside, I couldn’t say for sure, — but they all live in Arizona now.

For Arizonans with young children to buy gifts for, whether the kids live here or elsewhere, please consider books that explain, beautifully, why we might not be so crazy to live here after all. Even residents need a reminder sometimes. There is a wealth of gorgeous, informative, imaginative, evocative picture books available, and some welcoming, calm oases of print in which to find them.

Changing Hands has a good selection and will happily order for you. The gift shop at Desert Botanical Garden carries many of the titles mentioned here, and it has a terrific collection of field guides as well.

However, the absolute best local source for children’s books about our region and its indigenous peoples is the lovely Books & More at the Heard Museum. The shop is set in a cool, shaded courtyard just outside the museum’s front door. There is a coffee shop attached, a cafe next door, a restful open space complete with a water feature out front, and a fine-arts gift shop across the way.

The staff is friendly, helpful and extremely knowledgeable, and an expert — shop manager Lynn Bullock — has carefully selected the store’s enormous children’s collection. Most of the titles on these lists are available there. Starred (*) titles have the additional recommendation of Shaliyah J. Ben, manager of the Heard Museum’s education and outreach programs.

Southwest children's books, Why Oh Why Are Deserts Dry?More than “just the facts” about deserts

“Cactus Hotel,” by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Megan Lloyd.* This classic, must-have addition to every child’s library tells the life story of a giant saguaro and its many long- and short-term guests.

“C Is for Coyote: A Southwest Alphabet Book,” by Andrea Helman, photographed by Art Wolfe and Gavriel Jecan. Stunning photographs and brief, unobtrusive informational text show off our desert home, A to Z.

“Corn Is Maize,” by Aliki. The history of Native Americans’ discovery and development of one of the mainstays of our civilization.

“Deep in the Desert,” by Rhonda Lucas Donald, illustrated by Sherry Neidigh. Learn about desert animals using familiar kids songs with new lyrics and beautiful illustrations.

“Desert Babies,” by Kristen McCurry. This board book has adorable photos of critters in home habitats, with their moms and/or caregivers.

“Desert Digits: An Arizona Number Book,” by Barbara Gowan, illustrated by Irving Toddy. Lushly illustrated, higher-than-10 counting book takes kids on a tour of our state.

“Desert Giant: The World of the Saguaro Cactus,” by Barbara Bash.* Another classic; it’s more detailed and science-y than “Cactus Hotel.”

“Desert Night, Desert Day,” by Anthony D. Fredericks, illustrated by Kenneth J. Spengler. Rhyming, fact-filled text and beautiful art combine to show nocturnal and diurnal desert residents.

“Deserts,” by Gail Gibbons. Lots of good, general information about deserts.

“Don’t Call Me Pig! A Javelina Story,” by Conrad J. Storad, illustrated by Beth Neely and Don Rantz. Fun, funny and educational to boot!

“Look Who Lives in the Desert! Bouncing and Pouncing, Hiding and Gliding, Sleeping and Creeping,” by Brooke Bessesen. An entertaining mix of rhyme, cartoon, collage, and fascinating facts from Arizona Highways Books.

“Rattlesnake Rules,” by Conrad J. Storad, illustrated by Nathaniel P. Jensen. Mama Rattlesnake educates her scaly young’uns — and human ones, too — about desert survival.

“The Seed and the Giant Saguaro,” by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Mike K. Rangner. The life of a saguaro in a clever, cumulative tale that complements the other saguaro titles.

“Southwest Colors,” by Andrea Helman. Photographed by Gavriel Jecan. Think the desert is a drab, colorless place? This book will make you take another look.

“Who Pooped in the Sonoran Desert: Scat and Tracks for Kids,” by Gary D. Robson, illustrated by Robert Rath. On a hike with their parents, kids learn that the seemingly uninhabited desert is full of life, once they learn to see the clues.

“Why, Oh Why, Are Deserts Dry?” by Tish Rabe, illustrated by Aristides Ruiz and Joe Mathieu. Dick and Sally follow the Cat in the Hat to the world’s deserts and learn how they were made.

“Zachary Z. Packrat Backpacks the Grand Canyon,” by Brooke Bessesen, illustrated by Jenny Campbell. Zach is off on an exciting adventure into our very own natural world wonder. Another Arizona Highways Book.

Southwest children's books, The Goat in the RugNative American legends and stories

“Baby’s First Laugh,” translated by Peter A. Thomas, illustrated by Beverly Blacksheep.* Everyone in the family tries to make the little one laugh. Find out who finally succeeds. Board book written in Navajo and English.

“The Butterfly Dance,” by Gerald Dawavendewa. In late summer, a young Hopi rabbit prepares for and participates in the Butterfly Dance, which will help bring life-giving rains to her people.

“Celebrate My Hopi Toys,” by Anita Poleahla, illustrated by Emmett Navakuku.* A counting book featuring traditional Hopi children’s toys. Board book written in English and Hopi.

“Coyote: A Trickster Tale From the American Southwest,” by Gerald McDermott. Vain, greedy Coyote finally meets his match when he persuades crows to teach him to fly. A Zuni tale.

“Dragonfly Tale,” retold and illustrated by Kristina Rodanas.* The Corn Maidens remove their blessing from a disrespectful, wasteful community. The hungry people leave to find food. Two abandoned children make a cornstalk toy that flies to the Maidens and regains their blessing. A simplified retelling of a Zuni folktale.

“The Flute Player: An Apache Folktale,” retold and illustrated by Michael Lacapa. A beautifully illustrated, traditional Apache story of love and loss with universal appeal.

“The Goat in the Rug,” by Geraldine, as told to Charles L. Blood and Martin Link. Illustrated by Nancy Winslow Parker.* Delightful “goat’s-eye” account of the making of a Navajo rug, from clipping and carding to dyeing and weaving.

“The Hogan That Great Grandfather Built,” by Nancy Bo Flood, illustrated by Peterson Yazzie.* The rhyme “The House That Jack Built” gets a lovely Navajo twist. The hogan built by great-grandfather Jack is the touchstone of his family and their way of life.

“How the Stars Fell Into the Sky: A Navajo Legend,” by Jerrie Oughton, illustrated by Lisa Desimini. Impatient Coyote thwarts First Woman’s efforts to provide her people with laws for living that were easily readable in the stars. A lovely story, beautifully illustrated.

“The Mouse Couple: A Hopi Folktale,” retold by Ekkehart Malotki, illustrated by Michael Lacapa.* Wanting the very best husband for their lovely, dutiful daughter, Mother and Father Mouse aim impossibly high.

“This House Is Made of Mud,” by Ken Buchanan, illustrated by Libba Tracy. Gorgeous watercolor paintings illustrate a child’s attachment to her Navajo home and desert surroundings.

Southwest children's books, RoxaboxenThe desert through a child’s eyes

“Because You Are My Baby,” by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Sylvia Long. Human and animal mothers in the desert put their precious babies to bed.

“Bedtime in the Southwest,” by Mona Hodgson, illustrated by Renee Graef. Small desert critters have some ingenious ways of avoiding bedtime.

“Come On, Rain!” by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Jon J. Muth. A little girl living in a hot, dry city eagerly awaits, then celebrates, the arrival of a much-needed rainstorm. Lyrical and delightful.

“Coyote School News,” by Joan Sandin. Life in 1938 in a one-room school in southern Arizona as observed by 12 students in their school newspaper. Fascinating and based on real accounts.

“Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport,” by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, illustrated by Byron Barton. A boy moving from New York City to Arizona has some interesting ideas about what he’ll find here.

“The Other Way to Listen,” by Byrd Baylor, illustrated by Peter Parnall. A wise old man teaches a boy to “hear” the deepest murmurings of nature. One of many lyrical, ethereal, desert-themed books by masters of the genre.

“Roxaboxen,” by Alice McLerran, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Yuma children create a town on a hill with rocks, boxes and imagination. Fabulous, hard-to-find classic, but well worth the search.

Southwest children's books, Art & MaxA walk on the desert’s silly side

“Art & Max,” by David Wiesner. Paint meets budding artist meets desert winds. What could possibly go wrong?

“There Was a Coyote Who Swallowed a Flea,” by Jennifer Ward, illustrated by Steve Gray. Hilarious Southwest version of the traditional progressive rhyme.

“The Three Little Javelinas,” by Susan Lowell, illustrated by Jim Harris. Rollicking Southwestern retelling of the Three Little Pigs.

“The Tortoise and the Jackrabbit,” by Susan Lowell, illustrated by Jim Harris. Witty retelling of Aesop’s fable, set in the desert.

“A Very Hairy Christmas,” by Susan Lowell, illustrated by Jim Harris. It’s holiday time, and the three little javelinas are getting ready. Who’s trying to ruin their fun this time?

Four great shops for Southwest children’s books

Changing Hands Tempe
6428 S. McClintock Drive
480-730-0205 •

Changing Hands Phoenix
300 W. Camelback Road
602-274-0067 •

The Gift Shop: Desert Botanical Garden
1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix
480-526-8890 •

Books & More: The Heard Museum
2301 N. Central Ave, Phoenix
602-251-0258 •


  1. Good Morning,
    I’m a teacher at a school in South Phoenix and I was hoping to share your article with my parents as a great resource for learning about Arizona over the summer. I would like to highlight 3 books that you found in a letter home and then also give them a link to your article. May I do so?
    Thank you!


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