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Sarita Holzmann was a reluctant homeschooler but soon came to love it. With a heart for missionaries serving overseas and the people they serve, Sarita has always had an eye towards bringing geography to life using literature.

On this episode of the podcast she joins us to discuss why geography is important and why literature is the best way to experience that. Get your notebooks handy — there is more than one great book recommendation in this episode.

Pam: This is Your Morning Basket where we help you bring truth, goodness, and beauty to your homeschool day. Hi, everyone, and welcome to Episode 51 of the Your Morning Basket podcast. I’m Pam Barnhill, your host tonight. I’m so happy that you are joining me here today. Well, today on the podcast, I am honored to get to interview Sarita Holzmann who is the creator of Sonlight Curriculum. Sonlight has been around in homeschooling circles for a very long time. It was actually created to help missionary families homeschool their own children. As such, Sarita has a heart for bringing the world to families through the literature and books that she chooses for her curriculum. She is a wealth of resources on wonderful geography stories from around the world, these stories of different cultures from all over the place. I was thrilled to get to chat with her today about book recommendations and why these stories are so important to our kids. We’ll get on with that interview right after this word from our sponsor.

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Sarita Holzmann and her husband, John founded Sonlight Curriculum in 1990 with the desire to create a complete biblically-based program, rich in real books, and guaranteed to spark a love of literature and learning in families. Today, Sarita and John continue their work with Sonlight with the help of their four adult children. Sarita is joining us on this episode of the podcast to talk about using literature to enrich our study of geography. Sarita, welcome to the program.
Sarita Holzmann: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.
Pam: We are happy to have you here with us. I told my kids today that I’m speaking to somebody very important on the podcast today. This is an honor. Well, let’s talk a little bit about geography. Why is the study of geography important? Why should we include this in our homeschools?
Sarita: Well, I think at the very root, we study geography because it’s God’s world. As we think about the world that he’s made and the various peoples and the different cultures to have an understanding of his world actually honors the things that God has made. I think too, for a more practical reason, we live in a very interconnected world. We want to make sure our children understand the world that they live in, that they’re not so provincial in where they live, but they have a bigger understanding of the people that they’ll come in contact with throughout all of their days.
Pam: The world has gotten a lot smaller since I was a kid.
Sarita: Right. Boy, isn’t that the truth. You go to the grocery store anywhere and there’s just peoples from around the world that have come to live among us. It’s amazing.
Pam: Yes, very much so. Well, is it geography all about like math and facts and figures? What does literature really add to the study of geography?
Sarita: Well, that’s a really good question. Of course, it’s more than that because people, while they live in a particular place that can be found on a map, they live in communities that are varied and interesting. I think that’s one of the reasons we should study them because when we get to have them, if you’re a believer, we’re going to meet up with all these people that bring their own unique ways of even praising God to the Father. We’ll have a chance to learn about how these people live and how they operate and function. As we read stories that take place around the world, we have a chance to get it a from a grasp, even in how the world is varied, different, and interesting.
It’s just a real great way to grow in our understanding of the world where we’ve been placed.
Pam: The peoples in that world too. It’s so interesting to note how different a lot of the– Even just cultural beliefs are around the world, things that we take for granted that people might actually believe in it. I’m not even talking about religious beliefs here, but just attitudes about family and things like that. We assume everyone has those same attitudes but a lot of times, they really don’t, do they?
Sarita: I think that that’s true. I think to get back to the root of things, every family, of course, wants the same thing for their children. They all want to have food for their children and clothing and education, but how that manifest itself can be very different. For example, in the Middle East, there’s less of an emphasis on girls where they just have a girl that’s less desirable or if you traveled to other parts of the world, you have different ways where maybe the foods are different that they’re eating, or their worldviews and their belief systems are different. At root though, everybody has the same desires for their kids. It’s how it manifests. That’s a little bit different.
Pam: It’s important to come to the understanding of our similarities and our differences and acknowledge both of those.
Sarita: I think that’s a very profound statement. Because we don’t want to be afraid of other people, we want to recognize that while they have differences and different ways of thinking about things, again, they are similar as well. We don’t walk in fear when we meet other people from other places because in a lot of ways, they’re like us. They like to play games. They have squabbles with their siblings, but to be afraid, if we focus too much on the differences, we can lead to fear in those arenas.
Pam: Let me ask you this. I know you have chosen many a book in your day. If we’re looking at choosing books to use about different cultures and about different locations around the world in our homeschool, what are some tips that you would give a mom?
Sarita: I would try to do a wide variety of places around the world. One, again, because we want to have our children understand that the world is varied, interesting, unique, and different in different parts of the world. I choose books from a wide breadth of countries. I too would also be looking for stories that have won awards because I feel like we want to be looking for books that are well-written and grasp the heart and understand the culture in ways that maybe we wouldn’t even know how to look for. I’d look for books that are both boy and girl books. It’s very important for me that we try to have a balance, even in the styles of books that are out there. We don’t want to just have male heroes.
We want to have female girls that are working things out in their culture and in their life. A book for that as well. I’d look for stories where kids overcome. We don’t want a lot of victims because we want our kids to learn that they can move forward and act in ways that can make a difference. I think that’s super important to me. I don’t do a lot of books where the children don’t win at the end because even though they can struggle, I want them to overcome in the end. That’s a personal preference of mine, but that’d be the type of thing I would be looking for. Does that help?
Pam: No, that’s a great list. It really is. Well, let’s talk about some of your favorite books about different cultures and geography. What are some of your favorite anthologies of stories from other cultures?
Sarita: Well, there’s a marvelous collection of stories called Sweet and Sour that are stories from Africa. They aren’t animal stories, but they are people and they are set in the different dynasties. That’s a very nice collection.
Pam: What about some lesser known stories? Do you have any favorite stories that you’ve come across that are maybe not as well-known?
Sarita: Well, it’s hard for me to know what the audience might known, but a book that I absolutely love is called A Long Walk to Water. It’ set in East Africa and it’s in a country where the women every day would have to walk hours to collect water for them to use for their home, partially because of tribal differences but in the community there and warfare that was happening. It was risky even for those girls to walk. The story resolves in the end where one of the members of one of the warring tribes actually has a change of heart and comes back and drills a well for one of the communities that had formerly been in tension with the other. Marvelous, beautiful story of redemption and just really pretty. One that our children adore is Seven Daughters and Seven Sons. It’s set in the Middle East where the father with the seven sons is honored greatly because he’s lucky enough to have had seven sons. His brother has had these seven daughters and he’s despised because who wants girls in that particular culture? The story is a wonderful twist of the daughter being someone who’s bright and actually makes a difference in her family and ends up becoming famous and does good things for her family, whereas the sons, the seven sons all fall away. It’s a great twist on even the difference is that you can have in those types of cultures.
Another one is Shadow Spinner. I love it. It’s also in the Middle East. It’s a story of a girl who is collected from the marketplace because she’s a gifted storyteller. She comes and works with Shaharazad of the fame of the 1,001 Arabian Nights stories, super stories to tell. She brings this girl into her harem and basically seeks to figure out how to get the story still, but it’s a marvelous picture of living behind walls and just trying to survive in a society where the culture is so different than our own. Charming story.
Another one that maybe isn’t super familiar is Breaking Stalin’s Nose. It’s set in the Soviet Union during the days of Stalin. It’s a beautiful picture of the challenge of living in a repressive society and a comparison even between how do you live in a place where socialism operates and everyone lives in fear? It’s quite a story in a way to gently introduce the idea of communism in that way that it can impact our world. Do you need me to stop?
Pam: I think we’ve blown some book budgets here [laughs] already, but of those, I’d only heard of one of those. That was fabulous right there because there was some wonderful choices. Let’s talk a little bit about stories for little kids. Why would we want to study geography in this way with even kids who are five or six years old, and then give me a couple of stories that you would use with them?
Sarita: Sure. One of the reasons we want our children, even at a very young age to read stories that take place in other parts of the world, is because it helps them actually recognize their own society a little more effectively. As we can see things in comparison, we can actually recognize the way that we live. One of my favorites that is really perfect for that each group is Little Pear. It’s a story of a little Chinese boy, and he very carefully never steps on his threshold because then the evil spirits would come.
It’s just a beautiful, charming picture of a life in a very different culture with a very different worldview. Not scary, not frightening, but just lovely, charming illustrations and a great way to even look at a different part of the world. Picture book that takes place also in China, The Story About Ping, a boy lives on a houseboat and every day, the ducks go out and come back again after they’ve been out feeding all day. Just a different snapshot of what life looks like in another part of the world.
Pam: What about teenagers? How would you pull them into a study of geography? What kind of books would you use with them?
Sarita: With teenagers, I’d probably do missionary biographies. That’s a huge passion of mine because very important for teenagers to recognize that ordinary people can have a huge impact in their world. That’s important for me that our kids recognize that God uses just regular, regular people in ways that are amazing. I’d probably hand them a biography of Mary Slessor who was just an ordinary girl, very little education, went into Africa, went back into the bush, stopped the twin. They were murdering twins because they were afraid that they were part-demon-possessed or whatever, and totally transformed the culture just by living life among them and transforming it.
Similarly, you have Gladys Aylward who went over to China and worked with the mule drivers and transformed that culture for the great name of God. It’s just amazing to me what just ordinary people can do if we just pick up some biographies and share those with our kids, I think. Story of God’s Smuggler, wow, isn’t that what we wanted with all of our teenage show? Just a guy who would take his little Volkswagen bug into Eastern Europe then carry in Bibles for the people that were desperate for them and just watched God protect him and keep his life. It’s just an amazing challenge and a good thing for our young people to read.
Pam: Awesome. Well, what would this look like in a family? If we were sitting and reading together the stories, what else might we do once we’re finished with this story to extend some of the learning there?
Sarita: Well, what we always recommend is that we map every location that we read about in a book. If you’re studying the civil war, for example, find out where all those battles happen by putting them on a map of the United States. Similarly, when you’re reading a story that takes place in another part of the world, map it. Find out where it is, what does it look like? Another thing we can do is stop and say, “Okay, what cultural differences did you notice? Are there things that we need to be aware of so that when we come in contact with people from this country, we might be able to interact with them a little more appropriately?”
You could even make food from those other part of it, but some of us don’t like to cook, but it’s a good idea.
Pam: My kids, that’s always their favorite part.
Sarita: Perfect. [laughs]
Pam: They’re like, “Oh, now, we have to cook from there,” and I’m like, “Okay, great. There’ll be dishes to do.”
Sarita: What a good mom.
Pam: Oh, goodness.
Sarita: If there’s other worldviews that come up, I would highlight those and say, “Now, why do you think that they did what they did?” It’s based on the way they view the world. For example, Little Pear, when he wouldn’t step on the threshold, he had animism as his background and he believed that spirits were there. Well, we don’t believe in spirits. It’s just a way to open up a conversation about the things and the differences that we can see in the worldviews that are in different books.
Pam: Well, that leads to this question. What do we do about elements from stories, from other cultures that make us uncomfortable?
Sarita: I think the best thing to do is to talk about them. Talk about why you’re uncomfortable and why they make you uncomfortable. That’s the best way to do because what happens is it’s coming from different worldviews. For example, there’s a story called The Cat Who Went to Heaven. It’s the story of an artist who’s supposed to do a mural or a painting for a Buddhist. Part of the trials and temptations that he has in the story are all based on his Buddhist beliefs. To talk about that and say, “Now, what he’s thinking is this way. Why don’t we have to worry about those? Are there any advantages to the way we look at things?”
Basically, it’s just good enough honestly what we want to do as we’re parents. As we’re educating our children, we want to talk about things so that our children have our understanding and we can explain to them why things make us uncomfortable and we can explain why they are and how we would operate in a different way.
Pam: Well, I know that studying world cultures and different areas of the world is such a huge part of SonLight Curriculum. It’s a literature-based curriculum so they’re all these fabulous books and stories in there. Tell us a little bit about how you approach studying different areas of the world.
Sarita: I’d be glad to. When we started Sonlight, our original goal was to keep a missionary on the field for one more year by making education easy. Then after we’d been in business for a while, we decided that we would make homeschoolers in the United States need it easier too. We opted to open up our program broader than just that international. We’ve always had a big international flavor and feel. When we planned the program, we said, “Okay, someone who’s living in China as a missionary doesn’t want to spend 10 of their 12 years studying American history.” Now, where’s America again? They’ve been around for 150 years. China has 6,000 years record, “Okay, how do we do this, Mom?” Our goal from the beginning was to start with the bigger world and give kids the way to understand their world in a big picture, and then focus on American history. That’s the direction we’ve gone. We do a world history in K1 to 6, 7, and then up in high school as well. Then we do American history in third and fourth and then in high school. It’s really a different way of even experiencing the world from any other curriculum that’s out there. We try to put in a lot of stories that take place around the world, basically give our kids that sense of a global perspective and big-world thinking.
One of our years is very unique, very novel. We studied the Eastern hemisphere which were the majority of the unreached peoples of the world actually live. We start in China we move through Asia, go up into the Soviet Union, hit the Middle East, hit Africa, go to Australia and New Zealand, and then we end up at Antarctic. Very novel year, but it’s done where we just focus the whole year on other parts of the world that most of us will probably never actually have a chance to visit, but it’s a part of the world that actually needs to hear, we need to learn about and to pray for and be aware of.
Sonlight is a different kind of a program. I speak as clearly as I can about this because I think it’s important for our children to recognize that the world is an interesting place, and we do want to focus on that. We want to pray, we want to be aware, and we want to have our kids to be ready to be able to read the newspaper. Now, “Where’s North Korea, Mom? Why is it in the news?” “Well, here it is.” We’ve actually learned a little bit about it because it’s important to recognize that the world is interconnected and the world has things that we actually need to be aware of.
We want to read stories that take place and understand the tensions in the Middle East because that’s in the news all the time. These are places of the world that are important for us to recognize and be aware of. We don’t want to be unknowledgeable or unknowing about the things that are important and strategic.
Pam: That’s fascinating because you’re right. As somebody who tends to look at a lot of homeschooling resources, because I get asked a lot of questions, sometimes I do get the question, where can we learn things that are not so Western hemisphere-specific, and that Sonlight Curriculum, that entire year’s worth of Eastern hemisphere is one of the very few unique programs out there that’s like that.
Sarita: A lot of our customers will say that’s actually their favorite year, mainly because it’s so woven together. It gives them a chance to recognize those uniquenesses and differences that we just honestly don’t often come in contact with. It’s the good one.
Pam: Stories and literature and books are a huge part of Morning Time and what we do here at Your Morning Basket. Another thing that we really focus on is bringing the entire family together or as much as possible, until those teen years get so hairy, bringing them together to learn altogether. Can you talk to me a little bit about how Sonlight could be used with multiple ages of kids? Is that possible to do that with one or two programs?
Sarita: It’s absolutely possible and we actually recommend it. Because books, of course, aren’t graded. They don’t say, “When you’re three years old, you read this one and when you’re eight year old,–” they’re just not. A well-written book covers a wide span of ages. We recommend that families with a wide breadth of ages all gather around one particular program, and then add in math and language arts. Some of those, what we call seatworks to do for each particular child. Then you sit on the couch and you read the histories, the stories, the read-alouds, and all the things that are woven together, all together as a family.
We did it with all of our kids and my kids are widespan and they all did the same program together. It’s a way of building unity and connectedness, and you have a whole set of experiences that you’ve entered into together. It’s a huge privilege to be able to sit on the couch, read, learn, study, and do great books together. I’m sure, no as well.
Pam: I couldn’t agree more. If there was a family who was interested, you do have people there who can help them choose the right program for a wide variety of ages.
Sarita: We absolutely do. We have Sonlight moms who act as advisors. Just call in, ask for an advisor, play the call you back or connect you right directly through. We’ll gladly talk through their experience and how much Sonlight means to them and help you figure out exactly what works best for the range of kids. Absolutely, please call.
Pam: Oh, perfect, because I think sometimes people get the catalogues and they’re looking and they’re seeing these labels on things. They don’t always feel comfortable stepping outside the label and working on something that’ll work for them. I’m glad that you guys do that. Well, Sarita, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about literature and geography and how we can use these stories to help bring our understanding and empathy for the rest of the world up to a greater level. I really appreciate it.
Sarita: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate what you do to advocate for homeschooling families. Keep up the good work.
Pam: Thank you.
Pam: There you have it. Now, if you would like links to any of the resources that Sarita and I spoke about today, including links to all of those wonderful book recommendations that she made, you can find those on the show notes for this episode of the podcast. That is at We’ll be back again in a couple of weeks with another great Morning Time interview and until, then keep seeking truth, goodness, beauty in your homeschool day.

Links and Resources from Today’s Show

Sweet and Sour: Tales from ChinaPinSweet and Sour: Tales from ChinaA Long Walk to WaterPinA Long Walk to WaterSeven Daughters and Seven SonsPinSeven Daughters and Seven SonsShadow SpinnerPinShadow SpinnerBreaking Stalin's NosePinBreaking Stalin’s NoseLittle Pear (Odyssey Classics (Odyssey Classics))PinLittle Pear (Odyssey Classics (Odyssey Classics))The Story about PingPinThe Story about PingMary Slessor: Missionary MotherPinMary Slessor: Missionary MotherGod's SmugglerPinGod’s SmugglerThe Cat Who Went to HeavenPinThe Cat Who Went to Heaven


Key Ideas about Studying Geography Through Literature

  • Studying Geography is key to learning and understanding the world God has made. Literature based geography allows us to focus on the stories of people around the world and not just places. It is in this way that we can make connections with those from other parts of the world.
  • Sarita shared a few tips Sarita about choosing books about different cultures. She suggests you choose stories from a wide variety of locations, especially countries that maybe less commonly studied, and get some stories about girls and boys because the perspectives are different. Also, choose stories where children overcome an obstacle or make a positive difference.
  • After the book is over we often want to find creative ways to extend the lesson. One way to do that would be to find the locations on a map. We can also take time to discuss the similarities and differences of people from the places we read about, and maybe even try food from that country as well. Taking the time to highlight the worldviews of others so you can better understand where the characters in the story are coming from is a great way to engage children in meaningful conversations about other cultures.

Find What you Want to Hear

  • 3:07 meet Sarita Holzmnn
  • 3:50 why study geography
  • 4:50 the connection between literature and geography
  • 7:35 tips for choosing books about different cultures
  • 9:20 Sarita’s favorite books about geography
  • 14:17 books for teenagers
  • 15:55 extending the learning when the book is over
  • 17:41 dealing with uncomfortable ideas in stories
  • 19:15 studying geography in Sonlight
  • 23:00 learning as a family

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