March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Aztecs, the Inca, and the Maya: Empires Lost & Found | Focus On

Human sacrifice. Lost cities. Ruthless leaders. Unimaginable riches. Tragedy. Mystery. Mummies! If, as it is said, “zombies are the new pirates,” then it might also be said that the big three ancient American civilizations are the new ancient Egypt. The best books on these cultures capitalize on the wealth of primary sources available–translations of Mayan hieroglyphics; Aztec codices; the journals of explorers, conquistadors, and of the conquered–in order to put the staggering facts of pre-Columbian life into perspective. When writing about the Aztecs, sacrificial victims number in the tens of thousands; in books about the Inca, gold is weighed in tons; and the temples of the Maya loom so large that it can be hard to comprehend their scale even when looking at photographs.

As a general rule, it is best to steer clear of books that lump all three cultures together; separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, they share neither language nor a common cultural heritage. One exception is Ancient Maya & Aztec Civilizations by Marion Wood, which puts a broad range of American Native peoples into geographic and chronological context. One problem is that of nomenclature. Most recent titles manage to correct common misconceptions without sacrificing clarity. The Aztec are more properly called the Mexica; the word Mayan is now only used when referring to the language, not the people, who are called Maya; and only a small percentage of people ruled by the Inca empire could actually be called Incas.

In books chock-full of people named Cuauhtemoc and Xbalanque, and places like Teotihuacan, one really must demand some pronunciation guidance–at least in the glossary or as front matter. Unfortunately, such assistance is rare, and is therefore noted in the annotation.


ANTON, Ferdinand. The Secret World of the Aztecs. Prestel. 2002. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-3-7913-2702-0.

Gr 2-4–Despite its brevity, this book packs in plenty of detail as it narrates Aztec (Mexican) history from its mythic origins through the Spanish conquest. High-quality photos of well-chosen objects are closely related to text topics, and liberal use of codex images lends authority. There’s no pronunciation help, even with frequent references to gods with names like Huitziliopochtli.

CROY, Anita. Solving the Mysteries of Aztec Cities. ISBN 978-0-7614-3102-2.

____. Solving the Mysteries of Machu Picchu. ISBN 978-0-7614-3103-9.

ea. vol: (Digging into History Series). Marshall Cavendish/Benchmark. 2009. PLB $29.93.

Gr 2-5–Five chapters present the “discovery” of each site (noting that local people may have already known of it), note still-unanswered questions, and discuss conservation and future investigation. Color photos and reproductions are plentiful, but there are no maps.

GANERI, Anita. Ancient Maya. illus. by Chris Forsey. Compass Point. 2006. PLB $27.93. ISBN 978-0-7565-1677-2; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-0-7565-1758-8.

Gr 2-5–Lively, appealing illustrations take up most of the space in this stripped-down description of daily life, technology, and rituals among the Maya. Large type, sidebar insets, and seven sentences per page make this the easiest of the books reviewed here. Bloodier aspects are glossed over or skipped.

KIMMEL, Eric. The Two Mountains: An Aztec Legend. illus. by Leonard Everett Fisher. Holiday House. 2000. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-1504-5.

Gr 3-6–Energetic, realistic paintings in bold, saturated colors illustrate this story of love and rebellion among the Aztec gods with appropriate heroic vigor. Any fan of Greek myths will recognize the all-too-human behavior and strong emotions as two immortal lovers defy their parents, experience tragedy, and are transformed into mountains. Pronunciation guidance for all proper names is provided.

LEWIN, Ted. Lost City: The Discovery of Machu Picchu. illus. by author. Philomel. 2003. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-0-399-23302-9.

Gr 2-4–Dazzling, realistic watercolors and a straightforward text tell the story of Hiram Bingham, the American scholar who journeyed to Peru in search of the lost city of Vilcapampa and instead found Machu Picchu. In an author’s note, Lewin chronicles his experiences following Bingham’s footsteps. A list of Spanish and Quechua words and their pronunciations is provided.

MACDONALD, Fiona. How to Be an Aztec Warrior. illus. by Dave Antram & Mark Bergin. (How to Be… Series). National Geographic. 2005. Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-0-7922-3617-7; PLB $21.90. ISBN 978-0-7922-3632-0; pap. $5.95. ISBN 978-1-4263-0168-1.

Gr 4-7–Children tempted by the recruitment poster on the first page (“seek adventure, win fame and praise, please the gods”) will learn the prerequisites, equipment, requirements, and dangers of manhood during the Aztec empire. Lots of excellent illustrations add detail to the second-person, present-tense text. A quiz and a glossary (sans pronunciation assistance) appear at the end.

MATHEWS, Sally Schofer. The Sad Night: The Story of an Aztec Victory and a Spanish Loss. illus. by author. Clarion. 2001. pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-618-11745-1.

Gr 3-6–Mathews adopts the illustration style of the surviving codices to tell the story of Cortes’s conquest of the Aztecs in pictures. She begins with a battle won by the Aztecs and weaves together dialogue, narrative, myth, and history. A map and an explanation of the Aztec calendar are provided along with pronunciations. Picture-book nonfiction at its best.

MONTEJO, Victor. White Flower: A Maya Princess. illus. by Rafael Yockteng. Groundwood. 2005. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-599-5.

Gr 3-6–In this retelling of the classic Spanish tale “Blanca Flor,” a penniless farmer performs a series of seemingly impossible tasks with the assistance of a beautiful princess, W’itz Ak’al. Watercolor paintings in a misty, muted palette and a sedate, classic layout place this ancient tale in an otherworldly setting in which ears of corn can talk.

MONTGOMERY, R. A. Mystery of the Maya. (Choose Your Own Adventure Series). Chooseco. 2005. pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-1-933390-05-5.

Gr 3-6–This updated edition bluffs its way through the Yucatan in typical pulp fashion with a reincarnated shaman and a gang or two of rebels. In such context, is it splitting hairs to complain about uneven editing (the Maya are occasionally referred to as “the Mayans”). Exciting illustrations depict settings faithfully, and no factual errors or biases present themselves.

SHUTER, Jane. The Aztecs. ISBN 978-1-4329-1326-7.

____. The Incas. ISBN 978-1-4329-1329-8.

____. The Maya. ISBN 978-1-4329-1330-4.

ea. vol: 2nd ed. (History Opens Windows Series). Heinemann Lib. 2008. PLB $26.79.

Gr 2-5–The governance and material culture of each of these civilizations are presented. Expansion and decline are treated briefly. The books do not cover the origins of the civilizations or try to explain how they became so powerful. Sentences are simple and declarative, and illustrations, mostly large, clear photos, are relevant and captioned.


BINGHAM, Jane. The Aztec Empire . ISBN 978-1-4109-2730-9.

––––. The Inca Empire. ISBN 978-1-4109-2731-6.

ea. vol: (Time Travel Guides Series). Raintree. 2007. PLB $34.29.

Gr 4-7–The travel-guide format employed by these clean, readable books provides a clever frame for a reasonably thorough presentation of Aztec and Inca culture, geography, and daily life. Short chapters with many subheads, interesting page layouts, good graphics, and sharp, colorful photos make for quick, informative reads. With bite-size amounts of text and ample white space, these titles are well suited to “less able readers.”

CALVERT, Patricia. The Ancient Inca. ISBN 978-0-531-12358-4; ISBN 978-0-531-16740-3.

PERL, Lila. The Ancient Maya. ISBN 978-0-531-12381-2; ISBN 978-0-531-16848-6.

SONNEBORN, Liz. The Ancient Aztecs. ISBN 978-0-531-12362-1; ISBN 978-0-531-16844-8.

ea vol: (People of the Ancient World Series). Watts. 2004. PLB $30.50; pap. $9.95.

Gr 5-7–Well researched and very readable, these books scrupulously report what is known, and, equally compellingly, what is not known about these civilizations. Vivid descriptions of fabulous grave goods and gruesome sacrificial practices balance comparatively dry sections dealing with dynastic succession and historiography. A fine, clear design with large margins invites browsing. No pronunciation assistance.

COOKE, Tim. Ancient Aztec: Archaeology Unlocks the Secrets of Mexico’s Past. 2007. ISBN 978-1-4263-0072-1; ISBN 978-1-4263-0073-8.

GRUBER, Beth. Ancient Inca: Archaeology Unlocks the Secrets of the Inca’s Past. 2006. ISBN 978-0-7922-7827-6; ISBN 978-0-7922-7873-3.

HARRIS, Nathaniel. Ancient Maya: Archaeology Unlocks the Secrets of the Maya’s Past. 2008. ISBN 978-1-4263-0227-5; ISBN 978-1-4263-0228-2.

ea vol: (National Geographic Investigates Series). National Geographic. Tr $17.95; PLB $27.90.

Gr 3-7–Pithy and appealing, these titles cover origins, primary sources, technology, major sites, major finds, and connections to the present. Aerial photos, time lines, informative sidebars, an interview with an archaeologist, and excellent maps augment rigorously supported texts that ask and answer interesting questions in order to convey the material and intellectual richness of these cultures.

LANDMAN, Tanya. The Goldsmith’s Daughter. Candlewick. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-4219-8.

Itacate, an Aztec teen in the splendid city of Tenochtitlan, finds herself at odds with the ironclad gender roles and harsh punishments of society as she provides glimpses into the daily lives of men and women, craftsmen and nobles. A richly detailed, swiftly plotted historical novel with a unique setting.

KIRKPATRICK, Nadia. The Maya. (Understanding People in the Past Series). Heinemann Lib. 2003. PLB $28.50. ISBN 1-4034-0386-4.

Gr 4-7–Good color photos and an attractive page design with wide margins pull readers into a text that is somewhat dry. However, the 28 chapter spreads, each with several subheads, cover a broad range of topics from agriculture to Xibalba, making this a good choice for reports.

LOURIE, Peter. Lost Treasure of the Inca. photos by author. Boyds Mills. 2003. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-1-56397-743-5; pap. $10.95. ISBN 978-1-56397-983-5.

Gr 4-8–A blend of adventure and anthropology, this first-person account details Lourie’s quest for the alleged 750 tons of Inca gold that were to have ransomed the last Inca king, Atahualpa, from the Spanish. Thorough photographic documentation and verbatim passages from accounts of previous treasure hunters add credibility, while sharp color photos bring the topic to life.

LOURIE, Peter. Mystery of the Maya: Uncovering the Lost City of Palenque. photos by author. Boyds Mills. 2003. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-1-56397-839-5; pap. $11.95. ISBN 978-1-59078-265-1.

Gr 4-8–Lourie’s adventure, in which he accompanies scientists investigating the city of Palenque, starts with the decapitation of a deadly snake and never slows down. Even the purely historical sections sizzle with potent images and peppy sentences. Especially interesting is a section on first European reactions to Palenque and a visit to a modern-day rural Maya village.

MANN, Elizabeth. Tikal: The Center of the Maya World. illus. by. Ton McNeely. (Wonders of the World Series). Mikaya. 2002. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-1-931414-05-0.

Gr 4-8–Muscular, atmospheric full-page watercolors and a text that mixes narrative and description draw readers into the magnificent ancient city of Tikal. Bloodletting, human sacrifice, and the vicious penalty for losing a ballgame (decapitation) are discussed but not dwelt upon. Thoroughly researched and backed up by firsthand observation.

MENCHÚ, Rigoberta. The Honey Jar. tr. from Spanish by David Unger. illus. by Domi. Groundwood. 2006. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-670-1.

Gr 4 Up–The Nobel Peace Prize winner retells 12 Maya myths that she learned as a child in short chapters that are rather advanced conceptually. Colorful naive oil paintings and a friendly style that is at once childlike and conversational add to the book’s appeal.

MENCHÚ, Rigoberta, with Dante Liano. The Secret Legacy. tr. from Spanish by David Unger. illus. by Domi. Groundwood. 2008. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-896-5.

Gr 4 Up–Ancient Maya tales are framed by the story of Ixkem, who tends her grandfather’s cornfield and meets the b’e’n, tiny earth spirits that take her to their underground kingdom to swap stories. There’s a lot of humor in these sparkling folktales, nicely complemented by Domi’s vibrant, Chagall-esque oils.

ORR, Tamra. The Maya. Children’s Press. 2005. PLB $25.50. ISBN 978-0-531-12296-9.

Gr 4-7–Large type, wide margins, and pronunciation assistance distinguish this history of the Maya, which starts with the exciting myth of the Hero Twins and continues through to Rigoberta Menchú. Short sidebars, a good map, large color photos, and an excellent list of further resources give this book lots of chances to hook readers.

SILATE, Jennifer. The Inca Ruins of Machu Picchu. (Wonders of the World Series). Gale/KidHaven. 2005. PLB $23.70. ISBN 978-0-7377-3068-5.

Gr 4-6–The story of Hiram Bingham’s journey to Machu Picchu quickly draws readers into this serviceable overview of the city, its construction, possible use, conservation, and future. Large pictures and useful diagrams emphasize the masterful Inca stonework while technological innovations such as terraced farming, drains, and canals are discussed.

WOOD, Marion. Ancient Maya & Aztec Civilizations. 3rd ed. (Cultural Atlas for Young People Series). Chelsea House. 2007. Tr $35. ISBN 978-0-8160-6820-3.

Gr 4-6–Despite its title, this geographical survey of Native American cultures ranges from the Inuit to the Inca. Large, well-documented maps make it a standout. Part One covers North America, and Part Two covers Mesoamerica and South America, including not only the Maya and Aztec, but also the Olmec, Toltec, Nazca, and Inca cultures.

Paula Willey is a librarian at Baltimore County Public Library, Baltimore, MD.

On the Web

Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C. (Accessed 7/26/09).

Gr 6 Up–This online component of a 2004 exhibit at the National Gallery features objects from and essays about the Maya ruling class. Exceptional photos, interesting sidebars, interactive features, and an uncluttered design make this site ideal for classroom presentation.

FAMSI (Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies). FAMSI. (Accessed 7/26/09).

Gr 7 Up– Founded in 1993 “to foster increased understanding of ancient Mesoamerican cultures,” this organization’s home page offers access to articles, site and artifact photos, video, and bibliographies on the Aztec and Maya.

National Geographic. Inca Mummies: Secrets of a Lost World. National Geographic Society. (Accessed 7/26/09).

Gr 4 Up–Highlights include photo galleries of Inca culture and Machu Picchu along with news updates, video, and an interactive feature, “Unwrap a Mummy Bundle,” which examines archaeological finds from an Inca cemetery.

National Geographic. Special Issue: Maya. National Geographic Society. (Accessed 7/26/09).

Gr 4 Up–Here students will find most of National Geographic’s Maya content. The site includes photos of Palenque, artist reconstructions, object photos, a quiz, maps, and a photographer’s journal.

Secrets of the Dead: Aztec Massacre. Thirteen/WNET New York. (Accessed 7/26/09).

Gr 7 Up–This site incorporates video segments from a PBS documentary about the remains of 400 people in an Aztec mass grave, online discussion, and well-written essays. Clues from Aztec codices and forensic evidence are examined. Not for the faint of heart.

Museum Collections

(All accessed 7/26/09).

Cleveland Museum of Art.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Washington, D.C.

Museo Nacional de Antropologica, Mexico.

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

Yale University Art Gallery.

Media Picks

By Phyllis Levy Mandell

Ancient Civilizations for Children (Series). 2 videos or 2 DVDs (from a series of 11). color. 19 min. ea. Prod. by Schlessinger Media. Dist. by Library Video Co. ( 2006. $29.95 ea. Includes: Ancient Aztec Empire (ISBN 1-4171-0368-X); Ancient Aztec: The Fall of the Empire (ISBN 1-4171-0369-8).

Gr 3-7Ancient Aztec Empire provides information about the Aztecs’ origins and growth into an important civilization, and briefly covers daily life, agriculture, male and female roles, myths, religion, and more. The Fall of the Empire discusses the arrival of Cortez, the death of Montezuma II, and the fall of Tenochtitlan. Historical re-enactments take viewers into the ancient world while beautifully rendered 3-D graphics show maps of the region and views of how the area might have looked during the time of the Aztecs. English or Spanish narration is available.

Ancient Civilizations of Mexico: The Maya and the Aztec. video or DVD. 20 min. Discovery School ( 2006. video, ISBN 1-59527-950-4: $59.95; DVD, ISBN 1-59380-553-5: $69.95.

Gr 6-8–This three-part film traces the roots of Maya civilization and covers its scientific and cultural achievements, religious beliefs and practices, and the reasons for its eventual decline; explains how the Aztec civilization overwhelmed the Toltec empire to grow into the most powerful empire in the region; and describes how the region fared under Spanish colonial rule. Visuals include maps, footage of Maya and Aztec ruins, reenactments, and contemporary film footage of reconstructed structures.

Ancient History: The Maya. DVD. 30 min. (closed captioned). with tchr’s. guide. Prod. by Centre Communications. Dist. by Ambrose Video ( 2008. $49.99.

Gr 7 Up–Zay Harding (PBS’s Globe Trekker) hosts an exploration of one of the most important ancient civilizations, covering politics, religion, art, architecture, mathematics, and more. Bonus features include quizzes, downloadable maps, and other graphics to further integrate the film’s content into a school curriculum.

Cracking the Maya Code (NOVA Series). DVD. 54 min. (closed captioned). PBS ( 2008. ISBN 978-1-59375-835-6. $24.95.

Gr 7 Up–Centuries after the Mayas mysteriously abandoned the cities of their Central American empire, architects, artists, and linguists from around the world gathered to translate the hieroglyphic writing found on monuments and in bark books. The film explains how these experts cracked the code that helped them decipher the hieroglyphic script.